I've noticed, both here on A|N and elsewhere, what I consider to be an error of thinking. It happens often enough that I feel it important to not only point out but correct. This error of thinking is confusing religion for religious persons.

This error is asserting that religion is violent or (not) peaceful. It is a rather odd claim, since religion is an idea, and violence is an action. Ideas can not act; ideas merely exist. It is true that ideas can lead an individual to certain action, including violence, but this is a quite different thing. One may even have violent thought that derives from the idea, but the idea itself can not be violent.

Language includes many short-cuts that enable people to express an idea in fewer words but still get the essential meaning across. It may be that in many such instances the claim that "Religion is violent" or "Religion is peaceful"  is such a short-cut (to wit: "Religious thought and practice encourages violence" and "Religious thought and practice encourages peacefulness"), but I think it more so a case of lazy thinking: the claim is what it is, means exactly what it states, and is not a short-cut.

My objection relates to agency and accountability. Religion, as an idea, can have no agency — can not act — and can not be held accountable. It is people who have agency and can be held accountable for the expression of that agency. By asserting that religion itself is violent or peaceful or whatever other quality one may assign one is not making a proper attribution. In a sense, it forgives religious people behaving badly because it is the religion itself that is the agent. But it is not. Religious people may well behave badly (or goodly) because of the ideas they have that inform their behaviour, but it is their behaviour nonetheless, and it is they who must be held to account.

By ascribing the agency to the idea, one is engaging in what is essentially superstitious thinking, as superstitious thinking ascribes agency to things that can have no agency.

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I think here is where the confusion in this discussion lies. Your use of the word 'religions' is not the same as my use of the word 'religion'.

It was obvious enough from the get-go. But I think this view of religion as a kind of platonic ideal has little bearing on the real world. Except in comparative religion studies.

Are you claiming that Religion is more than a collection of ideas?; that it is being that can act, separate and distinct from human beings? Can a mere idea, in and of itself, act?

This makes me think of Scientology, because the focus of its doctrine (and, to a lesser extent, the lack of divergent interpretations) makes it a simple example to deal with. It's structured like a mainstream religion, it even has religious status in several countries. One could make a point that it's little more than a scam, that its sole purpose is to suck money from its adherents, and that Miscavige and the top brass are fully aware of it. This last point is not so obvious: Miscavige seems at least as brainwashed as the average Scientologist is. At the moment, Scientology looks more like a ship set on autopilot. Granted, it couldn't function without people, but it seems to have acquired a life and agency of its own not even Miscavige could do much about (assuming he'd want to.)
It's semantic hair-splitting a la atheism/agnosticism. Or typhos. I fail to see the either justification or necessity for nuance ad absurdum. You could mount the same sort of discussion over "speed kills" - yes you could argue about it, but why?
Stephen, the most plausible account of the origin of religions that I've derived from cognitive anthropology, evolutionary psychology and other sources goes something like the following. The combination, in ancestor hominid groups, of an earlier prelinguistic intentionality (the direction of consciousness to objects and states of affairs in the environment, including, but not limited to, wants, fears, avoidances, etc.) and language gave them much greater social flexibility and the opportunity to increase in numbers. This led to a greater need for control of aberrant behaviour which was not conducive to a group's benefit or survival, and so to the earliest forms of morality, which one can see as a group policing of individual behavior. But such policing is costly in terms of effort, time and effectiveness. Religious concepts of invisible agency, i.e. the oversight and knowledge of your actions and motives by gods, spirits or ancestors, were co-opted into the policing function of morality, so that individuals then gradually internalised the policing function as deontology (duties, obligations, etc.) and fear of retribution, with the cost/benefit advantage to the group of less need for external policing and control.

On this view, it would not be surprising that one of the key functions of religion is still that of control. This is often interpreted simply and benignly as 'self-control', but remains predominantly some form of submission to an unseen source of control and authority that carries with it the implication that others should be subject to the same constraints . Often, as both history and the contemporary world show only too well, it becomes inseparable from the impulse to control others, either directly, through 'soft' cultural coercion, or through attempts to align political decisions with sectarian agendas. It seems to me virtually inevitable that this will sometimes result in forms of violence, as indeed it does. Because in the Western world even the most apparently religious countries have been strongly influenced by post-Enlightenment secularism and liberalism, we have on the whole become much more tolerant and permissive, and individuals can in many circumstances happily put their religious commitments into a 'private' box, so that the social pressure to be controlling or to express the need to control is muted. It is easier for individuals to see themselves as 'religious' without any institutional commitment, and this again constitutes an easing of pressure and tension.

I would not agree with the simple and unqualified proposition that 'religion is violent', because it overlooks contemporary cultural worldviews in which religion and non-religion are hardly distinguishable in normal social interaction and communication. At the same time, wherevever religion and the need to control are paradigmatic, you have the potential for violence.
'It is not the abstract concept we're talking about. It's the real, actual religion that pervades most of the human society, that actually influences people's actions, that we're talking about.'

