A theological Christmassy poem


Moved by that special time of year that it is, as well as a mind still steeped in Oriel theology more than year after my tragic departure, I’ve written a little nativity-related poem that I thought you might want to see:

The High Priest


Who can take up the noble tyrant’s vow,

The anointed fire and the vengeful rod,

When God-forged crown slips from an infant’s brow,

For how could Jesse root sprout from foul sod?

Am I told to bow to a suckling child?

Where is the foretold king in glory shod,

Who’d conquer Babel with a fury wild,

And shake the nations with each step he trod?

When thunder cracked and heaven’s trumpets called,

To herald God’s truth, and our hope, unveiled,

Hollow noise and dust kept our minds enthralled:

The great Isaiah’s incantations failed.

The relics of devotion are blown and lost,

As I stumble out over blackened frost.


I suppose the theological point I’m making with this is basically just ‘the kind of Messiah that Jesus turned out to be was probably quite surprising’.


Religion and Evil

There’s been a lot of theodicy on this blog so far, and many Oriel theologians have been really getting to grips with how to understand and potentially deal with the theological problem of evil. Ever the contrarian, I have decided to wade into this discussion of evil from a completely different and probably irrelevant religious studies angle. Instead of how the existence of evil fits within a coherent account of the teachings of a particular religion, I will look at the relationship between religion in general as a phenomenon in the world and the existence of evil. Specifically:

Why does religion consistently cause so much evil?

What I mean by religion has already been explored, but what I mean by evil could be a contentious topic given the many different ethical theories flying about. Because of this, I will stick to examples that I’m pretty sure all of us would agree are evil, and luckily for me religion provides plenty.

I will go first into the vital importance of honesty about the existence of religious evil, then look at the psychological mechanisms that exist within religion which make it so perennially conducive to evil, and finally briefly ponder whether all of the above means that religion is a Bad Thing.

I debated for quite a while what to make the headline picture for this post – should I go dramatic with 9/11, topical with Charlie Hebdo, or historical with the Spanish Inquisition – but I finally settled on the current photo of a Zen Buddhist monk. This is to emphasize that all significant religions have been at some point associated with great evil, even ones like Buddhism that don’t have much of a reputation for it. The image is of Harada Daiun Sogaku, the Japanese monk who during the Second World War preached:

If ordered to march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom of Enlightenment. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now under way.

If this post seems to give quite a one-sided account of religion, that’s because it is only about one side of it – the bad side. I go briefly into the good at the end, and may later write a full post on that.

Coming up: Barack Obama, crazy fundies, and Aztec Jeremy Bentham.


It is commonplace now to try to absolve and act of religious evil from connection to religion. For example, David Cameron was very quick to state that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was “nothing to do with Islam”. Unless by ‘Islam’ here Cameron means something like true Islam – which itself raises the question of what ‘true’ Islam is, and whether Cameron has much idea himself – this claim is patently false, as it is painfully clear that religious beliefs and feelings played a large part in the Kouachi brothers’ motivations, and that they considered their religion to be Islam. This is not of course to say that Islam is inherently evil, and certainly not that all Muslims are evil, but merely to state the obvious – that this particular act of evil had something to do with a particular version Islam, as heretical and inauthentic as we may argue that version of Islam to be.

Even worse, Obama says at the beginning this video that ISIS “is not Islamic – no religion condones the killing of innocents”:

Again, while a very good case could be made that the religion of ISIS is very far indeed from authentic or traditional Islam, but clearly their ideology is a religious one, and one they seem very convinced indeed is Islamic. All major religions have had evil offshoots, and Islam is no exception. Even worse, the statement that ‘no religion condones the killing of innocents’ is utterly, palpably false. Most obviously, many religions have condoned human sacrifice and the concept of a ‘holy war’ is hardly unheard of. It could be claimed that by definition those a religion wants to kill are not innocent in its eyes, but not only does that mean the victims of ISIS are not ‘innocent’ in their view (being either heathens or, if Muslims, traitors) making the statement irrelevant to the context, but also it renders it as a useless tautology. The only possible interpretation of that statement is that Obama is defining religion in such as way as to deny the very  possibility of religious evil. When he goes on to say that “it has no vision except the slaughter of all those who stand in its way”, he is ignoring or ignorant of its quite clearly stated aim to establish a united worldwide Caliphate under strict and brutal Sharia law. This fascinating and terrifying propaganda video released by ISIS gives a first-hand account of what their vision is, and why they are willing to slaughter all who stand in their way. They may not be ‘truly’ Islamic, but they definitely think they are.

I can’t recommend this detailed exposition of ISIS’s doctrine, theology and ideology enough. I was considering attempting something like that myself until I read that and realized my attempt wouldn’t be a patch on it. Shout out to TBJR for putting it up on Facebook for me to discover. If you really want to see the most evil manifestation of religion in the world today, track down some of ISIS’s gorier propaganda videos on the internet – the most recent one is the simultaneous beheading of 21 Libyan Christians. I did and unfortunately can’t recommend the experience for anything other than its educational value.

While I understand the political imperative to downplay potential sources of social tension (such as people blaming all Islam or all Muslims for ISIS), such willful denialism flies so clearly in the face of the facts that few are convinced by it. If we are going to sort out the world we live in, we have to be honest with ourselves about what sort of world it is – and it is a world in which religious evil is rampant.

This man is not an atheist.
This man is not an atheist.


So religion is indeed responsible for a lot of evil throughout human history. But why? What is it about what claims to be the best thing in the world that so often makes it the worst? In other words, is there anything inherent in religion that makes it such a potential cause of evil? I would argue that there is. Below I examine a few of the perennial psychological mechanisms by which religion can cause evil or make it more likely. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and none of them are necessarily unique to religion, but they are what I believe to be the most consistent and powerful causes of religious evil.


