7 myths about myths about religion

Posted on August 8, 2011


A while ago I received an email asking me to put up a link on my blog to an article that someone has written concerning 25 myths regarding religion. Busy as I was with marking and everything else that the end of semester entails, I did not look at the article. I have now, however, and find that the content of the article is, itself, more than a little mythical. What makes it interesting is that the claims made are indicative of the frame of mind of the author, who appears to be from the US and to have engaged in some academic study of religion. The reason for thinking that is that the blog on which the article appeared belongs to the Masters of Divinity website that provides information about such programmes in the US. I will look at the supposed myths, therefore, not so much as to argue against the claims made but to try to explore the kind of thinking in evidence.

The ‘myths’ the article lists about are divided into three sections, the first being entitled “Myths about religions around the World”. This lists the 7 ‘myths’ that I will consider in turn, 25 being a bit too much to ask for given the number of other things I should be doing with my time.

Combine Church and State
While those who champion separation of church and state are not hesitant to say it, what about those who would enjoy a combination of religion and politics? In America, it would be hard to find such a person. According to Rasmussen polls, only twelve percent of Americans feel it is appropriate for a church leader, such as a rabbi or a priest, to suggest who their parish members should vote for in an election. In whopping opposition, 79 percent of those surveyed believed such a suggestion would be inappropriate.

The first problem with this, as well as the other ‘myths’ is that it is not clear what the myth is supposed to be. Is it that most people who identify as religious in the US also wish for it to have a state religion? Is it that they simply wish the the US government be able to pursue religiously-motivated policy? Is it merely that such desires or aims are meant to be held by a significant but powerful minority? The possibilities are endless and without a clear statement it is impossible to judge whether the supposed myth actually is a myth. The one claim that is made in the article is that it would be hard to find a person in the US who would enjoy a combination of religion and politics. Well, I can probably think of one off the top of my head: George W. Bush. Given a few minutes I could probably identify a few more. Even if I did limit myself to current GOP presidential hopefuls. That US citizens would not wish to be told by a church leader who to vote for is hardly surprising, they would not wish to be told that by anyone. But, when compared to other western democracies, one of the shocking things about the US is the degree to which religion and politics are intertwined there. This leads to the most fundamental blindness evidenced by this point on the list. The question of the separation of church and state is analysed here from a wholly parochial US perspective and yet the point appears in the section that is supposed to talk about religions around the World. Shouldn’t the views of the more than one billion Chinese have been considered if this was really the focus?

Atheism Isn’t a Religion
This myth depends on what your definition of a religion is. If it is similar to what Dictionary.com calls it: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies,” chances are atheism might fall into the religion category. However, this decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2005 that it was a religion only adds to the myth that atheism isn’t one.

Whenever I hear about the claim that atheism is a religion I always wonder why atheists are not normally invited to ecumenical meetings and are typically told that they have no religious rights. It always seems that atheism ends up being classified where it is most convenient for those that are doing the classification. It may be true in a trivial sense that it all depends upon the definition. But, the truth is that religions tend to share in common a number of characteristics that are not possessed by atheism, making certain classifications more reflective of reality. The use made of the dictionary definition is quite discombobulating. First of all, the definition would actually exclude atheism since it states that religions involve the idea of a superhuman creator – not a belief often met with among the atheists. Secondly, it is actually a very poor definition as most religions are not particularly concerned with the creation of the universe and much more focussed on maintaining day-to-day relations with the supernatural agents that are posited to exist around the community of believers. The focus on the creator is unequivocally a Christian bias that shows a lack of concern for what most religions have actually been about. Again, a particularly parochial outlook. The confusion continues with the final sentence, which I can not make sense of. How can a court rule that atheism is a religion – it can only rule that it should be treated as such in some context. And even if it did, how would that suggest that atheism isn’t a religion?

Most Christians are Conservative
As with most things, Christians and conservatism changes with time. However, in the most recent presidential election, the opposite would seem more true. In the 2008 election, The Daily Mail reports that 54 percent of Catholics voted for liberal Barack Obama, with only 46 percent voting for more conservative opponent John McCain.

How would you show that most Christians are not conservative? What would appear to be necessary is a survey of various studies of public opinion from around the world that compared the opinions of self-identified Christians either against the remaining members of their communities or against some independently obtained standard as to what constituted liberal opinion. Yet again showing their parochial outlook, the author only considers the US. Furthermore, they provide one data point with no comparisons. The majority of voters in the 2008 election voted for Obama so, as a bare minimum, it would be necessary to know how the percentage of Catholics voting for him compared to the overall percentages. And Catholicism is only one branch of one religion. How many Southern Baptists voted for Obama? How many Sunni Muslims? How many Hindus? These numbers would have to be known to make this a somewhat less parochial point. As a matter of fact, it is known that religiosity, including Christian religiosity is strongly correlated with conservatism.

Freedom of Religion = More Atheists
With a freedom of religion protected in the U.S. constitution, there is a thought that because people are free, they are free to choose atheism without any consequences, leading to more atheists. However, according to an ABC poll, 13 percent of Americans identified themselves as having no religion (2005 court decision not applying), or atheists. Compared to a comparable 15 percent of the world identifying themselves with no religion, the freedom doesn’t seem to largely impact atheism.

The supposed myth that the author appears to be dealing with here is that freedom of religion causes atheism. And I have to agree that this is indeed a myth. The connection actually runs the other way. It is thanks to the process of secularisation that freedom of religion has become a right in all western democracies. Again, the picture is misrepresented by the parochial focus on the US. Had the author decided to compare the numbers of atheists in all countries that have the freedom of religion with all those that do not, I am sure that the results would have shown a very clear connection between the two. Of course, it has to be said that it would be difficult to get a plausible assessment of the number of atheists in the countries that lack freedom of religion. After all, they would be hardly likely to be eager to self-identify.

