Is everything a religion? (via slatestarcodex.com)

I.

On a previous post, a commenter writes:

The environmental movement tying itself to personal virtue may have been stupid, but it is completely understandable because the movement has all the rest of the emotional structure of an Abrahamic religion, including (a) an obession with sin, (b) an eschatology (AGW), (c) irrational taboos (GM foods), (d) weekly observances of no weight other than as symbolic virtue signaling (residential recycling), and (d) fideistic refusal to consider evidence contrary to its doctrines. The rise of environmentalism perfectly tracks the fall in religious observance among elite whites in the U.S., because it’s binding to the same receptors.

This reminds me of another article I read recently claiming that social justice is just a repackaging of Christianity. And why not? We are all sinners (racists) born to original sin (white privilege) based on the actions of our forefather Adam (all the previous generations of oppressive whites). While we struggle with our own sinful nature (unconscious racism) we must also perfect the larger society by rooting out heresies (calling out offensive ideas). Everyone else will mock us, because we live in a world (society) ruled by Satan (the Patriarchy). But one day, after the Second Coming (the Revolution, the March of Progress) everyone will admit we were right and be ashamed of their own evil.

But don’t forget that transhumanism is also Christianity!. It’s got weird beliefs, a promise of eternal life through anti-aging drugs (or resurrection through cryonics), and an eschatology in the Singularity. Objectivism is a religion.

Also, liberalism is a religion. And conservativism is a religion. Libertarianism is a religion. Communism is a religion. Capitalism is like a religion. An anthropologist “confirms” that Apple is a religion. But UNIX is also a religion (apparently Linux was the Protestant Reformation.

Is there anything that isn’t like a religion? I spent this morning trying to come up with the least religious things I could think of. Trying to think of practical disciplines aimed at producing a quantifiable result, disciplines which strive to be evidence-based with a minimum of extraneous ideology. What came to mind was investing and medicine.

But investing is about propitiating a mysterious deity (the market) whose blessing or wrath bestows innumerable riches or total ruin. Believers follow gurus like Warren Buffett and Jim Cramer who promise that if they do the right things they will achieve financial salvation. Those who follow their pronouncements will enjoy the blissful afterlife of a comfortable retirement; those who violate their laws will spent their retirement in penury among much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And medicine involves petitioners going to white-robed priests (doctors) who consult the holy scriptures (Harrison’s Clinical Medicine) to tell them how to live their lives. It has rituals (the yearly physical), taboos (smoking, overeating), and heretics (alternative medicine). Those who follow its rules are assured of a long, happy life; those who violate the rules of its priests will get cancer and die.

Maybe we’re still being too abstract here. What about, I don’t know, not stepping in front of buses? It certainly has a commandment (thou shalt not step in front of buses). It has notions of sin (stepping in front of buses) and virtue (not doing that). It has its rituals (looking both ways before you cross the street), its priests demanding obedience (crossing-guards), and its holy places (crosswalks). It promises blessings on the virtuous, but also terrible vengeance on the wicked (if you step in front of a bus, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth).

So one critique of these accusations is that “religion” is a broad enough category that anything can be mapped on to it:

Does it have well-known figures? Then they’re “gurus” and it’s a religion.

Are there books about it? Then those are “scriptures” and it’s a religion.

Does it recommend doing anything regularly? Then those are “rituals” and it’s a religion.

How about just doing anything at all? Then that’s a “commandment” and it’s a religion.

Does it say something is bad? Then that’s “sin” and it’s a religion.

Does it hope to improve the world, or worry about the world getting worse? That’s an “eschatology” and it’s a religion.

Do you disagree with it? Then since you’ve already determined all the evidence is against it, people must believe it on “faith” and it’s a religion.

II.

But that critique goes just a little too far. Once Communists start offering animal sacrifices to statues of Mao and requiring everyone own a copy of the Little Red Book and treat it respectfully, something is going on that’s deeper than just “it has well-known figures”.