After the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan are the most iconic image of tribalistic hatred we have. While religion is not the essence of their ideology as it is with ISIS, it has a place as a kind of tribal marker. This disconcertingly jaunty recruitment song brings out the links they make between religion and a tribal sense of identity:

The Bible calls for glory to
Our symbols of the man
A sword, and water, rope, and hood
Portray our noble Klan!

In search of peace and liberty
We pledge our hearts and hands
We must defeat the Communists
To save our Christian Land!

The ideology of the Klan is basically an aggressively tribalistic one. Their role, as they see it, is basically to defend the identity and purity of their tribe – which consists of people who are American, Protestant, traditionalist and above all white – the “Christian land” mentioned in the song. While ISIS could be said to have a truly religious ideological motivation for their evil (which does itself induce a very strong sense of sectarian tribalism), for the Klan religion is just one aspect of a tribal identity which motives them to violently persecute those outside their tribe. While Christianity features in the Klan’s self-identity to a surprising extent – their most famous ritual is seen not as a destruction, but an ‘illumination’ of the cross – the internal logic of their ideology is to do with ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ rather than as religious duty per se, in contrast to ISIS who clearly and explicitly link their political goals and actions to theology. Needless to say, of course, as much as they want to present themselves as carrying out the seemingly understandable goal of defending a culture and identity, in practice their activities have been tribalism of a much cruder kind as their racial hatred has motivated them to carry out innumerable horrific crimes. If race hate is dressed up in rhetoric about religious identity, it is easier to sell to those outside the group and easier to rationalise for those inside it.

The red drop symbolises the blood Christ shed for the Aryan race. I don't think they've read Galatians.
The red drop symbolises the blood Christ shed for the Aryan race. I don’t think they’ve read Galatians.

The Ku Klux Klan is just one of many examples of the link between religion and tribalism – one closer to home is the Protestant/Catholic sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. As there are diverse religions, religion is something that divides as well as unites people. Just as it contributes strongly to someone’s sense of who they are on an individual level, it does so for identity on a group level . While anything that distinguishes different groups from one another could be come a tribal marker, the inherent extra potency of religion for this is basically in that people tend to care so much about it. The fact that religious dividing lines often coincide with racial, national, linguistic or cultural dividing lines adds to this potency. When other tribes are perceived as evil or threatening, violence and evil can easily ensue. Religion, in this case, is just one particularly powerful marker of difference and identity among many.


The Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz wrote in his memoirs the following description of the religion of the land he had conquered:

On these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that every night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut open, and their arms and thighs had been cut off. The walls were covered with blood.They strike open the wretched Indian’s chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols. They cut off the arms, thighs and head, eating the arms and thighs at ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body is given to the beasts of prey.

This strikes us as not only morally repulsive, but so viscerally and obviously so that it is hard to imagine any other response to it. Mel Gibson’s graphic recreation of Mayan sacrifice in Apocalypto is a product of Hollywood, but there is no reason to suppose the real thing was any less savage and bloodthirsty:

How could people bring themselves to go against every one of what we think are universal moral instincts, showing no compassion whatsoever as they brutally kill their helpless victims in the name of religion? Even if our specific ‘moral instincts’ might be more culturally conditioned and less universal than we think, surely the sheer gruesomeness of the ceremony would disgust anyone on an instinctive level?  As hard as it may be to fathom, this is really just another manifestation of the principle that ‘strong beliefs lead to strong actions’. In my previous post, I described religious belief as claiming to refer to the most important things in existence. In the case of the Aztecs, it was their sincere religious belief that if the gods were not fed with human blood, the sun would stop rising. If this doctrine were true, even a western utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham would have to start hurriedly sharpening his obsidian knife – the continued rising of the sun is simply more important than the lives and suffering of the small percentage of people who became sacrificial victims. By suppressing any instinctive revulsion they might have had in order to act in accordance with what they believed to be the greater good, Aztec priests were simply doing what made sense given their picture of the world. This doesn’t explain of course how a belief requiring such violence originated, or which way the causality is – whether the belief was a rationalisation of the ritual the ritual was a response to the belief – but it does explain how, once established, the belief could perpetuate the ritual and make it continually possible. Religion is a belief system so particularly good at making people do this precisely because religious beliefs by their very nature refer to what is more important than anything else.

It could happen.
It could happen.


The video below claims to be taken ‘word for word from Christian fundamentalist forums’. Even if its sources are inauthentic, it does give good examples of the patterns of thought used by the most blinkered and dogmatic of religious believers. It is also very, very funny:

For fundamentalists, all their conclusions are foregone conclusions. No matter how much evidence to the contrary they are shown, thy will always believe that evolution is false and that Adam and Eve literally existed 6,000 years ago. One, Pastor Peter LaRuffa even said “If somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2 + 2 = 5….I would believe it.” They believe in the priority given to the Bible as a source of knowledge so strongly that no other source can challenge it on any point whatsoever. This is another example of what I described in my definition of religion: epistemic privilege. But as I pointed out then, all religions involve some kind of epistemic privilege. As much as we might talk about faith being something like an attitude of trust in and reliance on God, it does also involve believing things that could not be thoroughly demonstrated or shown to be probable with human reason alone. The way this principle enables religious evil is that it puts the epistemically privileged source beyond question and criticism, including when the epistemically privileged source is commanding evil. The figure of speech ‘drinking the Kool Aid’ means to accept dogma without question. This is a very apt encapsulation of what happened at the People’s Temple cult in 1978 when 920 people knowingly committed suicide by drinking poisoned Kool Aid at the request of their leader, Jim Jones. Below is a dramatisation based very closely on the original audio recording discovered at the site:

What is truly incredible is the calm, unquestioning and almost serene way in which his followers obey to their deaths. While unquestioning obedience is hardly unique to religion, that the very nature of religion involves accepting claims that couldn’t be reached with reason (‘natural theology’) alone from those things or people in positions of authority gives it a particular tendency towards this kind of thinking. At the experiential level, Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ can often involve a ‘feeling of absolute trust’, and when that trust is abused, the consequences are dire. This doesn’t mean that trust in religious authority is always a bad thing, but it does place a great duty on those in positions of religious authority (I’m looking at you, future ordinands) to be very careful to use it benevolently:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Uncle Ben, Spider-Man, 2002


So, having gone into its extraordinary potential to cause evil and suffering, the logical next question seems to be:

Is religion overall a good thing or a bad thing?

