compounding error with literalism

[estimated reading time 15 minutes]

religion is a twitchy topic. it’s easy to judge people who are religious for being stupid but it’s a very dangerous place to go — many religious people are stupid but many non-religious people are stupid and there are vastly-intelligent people on both sides of the equation. but there are two questions that come up (and have this week from students) about what a religion is (as opposed to philosophy) and what fundamentalism is. the first is a very technical question, the second far less — the easiest way to think of fundamentalism in a nutshell is that if someone is a fundamentalist, regardless of the belief system, they can’t possibly be intelligent because the main ingredient for intelligence is being able to doubt and question, something religious fundamentalism completely eliminates. but we are getting ahead of ourselves and should answer the questions in their original order to get a coherent picture.

religion and philosophy. they are often thought of as mortal (or even immortal) enemies but they’re not. not even a little. a religion is almost always a philosophy and a philosophy can certainly be a religion. but there is an absolutely massive gray area where they overlap. a religion without a philosophy is meaningless nonsense. it has no purpose beyond fairy tales. all major modern religions have integrated philosophical systems and we’ll look at what those are. there are also significant philosophical systems that are often called religions, which they aren’t. there is one significant difference — belief.

what’s a religion?

a religion is a system of beliefs. there is a little more to it than that but the rest honestly doesn’t matter. if you want to know whether something is a religion, you can ask yourself one question and you’re pretty-much guaranteed to get the right answer — do practitioners have to believe something that’s not true? if the answer is yes, it’s a religion. if belief is not required, it’s probably a philosophy that’s not inherently part of a religion. this is why a “religion” is also often called a “faith system” or “system of beliefs”. that sounds incredibly simple. why the confusion about what a religion is and what’s actually a philosophy? because most of the major religions were founded by (or based on the teachings of) great philosophers and teachers who just happened to be religious figures at the same time. it’s not the definition but the overlap that causes problems — where does philosophical teaching end and religion begin? is there a delineating point or are they so inherently meshed it’s impossible to tell?

a philosophy, while we’re talking about definitions, is a collection of teachings about how to live. it doesn’t require belief at all, just adherence to daily practice. for example, a very simple philosophical system may be based on the teaching “treat all people in a way that makes them happy” — this is actually a pretty robust and effective philosophy for daily life in the modern world. if you encounter another human and ask yourself “what would make them happy right now” and do that, you’ll probably have a pretty happy life with many friends and few problems. it’s not always practical and philosophies tend to be far more complex because daily life isn’t nearly as simple as that. but it’s a great foundation for a philosophical system. it’s actually a good portion of the basis for the philosophical system underpinning hinduism, though it’s not nearly that simple. it’s a good start, though.

before moving on to what delineates fundamentalist religion, though, let’s take a look at the confusion between religion and philosophy in some realworld examples. the major world religions today are islam, christianity, judaism, hinduism and sikhism so we’ll take those as our examples before moving on to philosophical systems that don’t have an attached religion.


it’s hard to tell what the most-practiced modern religion is because so many people are vague adherents to faith systems but don’t actually have the belief that underlies their existence — in other words, they are social or cultural members of a faith system and follow its philosophy but are not participating in the religion. there’s one major religious movement, though, where this is far less likely to be the case and i believe, when we talk about these things as religions rather than just their sociophilosophical components, that overwhelms all the others for number of practicing members — islam. that’s not unpredictable even just looking at the name. “islam” comes from the arabic word for “peace” but you can probably assume it means something closer to “submission” or “acceptance of the peace of faith”. a direct translation is difficult but i’m sure you get the idea. compared to “christianity”, following christ, or “judaism”, being a jew, islam gets its intentions up-front and very clear. it isn’t about following. it’s about giving up your own knowledge and thought and relying on the beliefs and teachings of the religion.

no, of course that doesn’t mean every practicing muslim has summarily stopped thinking — much of the best scholarship and research and teaching of the past two millennia has come from the islamic world and many great thinkers and writers today are muslim so that can’t possibly be the case — from a personal perspective, some of the most intelligent people in my life are practicing muslims so it’s not just a theoretical exercise to imagine islam as a faith system that encourages thought. in practice, it absolutely does. but there are certain things that are basic, fundamental to the religious system. you must believe there is a single unified omnipotent, omnipresent deity (we are often told this deity has a name and that name is “allah” but this is slightly misleading for many reasons i won’t detail but you can just assume this is a linguistic thing and the name is irrelevant — the name of the deity is really just a clarification of it being the only deity rather than a name like the one to give when you introduce yourself to a new friend). actually, that’s it. the only belief you have to have as a muslim is the existence of that single deity. everything else is just a cultural, ritual practice — the prayers, for example, that happen several times each day (christians are actually told to pray more often but few do so if you’re judging muslims for having an instruction to pray a few times a day it might be good to look at your own cultural background — the question of whether it’s useful to actually do it is something altogether different but it being part of the ritual system is actually a softened version of what’s found in many other faith systems) aren’t based on a belief, just a philosophical practice. and that’s where the complexity enters the system. islam is (or has) a very detailed philosophy including what is good or bad to do, justifying physical or verbal conflict, proper social interactions, partnership and procreative (or recreationally-procreative) behavior, children and community.

