by Tenzan Eaghll
In 1972 Ninian Smart published an article titled, “Comparative religion clichés: Crushing the clichés about comparative religion and then accentuating the positive value of the New Religious Education.” Smart’s goal was to debunk popular clichés in order to improve the study of religion. He argued that in order to extol the “positive qualities of the new religious education” these clichés had to be wiped out. In my next couple of blog postings I would like to both update Smart’s list of clichés and to challenge his essentialism. My updated list of clichés is not a further attempt to improve “religious education”—a phrase that is itself a cliché—but to expose the tired and fallacious phrases associated with religion.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word cliché has its origins in the 19th Century France, and refers to a “metal stereotype or electrotype block” used in printing. In its common use it means “a stereotyped expression, a hackneyed phrase or opinion,” and signifies that which is unoriginal, stereotyped, and overused. Many popular ideas about religion, in both academic and public discourse, are derived from clichés that should be avoided.
#1. Religion is the sacred
Let’s start with the easiest—a cliché that is the bane of many critical theorists—religion is the sacred. Though this cliché was popularized by scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto it also has equivalents beyond the academy, such as the popular phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.” The general assumption that underlies this expression is that behind all the historical context and particularity of the different religions lies a phenomenal encounter with a sacred presence. Introductory textbooks on the study of religion often do not help the matter and perpetuate this cliché unapologetically. For instance, in Theodore M. Ludwig’s The Sacred Paths, Understanding the Religions of the World, 4th ed., he defines religion as follows:
We designate this focal point of the religions as the sacred, the ground of ultimate vitality, value, and meaning. The modes of experiencing the sacred, and the responses to this experience, are many and varied; these are the forms and expressions that make up the religious traditions of the world.
Obviously, the problem with this approach is that it describes religion according to some outside source that is believed to be non-political and non-contextual. What makes this expression so problematic is that it assumes a phenomenological space that is prior to discourse. Rather than focus on competing theories of meaning and interests at play in the classification of discourse, it assumes religion to be a signifier for a prior principle of ultimate value. Hence, instead of seeing discourse on the sacred as one among many other rhetorical devices it privileges the sacred as a source of all religious experience. By differing the meaning of religion to some unseen realm or private subjective experience this cliché renders any analysis of religion uncontextualized.
#2. Religion is Bullshit
This cliché has become a popular phrase among certain atheists and internet trolls. In the 16th century you could have been burned at the stake for uttering this phrase but today it is all the rage. Do a search on Google, there are websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts called religion is bullshit. Those who use this phrase think that they are being original and rebellious against the status quo but they are just instantiating the ideological distinction between the religious and the secular. The irony of this cliché is that, despite being “anti-religious,” it follows the same logic as cliché #1 because it assumes the atemporal status of religion. Rather than see the word “religion” as a shifting category that names so many forces at play in society it hypostatizes religion as a self-identifiable discourse that persists throughout time. For example, here is a quote from religionisbullshit.net.
Throughout history, religion has been responsible for a large proportion of the suffering in the world – yet religious beliefs are based on ancient myths and legends that should have been discarded centuries ago.
The purpose of this site is to point out the errors in religious texts and highlight the problems caused by religious believers in society today.
What is lost on people who use this cliché is that by classifying a certain discourse as bullshit because of some intrinsic religious content they are perpetuating the very idea that religion is distinct from the secular, and thereby negating the value of their critique. Since this expression hypostasizes the very thing it wishes to challenge it should be avoided.
As Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question,” the way to critique religion is not by granting it an atemporal signifying capacity and then banishing it as erroneous, but by exposing how the very distinction between the religious and the secular is itself an ideological construct. The critique of religion should proceed by destabilizing the idea that anything is intrinsically religious, not by creating a straw man argument. As Craig Martin writes in Capitalizing Religion, “no ideology is intrinsically religious or secular; rather, the identification of an ideology as religious or secular is asserted in order to gerrymander its scope or reach.”
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.