This is a casually written post in a series about what I wish someone had told me when I was younger.
I know this one will be controversial, so I have a request: please only vote on this post if you actually read the whole thing. Don't just vote to yell "boo religion" or "yay Gordon" or something. That's not really helpful and goes against site norms.
Note to mods: this is maybe a good example of a post that would benefit from top-level agree/disagree voting in addition to karma votes.
I didn't grow up religious in any real sense. My parents were raised Protestant Christians. They certainly brought me up with much of the ethos of it, but we never went to church other than on very rare occasions. I have almost no memories of going to church. The only time I can remember going was for my youngest sister's baptism.
They did tell us Bible stories, but I basically thought of them the same way as Greek myths: stories about people in the past who did fantastical things. I had no idea that some people took these stories super seriously.
So it came as some surprise when, one day in 7th grade, one of my friends asked me during PE if I was a Christian. I was like "uh, what's a Christian?". He asked me some questions about Jesus and I was like "who? what?". Then he asked "do you celebrate Christmas?". "Yeah," I said. "Okay, then you're a Christian! You should come to our meeting after school!"
I quickly found out a few things:
- Some of my friends were Christians now and that meant they sometimes did Christian-only things without me—unless I converted.
- I was, not exactly a bad person, but a person to be pitied and to be held at arms length as long as I wasn't formally a Christian. Like they could be nice to me but we couldn't be close.
- They were glad I was baptized as a baby but that wasn't enough.
- If I wanted to become a Christian I'd have to believe some rather fantastical claims were literally true.
Over the next few years Christians gave me a lot of trouble. Some of them objected to things like evolution and the big bang and were annoying distractions in science class. Some of them told me I was going to burn in hell for eternity. But mostly they forced an identity on me—atheist—and I had to figure out what that meant, why I should feel bad about it, and eventually how to defend myself to Christians.
I eventually grew to like being an atheist. It was fun to argue with Christians and poke holes in their beliefs. I got to be a cool outcast fighting the good fight for truth and rationality.
But eventually, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I began to suspect that I was mistaken about something. The Christians still clearly believed a lot of strangely specific and wrong things, and they were still strangely obsessed with believing things because there was no evidence as a "test of faith". But I began to realize that maybe there was something useful about religion.
What is religion? There's a bunch of formal definitions. I'm going to say it's this: a religion is a cultural and social thing where people seriously dedicate themselves to something, demonstrate their dedication via acts and beliefs, and by doing so live a life they consider more worth living than if they didn't.
That's pretty broad and not a normal definition of religion. Why would I want to define it like this? So I can capture lots of things that have the shape of religion but don't have content everyone would agree is sacred.
Some things I'd consider religions but traditional definitions don't always include. Note that for some of these some people do these things as religions and others don't.
- Sports fans. They dedicate themselves to their team, engage in ritual behaviors to demonstrate support for their team or try to bring about victory, and they get enjoyment out of rooting for their team alongside their fellow fans.
- Early-stage startups. People who join early startups are dedicated to making something happen (whatever thing it is the startup is building), engage in rituals like stand-ups and commuting and code review to bring a product into existence, and they like doing it, especially since they expect to gain large rewards if they succeed.
- Effective altruism. People who identify as EAs care about doing the most good, they believe weird things like expected value calculations are better indicators of what's most good than feelings, they commit themselves to things like earning to give or working on projects that don't pay well but that they believe will have outsized impacts, and they honestly believe that the world will be better off because they did more good by applying the methods of effective altruism.
Why such an expansive definition? Because it's my belief that humans are naturally religious. Our minds are structured to be part of a culture with certain features and the way you get those features is by creating religions in approximately the sense I mean here. The things humans want out of religions:
- fellowship (creating an ingroup)
- life advice/guidance
Lots of people think they don't want these things, though, so what gives? My guess is that the people who say they don't want these things are mostly responding defensively to having been previously harmed by one or more religions. It might have even been a traditional big-R Religion like Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or something else. So if someone tries to get them to do rituals or give them advice in a "religious" context they get weirded out and want to run away from it.