Despite all I’ve written above, I’m still inclined to think the balance lies more with the good than with the bad. Needless to say, if any religion is true then that one must be a very good thing due to many souls it will have saved! But even from an atheist perspective, it seems religion has caused more good than ill in its few tens of millennia of existence. It is also true that some religions are better or worse for the world than other religions – only the absurd doctrine of strong cultural relativism could avoid this conclusion, but I still get the feeling that statement will be controversial.

But as for religion in general: it provides motivation for good just as powerful as its motivations for evil, makes individuals happier on average (a very consistent empirical finding in the psychology of religion), gives a sense of meaning and purpose to people’s lives, gives a strong justification for altruism, encourages ethical behaviour of at least some sort, gives social cohesion by shared values and identity, gives a sense of affiliation and community, causes the most profound and fulfilling experiences it is possible for humans to have, inspires works of art that would never be as powerful if they concerned a subject with less inherent charisma and somehow keeps the kind of people who do theology degrees in employment.

If there were no religion, there would be no Oriel theology. End of.
If there were no religion, there would be no Oriel theology. End of.

‘What is religion?’ Part II: Responses, Revisions and Further Applications


I’ve been very pleased with the quality and quantity of responses my post ‘What is religion?’ got. I’ve responded to some on there, but my response to Ed Watson’s comment has become so verbose as to merit another post, so that forms the bulk of what’s below. I’ve revised my definition of religion in light of the comments I got, and that is included below along with some more experimental applications of it to religious issues.

Coming up: Artemis, Irish Catholics and ISIS.

All of God's rich creation.
All of God’s rich creation.


The full version of Ed’s comment is at the bottom here and is definitely worth a read.

He focuses on what I agree to be the weakest part of my definition, the specification that the matters religious beliefs concern must be ‘very important’ to differentiate them from similar things like magic or superstitition:

The term ‘importance’ in and of itself doesn’t characterise the difference precisely enough on either individual or communal levels.

This is true both in that it leaves a very vague spectrum without clear delineation, and also in that it doesn’t specify what it means for a religious belief to be about something ‘important’ – I said they had to be important to the believer, but this could exclude people who are religious but don’t really care about it.

I have seen definitions which specify a certain topic religious doctrines must address – such as the ‘moral order of the universe’ – but all formulations of that I’ve come up with so far have excluded something I’d want to include; for example, if Buddhism says that the ultimate order of the universe is beyond good or evil, there is no ‘moral order’ per se to the universe. I might steal a phrase from Clifford Geertz and say ‘general order of existence’, but I think that might be a little too loose – e.g. would the Marxist or Hegelian theory of history qualify? Or a religion like Satanism which denies any objective order (instead proposing that reality is ultimately chaotic anarchy, with might as the only law that matters)? I think if such a concrete specification could be made, the definition would be made a lot stronger, but I yet to think of a satisfying version.

Not too concerned with the moral order of the universe.
Not too concerned with the moral order of the universe.

One interim option is to say that the topics of religious belief must be considered the ‘most important things’ (as opposed to just ‘very important’), but that might exclude, for example, someone who cared passionately about politics but was only coolly religious. Maybe a distinction needs to be made between what is practically important and what is theoretically important to people – practically important topics being those which actually are given the most action and attention (which can be entirely interior, such as feeling strong emotions about it); theoretically important topics are those which would be given the most action and attention if people acted in ways consistent with the prescriptions derived from their worldview. For example, if you asked most people whether they thought the environment was more important than Breaking Bad, they may well say it is but care quite a bit more about the ending of Season 4 than their carbon footprint. To accommodate both weakly and strongly religious people, the importance of religious beliefs would have to be theoretical, not practical.

A religious devotion indeed.
A religious devotion indeed.

So to propose a revision in light of that point:

These beliefs and knowledge must be considered by the adherent to be about very important matters


These beliefs must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence.

‘Most important’ here means something like most fundamental or top priority, but again that definition needs to be made a little more precise. When I say they claim to relate, I mean that an explicit or implicit part of systems of religious doctrine is that the doctrines are important: ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God, and that is really important’ as opposed to ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God, but who really cares?’. The main point is that the importance is theoretical and doesn’t depend on what significance religious people attach to their religious belief, although of course if someone attaches more significance, they could be considered more religious. ‘Relate to’ also allows for some prioritization of religious doctrine in a way that ‘be about the most important matters’ wouldn’t. For example, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession might not be considered about the most important matter in existence, because the doctrine of Salvation is about a more important matter – but it does relate to the most important matters as part of a larger doctrinal system.


One example is  “a stereotypical Irish Catholic in America….[who] attaches next to no direct or explicit importance to the doctrine” – does the fact they don’t care much about the doctrine mean they aren’t religious?

They would certainly count as culturally religious, like many people in England are ‘culturally Anglican’, singing Christmas carols and going to church at Easter etc. without necessarily buying into the doctrine. Similarly, there are lots of cases of cultural phenomena which work in every practical way like a religion but I would say fall short as they do not relate to a non-material realm, such as Mao’s cult of personality: a good example of a ‘cultural religion’. Whether he would count as fully/genuinely religious or not depends on whether, or with what certainty, he believes the Catholic doctrines to be true. In the unrevised version, it would matter how important he thought those doctrines are – with the revision, all that matters for whether those doctrines  count as religious is their internal claim to relate to the most important matters in existence.