Even though it’s easy to say that every belief or movement can be analogized to a religion, I still feel an intuition that some are more “religious” than others. Social justice and environmentalism seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice, even though all four are equally important lefty issues.

The first two are just more of a world-view. I can totally imagine someone saying “My life philosophy is centered around my passion for the environment”, but not so much “My life philosophy is centered around gun control.” I can see a speaker at a wedding saying “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion about social justice”, but not so much “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion for gun control.”

Both social justice and environmentalism spawn entire genres of art and literature, and I know people who pretty much exclusively draw their artistic consumption from those genres. But if somebody said “All of my art has a pro-choice theme”, that would probably be pretty creepy.

I know social justice people whose social circle is almost 100% based on social justice, and environmentalists whose social circle is almost 100% based on environmentalism. I don’t think there are that many people whose social circle is 100% based on gun control. And if someone says “I’m fanatical about the environment”, I get a whole lot of stereotypes about them – she probably eats granola, drives a Prius with a dreamcatcher in the window, has a college degree, does yoga. He probably goes hiking a lot, has a beard, takes supplements, is pretty relaxed. If someone says “I’m fanatical about gun control”, I’m stumped.

But all of this stuff about stereotypes and art and insularity sounds a little like religion but even more like culture, or at least subculture.

The difference between “religion” and “culture” has always been pretty vague. Shinto is the best example; it’s less a coherent metaphysical narrative than a bunch of things Japanese people do and a repository for Japanese traditions and rituals. A quick look at Hinduism reveals that they have no idea what gods they believe in, it’s a bunch of different religions stuck together under one umbrella, but the point is that it’s the sort of thing Indian people do and a repository of Indian traditions. Even though Jews have a pretty coherent religion, the line between “Jewish culture” and “Jewish religion” is equally fuzzy. Religion as distinct from culture seems like a pretty Western phenomenon, the result of a triumphant Christianity colonizing cultures it never originated from, ending out with the modern conception of culture as ethnic food + silly costumes.

American culture is paper-thin compared to say Hindu Indian culture, but consider its rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance, its holidays like the Fourth of July, its saints/culture heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, its myths like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, its veneration of founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), and even its hymns like “America the Beautiful” and “Yankee Doodle”.

(the last of which, like all good hymns, uses such archaic language that almost nobody knows what the heck it means)

This gets called American civil religion a lot, but at this point I’m starting to wonder why it should. Maybe instead of accusing every culture of becoming a religion, we should just admit that our current concept of “religion” actually owes a lot to “culture”.

As apparently arbitrary groupings – by ethnicity, by government, by god, by ideology – take on social significance, they undergo a burst of meme-human symbiotic cultural evolution that ends with a strong combination epistemic-social structure.

(go ahead, laugh at my jargon, but jargon is a sign of a flourishing meme-human-symbiotic epistemic-social structure)

The advantage for the meme is obvious. The advantage for the people involved has been discussed by better minds than mine, but the point is that it seems to help people build stronger and more trusting communities than they could on their own.

Eliezer writes that every cause wants to be a cult, but I’m not sure I agree with the connotations. I would say every cause wants to be a community. Communities hold values in common. Communities have rules their members have to follow. Communities have heroes and hierarchies. Communities shun people who don’t fit in.

And if all of this sounds super-conservative, keep in mind we’re still talking about environmentalism here, or social justice here. Values in common? Check. Rules? God yes. Heroes and hierarchies? You bet. Shunning people? All the time.

Communities and cultures have their share of danger. Their mix of social and epistemological functions means that any evidence challenging the community’s core beliefs will be taken as an attack on the members’ identity. As a result, community members risk ending up mind-killed. That’s not news. And I don’t think this is especially different from the way religious fanatics are mind-killed. And certainly someone could argue that “religion” is the perfect name for a culture built on shared belief.

But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.

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