It’s an ongoing problem. Someone blurts out something about a religion. Someone else blurts out that they know people of that religion and it’s not true of them. A third person makes an analogy to a different religion and muddies the waters further.
They are arguing, and they can’t even agree on their terms and definitions. That’s no way to do this.
Maybe I can help. At least, I can describe the way I unpack and analyze religious movements and outlooks. It seems to serve me well.
Under the general banner of religion, I detect four subcategories of activity/belief/endeavor. Not all religions include all four; one may wonder whether that disqualifies a belief system from the label of ‘religion’ in the first place. Rational people could differ on that. My four:
- Spirituality: views on the unseen, supernatural, and the afterlife–things relating to supreme or superior beings. Gods, spirits, souls…all of that. Into this category I also put interactions with supreme beings where there is no intent to influence an outcome. “Dear mighty Cthulhu: I am fine. I hope you are fine too. I hope you are sleeping well with minimal bathroom interruptions as I know you are greatly ancient. I praise you with a massive praising.”
- Magic: views on mortal people influencing the world. In some religions this is done through prayer; in others, through ritual and/or meditation. Trying to learn the future, change outcomes, gain assistance–all the ways people attempt to shape events. “Dear mighty Cthulhu: please slip my sister-in-law a strong laxative, so that she does not sleep well and has maximum bathroom interruptions.”
- Philosophy: views on morality and ethics, whatever their source–ancient books, tradition, common sense. What is right or wrong? Encouraged or discouraged? Fair or foul? Obligatory or contraindicated? How should we live?
- Culture: each movement that is religious necessarily spawns a culture, or cultures, that influence even non-members or those less involved. It may involve ethnic heritage, even merge into same. A Jew, for example, might profess atheism yet remain associated with the cultural aspects of her upbringing’s faith, and insist upon having her son circumcised.
Once I began to look at the arguments this way, it helped me to send the combatants to neutral corners long enough to hush and listen. When one labels or generalizes based on religion, it helps to identify which aspects are in play. If one is going to say that Latter-Day Saints do not drink coffee, for example, very well; this is philosophical and to some degree cultural. (I’m not aware of anything in LDS scriptures specifically forbidding coffee, though I have read up on their applied rationale.) The boundaries will not always be strict, as we can see in this example; culture may be a lens through which people interpret and act upon philosophy.
Many examples exist and I have experienced some. Is there a Wiccan culture? Certainly there is. I never fit into it, but I understand it. I grew up in a Lutheran culture that could best be described as grim, threatening, cruel, and comfortless. I didn’t know of kinder, gentler Lutherans until I grew up, went to college, and learned that I had been raised by religious fanatics in an extremist group. The kinder, gentler Lutherans were the first to say: “oh, yeah, those folks–no wonder.”
Are Satanists religious? Well, I guess that depends on which specific Satanists. Most, I understand, do not believe in a Satanic godhead. They do have philosophies, and at least some engage in magic. I don’t know enough about left-hand path culture to say whether any generalization about that is possible. I’m not sure how seriously the Satanic Temple folks take the religious aspect, if at all, but their actions suggest a culture (and certainly a philosophy) of challenging the majority.
I am definitely not part of that majority. Since I have rather few co-religionists, and am a loner among them, most of my conversations about religion occur with people not of my belief system. In order to process that fact in respectful ways, I need this organization. Perhaps others will find it helpful.