12 Essentialist Oversimplifications About Religion Badly in Need of Theory

The Raw Story published a post with the deliciously satisfying title, "These are the 12 worst ideas religion has unleashed on the world." On the list are a lot of quite terrible ideas, including holy war, genital mutilation, and male ownership of female fertility. Other ideas such as karma, heresy, or "chosen people" may not necessarily be quite as terrible, but certainly do have their long histories of abuses.

Like any good religious studies professor, my first question to such an assertion is, "What is your definition of 'religion' and where did you get it?" For example, the author of this post also refers to "some of humanity's best moral and spiritual concepts," which apparently include creativity, forgiveness, self-discipline, and even ahimsa (made most famous by Gandhi). One would be hard-pressed to find even one religious tradition in human history that didn't celebrate such virtues in some way, but without any justification these qualities are named "moral and spiritual" rather than religious.

Some people like to think that the "essence" of religion is all sweetness and light, while the violence and bigotry for which religious people are famous are unfortunate cultural add-ons. The flip side is the idea expressed in the aforementioned post, that the essence of religion is tribalism and violence, while all the good stuff is "our shared moral core." Both are highly attractive oversimplifications with real-world import. It is not hard to understand, for example, why so many Muslims wish to disown jihadist terrorism as not truly Islamic, or why so many anti-theists wish to unconditionally condemn all of Islam.

But the lovely dream of a tidy line between "religion" and everything else is itself a historical condition, a product of Enlightenment theory and culture, still alive and well despite decades of loud and diverse critiques. Its persistence comes from being so beautifully simple, appealing particularly to the desire to put confusing things in binary categories: reason vs. emotion, mind vs. body, good vs. evil.

Many of us are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that human nature and history are irreducibly complex, in favor of bedtime stories that let us sleep better at night. We blame the worst stuff on religion and dream of a better world without it, as if other factors like land, nationalism, gender, wealth, power, or the desire to be right are unique outgrowths of religiosity. As if heresy, blood sacrifice, glorified suffering, or the desire for eternal life are not equally insidious in their secular incarnations.

Religious fundamentalists and anti-theist fundamentalists will both continue to do their part to keep the fires of debate burning (and the click-bait flowing). The rest of us should do our part to question and complicate ideas that may on the surface seem obvious, but which are in fact just lazy.