Religion is a treasure trove of interesting ideas, whether in terms of history, sociology, philosophy, and even hard sciences. Although today it is commonly denounced as superstition by fairly prominent public intellectuals, the reality and validity of any particular religion is not of concern here. Instead, as will be noted, even if we hold an atheist position, religion as religion provides very valuable and applicable ideas and insights.
For the moment, let’s explore some features of “traditional” religions[i] – especially in terms of their texts – by asking some poignant questions:
- How many worldview systems have lasted over 4,500 years?
- How many texts have survived thousands of years, and are commonly read by billions?
- How many stories have remained relevant over the millennia? How many are common movie tropes?
- How many preserved and continually practiced systems shaped numerous world-changing events?
- How many systems have been the cornerstone of civilizational development?
Regardless of whether we take religion as true or not, the idea of religion and its many historical contributions, developments, and impacts, are undeniably one of the greatest contributors to modernity – if not the greatest. While we may be used to a relatively secular modernity, popular secularism is a very recent development. In fact, even today, the vast majority of people identify themselves with some sort of religion – more than 83% – and even the “unaffiliated” 16% or so are frequently believers in God, or some other similar idea. Meanwhile the earliest claim to an officially secular state can perhaps be found with the American or French Revolutions.
As a result, dismissing religion as unworthy of critical study is an equivalent of cutting ourselves off from the grand majority of history (roughly 97% of history has been nearly entirely religious),[ii] and even from core worldview ideas of the grand majority of living human population. The key point is that critical study of religion does not require us to belong to the particular religion in question, or even to be at all religious. The value that can be extracted is there, because it can be extricated by critical thought, not just theology. Finally, given that the majority of the world is religious, not understanding their context can become a problem in meaningful communication and agreement on many issues.
The critical approach to religion is not about proving or disproving some religion, or god, or anything of the sort. Instead, it is about grasping the context and meaning of the ideas that guided major historical processes, and finding ways to use these ideas. Sometimes, the actionable ideas can be lifted directly , because their context is close enough to ours; sometimes we need to abstract the relevant parts out of the theology, before we can use them. Other times, the actionable idea is found by the analysis of what not to do.
As an example, here is an ordered list of some basic sample questions we can ask about any religious story:
- What does the story tell us about how those people saw the world?
- How did they see humanity?
- How did they understand their role in the universe?
- How did they understand the relations of humanity to the world?
- How did they understand their relations, and relations of humanity in general, to each other?
- How did these stories and their morals try to shape the society?
- What were the results of this “shaping?”
- Do any of the results create anything we like?
- Why/why not?
- Do any of the results create anything we dislike?
- Why/why not?
- Is there a way to directly transfer positive ideas to our own context?
- Is there a way to abstract positive ideas away from theology?
- Is there a way to avoid the elements we dislike, when applied to our own context?
By asking these questions, we can grasp the historical and other contexts much better. This alone allows us to understand the process by which our modern context developed – since it did not just fall out of the sky. We can ask similar questions regarding most any point of theology, and get back valuable results. Using these methods, we can also find explanations for some of our own ideas, cultural practices, etc. – like why we knock on wood. In some cases, this can help us remove baseless practices/ideas from our own behaviors; other times, it can reaffirm/introduce a particular behavior. This approach also fights the problem of projecting our preconceived notions on an issue, and instead uses the zhengming and wu-wei approach, which allows us to discover whatever is valuable.
The meaning and interpretation of religious ideas is not limited solely to theologians or religious people, any more than logical analysis is limited to logicians. To be sure, the better one is acquainted with the whole religious canon, the easier it is to find functional interpretations. But even a passing familiarity with the actual text can be useful. For example, the story of Abraham in the Islamic tradition includes Abraham’s childhood, which is very informative for actionable critical thinking.
Abraham grows up in an idol-worshiping town, and his father is an idol-maker. At an early age, Abraham thinks critically about the idea of worshiping man-made things, and it makes no sense to him. So he goes to his father and asks him why he’s praying and prostrating and leaving offerings to the idols, given that: they can’t see or hear, they can’t eat or drink, they have no power, and can’t hurt or help anyone – including themselves? His father replies with a “shut up and do what I tell you.” So, Abraham goes out and tries to present the same argument to the people, and gets the same response. Seeing that intellectual argument won’t work, Abraham changes tactics. He waits for the next big holy day, and when everyone heads out into the fields to celebrate, he fakes illness and stays home. Then, he grabs a hammer, heads to the place where the idols are housed (a temple), and breaks all of them, except the biggest one – and leaves the hammer in the hands of that one – and goes home. The people come back from their celebration and head to the temple, only to find their idols broken. They realize that Abraham was the only one in town, and bring him in – asking “what happened to the idols?” Abraham replies, “ask the big one; he’s holding the hammer, so he must have done it.” When the people respond, “you know the idols can’t move and do stuff,” Abraham asks, “if they can’t do anything, why are you worshiping them?”
The point of the story, from the perspective of actionable critical thinking, is about recognizing when arguments fail, and knowing how to bypass the arguments and use direct demonstration to prove a point.
As noted in the earlier article, the key is to critically engage and examine ideas, in order to benefit either from being able to borrow them in some way, or by learning to avoid their problems. In either case, we are better off for critically engaging a variety of ideas – perhaps especially those that present some sort of difference from our way of thinking.
[i] Traditional religions, for our context, include Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While there are many more rather old religions, most of these are purely oral traditions without texts, or covered a numerically and geographically small region – and are thus not included.