Five Tips to Critique Religion Intelligently 5 May 2015

Stack of religious books

Daniel Ansted considers how non-believers can critique religion without causing hurt.

Intelligent religious critiques are needed now more than ever. With the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Africa; the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, referencing the story of Esther in his Congressional speech; and the increase in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated in America, the urgent need for these is clear.

The common responses to religious events often leave a lot to be desired. More often than not, one of two basic stances towards religion is asserted. The first stance fails to appropriately acknowledge that religion can promote goodness. A good example of this perpetual attack is Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Usually in response to these attacks, the second stance fails to appropriately acknowledge that religion can promote evil. A good example of this overly defensive posture is Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood. Neither party is entirely right.

We can’t critique these postures until we ask the question: ‘what is religion?’. The term ‘religion’ is complex and its definition must not leave out either the good or the bad. From a sociological perspective, one of the best ways to conceptualize religion is as being about communities that share rituals and beliefs. But other ways of conceptualizing religion may be helpful, depending on one’s focus. No one definition of religion can capture all the data one might want to categorize as religious while maintaining a strict boundary between the religious and the non-religious. This is the often unstated or unknown nature of religion.

Being an intelligent religion critic must include a willingness to understand this vast diversity of religion. Religious criticism can be done by anyone, and here are five simple steps to do so intelligently:

Don’t over-generalize

By now it should be obvious that this is number one on my list but it needs to be stated plainly and outright. If you start a sentence with ‘all Buddhists’ or ‘Judaism teaches,’ more likely than not the sentence is false. Even more so if the sentence starts with ‘all religious people’ or ‘all religion.’ Don’t do this unless you are very certain that what you are talking about is actually true. Each church, temple, mosque, and etc… has their own theological melody and likely each individual as well. In short, religion isn’t monolithic and particular religions typically aren’t either. There are atheist Jews, monotheistic Hindus, and Christian Buddhists.

Learn about religion and religions:

Some, but not all, claims about religion can be fact-checked. If you think that a significant portion of Muslims are trying to implement Sharia law in America, then research it and argue your point. Don’t just cite your typical sources; branch out, read about Islam, read about Sharia law, and read about Muslim-American experiences.

Talk to your neighbours and go to religious institutions outside your faith.

Academic reading of other religions is not enough; you need to understand the lived experience of people as well. Doing this increases your sympathy for your neighbours and vice versa. Of course, this is more difficult in rural locations than in urban ones, but you can still read personal accounts of religious people outside of your faith.

Religious critiques should not be entirely negative.

A comparison can be made with art criticism: clearly an art critic loves art, but they will critique it with a particular view in mind. If they think a piece is well done, they will say so, and will say why. Equally, if they do not think it is well done, then they will say so and say why. It’s the reasoning behind the opinion that matters the most – that way others can critique the critique. This will open up a more intelligent conversation, such as discussing the question of how religions should be assessed.

Practice self-criticism.

You can be a Christian/Buddhist/Jew/Humanist/etc… and be a religion critic. The only caveat is to make sure that you are not pointing out a speck in your neighbour’s eye, while having a log in yours. In short, practice criticism on your religion as much or more than on other religions. As a Christian, if someone murders in the name of Christianity, you should apologize or defend Christianity just as much as you would expect a Muslim to apologize or defend a similar action and vice versa.

This is a short list and should only be taken as a starting point. You must be empathetic and compassionate in your critiques, otherwise you will end up talking to and becoming a wall of anger. Let it be understood that there is not value to every specific instance of religion, but labelling an entire religion as good or evil is entirely unhelpful – at least without extensive research.

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About Daniel Ansted

Daniel has an M.A in Philosophy, History and Philosophy of Science, and Religious Studies. As a religion critic, his main objective is to experience examples of religion first hand and to make judgments of these examples based on his experience. You can view his blog or @areligioncritic on Twitter.

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