The Straw Man in Theology: Everyone gets religion wrong

As social constructs, religions epitomize the old adage, “There’s nothing natural about [fill in the blank].” This is a statement used to challenge systemic approaches to explain social phenomena. In my field it’s a great quip to mitigate anarchy. Or at least to explain it in a social sense. There’s nothing natural about anarchy. “Anarchy is what states make of it.”

There’s nothing natural about religions. They are what we make of them.

Religious ideas as universal, systemic structures over all people are not inevitable consequences of human nature. If they were, we should see uniformity across the social and geographic spectrum. Instead we see a multitude of religious explanations competing over a multitude of matters. Sin, the afterlife, miracles, god — these vary greatly depending on geographic location. Geographic location sets the parameter of the social setting: access to limited resources. Depending on the quantity, quality, and kind of resources available to a specific population, social ideas fall into various hierarchical structures, defined by the society exploiting — or attempting to exploit — those resources.

In other words, whatever the method used for constructing gods, the purpose is infinitely different between populations. Scarcity of one resource might create a different god than a population with an abundance of that resource. This sets the basic principle of the main idea of this post: These two religions are contradictory explanations of the world. No matter how much we temper our differences — even if we all adopted the same exact religion — we will never have the same religion, even if we already do have the same religion. Here’s why.

It comes down to a very basic fact: We cannot read each other’s minds, though try as we may.

We cannot understand what others believe. We can only allow them to explain it, but we will invariably view their beliefs according to our own interpretations. In this sense, we could take two identical twins of a specific Christian faith — all other things equal — and we would have two infinitely disparate interpretations of that faith.

This is a well-understood — yet solutionless — problem in communication: No matter how certain we are that we’ve perfectly explained something to another person, they will understand it in an infinitely divorced fashion, even if they understand it fairly well. (You right now are interpreting this differently than I’ve explained it).

This inevitably means that all religious arguments and all counter arguments are wrong. Because we learned them in the social context, we can only repeat them in a manner sufficient that we — ourselves — understand them. No two explanations are identical, even if the words we use are.

This might sound like a fairly abstract idea, and it’s easily challengable on that basis, but it’s quite simple: Until atheists and religious people can read their preachers’ minds, they will never perfectly understand the religious explanation. This goes for any and every social phenomenon.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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7 Responses to The Straw Man in Theology: Everyone gets religion wrong

  1. There is in fact a uniformity inherent in all the world’s great religions.

    All religions seek to attenuate the baser nature of man through the pursuit of excellence (virtue).

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Wow. Either you ignored the thesis of this post, or you didn’t understand it. I’m assuming the latter, but hoping for the former.

      • Rayan,

        Here is you, in your own words, once again, arguing with yourself and losing:

        “Religious ideas as universal, systemic structures over all people are not inevitable consequences of human nature. If they were, we should see uniformity across the social and geographic spectrum.”

        In fact, we do see universal ideas in the worlds great religions, “across the social and geographic spectrum.”

        Marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman is an example.

        If you don’t mean what you say, then don’t say it.

        And above all, don’t blame me for you not knowing what you say.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        Re-read that first sentence you quoted again. I’ll repost with added emphasis since it went over your head, and then add an explanation.

        “Religious ideas AS UNIVERSAL SYSTEMIC (double emphasis on the word “systemic”)…OVER ALL PEOPLE…” What I mean by this that there is no universal religion.

        But you missed the entire premise of this post (which is ironic, by the way). I’ll sum it up again (sigh): Communicating ideas perfectly is impossible. Our explanations are interpreted differently precisely because we don’t share physical brains.

        This post had nothing to do with themes (such as marriage or whatever). It had to do with communication. I hope this is sufficient to make you blush. It’s not a good idea to comment if you don’t understand the original post.

      • Rayan,

        All the rules inherent in religion that govern behavior and thought are in fact systematic.

        In the buzz it’s called religious doctrine.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        You still don’t get it. It’s not about rules. It’s about communication. This entire post is about how communication is inherently imperfect. It has nothing to do with anything else. You’re not even wrong.

      • Rayan,

        Religion is all about communication, too. It’s how people learn all those systematic rules.

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