I respect your point of view of course, Wonderist, but I suggest that the discussion actually embraces (a) religion as an abstract concept, (b) religions and religious organisations as social institutions, and (c) institutional and individual religious beliefs and practices as they may be empirically observed and experienced.

'Stephen is drawing an artificial line between what he believes can and can't have 'agency'. Can: Individual humans. Can't: Religions.

Why? He just claims they can't, and that's that. It's typical human exceptionalism and chauvinism along the lines of "animals can't be conscious because only humans are conscious." '

Seeking to distinguish between (a), on the one hand, and (b) and (c), on the other, wouldn't seem to me to be a matter of human exceptionalism and species chauvinism but rather a simple reflection of the reality that humans are capable of philosophical discussion and that non-human animals, as far as I know, are not. If they were, I'm sure they would be welcome to contribute to the forum. My view is that such a distinction is logically valid and methodologically useful, and that nothing is gained explanatorily by not recognising this.

We entertain abstract conceptual objects like 'truth', justice', 'religion', or 'democracy' largely because we inherit a long Platonist and idealist tradition of doing so. They evidently play a role in our cognitive constructs and mental models, but these are most productively investigated according to (b) and (c), where institutional and individual cognitive factors can be studied empirically. To put the matter another way, because 'religion' is notoriously difficult to define in a consensual way and can be dialectically massaged to hold a great variety of different meanings (among them, no doubt, your 'plain old religion'), our best understandings of the phenomenon of 'religion' can arguably be achieved through the empirical study of human institutions, cultures, and group and individual psychology. Good examples of this approach can be found at epiphenom.fieldofscience.com and at the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network Forum NSRN-Discuss www.jiscmail.ac.uk.

'I notice you reference Searle. The guy who claims that his Chinese box doesn't understand Chinese because not a single component on its own understands Chinese, even though, as a whole, the box functions perfectly well as a fluent Chinese speaker. By that standard, Searle himself doesn't speak English, because not a single one of his neurons understands English, even though he as a whole functions perfectly well as a fluent English speaker. It's totally ridiculous, and if that's where this conversation is going, count me out. Talk about superstitious thinking!'

Philosophers, like most other people, are capable of walking and chewing gum not only at the same time but at different times as well. John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment was related, in my reading, to functionalist and computational theories of mind, and I'd be surprised to think that it should be assumed to have any particular relevance to this discussion. On the other hand, his quite separate theory of the origins and currency of the assignment of social and institutional status functions, of why we all operate within the social ontology of such things as money, corporations, or secular and religious institutions (1995, 2010), is worth citing in the context of both (b) and (c) for its explanatory value, and some may find references useful as I do when others offer them.

'Where do you draw the line between religious organization and just plain old religion? It is not only official religious 'organizations' that can be categorized as having corporation-like agency. Religions themselves are organized, whether they adopt a bricks-and-mortar structure or not. That's why they have books and other dogma, to keep the believers believing the right things.'

Well, I've proposed a demarcation line and reasons for supposing it's worth recognising for clarity of discourse.

'My case:
- Religions exist as more than just abstract ideas. They exist as written texts, beliefs derived from those texts, sermons, television broadcasts, and all manner of forms that are real and actual, and not abstract.'

I agree, and outline this object of study as (b).

'- Beliefs derived from religious sources have predictable influences on human behaviour.'

Generally uncontroversial. Beliefs derived from all sources have a mixture of predictable and unpredictable influence on human behaviour. Research under (b) and (c) is likely to be one of the most productive ways to understand the effect of religious beliefs.

'- If your concern is agency and responsibility, then to ignore the influence of religion because religion 'can't have agency', is to stick your head in the sand.'

It's simply a matter of conceptual clarity, for which one's head has ideally to be above sand level. One cannot attribute responsibility for anything to an abstract concept which is incapable of responding.

Searle, John (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free Press.
Searle, John (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: OUP, 2010.
"It is a rather odd claim, since religion is an idea, and violence is an action."

Most of this discussion is centered around the definition of "religion". Let's all recognize that religion has many definitions and not just one.
- 5 dictionary results

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
religions, Archaic. religious rites.
Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion: a religion to one's vow.


"My objection relates to agency and accountability. Religion, as an idea, can have no agency — can not act — and can not be held accountable. It is people who have agency and can be held accountable for the expression of that agency."

I must disagree. If this were true then brainwashing and marketing would be useless exercises. In particular, brainwashing techniques are effective ways of making an individual perform exactly as desired including committing acts of violence. You may be tempted to counter that the "idea" that the individual was brainwashed with is not at fault and the individual is solely responsible for the violence but I suggest that this is ludicrous. A bad idea acted upon is vile.
Stephen's model:

'Think of it this way:

(A) Religion -> Action
(B) Religion -> Person -> Action
(C) Person -> Religion -> Action

My critique is with (A) and (B), where Religion is this thing, separate and distinct from the Person, that can either act without the Person or through the Person. But this is not so. Persons act through Religion, however the concept of Reilgion is manifested in the Person.