But I'm here to say that religion as a concept is good. Any particular religion or religious organization might be bad. This is no different than how food as a concept is good but particular foods might be bad for you.
Religion, as I see it, fills a critical psychological need for humans. Without sufficient religion, we're lost. We suffer a meaningness crisis, if you will. Lots of Western people suffer from this today, especially if they are well educated. They've thrown off traditional religion and are uncomfortable with getting too close to substitute religions, and if they do get close they're unwilling to acknowledge it as a religion (and, given how religion is normally defined, that's pretty reasonable).
But having meaning in your life is great. Having rituals to perform is comforting. Having fellowship means you're never lonely. Having a ready source of life advice means you can just live a better life by learning from the hard-won experience of others.
My own journey was to find a traditional religion that I clicked with. I spent about 2 years doing everything I could to find any other solution. In the end, I realized I could only get what I needed if I started to show up and worship/practice with other people in a shared tradition. Hence why I'm now an ordained lay practitioner of Soto Zen, even taking on the dharma name Seidoh as a sign of dedication (and my name translates as "sincere way", just in case you weren't clear how dedicated I am).
So, in the end, I'm not going to say you should run out and become a Christian or join whatever local religion is popular. Probably that would end badly in a bunch of ways and whatever reason you already have to not want to do that stands. But what I am going to claim is that you need one or more religions, as I've construed them, in your life, and your life is impoverished without them.
Murder is good, everyone!
By "murder" I mean the process of deciding that you don't like something and then acting to get rid of it. For example, if you have some old clothes that are starting to develop holes—don't just tolerate them and be miserable, be proactive and get rid of them! Murder your worn-out clothes! For another example that I'm sure would appeal to rationalists, if you used to believe something but now you have strong evidence it's wrong, don't cling to your old position—murder your false beliefs!
Of course, there are some distasteful things that people often think of when they hear "murder". But I favor a wider definition of the term, encompassing many valuable and beneficial practices; I'm not saying every murder is good, but the general idea is good and has applications everywhere in life. With a proper understanding of what it means, we should all set out to commit murder every day!
"Religion" means what it means—probably somewhat different things to different people. But I think most people would agree it implies "a set of beliefs matching certain criteria" (some would say those beliefs are the religion, others might say they're merely an essential part of an organizational or cultural structure that is the religion). For rarely-used words, you might have a hope of deliberately changing the definition, but that's not the case for "religion". And as long as "religion" means what it does, adopting the slogan "Religion is good" means promoting mainstream religions, the Catholic Church, and so on.
Theses you might have picked instead:
So I think you're getting at a big thing I want to push back against with this post and why I felt it was worth writing.
Christianity presents a very narrow view of what religion is. Because it's so popular and is the main religion most readers of this blog have the most exposure to, their view of religion is highly influenced by what Christianity is rather than by what the broad set of things that self-identify as religions are.
For example, you suggest religion involves a set of beliefs matching certain criteria. But some religions really don't care what you believe! All they ask is that you carry out their rituals. Others ask for faith but not belief, but this is really weird if all you have is a Christian framing where faith is exclusively considered with respect to beliefs.
On a different note, there's a big difference between your attempt to redefine murder and what I'm doing in this post with religion. Murder is a word we all basically agree on what it means. Religion is a word with a very vague definition that even scholars of religion can't agree on. This means it's reasonable to vie for a particular definition or framing of what counts as religion, whereas it's not for murder, except in so far as we try to argue of the legal definition of murder, for example so we might distinguish between murder and manslaughter.
I think there's a contradiction in what you're saying. In the original article you write that beliefs are part of your definition of religion.
But then in your comment here you write that at some religions don't care what you believe.
It seems to me that your definition of the word "religion" is inconsistent. Is belief a necessary component of religion or is it not?
This is just sloppy wording on my part. Maybe I should have written "acts or beliefs". I think originally I was just going to say "behaviors" but that's kind of jargony and vague so changed it.