In Bible Belt America, “belief in God is considered extremely important….[but]  one could argue that its importance is to be found in its being used to guarantee an existing way of life rather than in moulding a way of life around it.” I think here Ed is getting at the causal relationship between the religious ideology that perpetuates a society and a society that perpetuates a religious ideology – is the society based authentically on the religion, or is the religion there post hoc to rationalise the continuation of the society? I would argue that it doesn’t really matter so long as the religion is honestly believed to be true, it is still religion.

And I really think these guys mean business.
And I really think these guys mean business.

Ed goes on to ask: “Does the particular belief expressed actually have an independent importance, in virtue of which it could be called religious, or is its importance solely derived from the abstract function in plays as a cognitive guarantee? And is this relevant to whether the belief counts as religion or superstition?” I think that in my unrevised definition this was left ambiguous, but having changed the  specification of the beliefs from ‘considered by the adherent to be about very important matters’ to ‘must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence’, I think it becomes clear that the ‘importance’ of the belief is inherent in what the beliefs claim about themselves (the believer must of course believe they implicitly or explicitly claim that about themselves) and not dependent on any function the beliefs actually play in the mind of the believer beyond being there, and stimulating experience and action for full religiosity to be present. While you are right to point out that superstitious beliefs could have great practical or emotional significance to the superstitious person, until the superstitious person starts believing that their superstitious beliefs do claim to be about the most important matters in existence, they are not a religious person.

With the example of someone’s personal prayer and whether that counts as religious, first of all I’d say that’s a very good example of what I mean by religiosity as opposed to religion – individual practice without reference to or involvement by others who concur. The distinction I make earlier about theoretical versus practical importance might help here. The practical importance depends on things like how strongly someone feels a connection to God while praying or how the insights they reach during prayer influence their lives in general. The theoretical importance depends on what they believe about God. If they don’t believe anything in particular and just have a psychologically comforting feeling that God is listening to them which they enjoy and pursue through prayer, I’d want to call that spirituality rather than religion – religious experience without religious belief. If they believe that God exists and that there is a significance to His existence apart from his utilitarian function in providing them with spiritual comfort – such as that they will meet him in the afterlife – I would call that religious belief, experience and behaviour and I would say that person is religious but not part of a religion if it is purely individual.

This also raises the interesting example of an atheist praying with genuine conviction in a desperate situation – in that moment, are they being ‘temporarily religious’? They have of course ‘important beliefs’ in that moment because they belief God can save them from their desperate situation, which is the most important conceivable thing to them in that moment. I would want to say yes. Someone’s religious status can change over time, and there seems so reason to set a lower limit on the time frame for changes. The fact this kind of thing happens so much raises a lot of interesting points about our potentially innate capacity for and tendency to religiosity, but maybe that’s for another post.

No atheists in here.
No atheists in here.

An interesting example comes with Ancient Greek sacrifices to Artemis – was it “indicative of a general consensus that there are important non-physical truths which could impact one’s ability to hunt”, and if not, does it cease to be religious as it doesn’t relate cognitively to non-physical truths?

I would say that if it is believed that a goddess exists to receive the sacrifice, that is the non-physical truth which makes it religious. If that belief disappeared, it would be ‘culturally religious’ but not truly or fully religious. A good analogy might be the British coronation ceremony. Clearly this ritual is central to the traditional culture of this country and functions like a religious ritual, involving prescribed behaviours and with the capacity to induce profound and unifying feelings on those who witness it. It is definitely part of British ‘cultural religion’ – as it’s to do with a political institution, the term ‘civil religion’ applies as well (commonly used about rituals like saluting the flag in American schools). It becomes a truly religious ritual if one believes that there is something other than the physical or human elements at play – for example, if one believes in the Divine Right of Kings, then it is a sacramental investiture of divinely granted authority – that is the non-material element that turns it from civilly or culturally religious (function like a religion in culture or society) to truly religious (the above, plus based on religious belief).

As well as questioning the idea of ‘importance’, Ed addresses the material/non-material distinction I make. First of all, I would clarify that in my first post natural and material are synonymous, as are non-material and supernatural. Something like consciousness, which is arguably inherently qualitatively different to unconscious matter and energy, counts as material if one believes that it is caused purely by matter and energy – neurons – and does not exist in any independent way. I’m reminded of Jung’s idea of synchroncity – ‘meaningful coincidence’ – which can be formulated in one of two radically different ways. Either, we think that our minds without our awareness attribute meanings to genuinely random coincidences – a kind of confirmation bias – or we think that it is because we would find them meaningful that coincidences happen. For the latter, there is entailed a causal connection between our subconscious minds and coincidences in the material world that is not compatible with materialism. As far as I can tell, I similar distinction would apply to luck if one were to be logically consistent – however, most gamblers probably don’t consider the metaphysics of a lucky streak!

So that raises the question – do religious people have to know their beliefs are non-material or is it enough that they logically entail the existence of something non-material, even if they are not aware of that? I will have to consider that further, but instinctively lean towards the latter, as the former might exclude religions from cultures which have no concept of a distinction between a material or non-material realm. As for the point about how much importance they might attribute to luck, the way I’ve revised my definition in light of your comments helps here. If it is merely very practically important – he cares a lot about luck and bases a lot of his actions on it – that is not enough as long as he does not think that his beliefs about luck include the doctrine that those beliefs concern the most important matters. If he did believe that, and luck was conceived of as something like fate, then that would be a move some of the way from superstitious to religious belief.

P.S: where he says that his hypothetical characters “believes knowledge of luck to come from instinct rather than observation”, that is spot on the kind of thing I mean by epistemic privilege and a good example of the wider applicability of the concept:

“How do you know your horse is going to win?”

