What You Don't Know About Religion (but Should)

What You Don't Know About Religion (but Should)

by Ryan T. Cragun

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780985281557
Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 477,523
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious, and is regularly featured in national media. He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles and half a dozen book chapters.

Read an Excerpt

What You Don't Know About Religion (But Should)

By Ryan T. Cragun

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Ryan T. Cragun
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9852815-5-7



On June 4, 2002, Brian David Mitchell, who called himself "Immanuel" (i.e., "the chosen one") crept into the bedroom of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City, Utah. He held a knife to Elizabeth's throat and told her to get up quietly and do what he said or he would kill her and her family. Elizabeth did as she was told. Brian abducted Elizabeth, took her to a camp he had set up in the nearby woods, and had his first wife, Wanda Barzee, prepare Elizabeth for a ceremony. When Wanda had finished the preparations, Brian entered the tent and proceeded to rape Elizabeth. Elizabeth remained with Brian and Wanda for nine months following the abductions, and was repeatedly raped during that time.

Brian David Mitchell believed he was doing the will of god. In the years prior to the abduction, he claims to have seen angels and had visions in which god told him that he was to lead The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the "Mormon Church") and reintroduce the practice of polygamy. Mitchell wrote down the revelations he received from god and spread them as revealed scripture. Mitchell believed himself to be an angel ordained by god to prepare the world for the return of Jesus Christ.

* * *

In 1836, Joseph Smith Jr. was caught by one of his closest followers, Oliver Cowdery, having sex with teenager Fanny Alger, a live-in servant for his family, in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith was married at the time. Smith had not yet introduced his teachings about plural marriage to his followers, which suggests Smith was, in all likelihood, cheating on his wife, Emma. Smith never denied that he had sex with Fanny Alger, whose family left the area shortly after Oliver Cowdery accused Smith of the affair. Fanny Alger later married a non-Mormon and ceased affiliation with the Mormon Church. Smith later formally married as many as thirty-three women other than his first wife and consummated many of those marriages.

Joseph Smith Jr. believed he was doing the will of god. In the years prior to the affair, he claimed to have seen angels and had visions in which god had told him that he was to found and lead The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. the "Mormon Church"). Joseph Smith was also told to introduce the practice of polygamy later in his life. Smith wrote down the revelations he received from god and spread them as revealed scripture. Smith believed himself to be a prophet, selected by god to prepare the world for the return of Jesus Christ.

* * *

I don't know if you noticed it, but the second paragraph in this chapter is almost word-for-word identical to the fourth paragraph, yet they are about two different people who are viewed quite differently. Joseph Smith Jr. is revered by millions of people around the world as a prophet of god who has revealed god's will in the "latter days." His name is spoken with reverence by many and, while not technically worshiped by Mormons, he is held in very high esteem. Brian David Mitchell is serving a life sentence in prison. While Smith's affair with Fanny Alger is obviously not on par with the abduction and rape of Elizabeth Smart by Brian David Mitchell, Smith's philandering and threats against his first wife are pretty despicable. Why is Smith revered and Mitchell in jail? The difference is simple: Joseph Smith Jr. had followers; Brian David Mitchell did not. That difference dictates whether one is classified as a felon or a "religious genius."

* * *

Religions are groups of people who hold common beliefs about supernatural things. "Super" means above or beyond. "Nature" refers to the material universe, specifically those parts that can be established to exist. "Supernatural" phenomena are above or beyond the natural universe. They are claimed to exist outside our ability to sense that they exist — by definition. Religions have beliefs, and often rituals, related to supernatural things, like angels, demons, and gods.

Religions have one other key characteristic: they are social institutions, which means they are made up of groups of people. There cannot be a religion of just one person — also by definition. Religions are institutions and institutions are social constructs created by groups of people, not individuals. Religions, therefore, are social; they have to include groups of people with shared beliefs about "supernature." This is where Joseph Smith Jr. differed from Brian David Mitchell. Joseph Smith Jr. was able to convince other people that his beliefs were credible; Mitchell was not. Ipso facto, Smith is revered as a prophet and Brian David Mitchell is in jail.

There is another interesting point to be made here. While there are certainly many people who would consider the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr. to be bizarre, strange, weird, or even crazy, most would at least recognize that some people take the beliefs seriously and that they cannot be dismissed outright as simply the teachings of a crazy person — because millions of people believe them. The same is not true of Mitchell. No one takes Mitchell's beliefs seriously. Mitchell's beliefs are dismissed as the ramblings of a religious nut, not a religious visionary. While Mitchell was not deemed to be insane, no one finds his revelations and teachings to be credible. Yet, if examined by a skeptical outsider who was blinded as to the source of the different revelations, do you think our hypothetical skeptical outsider would be able to tell which were the writings of the "religious nut" and which were the writings of the "religious visionary"? My guess is no. Both made extraordinary claims. One was just better at gaining followers than the other.

