There’s a certain pet peeve I have that covers many different, but equally troubling, statements and attitudes: basically, any facile characterization of religions that would make of them something like (1) lists of rules and propositions compiled for their adherents to which they would then submit and give assent (or not), and/or (2) social structures designed primarily to organize, control, distract, oppress or delude their adherents. These characterizations or something like them seem to lie behind most criticisms, attacks, or quick dismissals of religion, usually without much concern for the historical backgrounds or arguments that built them. It’s irksome on one level to see both the subjects and objects of religions caricatured and misunderstood in public discourse (by people such as Dennett and Dawkins); it’s irksome on an entirely different level to see religion treated in philosophical literature as something on which a verdict has been rendered, one about which “we” all agree – i.e., it’s obvious that (whether on the merits of Feuerbach’s or Marx’s or Nietzsche’s or Darwin’s or Freud’s or whomever’s argument) religion is simply irrational superstition that no intelligent, educated person can take seriously (at least not without ulterior motives).
The unenviable situation in which religions today find themselves vis-à-vis much philosophical treatment of “religion” seems to me to echo what Bruno Latour describes as the modernist settlement regarding science and politics in Pandora’s Hope. (I’m not sure whether it would be more appropriate to describe another settlement having to do specifically with religion and science, for instance, or to say that we are in the poor state we are in regarding our “understanding” of religions as a result of the same settlement Latour describes.) This becomes especially clear in the last chapter, where he takes aim squarely against the modern critics who want to rid the world of “naïve beliefs” in order to promote freedom, but are only able to expose their own naïvety and inhumanity.
Above, I consciously used the active verbs “compiled” and “designed” when describing the characterizations of religions that I think are misguided. This is because one of the most fundamental errors in these ways of understanding religions seems to rest on one of the distinctions that Latour sees as characteristic of the modernist settlement: that between the real and the fabricated. Religion (that is, the objects and/or tenets of religious belief – as if practices and attitudes counted for nothing) cannot be “real”; therefore, they must be fabricated. If they are fabricated, then they must have been consciously put into operation at some point, whether by proposition and assent, agreement, force, etc. But the serious mistake so often made here is the evaluation of these “fabrications” and their operation by hypothesizing a tabula rasa as the context of their acceptance or rejection. No religion would withstand this test, but that is not due to any special failure of religion. As Latour argues, the real is real because it is fabricated, and this fabrication (if it is done well) articulates reality precisely through the connections it makes use of. Thus, to evaluate anything independently of its practical contexts is to rob it of its reality from the outset. As I see it, the modernists enemies of religion and religions (I try to refer to what there is that actual people engage in as “religions” and only to the caricatures as “religion”, because there’s very little that the actual religions have in common with the various theoretical concepts of religion) do more harm than simply constructing straw men to tear down, because they’re consistently relying on and therefore keeping alive the naïve belief in naïve beliefs that Latour, for one, works to dismantle.