“I’ve got a feeling. I just know.

Turn it upside down.....deep, eh?
Turn it upside down…..deep, eh?


Religiosity is individual and is 1. denial of metaphysical materialism and belief that knowledge relevant to the non-material realm can or has been gained from sources in a position of epistemic privilege; these beliefs must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence. 2. normative action based on those beliefs 3. subjective feeling and experience related to those beliefs. These cognitive, practical and experiential components interact and none necessarily has causal priority. Religion is a consensus of religiosity between multiple persons. This means that the members of a religion have a commonly understood agreement on beliefs, perform commonly understood and accepted actions based on those beliefs and have similar and commonly understood feelings related to those beliefs. A religion is a particular example of a consensus of religiosity, and the boundaries of different religions depend on how much detail of what must be agreed upon in the consensus is specified.


CN: speculation etc.

I think one of the things I’ve already shown here is that one of the most productive things about having a go at this kind of question, even if we don’t arrive at a fully satisfying definition of religion, is that all the examples used to find the edges of religion show us what is almost, but not quite, religion. This reveals what religion’s neighbours in the great scheme of human concepts, actions and experiences are, and what phenomena it is related to and linked to – so far we’ve got philosophy, superstition, culture and spirituality. Even if we can’t define religion (but I still think we probably can), by exploring attempts to define it we learn a lot about it, and we can also learn about all the related concepts I’ve listed and more by starting from the study of religion as a phenomenon in the world.

You know you want to.
You know you want to.

One classic example of how studying religion can help us understand what’s actually going on in the world is in the intersection and interaction of religion and politics. As well as ‘religious politics’, there are ‘political religions’, which I would define as something that acts like religions generally do in the world but lacks the essential doctrinal criterea to truly be called ‘a religion’. Personality cults are the most obvious examples, with the North Korean Kim Dynasty and the Mao cult being the ones I can think of that came as close as possible to deifying their leaders without ever declaring them supernatural. They can in practice be studied as religions though, with the mutually reinforcing relationship between doctrine, practice and experience being examined in much the same way.

In Maoism, for example, one of my criteria for religious belief – that it be about the most important matters – was certainly fulfilled, as within its Marxist-based materialist metaphysics, nothing was more important than the Revolution. Revolution good, everything else bad – the simplicity the doctrine could be boiled down to for his peasant and student supporters contributed to the experiential component in the fanatically strong emotions and dedication it stimulated, and of course greatly in the practical component with both the passion and scale of activism during the Cultural Revolution. The bizarre excesses his followers went to – such as violently changing the name of a theatre from ‘Peace Theatre’ (‘peace’ being a counter-revolutionary concept) to ‘Revolution Theatre’ – can be best understood using concepts which have been historically applied to the psychology and sociology of religion. For example, one psychological explanation for why religious people are on average happier than non-religious people is ‘existential certainty’ – religious people are confident that the most important questions of life have been satisfactorily answered. For Mao’s followers, the answer to every question was ‘revolution’, and that tangible and practical answer to all of life’s troubling questions is part of the reason so many people did so many evil things under his reign.

And they enjoyed it too.
And they enjoyed it too.

The most evil form of religion in the world at the moment is of course the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a truly abhorrent apocalyptic cult that is the worst branch of the worst branch of Islam. While volumes could be written about the religious ideology of ISIS and how it works to make them effective, I will focus on just one aspect here – how the concept of epistemic privilege form my definition of religion is relevant. I contend that the best way to understand their ideology and how it works is not to second-guess them, but to listen to what they actually say and how they present themselves, just as you would do if you wanted to understand what the adherents of any religion think.

This video, made by Vice extraordinarily with a journalist embedded with an ISIS  propaganda chief, gives an excellent insight into their ideology and I thoroughly recommend everyone interested in either religion or the world to watch the whole thing. What is shown is largely controlled by ISIS propagandists (although the commentary was added later and is independent), so it gives a sense of how they want to present themselves – not all that dissimilar a principle from how we base our interpretations of Biblical texts on what we think the author’s agenda was in trying to present those events.

One of the pivotal arguments for their legitimacy  is that their laws are the laws of God, and all else is the law of man – this argument is essentially one of epistemic privilege. Knowledge of the true law comes from God, so no human argument, no matter how good, can challenge it. Human moral instincts when they go against what is commanded by the State are a form of idolatry as they are placing human concepts of morality over those of the State, which are those of God as it has been divinely ordained. The Takbir ‘Allahu Akbar’ – ‘God is great’ reminds each member of the supremacy of God’s will over theirs, and in moments of great need the simple exhortation allows them to suppress emotions such as fear, guilt and repugnance which would impede what they believe are their duties in accordance with their doctrines. I assume that not everyone who has carried out atrocities for ISIS is a psychopath with no moral instincts, so the fact they are able to so successfully suppress their moral instincts in line with religious doctrine – specifically the religious doctrine that nothing human can question the divine authority on any matter (a very strong doctrine of epistemic privilege) – demonstrates the extraordinary psychological and social potency of religion.

Studying even seemingly esoteric principles of religious doctrine such as epistemic privilege can be surprisingly illuminating of what is happening in the world. Belief, feeling and action reinforce one another in an extraordinary powerful way and can drive people to the greatest good and the greatest evil imaginable.

What is religion?


As far as I know, I am the only Oriel undergrad in memory to focus not on classic theology or Biblical studies, but on the weird and wacky world of Track III: so-called ‘religious studies’. While this may make me something of apostate to the Orieldox tradition, I think it has at least enabled me to have a serious go at working out what religion actually is, something which may be of interest in itself even to the most traditional expounders of the True Doctrines of Christian Faith. I go into what religiosity is – including the two fundamental religious doctrines – what religion is, and how we distinguish between different religions, such as to say Christianity is a religion and Islam is another religion.