What does this say about religion? In order for a group of people to form a religion they need not have rational, coherent, or even plausible beliefs. All that is required is that multiple people share supernatural beliefs, consider themselves part of the same group, and occasionally get together in some fashion to celebrate those beliefs.

There are other definitions of "religion," but they aren't widely accepted or used in the social sciences and aren't worth discussing in this chapter. What I'd like readers to have clear in their minds as we press forward in this book is what is included given this definition. The five world religions — Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — are all included. They all believe in something supernatural, as do tribal religions and most variants of Paganism and New Age religions. That covers most of what people traditionally consider religions.

What is excluded by this definition? Secular governments would be excluded, along with civic pride and patriotism, as they include no supernatural element. Being a fan of a sports team is excluded, even if you basically worship your team, because there isn't anything supernatural about a sports team or the group of fans. This is the case, despite what the fans of the Chelsea Football Club had put on a banner in the Chelsea stadium during a game I attended. The banner read, "Chelsea is Our Religion." They may hold the team in high esteem and even have rituals, but unless they think of the Chelsea players as supernatural gods, the Chelsea Football Club is not a religion. What about brand loyalty? While it turns out Apple fans think about Apple the same way people think about religions, there isn't actually anything supernatural about Apple, even if Apple's fans think so. So, no, it's not a religion.

As noted, secular governments — meaning governments that do not include religion in their structure and organization — are not religions. This would hold for communism as well. Some authors have suggested that communism is a religion. This claim is usually introduced in an effort to show the evils of communism and to argue that the number of people killed "in the name of communism" is close to the number of those killed in the name of religion (I discuss this in further detail in chapter 22). Don't misconstrue what I'm saying here; I'm not defending or minimizing the deaths that have resulted from communist forms of government. But I do want to make it clear that communism is a form of government, not a religion. The definition I provided above rules it out, along with the "personality cults" that are common in modern dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Yes, these forms of government may utilize some of the tools of religion — e.g., rituals and indoctrination — but they generally do not include a belief in the supernatural that is shared by everyone or is even mandatory for citizens in those countries. These governments may claim that it is god's will that they exist, but the same could be said of many secular governments as well. Yes, some communist countries strongly encouraged atheism, but that does not make communism a religion. In order for communist governments to be religions they would need to claim that the leadership of the country is supernatural or that the government is exclusively guided by the supernatural. Such forms of government have existed in the past (e.g., the imperial cult of Egypt), but they are virtually nonexistent today.

What about nonreligious beliefs, like atheism, agnosticism, or secular humanism? Aren't those groups of people with beliefs about the supernatural? Well, not really. First, secular humanism is a philosophical system that has developed a set of principles to guide conduct. There is very little in that philosophy about the supernatural except to suggest that supernatural entities are unnecessary for deriving morals and values. The fact that secular humanists recognize that some people believe in supernatural entities doesn't make secular humanism a religion, nor does their explicit disbelief in supernatural entities. Some might argue that "disbelief" is still a "belief," and since it is geared toward a supernatural entity, this would make secular humanism a religion. However, the absence of belief is not a form of belief. If secular humanists were to say, "We believe there is no god," then that would be a belief about the supernatural. However, if secular humanists say, "We don't have a belief about god" or "We lack any understanding of what the term 'god' means" or "We lack belief in god," then what they have asserted is not a belief in something supernatural but rather a lack thereof. As that is typically what they assert, secular humanism is not a religion.

Agnosticism is widely understood as being unsure about the existence of a god or gods, though the more technical definition is having no knowledge about a god or gods. The technical definition is individualistic, which rules out a group of like-minded others. Agnosticism is also a disavowal of knowledge, not an assertion of belief. So, agnosticism is not a religion.

What about atheism? Well, this is a bit tricky. If you have a group of people (meaning they have a common identity and feel a sense of connection to each other) and they all reject the existence of a god — which is known as positive atheism — then that comes awfully close to the definition I presented: collective beliefs toward the supernatural. But it is quite rare that atheists feel a sense of unity or togetherness, suggesting they do not identify as a group. If they did, and they regularly met to express their "positive" belief that there is no god, this could arguably be considered a "religious" group. But gatherings of "positive" atheists aren't very common. There is another type of atheism — negative atheism, in which a belief in a god is either lacking or simply suspended. Atheists of this type don't reject or deny the existence of a god; they simply choose not to believe that such a god exists, siding with probability — the existence of such a god is unlikely but not impossible, so they don't believe. That isn't actually the assertion of belief in a god or a rejection, but rather a high probability position that falls between the two: a suspension of belief until the probability increases. Negative atheism, like agnosticism, is the lack of belief, not a form of belief. Lacking a belief in the supernatural is sufficient to disqualify a group as a religion.