I see. When you use the word "religion" what you're describing is a social group that people signal allegiance to and whose followers think it makes life better. Like anime fans and the KKK.
Yes. Also like rationalists.
This, however, is not what anyone means by the word, whatever the debates among scholars of what "religion" is. localdeity's critique still applies.
The sentence "religion is good" expresses a proposition, the meaning of that sentence, which is a claim about the world. If you change what you mean by the word "religion", the sentence — that is, the string of words — is unchanged, but it now expresses a different proposition. The original proposition is untouched, and its truth or falsity remains what it was. All that has been achieved is confusion.
I feel like you're trying to claim something here that isn't justified. I realize it's probably just hyperbole, but if nothing else this is what I am directly saying I mean by "religion", so your claim is immediately disproven as literally written. But I take your meaning to be something more like "it's not what most right thinking people mean by the word".
But words have meanings because we give them meanings and learn the meanings that others give them. You think "religion" means a particular thing. I think the word meaningfully points to a broader category than what I know many people think it does, and I'm trying to get folks to see that broader category rather than the narrower one you're using. People have different experiences and so may reasonably disagree on the extensional definitions of words.
The title of my post is perhaps a bit provocative, but that's inevitable since I'm making a claim that goes against the intuition of many folks on this site and it would be disingenuous if I rewrote this post in a way that didn't reflect my actual views. Like if I subbed in another word for "religion" it would create a different kind of confusion: a confusion of omission, if you will, by failing to make clear that I think folks are confused about what category of thing "religion" should most usefully point to.
Maybe there's no way to bridge the gap here? Like are you a positivist (your way of stating your position in your last comment reads to me like this might be one of your underlying assumption)? If so, there's probably nothing I can do to bring you round on how I'm using words and whether or not the claims I'm making are reasonable unless I convince you out of positivism.
You are right in pointing out that my "anyone" is literally false, yourself being a counterexample. My intended meaning was not "all right-thinking people" (which would be a no true Scotsman error) but "the great generality of people", as may be verified by looking at the great generality of people. To save time, one may look at what the great generality of people have put on the Internet. One might even just look at Wikipedia, ChatGPT, Google Images, and Dall•E. The evidence is against people in general using the word this way.
The concept that you are talking about, then, is not generally called "religion". As you have described it, the concept includes pretty much every group activity whatever: a knitting circle, an orchestra, employment of any sort, a bingo hall, and so on. But "group activity" already covers all of that. Why do you want to substitute the word "religion"? Why do you think that the word would "more usefully point to" this vastly wider concept?
And maybe you would also include solitary activities like going for long walks on one's own. (Meditation, which I expect you would include as a "religious" practice, is generally a solitary activity.) I'm not sure how broadly you are extending the net, or what, really, is the concept you are trying to communicate. As the cloud expands, the fainter it gets.
I do not think "religion" means a particular thing, independently of the people who use it. I observe by looking around me what people generally mean by "religion". The broader category you speak of may be a useful one, but it is a different category. It seems as if you want to use the word in order to paint the broader category with the associations that people have to the word they are familiar with, or to paint the narrower category with the associations people have to the larger.
Can you describe the category you are presenting without using the word "religion", and then say why it is "good, actually"?
This is literally in the body of the post, but I can copy paste it here for you?
The rest of it is all in the post. I mean I could just make up a word to sub in for religion, but I'm pretty sure you can do a find and replace for yourself if you really can't bear to read the word "religion".