it’s not necessary to get into what precisely those teachings are but it’s important to remember that muhammad was far more than just the founder of a new religion. he was a very powerful leader and a philosopher at the same time. his philosophy is codified in many books but primarily the qur’an, the primary scriptural text of islam. and it gives detailed instructions about how to live (what a philosophy is supposed to do) as well as religious beliefs, meshed with stories about those who did or didn’t believe and did or didn’t follow the philosophical and societal guidelines. that’s why it’s so difficult to separate them — perhaps impossible. can you be a philosophical muslim without the religion? absolutely. does it often happen? hard to tell. can you be a believing, practicing muslim without the philosophy? not so much.


judaism is a far older faith system with a much more developed philosophical teaching background than islam — that’s not to say it’s better, just more complex. but that’s not surprising. judaism has been around for millennia while islam is comparatively young at barely more than a thousand years old. judaism also has a whole branch of its study and practice devoted specifically to philosophy rather than belief so the fact that it’s developed a much more involved philosophy than any other major religion is quite predictable. there were three major centers of philosophy in the ancient world but only one of them was integrated in what has remained a religion — the three areas are china-india (there’s a reason these are grouped and the philosophical system they’re most famous for was developed in both simultaneously — buddhism), greece (if you haven’t studied aristotle, socrates and plato, you probably haven’t studied philosophy) and israel (home of judaism).

what specifically jewish philosophy teaches isn’t significant to the current discussion but in most ways it’s actually very similar to the philosophy system being developed fairly nearby in india and china at the same time, buddhism. there are direct parallels to the point that it’s obvious there was huge intermingling between the two even in their earliest stages of creation because such massive and fundamental similarities are far beyond the realm of random chance. but what about its religious component? how is it different from that in islam?

well, it’s different in two ways. one is that, while based on the idea of a single deity, it was actually created based on the idea of multiple deities, all with their own names, belonging to different tribes (some tribes eventually integrating as part of modern judaism, other outside, including tribes we now think of as the components of the muslim world). as time went on, though, and jews developed their religion, these became thought of as different archetypes or aspects of a single deity and it became a monotheistic faith system. this, however, is completely unimportant. the belief system underlying judaism is and has been irrelevant for thousands of years. do jews believe there is a single (or even a collection of) deity that controls their lives? no. do they believe there is a deity at all? most don’t (according to public surveys in israel and other places) and those who do tend to ignore it and it’s just a cultural expectation they haven’t been able to completely eliminate yet. judaism even during the roman era was a cultural and social form of integration with an extremely thoroughly-developed philosophy for daily life. was it a religion? yes, in the loosest sense that there is a belief system. does the religion matter? not in the slightest.

i know some jews who may have a problem with this classification but what they’re thinking of is likely not religious belief but ritual. and that distinction is vastly important. you don’t have to believe there’s a deity to pray or go through the ritual. and the ritual can be moving, beautiful and extremely helpful to your thoughts and emotional state without needing to be based in actual belief. some of the most powerful experiences i’ve had with people have been in synagogues. the prayers are meaningful and heartfelt, the people extremely genuine and the community more welcoming than any other i believe i’ve encountered. none of that depends on belief and nobody will ever ask you if you believe. only if you practice. and practice is two things in this case — performing the rituals and following the philosophy.

so, practically speaking, is modern judaism a religion? following the destruction of the second temple (or, for that matter, the first temple), when judaism shifted from belief-based to practice-and-education-based cultural system, has it been a religion in the past two millennia? it definitely was at the beginning. in fact, it was many different religions of divergent tribes that came together to form a cohesive religious framework of meshed beliefs. but no. it’s probably not really a religion anymore. and that’s good. because belief systems often confuse and hamper progress and modernization while philosophies rarely do. does this take away any of its legitimacy? absolutely not. adherence to a culture, society or philosophy is absolutely valid — and we all do it, even if that system doesn’t always have a coherent and popularly-recognized name.


while the third of these faith systems is considered “a religion of the book”, the book being what jews call the torah, muslims don’t often talk about other than as a precursor to the teachings of the qur’an and christians call the bible (the first section, the old testament, in particular), the bible is to christianity what sparknotes are to an english literature class — extremely linked in one way but only in one direction.