* * *

In summary, religions are groups of people who share beliefs in supernatural phenomena. Supernatural phenomena are things that are above or beyond the natural world and are therefore not detectable. Religions are social institutions and therefore must include more than one member. The difference between the ramblings of a religious nut and the ramblings of a religious visionary is the ability to gather a following. If someone with beliefs about the supernatural can get followers, that person has created a religion. If they can't, they are often institutionalized. Using the definition I have provided, those institutions that have historically been considered religions are in (e.g., Buddhism), while those institutions and philosophies that have not historically been considered religions are out (e.g., communism).



I have a friend and colleague who is ambivalent toward god and is critical of religion, but he attends religious services almost every week, does what is necessary to appear to be an observant member of the religion, and even teaches his children to believe in the tenets of the religion he attends. What gives?

His wife is devout and a committed member. His nonbelief, ambivalence, and criticism of the religion nearly ended his marriage. In order to maintain marital harmony, he puts on the trappings of being religious, although he really isn't. My friend isn't alone. Literally millions of people in the United States and around the world do the same thing in order to maintain harmony in their family or among their friends or even to save their lives.

The latter was the situation for Walid Husayin, an atheist blogger in the West Bank who was imprisoned in 2010 for criticizing Islam, which is a crime under Palestinian law. Husayin, a mild-mannered barber in Qalqilya, regularly prayed at the local mosque on Fridays, but he was an outspoken atheist online. When his writings criticizing Islam came to light, he was arrested. As of this writing, he faces the possibility of a life sentence for heresy. His parents are ashamed of his actions and his mother actually favors a life sentence for him to restore the family's honor. Despite calls for his release from local and international human rights groups, Palestinian authorities have refused to release him, claiming his life is now in danger. And, frankly, they may have a point, as people in his town have called for his death.

* * *

The above stories illustrate one of the problems with religion: how do you measure how religious someone is? Both of the examples above are of people who are outwardly religious, putting on the trappings of a religion but denying the tenets of their respective religious cultures inwardly. Are these individuals "religious" or "nonreligious"?

Often cited as the first assertion that religion is multidimensional — meaning there is more than one way to be religious — was a book published in the 1950s by Charles Glock and Rodney Stark. Since then, numerous scholars have developed instruments to try to capture the multidimensional nature of religion. Different dimensions can include things like beliefs (e.g., belief in god, heaven, hell, sin, reincarnation, nirvana, etc.), behaviors (e.g., meditation, prayer, service attendance), influence on everyday activities (e.g., giving donations, volunteering for the religion, etc.), knowledge (e.g., knowing what your religion teaches), and identity (e.g., considering yourself a member of a religion). People can be very religious on one dimension (e.g., attend services regularly) while being simultaneously nonreligious on another (e.g., not believe in god), like my friend and Walid Husayin. The inverse can also be true — people may strongly believe in the existence of a god but never go to church.


Excerpted from What You Don't Know About Religion (But Should) by Ryan T. Cragun. Copyright © 2013 Ryan T. Cragun. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Buddhism Is In; Communism Is Out: Defining Religion,
2. Without Data It May as Well Be Theology: Why Data Matter,
3. All Babies Are Atheists: Why Belief in a Specific God Is Not Innate,
4. The Religious Clone Wars: How Most People Become Religious,
5. Why You Don't Know Why You're (Non)Religious: Why Social Networks Matter,
6. Sunday FSchool: Why Religion and Education Don't Go Together,
7. I'll Be a Monkey's Cousin: Religion and Science,
8. All Demons Are from Hollywood: How Media Created the Possession Fad,
9. God Owns Your Uterus: Religion and the Right to Choose,
10. Marry Now, Stay Forever: Why Religions Are "Pro-Family",
11. Multiply and Replenish the Pews: Why Religions Encourage Procreation,
12. Spare the Rod? Not with God!: Parenting and Religion,
13. There Are No Atheists in ... Prison Cells?!?: Religion and Crime,
14. Moral Development — Win for Atheists; Moral Behavior — Draw,
15. If You're Humble and You Know It ...: Religion and Arrogance,
16. 'Cause Jesus Has a Penis: Religion and Gender (In)equality,
17. Love Your Neighbor, Except When He's ...: Religion and Prejudice,
18. The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature: Religion and Money,
19. We're Not Here to Serve the Earth ...: Religion and Environmentalism,
20. I'd Like to Buy the World a Joint: Religion and Politics,
21. Where Would Jesus Volunteer?: Religion and Charitable Acts,
22. I Kill. You Kill. We All Kill.: Religion and Violence,
23. The Happiness Delusion: Religion and Mental Well-Being,
24. Sleep in on Sunday: Religion and Health,
25. Who's Better at Dying?: Religion and Coping,
26. The End is Near-ish: Declining Religiosity,
27. Taking Off the Training Wheels: Alternatives to Religion,
28. The Final Judgment: Who Will Inherit the Earth?,
Appendix: Methodological Notes,
About the Author,

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