(Sorry that this reply is a bit snarky, but I'm basically at the point where I feel like we're talking past each other and this isn't likely to be a fruitful conversation. I think I've addressed many of your concerns in various places in this comment section, but you seem really set on this point about how I used the word "religion" as if it has some magical power that other words don't. Like words mean things to people but also the categories that words point to can change. It's fine if you don't like attempts like this to shift the category of "religion", but your objections seem likely fully general objections to me against words shifting in meaning, and you're picking on "religion" because maybe you especially don't want it to be that anything you like gets called "religion"? I think it'd be more useful if you made an object-level argument for why "religion" should be framed as most people you know seem to frame it and why my attempted reframing is bad because then we could actually discuss something maybe. I'm not sure, and I don't actually feel like I can or should make any specific demands of you to keep the conversation going. Anyway, this is all to say I think I'm going to drop this thread unless you have something to say that wouldn't be addressed by me pointing to you something about how I think words work, like this or this or this.)
Ok, I had lost sight of that in this conversation.
"A cultural and social thing where people seriously dedicate themselves to something, demonstrate their dedication via acts and beliefs, and by doing so live a life they consider more worth living than if they didn't."
That seems a worthwhile thing (provided the thing they are dedicating themselves to is worthwhile, or at least not actively bad). It happens everywhere. I just don't get why you want to associate this general phenomenon to the more limited instances of it that the word "religion" covers, when that requires dropping everything from the narrower concept that touches on the supernatural, the moral, and the spiritual. Whatever debates scholars have over the boundaries of what-it-is-that-they-study, I doubt if anyone would look at your characterisation of the-thing-that-you-want-to-point-at and unpromptedly call it "religion".
Words do shift in meaning, but that is not licence for anyone to arbitrarily redefine a word, as in the old conundrum about how many legs a dog has if you call its tail a leg.
But I am happy to end this here, as I think everything has been said, even if agreement has not been reached.
My religious upbringing was similar to yours, except that it was similar to everyone else's in my environment. No-one seemed to take it as anything more than "the done thing". Anyone showing signs of actually believing would have been thought a bit odd. Church twice a year, Christmas and Easter, of course you don't pay any attention to the sermon, it's just something that happens in church, you sing the hymns because you sing the hymns, you get married in church because of course you get married in church. Pure simulacrum level 4. I once described this to someone who was brought up in an actually believing Mormon family, although having left that faith himself for atheism, and he responded, "that's not a religion, it's barely even a social club." Some "religion" is like that, a dead shell of what was. Is a dead pig a pig? It doesn't matter, what matters is, is it fresh enough to turn into bacon? ↩︎
"How many legs does a dog have, if you call its tail a leg?"
"It doesn't matter, the dog isn't going to walk on its tail whatever you call it."
Could you give some examples of such religions (that are recognized by many people as religions, not matching definition of religion from the post)?
Most western polytheistic religion (Roman, Greek...). Judaism*. Islam*. Buddhism. In fact Christianism with its overemphasized focus on dogmas is somewhat an exception.
The first pillar of Islam is an assertion of faith. Every Islamic teacher and academic I've listened to talks as if belief is just as important to Islam as it is to Christianity. Technically subordination is more important, but it's pretty hard to have subordination without belief. Where did you get the idea that Islam doesn't care what you believe? Are you referring to stuff like formally identifying as a Muslim in an Islamic theocracy to get a reduced tax burden?
But otherwise, yeah, you're correct. Roman and Greek religion definitely count. So does Norse mythology. Basically any pre-civilized polytheistic animism counts. Hinduism and Shinto fit into this bucket too.
My favorite Buddhist teachers say Buddhism doesn't require belief, but Buddhism so diverse (and "belief" is so difficult to define) that I'd be surprised if there weren't lineages requiring belief.
Belief isn't central to Daoism either.
Downvoted not for the claim "religion is good" but for the definition of religion. Sure, It's easy to define religion so broadly it captures almost every group activity people are highly invested in, and then say it's good. But that's meaningless.
"Religion" as conventionally used is already so broad that it includes examples that lack almost every individual feature we typically associate with the category. It hardly seems coincidental that the OP chose Soto Zen, which manages to reject a lot of the components of other religions that are more problematic.
Some religions lack gods. Some lack moral laws. Some lack a consistent set of claims about the universe at all. Some lack worship or prayer. Some lack priests or other intermediaries.
