Essay:On criticism of religion

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Recently I have begun to notice a trend in discussions of religion, especially Judaism. There is a tendency for people to mistake criticisms of Judaism as a religion with attacks on Jews or on Jewishness, and equally for attacks on Jews to be disguised as criticisms of Judaism. As an ethnic Jew who isn't really observant, I'm especially sensitive to the distinction. I'd like to outline what I think ought to be considered legitimate and illegitimate forms of criticism of religion (and to a lesser extent criticism in general).

We talk about "religions" as though they were monolithic entities, but they are both diverse and finely structured, and what is thought of as religious in one context may not be in another. (I am often surprised by how many people, when claiming that some opposed school of thought is actually a religion by another name, try to demonstrate this simply by setting up a structural analogy with Christianity. Ann Coulter's book Godless comes instantly to mind, but there are always commenters on internet fora making this sort of argument. Needless to say, it seldom succeeds in supporting the author's claims.) My goal here is not to provide a new definition of the word "religion" or to argue for an existing one, but to divide religions into parts and show what parts are and are not suitable for criticism.

A religion is a type of belief system, and so there must be at least two components to each religion: (1) the set of beliefs, and (2) the set of people who hold those beliefs. In the Christian case, the first would be Christianity and the second would be Christians. Most religions also have (3) some organization of practitioners (a church, again using the Christian parlance). (In many cases there is a clear distinction between followers of a religion who are "in" and "out" of the church, as with Scientology's Free Zone, but even in religions where all members of the faith are members of the congregation, the actions of the church must be distinguished from those of the general believers.) Other components of religions, some more common than others, include (4) a holy text, which is technically distinct from the set of beliefs but often overlaps therewith; (5) an ethnic group, as in Jews as followers of Judaism; and (6) any people involved with the creation of the religion, such as Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc.

Criticism of any one of these is generally considered as "criticism of religion," with little attention paid to what form of criticism it is and whether this sort of criticism has any merit. Let's consider the types of criticism of religion, classifying them by which component of the religion is their focus.

  1. Criticism of the set of beliefs, e.g. "Buddhism places undue emphasis on suffering as an aspect of the human condition." Criticism of any belief is a healthy – nay, vital – form of discourse. Religions should not be exempt from this form of criticism. This also applies to religious practices, if they stem from the religion's beliefs.
  2. Criticism of the people who hold religious beliefs, e.g. "Christians are overly aggressive when proselytizing." Statements of this sort paint too broad a brush, invariably chastising many members of a religion for something that had nothing to do with them. Within a religion there are many different kinds of people, and attention should be paid to one's phrasing to reflect this. Someone who said the above might instead say "Christians who frequently proselytize should focus on their own religious beliefs instead of the beliefs of others." This is a better criticism because it focuses only on those who have actually done what is being criticized.
    • Some blanket statements really do apply to all members of a religion by definition, such as "Christians believe Jesus saved them from sin." Criticizing this is essentially just criticism of the belief, and should be reworded to fit better in category 1.
  3. Criticism of the formal organization of believers, e.g. "The Church of Scientology is vicious in pursuing legal action." In the same way that criticism of individuals can be valid, this can also be valid.
  4. Criticism of the holy text, e.g. "The Qur'an can be read as advocating violence against non-Muslims, which is detrimental to international peace." This is largely an alternative form of category 1, if the portions of the text being criticized are indeed held as true by the believers (note that some groups hold a text to be holy but deny the canonicity of certain portions, as in various Christian denominations).
  5. Criticism of an ethnic group, e.g. "Jews are greedy." This is simply racism, and obviously unacceptable. If someone wishes to criticize individual Jews, they should do so, and if they believe Judaism somehow promotes greed, they should say so (and back it up). These criticisms would, once fixed, be placed in categories 2 and 1 respectively, and be more legitimate for it.
  6. Criticism of an individual associated with the genesis of the religion, e.g. "L. Ron Hubbard was a lousy writer." This can be folded into either categories 2 or 4. (Honestly I only included it because I thought about the hostile reactions of some Muslims to criticism of Muhammad.)

From this, we can see that criticizing the parts of a religion other than the believers is acceptable; that criticizing the believers for their actions is sometimes acceptable; and that criticizing the believers for their heritage is never acceptable. I believe that discourse about religion would be made much more civil were these distinctions widely understood.