One of the blindest, most irritating bicker-fest categories I see is that over what constitutes religion. A good example involves Judaism, where some people who do not embrace the religious principles still identify as Jewish. I know people who don’t follow the LDS faith, and who even identify as jack (or jill) Mormons, but the point is they still consider themselves Mormon on some level. We have people who actively pray for spiritual beings to do their will, yet are careful to toss in the caveat that they hope their own will to be that of their spiritual being.
None of it would entail bickering if it were not for people trying to exclude one another from a given religious tent. I think these are akin to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, typically an appeal to purity. It does matter to writers, and not only from a philosophic or cosmological standpoint. If a writer is going to incorporate any form of religion or spirituality into fiction, that writer must surely have a sense of the components of faith and practice that combine to form what we refer to as a religion. The subject has fascinated me ever since taking Sociology 349 at UW with Prof. Rodney Stark, one of the foremost scholars in the field of sociology of religion.
Let’s look at the various components of a belief system, some of which not all belief systems may address. As I see it, it is possible for a given individual to embrace some aspects but not others. Does that make that person not of that religion? That’s where the bicker-fests come in. Rather than have another such fest, we can take steps at least to create a belief system parfait of sorts:
Cosmology: Most religions propose to explain origins. Where did the universe come from? Where did people come from? Some embrace scientific explanations but venerate specific mythos. Some will insist that their own mythos constitute science.
Divinity: If there are divine beings, what is their nature? How many might there be? Do we know? Can we ever know? Or is it all a creation of the human mind? Faiths run this gamut, but whether or how a belief system addresses divinity is key to understanding it. The question of afterlife, if any, seems to straddle the worlds of cosmology and divinity. If there is an afterlife, it seems, a cosmology defines it and a divinity performs triage.
Magic: Most religions teach that people can influence their environments and outcomes. Some teach that this is done through appeals to divine beings (prayer, ultimatums, etc.); others teach that the power is within ourselves. Some would wet themselves over the application of this label to some forms of prayer, but to my eye those are simply another form of magic: the statement that one’s own judgment or desire should prevail.
Such are the perpetually unprovable factors. Their unprovability has never stopped people from fighting about them, naturally. Agnosticism doesn’t know whether or not there’s anything to any of those. Atheism asserts that there isn’t. But there are more:
Philosophy: How should we live our lives? What acts and perspectives are morally acceptable? Which are abhorrent? Into this category falls all definition of what Judaism calls a mitzvah (good deed) or what many religions call a sin (bad deed, ranging from minor to unpardonable). This one came into focus for me because most of us at times will face ethical dilemmas. I asked myself: “If my religion doesn’t help me figure out a right and valuable handling of these situations, what the hell good is it?” I might not be the only person who ever asked him/herself that.
Ethnicity: In many cases religion defines ethnicity to a degree. In the Serbo-Croatian-speaking world, Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs share a slightly varied common language in which one’s religious identification is part and parcel of one’s ethnic identity. Judaism considers Jewish anyone born to a Jewish mother. There are those professing Asatru who allege that only those of Germanic heritage may be Asatru. (There are Asatruar such as myself who reject this notion as bigoted and ridiculous.) This matters because it’s one thing to profess a faith; it is quite another to join an ethnicity, and in some cases problematic.
Culture: If religion is not necessarily an ethnicity, I find that it always develops a culture and a sense of cultural identity. Let’s take the Latter-Day Saint movement as mentioned earlier. Someone raised in the LDS church will surely gain some cultural overlay from it; same is true of Wicca, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or Chasidic Judaism. Someone not raised in a religious culture may seek to embrace it as an aspect of embracing that faith.
Evolutionism: No, not that. By this I mean a sense of whether religion should evolve or remain unchanged. How conservative (in the philosophic meaning of the term, not the faction label) should religion be? Must today’s Lutheranism be precisely the same as that of Martin Luther? (Evidently there are several different notions of that, or where it should go. Having been raised in a branch of the Lutheran faith, I have some personal experience with this.) We might examine Islam and its varying views on the subject, and we would find that the two largest branches differ on the rightful mantle of leadership post-Muhammad, so they differ not just on evolution of the belief system, but the departure point for any such evolution. It is akin to racers who do not concur on the starting line and stance.
I find that this compartmentalization helps me to look at any belief system by removing the conflation tendency that runs rife through most such discussions. If one person is arguing philosophy, and another is arguing cosmology, and both are insisting that philosophy and cosmology cannot be separated, they can’t even agree on what they are discussing. Of course they will never find common ground, nor even understand each other. One is talking about soil chemistry and the other is talking about marketing harvested crops.
In editing, I use this outlook to develop perspective on clients’ religious presentations in fiction. While I can imagine it playing a part in non-fiction, I’m most likely to encounter it in fiction because most religious authors aren’t terribly comfortable with an editor not of their faith.
This perspective is evolving. I may feel differently two years from now.
As this is the last blog post of the 2020 Dumpster Fire of a Year, I want to thank everyone who has been a reader and commenter during this time. May you all have an excellent 2021.