If we start from words being defined extensionally instead of by dictionaries, then this is fine. But if you try to find any vaguely natural seeming intensional definition at all, I think it's going to include a lot of extra stuff we don't usually think of as religious. Some of that stuff is good, and it might add up to a net good.
Is it, though? As I see it part of my confusion when younger is that I only really thought of religion as one thing. By expanding what we think of as religion it changes the category in a way that is more useful to us. As I think of it, it's like taking back a word that we've let a few organizations take away from us and control the meaning of.
I'm having a hard time seeing the difference between "expanding what we think of as religion" and "define religion so broadly it captures almost every group activity people are highly invested in".
ETA: localdeity said it far better.
Why not "Ideology is good, Actually"? It would mean the same thing, but would irritate less people.
This is a good question.
The trouble is that ideology has a meaning distinct from religion in my mind.
An ideology isn't wedded to particular rituals or a community. It's just a big idea people believe in and organize their lives around. There's overlap, and I think we can reasonably say that every religion contains an ideology, but not every ideology is enmeshed with a religion.
My belief is that the rituals and community aspects are really important. In fact, they're far more important to wellbeing than the actual ideology of the religion. If the ideology is at least neutral then the religion is probably on net good (assuming the rituals aren't something like human sacrifice).
There's a cluster of things that people like to derogate by calling them religions, and they usually get away with it. But the second someone decides that actually that cluster is good, it's all "stop irritating people with this abuse of language".
And you may say "well personally I'm the type to object to people who try to derogate things by calling them religions when they're technically not." But why gatekeep the meaning like that in the first place? The supposedly neutral conception of religion doesn't seem like a relevant cluster of things; both people who want to derogate and people who want to compliment things by calling them religions have converged on roughly the same descriptive cluster of things, and they are both interested in whether that cluster is mostly good or bad.
Insisting "that's not what religion is" is just denying people the natural language for discussing this natural cluster.
My issue is that usually when people call things religions to criticize they are correct to do so and I intend to continue to criticize those things, such as when people read the sequences and start treating yudkowskianism as a religion in the sense of beliefs bestowed by authority and a cause the authority commands, rather than a cluster of beliefs some dude expressed that can be processed very piecemeal.
One could go for the Rimworld concept of an ideoligion. I think I'll quote the relevant chunk of the wiki page below; some of the stuff is about game mechanics, and the world depicted in the game is, ah, brutal; but the description is pretty comprehensive and reasonably applicable.
It's more like "Being a part of a movement is good, actually". The social parts are important (ironically even if the movement denies it).
I object to the use of "religion" as an idea cluster, while trying to redefine the cluster to only the things you like about it. I agree that many of these aspects are extremely common human drivers - community, ingroup bonding (which is hard to separate from outgroup hatred, BTW), etc. I don't agree that they are purely good, and I don't agree that the bundle of useful effects and false beliefs that is implied by the word "religion" is generally good.
Further, the second-person advice and use of "we" implies a universality which is simply untrue. There's a WIDE variance in humans' need for the good parts, and their ability to handle the bad parts, and the level they're already involved in religion. Whether someone would improve their life with "more" or "less" religiosity is quite hard to determine individually, and just about impossible to generalize.
I don't think I'm trying to redefine it in a way that only includes what I like about it. I'm pretty explicit about saying lots of religions do bad things. That doesn't mean religion as a concept is bad; it just means particular religions are bad.
As to your second point, sure, but I think you're just making the point we all already know about equal and opposite advice, and as with every article in this series I assume my readers are smart enough to notice if they need to apply the opposite advice because they've gone too far in the opposite direction. If you think this is an issue with this post, why make it on this post in the series rather than on a previous entry? I think this concern applies to literally every post I've made in the series.
The other posts in the series didn't catch my attention enough to really consider their content - they're on fairly unimportant topics that are (relatively) safe to experiment with and find one's own equilibrium. Religion is often ... invasive. The successful ones are memetically evolved to affect many aspects of one's life and cognition. Even when they bring personal or social benefits, even if those are net positive with the bundled harms, they are not trivial to adjust one's personal use of them.