I think the Burltonian Theory of Religion (not that, in my modesty, I’d want anyone to call it that….) could even help with doing actual theology, and I invite all those better than me at theology – i.e. all those reading this – to either ponder and respond to that or tear my definition to pieces. In particular I’d be interested to hear examples of things that we would want to say are religion, but are excluded by my definition, or things that are not religion, which are included by my definition. For the time being I’ve limited myself to two extended applications of my definition: especially for all you PhilThes, the difference between theology and philosophy (Tertullian take note); and, what the very essence of religion [maybe] is.

Skip to the end for the interesting bit, but it does make reference to the rest so may not make a great deal of sense on its own For tl;dr purposes I’ve whittled my definition down to three words, which even someone with the my attention span should be able to get through.

Here we go:


Consensus of religiosity.


Religiosity is individual and is 1. denial of metaphysical materialism and belief that knowledge relevant to the non-material realm can or has been gained from sources in a position of epistemic privilege; these beliefs and knowledge must be considered by the adherent to be about very important matters 2. normative action based on those beliefs 3. subjective feeling and experience related to those beliefs. These cognitive, practical and experiential components interact and none necessarily has causal priority. Religion is a consensus of religiosity between multiple persons. This means that the members of a religion have a commonly understood agreement on beliefs, perform commonly understood and accepted actions based on those beliefs and have similar and commonly understood feelings related to those beliefs. A religion is a particular example of a consensus of religiosity, and the boundaries of different religions depend on how much detail of what must be agreed upon in the consensus is specified.


 Religion is something that exists in human minds and actions. If there were no humans, there would be no religion This does not mean that no religion is true as, for example, scientific concepts also exist in human minds as hypotheses and models but also correspond more or less to reality. ‘Religiosity’ refers to the existence of religion in the minds and actions of an adherent in isolation –  it is a theoretical abstraction as individual religious concepts very rarely exist without reference to the religious concepts held by other people or other people’s religious actions and feelings. Religiosity has three components, the cognitive, practical and experiential components. These three components mutually interact and none necessarily has causal priority – for example, a religious experience (experiential) may cause a change in behaviour (practical), or the performance of a ritual (practical) may induce a religious experience (experiential). One or more may be weaker or stronger, but all three must be present and connected to some extent for full religiosity to exist.

THE COGNITIVE COMPONENT means the things that are believed to be the case by an adherent. While this may not be explicitly stated, conceptualised or understood, all religiosity involves believing something about reality. In some cases – such as the Chalcedonian Creed – this is made precise, explicit, and systematic. At the other extreme, tribal shamans may have never defined or systematised even to themselves what it is that they believe, but for them to think they can journey to the spirit world to cure illnesses, they clearly must assume that the spirit world exists. There are two beliefs that must be held in the cognitive component of religiosity, and which therefore must be present for something to be ‘a religion’.

Ceci n'est pas un religion.
Ceci n’est pas un religion.

The first is a denial of metaphysical materialism; the second is that knowledge relevant to the non-material can or has been gained from a state of epistemic privilege. While my amateurism in philosophy may be showing at this point, what I mean by denial of metaphysical materialism is the belief that things exist which are not part of the physical, natural, material world. This may exclude the ontology of Richard Dawkins, but does leave open many ontologies which while non-materialist, could not be considered religious (such as Cartesian dualism) – that will be addressed later. There are a few more points to be made about this – firstly, religion does not require belief in a deity (as in a superior, personal supernatural being) as this would exclude many things we would want to include within the category of religion, such as animism and some types of Buddhism. Secondly, some religions do not have anything like the specifically Western philosophical concept of ‘metaphysical materialism’ – however any concept which says that there is more to reality than nature/the material will do, including those which don’t differentiate between ‘nature/the material’ and whatever else may exist.

Neither of them agree with Richard Dawkins.
Neither of them agree with Richard Dawkins.

One way of arriving at a particular doctrine of metaphysical non-materialism may be through reason, or observation, or any other process which is – and this is the important bit – open to access and revision by anyone. This, however, is philosophy and not religion. Something all religions have in common is the belief that their knowledge of their doctrines is at least in part derived from means to which not everyone has equal access – what you might call a state of ‘epistemic privilege’. ‘Epistemic’ as it to do with knowledge, and ‘privilege’ as access to this knowledge is inherently unequal and unique. The most familiar example in Abrahamic religions of this is the doctrine of Revelation. The authors of the Old and New Testaments were revealing something from God that could not be discovered by humans unaided – hence they have an epistemically privileged position in that the knowledge they reveal could not be accessed by just anyone before they had revealed it. Whether we believe that the Biblical authors were aware of the knowledge they were revealing or not (e.g. for Christians, whether Isaiah knew he was foretelling Christ or not) is irrelevant; the point is that the knowledge was not available to common discovery by uninspired human thought. Another source of epistemic privilege is religious experience – the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism come from the fact that Buddha had a particular religious experience of Nirvana. While anyone could theoretically have the same religious experience (and the Buddha would whole-heartedly encourage them to try and do so!), the criticisms of those who haven’t can have no bearing on the validity of the Buddha’s teachings – they can never understand until they are in the same epistemically privileged position as the Buddha in having been there too. Another example is that a Christian’s personal relationship with and experience of the risen Christ may convince them that Christ is their saviour in a way which someone without that faith would simply not be able to know. Some non-religious doctrines involve epistemic privilege (such as feminist standpoint theory and implicitly classical Marxism), but do not believe that the knowledge gained from the positions of epistemic privilege refers to a non-material realm.

Check your epistemic privilege.
Check your epistemic privilege.