Agnostic is the Same as Atheism
Although they may hold similar beliefs, they are not the same. In an answer from Austin Cline, expert guide for About.com, he responds that many agnostics reject the label of atheism. While agnostics doubt the existence of a god, atheists feel for certain that there is no such thing as a god, making the two different.

The problem with this claim is subtle yet very important. Often, the most effective way of convincing someone of a particular idea is not to argue for it, not to even explicitly put it up for evaluation, but to simply assume it while seemingly arguing for something altogether different. Here, the author is seemingly making the claim that atheists and agnostics are not the same. And, similarly to the point before, this is correct. However, the characterisation of atheists given in the process is profoundly misleading. Being a self-identifing atheist I can asure the author of this article that I do not feel ‘certain’ that there is no god. I am all too aware of the limitations of the human mind, making a fallibilist attitude regarding all claims necessary for me. How does this not make me an agnostic about god? In much the same way that I am not an agnostic about the invisible flying turtle in the middle of my dining-room or any other supernatural entity I or anyone else should care to think of. There simply is no rational reason for thinking that any such entity exists so it is necessary for all intents and purposes necessary to assume they do not. More importantly, putting the distinction between atheists and agnostics in this way, the author ensures that there are no atheists and, actually, no theists. Doubt is perfectly natural to humans and all feel it, especially concerning such matters as the existence of supernatural entities. Since theists are also subject to doubt, the author’s definition would make them into agnostics.

Men More Religious Than Women
Another tough call, it depends on what you mean by more religious. However, according to a study done by The Pew Forum, women were more likely to say that religion influences the way the vote with 26 percent saying it does. The number of men who felt the same way was only 17 percent.

A myth is supposed to be a false belief held by some significant number of people. The problem with this supposed myth is that I can not recall hearing of anyone who believes men to be more religious than women. Perhaps examples could be found among highly religious patriarchal societies that only allowed women very limited access to religious rites. That the author chose to mention this as a myth suggests to me that they had perhaps looked at a list of various US studies and decided to justify mentioning them on the basis of a made up list of myths. It is very well known among those who do actually study religion that women have been shown to exhibit greater religiosity across a great range of studies. Whether it be church attendance among US Catholics or self-identification among Israeli Orthodox Jews, women nearly always come out as more religious. What is more, the author seems not to notice that the result of the Pew study they use here suggests that a quarter of US women do combine church and state when it comes to their voting. As in all previous examples, however, the study mentioned tells us nothing about religion around the World. But, then, the actual intention could be to show that women have a place within religion – a claim that is under significant critique in US society.

Heaven Isn’t Worth It
Think of your favorite thing to do. Now think of getting to do it for 100 years straight. It does sound at best repetitive. So what’s the use in being good? If taking in mind the Bible’s description of heaven as “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him,” heaven isn’t exactly a place where time or anything else functions as it does here, so whether it is worth it or not takes on a whole new meaning.

The connection between the actual myths listed and the general heading is perhaps the weakest in this example. The author takes a particular quote from a particular version of the holy book of a particular religious tradition and somehow sees this as indicative of religion around the World. It isn’t even sufficient to show the conclusion the author wishes to argue for. To do that it would be necessary to provide some sort of independent evidence for the quality of after-life in heaven. The content of the Bible – actually far from univocal on the question of the nature of heaven once one takes into account more than a single quotation – could not possibly show that heaven is ‘worth it’. To think that it does one would have to previously that the Bible is correct on this issue. The author, of course, does precisely this. But they have no basis for assuming that their audience will do likewise. Though, of course, just as in the example with the definition of atheism, that implicit assumption may come to be effectivelly accepted uncritically by the reader thanks to the way it is assumed here. Of course, if the claim is correct that heaven is nothing like we have experienced and that we actually know nothing about what it is like, the correct conclusion is not that heaven is worth it but that we must withhold judgement on whether it is. Not exactly enough to get a Pascal’s Wager going.

The problems with the various claims made by the author in this list of ‘myths’ are easy to pick apart for someone with an understanding of how argumentation is supposed to function and for someone familiar with the actual relevant evidence. But to treat this text in such a manner is to significantly misunderstand its purpose. While the author has presented the article in the form of arguments, this was done in order to get people to accept the truth of a number of points, rather than to actually arrive at something like the truth. Indeed, often the points to convince the readers of are not even the ones being explicitly made. As such, the effectiveness of the article should not be judged (solely) in terms of the soundness of the arguments presented but upon the effect it has upon a typical reader. And what points is it trying to get across there? The seeming shortcomings of the argumentation help us to trace out these largely implicit points: That the situation within the US is to be treated as normative and indicative of the situation in reality as a whole. That Christianity is likewise normative and indicative of religion in general. That the Bible is to be taken as authoritative concerning the claims it makes. That atheists are irrational due to holding inconsistent beliefs. And, finally, that Christianity is more accepting of a range of attitudes and genders than it actually is.

It is not my claim that the author of this text was thinking in these terms while writing the article. Had this level of conspiratorial self-awareness been necessary for the success of religious propaganda, religion would be in much worse shape than it is. I am fairly certain that the author merely thought this would be an interesting article which clarifies some of the things they believe in. The truly amazing thing is how religion has been able to use cultural forces and cognitive mechanisms to shape such explicit intentions into highly effective means of maintaining religious traditions. Focussing upon these cultural and cognitive underpinnings is, of course, precisely what the cognitive science of religion does. And that is why I find it fascinating.

And this blog entry is actually intended to increase the reader’s interest in cognitive science of religion.