I prefer coopting the term "culture" or "ideology" to coopting the term "religion" to refer to things similar to the expanded concept you used.
I think there is useful signal for you that the entire comments section is focused on the definition of a word instead of reconsidering whether specific actions or group memberships might be surprisingly beneficial. This is a property of the post, not the commenters. I suspect the issue is that people already emotionally reacted to the common definition of the word Religion in the title, before you had a chance to redefine it in the body.
The redefinition step is not necessary either- the excellent "Exercise is good" and "Nice clothes are good" posts used the common definitions of Exercise and Nice clothes throughout.
I guess, but I do want to make the point that the category of things that includes some traditional religions are good, as I happen to think since I am myself religion and am ordained within a religion. My take, because this is the mistake I made when I was younger, is that people anchor too much on a single religion or group of religions, namely Evangelical Protestant Christianity, and this leads to thinking of religion as too narrow a category of thing.
I don't like Evangelical Protestant Christianity much: it doesn't really speak to me and some of the people who it does speak to have treated me badly at times. But because I anchored too hard on that as the central example of religion, I missed out on a thing that is very important to me and helps me live a good life.
This post should have both negative karma and negative agree votes. Community is good, and spirituality is good, and recognizing the beauty in the universe good, synchronized activity with other humans can be good - but submitting yourself to a religion is always bad. Religion is right up next to culthood.
In particular, since religion is extremely related to and often coincides with cults, have some links:
I kind of feel like you failed to read or engage with the post. Like are you willing to say that effective altruism is basically a cult? Or are you rejecting my reframing of religion and just not saying that?
I think I'm explicitly disagreeing with your framing? I thought it wasn't ambiguous. But yeah, disagree with the framing; religion doesn't become something else just by saying so.
I might use your definition temporarily if talking to someone who already holds organized religion to be a reasonable idea, so as to explain what I mean before I use the words they don't like.
Praying together is an effective way to coordinate. It creates common knowledge of what people hope and wish and worry about that is otherwise often hidden. Making it visible allows people to coordinate on improving these areas.
It doesn't have to be a religious prayer. I asked ChatGPT for "An example of a non-theistic prayer that doesn't use meditation references could be something like this:"
An example of a non-theistic prayer that doesn't refer to oneself could be something like this:
I would like to push back on this. Dedicating your life to accomplishing something is only good if the goal is actually worthwhile. Beliefs are only good if they are true. Even though I never was religious, I never felt lost, and I've always felt like my life had meaning.
However, I feel hurt when people get mad at me for believing what's true, or try to impose their nonsensical rules on me, or give me misguided advice I never asked for. A fellowship based on lies is fake and not worth having. If I have a psychological need, it's to never again have to deal with this BS in my life.
I also feel hurt when people get mad at me for believing that which I believe to be true. It sucks, especially when they give you grief or it and try to coerce you into believing things you know not to be true.
But not all religion is like that. In my own practice of Soto Zen, I've not been asked to accept any doctrines on faith or follow any rules that don't serve a useful purpose. Instead I've been given some practices and rituals to follow, and because I found them useful I've developed trust in the teachings and myself. This is honestly not too different from what goes on around Less Wrong, except that in Zen we get to wear special robes. :-)
I'm glad you've not felt lost. Perhaps you have no need for religion. My experience is that something like 90% of people are not so lucky.
If you define religion as a way to organize groups by shared beliefs, rituals and scriptures, then yeah, definitely, this is how humans operate as social animals. By this definition this site is a religion of Yudkoswkyanism or something, with a living breathing prophet who occasionally visits and dispenses wisdom not otherwise available. Whether this description is accurate, I am not sure, and a lot of people would probably disagree, including the putative prophet himself. Regardless, the sense of belonging is a powerful way to improve one's internal quality of life, and often become more productive, so in that sense religion is definitely "good".