Some religions may combine or mix and match all sorts of sources of epistemic privilege, but  the essential difference between religion and philosophy is that, in philosophy, any argument is just as good no matter who says it or when, but in religion, there is always somewhere along the line a trump card of a level of knowing to which all are not equal. For epistemic privilege to be religious, the knowledge subject to privileged access must be relevant to religious belief, i.e. belief about whatever is non-material in existence or about the practical and experiential components discussed below. I realise ‘epistemic privilege sounds very silly, but it’s similar to just a looser definition of revelation which includes things like Eastern religions in which divine truth is revealed in religious experience.

The delineation between religious beliefs an magical/superstitious beliefs comes in the level of importance attributed to the topic of the belief by the believer. For example, a lot of people have a casual belief in ghosts to which they don’t ascribe much importance; this becomes a religion when it is considered very important and significant that ghosts exist, as in Spiritualism. ‘Importance’ is a quantitative not qualitative distinction, and there is a continuous spectrum between religious belief and magical/superstitious belief – Catholic popular piety in Latin America provides a vivid illustration of this. One minute they might be asking a saint to intercede to help with a business deal; the next for intercession to help with salvation – it’s all part of the same internally coherent system. A lot of definitions of religion specify what the important matters religious beliefs must concern are – such as the ultimate nature of reality, the moral order of the universe, or the final fate of humanity – I do not as different religions consider different things to be important and there is no one topic they all have in common. For example, agriculture is not considered to have a religious level of importance in western Christianity, but in primitive fertility cults it is an absolutely ultimately important matter of life and death; and hence their religion might focus on appeasing rain gods to bring about a good harvest. Religious beliefs must be about topics considered important by the religious believers, but what those topics are varies enormously. I add ‘very’ here to point out that religion tends towards one end of the religion vs magic/superstition spectrum, but it is by no means a precise dividing line.

Somewhere between superstition and religion.
Somewhere between superstition and religion.

So the cognitive component of religiosity is denial of metaphysical materialism and belief that knowledge relevant to the non-material realm can or has been gained from sources in a position of epistemic privilege; and these beliefs and knowledge are considered to be about very important matters by the believer.

THE PRACTICAL COMPONENT refers to what religious people actually do. This lumps together ethical codes and rituals altogether in one go, as they can’t always be separated out – the Ten Commandments – prescriptions of religious action – for example tell people not to work on the sabbath, which leans towards the ritual end of the spectrum, and also not to murder, which leans towards the ethical. There may be examples of people holding religious beliefs (fulfilling the cognitive component of religiosity) but not acting on them; we may call them semi-religious (specifically, cognitively religious) but not fully religious as religion remains for them a theoretical abstraction only. I specify that the actions are normative as this entails a sense of obligation – they are something they, or people in general, should be doing. This specification excludes things such as trivial actions like opening your mouth to state or discuss your beliefs, or researching Church architecture because you are interested in the history of your religion. A confession of faith, for example, can be normative if it made as part of a baptism ritual which you have an obligation to undergo if you must be saved. Rituals and ethics (and everything on the spectrum between of ritualistic ethics and ethical rituals) are normative and therefore are the essentially religious actions; anything else are optional actions related to a religion without which someone could still be considered religious. Likewise, if ethical actions such as refraining from murder, or rituals such as matriculation, do not relate to or depend upon religious belief (as defined above), they are not religious and do not fulfil this component.

So the practical component of religiosity is normative action based on religious beliefs.

Only one of these rituals is religious.
Only one of these rituals is religious.

THE EXPERIENTIAL COMPONENT is the subjective religious feeling people experience. This can cover everything from life-changing, ineffable visions of God to a general feeling of peace and tranquillity in a Church. If an atheist experiences an emotionally (n.b. not cognitively) identical feeling of tranquillity in a Church, this is not a religious experience if it cannot be connected to or put in the context of some sort of religious belief. In just the same way, even a dramatic and profound mystical experience induced by a psychedelic drug is not a religious experience if no connection is made between the experience and religious belief. While someone may have religious belief and act upon it, if there is no subjective religious feeling, this can only be considered a partial religiosity. The religious feeling does not have to be strong or constant, but no-one is fully religious who has never felt something, no matter how modest, which they can connect to their religious beliefs.

So the experiential component of religiosity is subjective feeling and experience related to religious beliefs.

Not quite a religious experience. Sorry, hippies.
Not quite a religious experience. Sorry, hippies.

The cognitive, practical and experiential components combine to form a full religiosity. Causal interactions can happen in any direction or combination between them, and often do. In practice, they mutually strengthen each other as beliefs cause people to act in certain ways, actions induce feelings, feelings  increase the certainty of beliefs, feelings increase motivation for actions and actions reinforce beliefs.

RELIGION AS OPPOSED TO RELIGIOSITY is not an individual phenomenon. It is certainly hard to conceive of someone doing all the above in isolation, with no reference to others doing the same – even hermits were generally once part of some more communal form of religion and part of a tradition, and their own religiosity has been influenced by others and may be shared by others. If someone was doing all the above truly in permanent isolation, it would be fair to call them religious, but not to say that the mind and deeds of one man constituted ‘a religion’. For religiosity to turn into religion, it must involve more than one person, and it is shared between people by ‘consensus’ – more on that later. In terms of the numbers involved for religiosity to turn into a religion, there really is no set line. Very small cults we might term micro-religions rather than religions, but so long as they are consensuses of religiosity, I think the difference between them and huge religions like Christianity is one of quantity and not quality – and a taxonomy along those lines may be possible, but is not essential to the definition. What I mean by consensus is common agreement and understanding. Not just that we both think something, but that I know that you know, and you know that I know and so on. We don’t just reach the same conclusions separately; we know we agree with each other. Agreement needn’t be on a personal basis of course; Christians know they agree on certain fundamental points with other Christians without having to ask them individually.

They definitely agree about something.
They definitely agree about something.

