Warning: This post was published more than 10 years ago.
I keep old posts on the site because sometimes it's interesting to read old content. Not everything that is old is bad. Also, I think people might be interested to track how my views have changed over time: for example, how my strident teenage views have mellowed and matured!
But given the age of this post, please bear in mind:
- My views might have changed in the 10 years since I wrote this post.
- This post might use language in ways which I would now consider inappropriate or offensive.
- Factual information might be outdated.
- Links might be broken; embedded material might not appear properly.
Many thanks for your understanding.
If you follow this blog regularly, you’ll remember that on Thursday, I told you that I was going to post a question about religion over at Yahoo Answers. It was a sort of follow-up to this post, but with a slightly bigger, more sensitive topic.
What is religion? A choice, a calling, or something else?
Is religion is a choice, in the same way that other beliefs are choices? For example, if I chose to subscribe to the moral belief that removing one’s clothes was wrong, I wouldn’t expect the Chippendales to make any special dispensation for me should I choose to work for them. Similarly, if religion is a choice, I wouldn’t expect any special dispensation for wearing religious icons which do not conform to a company’s uniform policy. I either have to give up my religion of choice, or work somewhere else.
Or is religion is more of a psychological and visceral calling? If, for example, I was blind, I would expect employers to do everything in their power to adapt to me. I could not stop being blind. Is religion more similar to this – You can’t ‘physically’ stop believing?
Or is it the latter, but still fine to discriminate, just I would be discriminated against if I had an unshakeable belief that all women were evil?
Or is it something else altogether?
Well, I asked, and you answered. In your droves. In fact, not only did you answer in your droves on the Yahoo site, when the post was picked up by Pickled Politics (an excellent blog, by the way) you answered there, too. And even though I closed the comments on the original post, you even went to the trouble of emailing me directly with your answers. I’ve read over 80 comments on the subject in less than a week – and I thank everyone for contributing.
It’s not practical for me to reproduce everybody’s comments on the subject here on the blog, but I’ve selected some of the answers and comments that stood out for me:
Religion is the coward’s version of hope.
– Kismet Hardy on Pickled Politics
Unless one is thoroughly brainwashed in a particular religion, they choose their belief. If it were not a choice, why would there be a need for so many different religions? They choose the one that makes them feel the most important, often at the expense of their fellow humans.
– jaycubb on Yahoo Answers
I’m interested by this comparison with other types of choice. When I come to pnder this political position or that one, there is usually one that is, to my mind, more persuasive than another. I don’t feel I am “choosing” a political belief or position, in the same way that I choose whether to eat a banana or an apple. My conscience dicates only one option. The political position “chooses” me, just like the answer to 2 + 2 finds its way to me too.
Of course, politics is much harder, and the answer less obvious, than mathematics. New writing from new sources might weaken and eventually reverse that choice. Part of religion – at least the fundamentalist brand – seems to be the deliberate ignoring of new perspectives.
Either way, if ‘finding’ a political position can happen, I imagine it is even more likely to happen with religion. Although you can change your religion, I would be very surprised at people who say that it was a definite choice, not a calling. Indeed, when we see celebrities such as Madonna changing their religion like it is a diet fad, we criticise them for it!
– Robert on Pickled Politics
In the case of Christianity, it is a gift. A gift of grace, pure unmerited favor from God. Even the faith we have is a gift of God.
– Father K on Yahoo Answers
If choice is defined broadly, then I guess religion defined narrowly is a choice.
– Arif on Pickled Politics
A mental illness.
– Gazoo on Yahoo Answers
Religion is, amongst other things, a way of programming(re-programming if you’re a convert) your head in order to experience reality in a different way, and as such adherence to a fixed set of rules and rituals is essential.
– Anas on Pickled Politics
Religions is a man-made placebo for humans.
– Alan on Yahoo Answers
Religion, like sexuality, is a constrained choice. Everyone has options, but that doesn’t mean everyone has the same options.
– Soru on Pickled Politics
All of the above.
For many it is a psychological need to believe in something bigger than oneself. It helps to make sense of things and to give one a sense of peace and ease.
It can also be a calling. If you are not brainwashed into believing a certain way and have formed your own opinion and beliefs…and one day you discover a path which has already been laid out, but follows the same beliefs that you already had….that’s a calling. To choose to continue to follow that path or to follow a path that is not the same as the one you were raise with, is a choice.
Some form an opinion all their own which has nothing to do with the religion they were raised with and just go from there. It is based on reasoning, deduction and an open mind.
– OranjTulip on Yahoo Answers
Religion SHOULD be a individual’s OWN personal choice – but unfortunately all too often it is something that is “chosen for them” by members of their family or community – often through intimidation.
For example, how many so called followers of Islam are there who aren’t “genuine” believers? (i.e, they would be prepared to sneak down to the pub for a quick pint if they thought they wouldn’t get found out).
I bet there is a fair few such people – who claim to subscribe to a certain religion because “that is what is expected of them” rather than because that is what they genuinely believe.
A most unfortunate state of affairs, I think.
– Gibs on Pickled Politics
Religion is an expression of a deep yearning for a certainty which can never exist in the real Universe.
– Los on Yahoo Answers
Religion is a man-made comforter, imperfectly describing what we are learning about the universe.
Religion is all about intimidation and power and Hollywood.
Go to any Spanish country for Good Friday and watch the street theatre with the sinners doing penance, walking the streets by torchlight, behind statues of Jesus and Mary, dressed in Klu-Klux-Klan outfits, bare-foot, the chains around their ankles dragging across the cobblestones, and you will see the frightening symbolism religion must have had in the days before Hollywood.
Religious symbolism is amateur dramatics and Hollywood.
Mix this up with our imperfect understanding of how our brains work – and that we are not well taught to question our perceptions – and we can see why we end up believing in fairytales and monsters rather than in the solidity of earth and the open space of the skies. In the west we live too much in our heads.
Inside our heads, depending on our mood at the time, we ricochet between our lower ancient reptilian brain (where we get fears of monsters from) and our more evolved, expansive, kinder, generous, socially-aware higher brain (heaven, angels, light, “enlightenment”, our good side, our better nature).
Religious stories are a useful metaphorical soap opera to motivate us to do the real work of disciplining ourselves to be more socially aware and responsible for each other.
Greed and competitiveness puts the old defensive reptilian brain in charge.
Altruism brings the more evolved “other side” to come to the fore.
Metaphorical “stories” can sometimes help us to keep going.
But let the user beware. Here be dragons! Keep your feet on the ground.
– Susanna via Email
I feel I should add a note at this point to say that if you’re unhappy with your answer being featured here, please feel free to get in touch and I’ll remove it.
For the sake of completeness, I guess I have to include the definitive answer to the question, as voted for by the Yahoo Answers community:
Religion is a choice. Your job is a calling. And you are something else.
– Fish on Yahoo Answers
Please please go ahead and read all of the comments that have been made on this subject. You can read all of the Yahoo Answers comments here, and the debate is still rumbling over at Pickled Politics. If you want to leave your own thoughts, feel free to do so using the comments facility right here on sjhoward.co.uk.
So now I’ve received all of these answers to my question, you are perhaps wondering if I’ve managed to form my own opinion on the subject. I’m sorry to report that I’m just as confused as I was when I posed the question.
The exercise has shown, clear as day, that few agree on the nature of religion. How can we hope to have a sensible debate on religion, religious laws, and religious extremist if we can’t even agree on the nature of religion itself?
For once, I’m not going to claim to have even an idea of the answer. For today at least, I’m happy to be the one posing the questions, in the hope that it will spark some consideration. I hope it has for you.