Why Most Of Religion Talk Is Meaningless

Some people love talking about religion. Even more than that, they love quarreling about religion. Two most prominent subjects being:

  1. my god/dess is better than yours
  2. god do/esn’t exist

Which would be all nice if 97.5% of all the words spoken and written on the subject weren’t completely meaningless. That is, if the people asked themselves one simple question: WTF are we talking about?

Take that question literally. Like if we’re talking about cars, we know that we are talking about vehicles with four wheels, engine with internal combustion, blah blah. Yeah, we have a definition of cars so we can talk about them. And argumentation about whether cars exist makes sense. And you can even argue that model A is better than model B. You might not agree with somebody, but argumentation can still make sense.

Religion is a somewhat different cookie. Not because religion is different than automobilism, but because people tend to become stupid when talking big stuff. That 97.5% of religious talk is based on lack of any, let alone mutually recognized, set of definitions. Imagine you and me talking about cars while by “car” you recognize a bicycle and me an apple. Yeah, it’s fun. And it lasts for centuries.

There are several reasons for all that mess. First, many people don’t want constructive discussion on the subject. They want to assert their position to all the others, no matter what. And simple quarreling without any meaningful base is a good environment for that. Especially if one add a bit of raised voice, false authority and weird fairy tales. Those are bad people. And boring. Don’t hang out with them.

The other reason is that the subject is not an easy one. It’s easy with cars, but when you have to wrap your mind around omnipotent, omnipresent, all-seeing being that somehow created the whole world out of emptiness, things get tough.

My other religion is the right one.

captured by Tom Rolfe

There is a difference whether you are talking about omnipresent being or gray-haired old guy sitting on a cloud or some vague idea of cosmic equilibrium or something else. And the easy way out is to follow your gut and start building your logical construction on thin air. Thus you join the club of those from the paragraph above. Complexity and abstract nature of the subject are exactly why you should take the words carefully.

So, next time you get involved in a theological discussion, do us all a favour. Be cumbersome as Socrates was. Insist on definitions, at least working ones. Know what you’re talking about and what others are talking about. Maybe you’ll get some answers. Maybe you’ll just cut the amount of rubbish in this world. Both are worth the effort.

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  • Nissa Nightfire

    when i saw the title of your post on plurk, I was all prepared to disagree … I love to talk about religion (tho' I do not spend anytime quarreling over it — that is truly meaningless) … but your points are all well-taken … we need to seek to understand what the other person is actually talking about before we can meaningfully engage with them.

  • I love talking theology and will write more about it. But I had to lay some healthy foundation so it make sense and be pleasurable for all of us. I don't plan to make the hostile mess on my own blog. So stay tuned ;)

  • Well written, Dandellion.  This has to be my favorite blog post of the week,  if not the month.  I, like you, love to discuss theology, religion and people's conceptions of the divine.  Your point on definitions is spot on!  Well done!

  • Nice article, and I appreciate the viewpoint. During my third week of bible college some years ago, I had a professor of Theology who loved to do this same thing, argue over things without definition. I received his approval when, during class, I proved to him that by definition "Theology" isn't possible, being the study of something we cannot define in any tangible way, and is therefore meaningless. I just spoke with him a few months ago and I STILL cannot get him to admit the 'meaningless' portion LOL

  • Nice article Dandellion.  As you point out, definitions are essential, but I'd say that it's almost impossible to discuss religion totally objectively across religious contexts.  Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe in "God," but the conception of "God" in these Abrahamic religions is quite different.  And note they have a common point of origin. 
    Now get a Christian who talks about "God" to have a discussion with a Hindu who talks about "God."  The contexts are even more dissimilar.  Heck, even within Hinduism there are multiple conceptions of "God."  And a closely related religion, Buddhism, has *no* conception of "God."
    So as you said, a lot of inter-religious "discussion" turns out to be "my conception of the Divine can beat up your conception of the Divine."
    Where I live we have an Interfaith Council, which brings together various religious bodies in the area (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and others) and we work together to feed hungry people, aid seniors, promote peace and social justice.  We don't even *try* to discuss theological issues, we'd rather work in areas we can agree upon than try to "out-God" each other.  And it works very well!

  • Thanks Onyx. I'll be glad to have you here in the next months. Theology posts are somewhat slow, because I give them a few days before rereading and editing, so they don't get misunderstood and pull the discussion on the wrong track. 
    ELQ, your professor is clean example of "fog sellers" that bad theology makes its living of. It's easy to prove anything and everything if your premises are kept in the dark. Of course, premises of theology are problematic in their nature, but they are in any other branch of metaphysics. Also, mystical experiences are part of religious and theological discourse, which is hard to handle in logical argumentation, but still… that shouldn't be an excuse for cheating.
    Dani, it is true that definitions across the different religions differ. I tend to use original names in those situations, hence not using the word "God" but original names of deities. That helps avoiding the confusion, though most of the systems, even monotheistic, have so many names that other form of confusion emerges :)
    Cross-religious discussions don't make much sense if they tend to prove value of one system over the other. But if they are done well, including the definitions and explanations of what is one system all about, they might help mutual understanding and recognition. Which would be a nice step for the humanity. 

  • Can you give me some links or a rough bilbiography that you used to help form your opinions? I am writing on the meaninglessness of religion for a history irp and I need some credible sources (people with docterates or journaliss on the subject in a well known magazine).
    Thank you.

  • Sorry for the delayed answer, I was stupid enough to get into some server hosting problems. 
    I'd like to say that "get your definitions before starting argumentation" is anything more than common sense, but it's not. :) But, as the opportunity is here, I'd like to say my thanks to some of the philosophers I had to suffer reading during my studies, especially Aristotle. As much as I disliked his teachings, I deeply respected his precision in language and thinking. Hopefully, I got a bit of that for myself.
    By the way, I'm not saying that religion is meaningless. On contrary. This is just my attempt to set the good grounds from which to build up.  

  • I agree that most discussion of religion is meaningless. I think the problem is that people do not know the difference between knowledge (fact, reason, science etc.) and belief (faith). The non-existence of God cannot be proved by reason because belief in a God is not "reasonable." The existence of God cannot be proved by faith because faith isn't reason. All proof requires reason, not just a belief that something is so. However, if a belief actually does make people better (I am sceptical about this) or comfort them in times of stress or grief, those of us who do not believe have no right to take it away from them, just as they have no right to impose it on us.

  • It's always lovely  to read a comment that shows that comenteer didn't read the full article :)

  • In philosophical circles during much of the twentieth century, two issues which have dominated discussions in philosophy of religion – and thus two of the most popular polemics against the intellectual credibility of Christian commitment – have centered on the meaningfulness of religious discourse.

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