Consensus applies to the cognitive component in that different members of a religion believe all believe that certain things are true. All Muslims believe that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger – note that that very short creed goes into both the metaphysical non-materialism of Islam (one God, Allah, exists) and the epistemic privilege (Mohammed, not anyone else since, is his messenger). This agreement does not have to be explicitly formulated into agreed-upon statements – all members of a tribal shamanic religion know that all the others believe that there is a spirit realm, for example, even if they have no theologians to write them some Nicaea-style bullet points. Consensus applies to the practical component in that the members of a religion both to some extent do what other members of a religion do, and understand why other members of a religion do what they do. They are in agreement on some fundamental ethics or rituals (remember that those do exist on a spectrum) and even if they do not all perform the same actions – for example, not all Catholics become monks – there is a common point of reference for all their religious actions through which they can understand the religious significance of the religious actions of others. Consensus applies to the experiential component of religion a little more vaguely, but it still does in that people have religious experience (which refers to a whole spectrum from the everyday to the life-changing) in similar ways, and that they can empathise with the religious experiences of others in their religion. When a Hare Krishna devotee says he feels a serene consciousness of God when he chants the mantra, another devotee will ‘get it’. Of course we cannot know exactly what another is experiencing, all that matters for the experiential consensus is that people think they understand the others and think that the others understand them. While religious experience can be very personal and unique, it does tend to have features in common: these can be loosely connected to the beliefs of a tradition, e.g. a Christian religious experience might tend to be one of trust in a personal God, while a Buddhist one might be a feeling of inner peace and detachment from emotions. Even if people within the same religious tradition have very different religious experiences, they still have common points of reference for them, especially in that they are related to similar religious beliefs or connected to similar religious practices.

And so do they.
And so do they.

A PARTICULAR RELIGION is a particular example of a religious consensus. For example, you might define Christianity as the religious consensus which holds that Jesus was the Son of God. An element of the practical dimension could be added by specifying that Christians must be baptised, or even one of the experiential dimension by saying that to be called part of Christianity, people must have a certain attitude of faith towards God. Are Mormons Christians? It simply depends on how much you include in the consensus that must be held. For example, if Christians are just people who believe that Christ was the Son of God and try to follow what they think were his teachings, then Mormons are Christians. If we add to that consensus requirement the need to believe that the Old and New Testaments are the totality of scriptural revelation, then Mormons are not Christians. The more detailed you make the required consensus, the more specific beliefs, practices, and experiences of individual religiosities will be required and the more people will be excluded from the delineation. So the question ‘What is Christianity?’ really depends on how specific you want to define the Christian consensus to be. It isn’t just a case of steady expansion or contraction of one defined consensus of course; different emphasis can be placed on different components of religiosity: for example, a delineation based on orthodoxy will focus on the cognitive component and a definition based on orthopraxy will focus on the practical component.

Maybe Christians, maybe not.
Maybe Christians, maybe not. Certainly heretics.

A hierarchical taxonomy is possible, going from religion in general at the top, to families of religions (e.g. Abrahamic, Dharmic, Animistic), to particular religions, to denominations, to sub-denominations to finally individual religious minds – individual religiosities. At each level, the set is narrowed by specifying in greater detail the consensus held between the individual religious minds. Where ‘particular religions’ are distinguished from ‘families of religions’ or ‘denominations’ is really somewhat arbitrary, but the process of ever-greater differentiation is always the same – increasing the specificity of the consensus. For example, Hinduism is conventionally called one religion, but the different forms of Hinduism have less in common with each other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do – if we were to be consistent, we might divide Hinduism into three or four different religions, or alternatively roll those Middle-Eastern religions into different denominations of ‘Abrahamism’. By convention, however, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are referred to as four different religions and there really is no problem with this for most usage so long as the inconsistent standard of delineation is understood.

So a religion is a particular example of a consensus of religiosity.

Or, to sum up: religion is consensus of religiosity.

Now you know.
Now you know.


Content note: wild speculation ahead.

THE ESSENCE OF RELIGION: A few attempts to define religion have gone beyond specification and categorisation and tried to come up with some sort of essence of religion, an elemental unit from which all the rest derives, just as the essence of water in all its forms is two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to an oxygen atom. I’m not sure that in this case it’s even possible, but very speculatively based on the above:

The essence of religion is belief that important knowledge about a non-material metaphysical realm can be gained from sources in positions of epistemic privilege.

I pick this out as the essence because the cognitive dimension seems to be more of a common thread among the experiential and practical than vice versa. Lots of things involve ritual or profound experiences; a few fewer involve metaphysical non-materialism; fewer still strict epistemic privilege; but it seems that only religion involves the idea that the way we gain knowledge of the non-material realm is from sources in positions of epistemic privilege.

Which brings me onto my next point:

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY: Alright this is pretty speculative again and those of you who actually do philosophy/do more theology than me may have some devastating points to make, but:

Theology differs from philosophy of religion in that it assumes some propositions derived from sources in positions of epistemic privilege to be true.

Philosophers of religion start with just observations about the world and human reason, and use them to try and develop some doctrines about religious matters; theologians start by assuming certain propositions to be true (e.g. ‘God is revealed in Jesus Christ’, or ‘the Quran is the word of God’, or ‘Atman equals Brahman’) and then build on from there by various methods. I don’t think I’m distorting Anselm too much to call this something like ‘faith seeking understanding’ – the faith bit is the assumption of propositions revealed by sources in positions of epistemic privilege to be true; the seeking understanding bit building on from there by methodical thought and reflection. To put that in Thomist terms, when you do theology, you are doing something identical to philosophy until you move from natural to revealed theology. When you start to base theology on revelation, you are working from a source which reveals things humans could never possible work out without it – it has epistemic privilege over us – and you have transitioned from basically just philosophy into theology proper.

And THAT is what Athens has to do with Jerusalem.