Monday, October 30, 2006

More Pedantism

Josh writes:

Here's another one: I've seen the word "secular" used a bit lately, and in the words of Senor Montoya, "I do no' think it means whadda you think it means."

"Secular" means "not religious" (more accurately, I believe it's the opposite of "sacred"). The point is, you cannot have "secular religions" -- that would be a contradiciton in terms. I assume that when people propose the existence of such things they mean "secular institutions that resemble a religion in some respects", which, I'll admit, doesn't roll off the tongue so nicely, but nevertheless actually makes some fucking sense.

It's not a phrase without it's problems, though. The whole tactic of trying to claim that outwardly secular institutions or beliefs are in fact "religious" almost always backfires on the people making such claims. In order to make these claims fit, they usually have to water down the concept of religion to the point that it amounts to little more than "a bunch of beliefs that you can't actually prove". Applying this definition back to their own religion doesn't generally make it look that flash.

Similarly, the notion of worship often gets singled out for this treatment, since it's a fairly central component to religion, and often the one that least applies to the supposed "secular religions". The claim is often that we all worship something -- capitalists "worship" money, scientists "worship" Darwin and so on. But we don't -- we don't pray to money, we don't believe Darwin can be appealed to to perform miracles, we don't claim that either of them are superior to us -- if our relation to such things is one of worship, then "worship" has to be watered down to no more than "think is pretty good", and I'd be willing to wager that your average Christian would object to their relation to God being described as merely "we quite like Him."

Of course, sometimes that's not a problem -- there are two possible cases where someone might claim that a secular institution is religious. The first is a religious person making the claim, usually in response to a slight against their own religion: "You may think my religion is silly, but you're just as religious about X" -- in this case, the watering down effect results in something of a backfire. The second case, however, is where a non-religious person criticises someone's viewpoint, meaning to belittle it by likening it to unquestioning dogma or foolish superstition. In this case, since the person has little or no respect for religion in the first place, there's no danger of a backfire. Nevertheless, by watering down the concept of religion, they're also watering down the rhetorical technique that they're trying to get mileage out of.

OK, that got quite preachy and formal -- you'd think I had a crucial point that I was leading up to. Um... use "secular" right and don't call something a religion unless you mean it? Toodles.


The Hand of Morthos said...

I thought it was all a matter of dogmatism; both theists and atheists often say the other side have mere belief without justification other than that an authority said it was true (whether that 'authority' be Ayn Rand or the Pope et al). It's a dangerous ploy for either side: Dawkin's accuses theists of simply believing what they are told yet seems wilfully ignorant of the scholastic tradition in Roman Catholicism. Creationists accuse Evolutionists of mistaking assumptions for truth and thus ignore the whole scientific method.

phats said...

I'm not sure I agree with your definition of worship having to be watered down to be used in those kind of arguments. I feel there are two definitions predominantly used, and the distinction is important but not watery.

Had a very Christian upbringing, and 'worship' -as I learned it- had two meanings:
a) the devotional one (which is more commonly used)
b) a measure of the amount of focus or emphasis something has in a persons thoughts. (which is less commonly used, and basically never used by secular people)

The distinction between the two is (obviously) that in the second case, it is quite possible to 'worship' something without adoring it.
Perhaps it sounds like I am inventing this distinction? I am not.
The second use is actually quite common; when Christians accuse someone of 'worshipping money', they would usually use the second meaning. Christians (or at least some of them) aren't complete retards, and don't imagine people going home and bowing before an alter of monies, before engaging in a little chanting and lighting the incense.

/Boring bit.

Interesting bit:
Treatment of Demons: Secular culture has taken the (Religious) idea of Devil / Demon worship and interpreted it solely under the first definition. In media, books, etc, adoration of / supplication before a demon is usually inferred. This practise (while it still occurs) is exceedingly rare.
Of the second definition; Demon worship via continued and sustained focus or attention is actually fairly common in today's society. The demon becomes a focal point for the person in question. This is also why demonology is traditionally discouraged in Christian circles; someone who is involved in study of demons almost by definition performs this second kind of worship.

This also is one reason why Christians are so reluctant to talk about demons, in sermons or personally. Reluctance to talk about the subject has meant that this misunderstanding of the two natures of worship has been somewhat exacerbated.

Of the few occasions where demons were discussed, I recall the Christian view being that demons in essence seek to divert glory from God; they prefer being worshiped in the first sense (satisfies their pride), they are happy to be worshiped in the second sense (satisfies their hatred by diverting attention "rightfully" directed at God)
The other benefit for them is that second form of worship is far more insidious and easier to nurture. "The Screwtape Letters" (C.S. Lewis) provides a very accessible discussion of the material including -i believe- this distinction. No, I am not trying to convert you.
*creepy, unblinking smile.*

Rich said...

"a bunch of beliefs that you can't actually prove" - pretty much somes it up.

Having unprovable beliefs pretty much characterises religion - I can't think of an empirically provable religious belief, but suppsoe there might be one somewhere?

There are also a number of "non religious" or "secular" ideologies that incorporate or depend on unprovable beliefs: the whole "alternative medicine" boondoggle springs to mind.

Josh said...

Yes, that's my point -- it may be true that "all religions are based on unprovable beliefs", but it's not true that "all things based on unprovable beliefs are religions".