Why Religion should not be ignored…

“… Religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about. It affects not just our social, political and economic conflicts, but the very meanings we find in our lives. For many people, probably the majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion. For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 14-15)

This post is going to be rather Daniel Dennett orientated, as I have just finished reading his excellent book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (2006). It is my intention that my posts will be a little more wide-ranging in the books I refer to, but for now I just wanted to meditate on a few key thoughts from Dennett, on the importance of religion as a phenomenon,  that really caught my attention.

I started this entry with a quotation that pretty much sums up my reasons for studying religion. I am so delighted to have such a succinct and hard-hitting quotation that I can pull out whenever I hear the usual responses when I tell people I study Religious Studies… which are:

1) “Oh so you are going to be a minister/vicar/priest then?”

2) When it is explained that I study all religions from an ‘objective’ and ‘social-scientific’ perspective, the inevitable follow-up is: “So what are you going to do with that then, become an RE (Religious Education) teacher?

Dennet continues:

“Religions are among the most powerful natural phenomena on the planet, and we need to understand them better if we are to make informed and just political decisions. Although there are risks and discomforts involved, we should brace ourselves and set aside our traditional reluctance to investigate religious phenomena scientifically, so that we can come to understand how and why religions inspire such devotion, and figure out how we should deal with them all in the twenty-first century.” (ibid, 28)

Regardless of how “irrelevant” some people may see religion, we need to all face up to the fact that it is not irrelevant, and in these days of increasing global communications and international tensions its relevance is only likely to increase. Gone are the days when individuals could sit back and say “I’m not religious, other people can be as religious as they like to be as long as it doesn’t affect me.” I’m not say that we need fear religion [although in some cases fear may be a wise move and Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation”, and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great” provide excellent examples of these cases], but that it is no longer possible to remain isolated in one’s own philosophical and moral enclave without having to deal with the beliefs, opinions and decisions of other people who have differing world views.

We are all familiar with the standard issues: abortion, homosexuality, marriage and sexual activity, crime and punishment, faith schooling, but there are many more issues which have appeared, and will crop up more and more as our society becomes more and more “integrated”:

1. Discrimination. As has been highlight today in an article from the Freethinker where a Muslim woman is suing Abercrombie and Fitch over her right to wear her Islamic headdress, over their right as a company to enforce a dress code, religion can be used as a justification for claiming unfair treatment in a whole array of circumstances. What about public holidays? Many workers who are not Christians (and not necessarily of other faiths) may not wish to take holidays at Christmas or Easter. Restaurant workers may feel uncomfortable with the sale of alcohol on premises, or the handling meat products (or specifically pork). Muslim workers may feel obliged to take set breaks throughout the day for their obligatory five prayers, and/or take time off on a Friday afternoon to go to the local mosque to pray. To what extent should employers be held accountable for biasing one particular set of “norms” (Christian) over another? To what extend should they have to accommodate the religious whims of all staff? And to what extent should the religious believer accept responsibility for their own beliefs and accept that if they choose to work for this or that company they have to abide by the rules set down before they sign on the dotted line? This issue does not just crop up with regards to employment, and can appear to do with provision of contraception and abortion facilities, regulations in public gyms and swimming pools, and of course in education to name but a few!

2. War. I apologise, but this point is going to be a little paraphrased. If anyone has the correct reference please do let me know, but I am not in my study at the moment and don’t have access to the document. Basically, after the 9/11 terror attacks, and the USA’s subsequent decision to go to war with Afghanistan, a number of Muslim soldiers in the US army naturally raised concerns about where they loyalties should lie – to their country, or to their fellow Muslims. These concerns were sometimes directed to muftis (Islamic legal scholars who earned the respect of their fellow Muslims enough to be able to pronounce legal rulings) and a prominent Qatar based scholar, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, with some associates, responded in the form of a fatwa (a legal ruling… not a death sentence as many people mistakenly assume following the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses affair in the 80s). This fatwa basically said that it was the duty of Muslims in the US army to continue to do their duty to the US army. They were not to pull out of the army and risk court martial and the resulting ill effects on their family and on the reputation of Islam in the West. They were also only to request to serve in non combatant roles if they truthfully believed that this would not harm Islam’s reputation. However, this fatwa does not mean that the issue was settled. Fatwas only have to be accepted if one accepts the authority of the one giving it, and there have been plenty of opposing fatwas issued by other “authorities” across the world on the same issue. This is only one illustration, and it relates specifically to Islam, but it is not difficult to see how similar issues can crop up in conflicts around the world. Just because a country considers itself secular, this does not mean that members of its armed forces will consider themselves so, and it certainly does not mean that other countries (allies or enemies) will not conceive of themselves as religious states.

3. Finance. Another issue coming from Islam here (sorry any Muslims out there… I’m not picking on you!, I have just done a lot of work in Islamic Studies). In Islam, it is a accepted that there is a prohibition against “riba”. Riba is usually translated as “usury” and dependent upon how one interprets usury this affects how one defines riba. But however it is interpreted, it generally has some effect on the use of interest in financial transactions. Muslims need to be very careful when using credit cards, taking out mortgages, or when renting (property, cars etc.) and whilst I shan’t bore you with all the details, suffice to say that observant Muslims cannot conscientiously use a “standard” credit card, or take out “standard” mortgages etc. Up until now this has not been a major problem on the global scale. In “Islamic” countries, banks will naturally work around the Islamic legal restrictions on riba, and for those Muslims living outside “Islamic” countries, exceptions can be made, and major banks (such as HSBC, http://www.hsbcamanah.com/) can offer Islamic finance options. However, statistics show that even if immigration stopped today, within 20 years France will be a majority Muslim country, and these statistics are likely to hold across much of Europe. As an increasing amount of the population start to have religious viewpoints on how financial transactions are carried out, this could have massive implications for the stock market, the housing market, and for government and local authority spending.

These are but a few examples of the ways in which religious beliefs, which may or may not be our own, can affect the whole of a society. Those of us who like to think we are “rational” and “above” religion cannot dismiss these concerns as trivial and irrational. As Roger Stark and Rodney Finke (2000) note:

One need not be a religious person in order to grasp the underlying rationality of religious behaviour, any more than one need be a criminal in order to impute rationality to many deviant acts (as the leading theories of crime and deviance do) …. What we are saying is that religious behaviour – to the degree that it occurs – is generally based on cost-benefit calculations and is therefore rational behaviour in precisely the same sense that other human behaviour is rational. [p. 36]” (ibid, 182-3)

The world needs people who are trained in the intricacies and subtleties of religious belief and doctrine, who can understand and relate to people and not trivialize their concerns, and who can be there to advise, mediate and educate along the way. I am not saying that religion needs to be treated as sacred, as something which everyone has a right to and which cannot be interfered with by others, and I am certainly not saying that I am the person to do all of these things. What I am saying is that “Religious Studies” is a valuable subject of study, as valuable as any science or art, and that it is not only valuable, but absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.

I promise there’ll be a joke in my next post…

Ta ta,



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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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