[...] Religion is descriptive, not active'

I like Stephen’s three-point model. It helps in showing that the outcome of interest in each of his hypothetical consequence chains is action, i.e. specific individual or group behaviours. I agree with Stephen’s view that ‘religion’ is a descriptive concept, and I add that it’s also an abstract concept. As such, I would want to know how useful its role is in understanding behaviour.

Approaches to understanding behaviour in this as in other domains can be broadly deductive or broadly inductive. In the case of deduction, an approach might go something like this, methodologically:

(1) Find some dictionary definitions of ‘religion’

(2) Add definitional elaborations from your own knowledge and other sources

(3) Establish the resulting ‘cluster’ concept as a classificatory or definitional criterion

(4) Consider a range of behaviours, practices, attitudes, beliefs and so forth that seem to fit your criterion

(5) Reject them if they don’t, or use your findings to modify your definition

One can see that this deductive process has a tendency always to refer back to (1), (2) and (3), which you have virtually made an a priori for your thinking, and a valid question is then how much you are likely to find out that advances your understanding of the issues and the behaviours rather than just refining your understanding of definitions.

If, on the other hand, your methodology is inductive, it might perhaps go roughly like this:

(1*) Identify specific domains of individual, group or institutional behaviours, beliefs, practices and so forth which self-describe as ‘religious’, or are assumed according to some current cultural understandings to be so describable

(2*) Make no initial assumptions about whether such self-descriptions or cultural understandings fit some predetermined descriptive or abstract criteria

(3*) Consider empirical research findings which might help to identify cause/effect chains imputing some behaviour or course of action to an abstract concept

(4*) Consider social, family, relationship, power-differentiating, political, psychological and other factors that might impinge on (3*)

(5*) Check whether what you have found out justifies any kind of generalisation of the type ‘religion is violent’ (as per Stephen’s OP)

It's true that both kinds of inferencing are typically involved in thinking, so that it's more a question of emphasis than of a simple either/or choice. However, in a domain of interest like the one under discussion, which generates a high degree of controversy and confusion, a key error we are all prone to, I suggest, is that of over-generalisation, or going beyond the evidence available to suit a predetermined theoretical criterion. Consequently, my preference is for working inductively from real-world specifics rather than from abstractions, or at least putting the latter into quarantine until their meaning can emerge inductively. Evidently, to quarantine abstract concepts one must first identify them, which is both where I came in and where I agree with Stephen.

There's a great deal of interesting research going on at the present time in this area which seeks empirical warrrantability through some such methodological framework.
Is this research memetics or does it consider memetics?

If we assume that ideas spread as memes and that ideas have positive or negative value when acted upon it seems like it should be possible to show that memes like religion (as the idea and not as the body of organisms that promote it) are in fact harmful.
'Is this research memetics or does it consider memetics?

If we assume that ideas spread as memes and that ideas have positive or negative value when acted upon it seems like it should be possible to show that memes like religion (as the idea and not as the body of organisms that promote it) are in fact harmful.'

These are some sources I've found useful, Tom. I agree with Fred that memetic theories are fairly controversial in terms of explaining cultural transmission and its effects. Richerson and Boyd analyse a range of possibilities in terms of cultural evolutionary forces (2005: 69), and Dan Sperber's research is well known.

Several of these refs. have more to do with neuroscience and related research fields, which are telling us a great deal about individual and social effects of 'ideas', or whatever else we might think of as 'transmissible units of culture'. It's perhaps not too crucial whether or not we think of these as 'memes', as long as we take the limitations of the theories into account. Epiphenom and the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network are general resources I find useful. I'm afraid I don't have hyperlinks for all of them.

Bering, Jesse (2009). Religious Ideas Burrow Into Brains. Scientific American, March 26 2009.

Blackmore, Susan (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press. (Particularly 116-120)

Boyer, Pascal and Brian Bergstrom (208). Evolutionary Perspectives
on Religion. Annual Review of Anthropology, 2008, 37:111–130

Epiphenom (epiphenom.fieldofscience.com)

Harris, Sam, Jonas T. Kaplan, Ashley Curiel, Susan Y. Bookheimer4, Marco Iacoboni and Mark S. Cohen (2009). The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PLoS ONE, October 2009, Volume 4, Issue 10 (www.plosone.org).

McKay, Ryan T. and Daniel C. Dennett (2009). The Evolution of Misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2009, 32, 493–561 (homepage.mac.com/ryantmckay; ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/dennettd/dennettd.htm)

Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN-discuss@jiscmail.ac.uk)

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Sacks, Oliver and Joy Hirsch (2008). A Neurology of Belief.
Annals of Neurology, Vol 63, No 2, February 2008.
I define an ideology as "violent" whenever it happens to spawn violence as a logical consequence at statistically relevant rates. Most religious ideologies historically fit that definition perfectly well. I don't think that placing part of the blame on the underlying ideology in any way exonerates violent individuals. It just serves to identify a big part of the problem, because that's what religion itself is.

"With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion." - Steven Weinberg
Well, I'm not a strict proponent of memetics nor was I trying to be.
My post was just a response to the opening one, actually :P




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