that may sound like sacrilege and i suppose it is. but i’m not a religious practitioner (i am a devout adherent to ritual and the beauty of faith systems’ resulting culture but that’s very different — i don’t believe). so sacrilege is irrelevant to me. let’s take a look at how christianity began, though. not the followers of jesus but those of constantine. jesus was a stunning teacher who lived just after the turn of the first millennium in what we now think of as israel. he was a practicing (though probably not a believing, as that was already irrelevant) jew and far more educated than people of his status tended to be, thanks to judaism being so educationally-advanced and his parents being rather liberal — yes, liberal like modern and if you consider yourself a conservative christian you can assume jesus, mary and joseph (not their real names but that’s a story for another day) wouldn’t approve in the slightest. his teachings had vast impact across the eastern portion of the roman empire to the point of bringing him in contact with the imperial authorities, though they were far more worried about a jewish rebellion than of a new philosophy mostly based in pacifism, which jesus’ was.

after his death, though, in the first century of the common era, christianity as a philosophy (it wasn’t a religion at this point — it was a collection of life teachings primarily aimed at those with a similar background but applicable across cultural divisions, making it inherently easy to transmit) was popular but only on a small scale. three hundred years later, however, an emperor had a problem. constantine was stuck ruling an empire that was falling apart in his hands because of internal divisions and he needed something to adhere them. he couldn’t get anyone to rally around a common philosophy because they all came from such diverse backgrounds — the romans and their mystery cults, the jews and their philosophy and everyone between across thousands of kilometers. he needed something to unite his people and give them a common identity as roman citizens. he had heard of a great teacher (who we call jesus) from his mother who might have been a follower, though we know she was definitely a student of his teachings and that’s the part that really matters for the story. after a great victory, constantine decided to credit that victory to a deity that he decided was the main deity in the jewish faith system (romans had so many it would have been difficult to get anyone to adhere to a single one of those being dominant but judaism already had a single one at this point, a mashup of all the old tribal deities) but without all the cultural baggage of judaism and its philosophy. the result? a religious system simple enough for the romans, loosely based on their rituals anyway, with the jewish deity and enough jewish ritual to make most of them happy, too. it took off overnight and was a massive success. it didn’t look much like jesus’ teachings or even like judaism in then-current practice. it looked like what it was — an incoherent mashup of roman cult ritual and belief with first-temple jewish sacrificial worship rites. jesus wouldn’t have recognized it. the jews of the time certainly didn’t. but it was the official religion of the empire and people like to succeed, especially when there’s a huge incentive. christianity had been born and this is exactly what it has remained until today.

the obvious question, though, is whether christianity has an integrated philosophy like islam and judaism. the answer is a vague yes. it has a philosophy in the loose and technical sense but it’s not particularly important. christianity is mostly a belief system whose adherents only vaguely believe but most say they do, at least a little, with that belief having almost no impact on their daily lives. there is certainly a rudimentary philosophy understood by most modern christians as “be good” or “treat others well” and many christians are extremely kind, gentle people. but it’s not really because of their faith system or its inherent philosophy — it’s because they’re good, kind people and their cultural and religious adherence isn’t really a component in that. unlike islam, where there is a strong belief system and a rigorous daily-life philosophy, or judaism, where belief has realistically been eliminated and philosophy and culture have taken over, christianity is a belief system that remains in the vaguest and most informal of senses with a philosophical system that is best understood as the meshing point between historical european culture and conservative outlooks.

hinduism and sikhism

these two faith-philosophy systems are very similar in many ways and developed in approximately the same place, though not at the same time — hinduism is thousands of years older. they provide little new information as far as the difference between religion and philosophy goes, however. hinduism is like judaism in that it is the connected faith and wisdom of many divergent groups who came together to form a coherent unit and whose teachings and beliefs were gradually built into a system where the beliefs are realistically irrelevant in the modern world but the philosophies based on those beliefs have staggeringly-contemporary impacts on adherents. sikhism wasn’t like that. it was codified realistically as a single unit with a loose belief system that is mostly irrelevant for anything other than ritual practice but a strong and well-developed philosophy of daily behavior and culture.

in this way, both have ended up with the same result but from vastly-different starting points and with very different timelines. the result is, however, almost exactly what we have already discussed in judaism — irrelevant belief structures giving way to society, culture and philosophy that are relevant in the modern world and transforming them from religion (which in a loose sense they still are, though belief is no longer a factor in their practice) to philosophy.


the main philosophical systems in the modern world are buddhism and confucianism. while these have a few obvious differences, there is vast overlap, certainly more than ninety percent, in their teachings. buddhism is more specific about much of it but that’s unsurprising, it being older and more widely-practiced. buddhism was born from a merging of chinese and indian philosophical systems with a new teaching of personal responsibility and pacifism leading to “enlightenment” or, to use a more modern world, “self-awareness”, though “peace” is probably a better way to think of it. inner-peace, perhaps. but harmony with other humans and the general world is the main goal. confucianism takes a different approach, focusing more on how to live day-to-day, but its goal is the same community coherence and personal peace, meaning the overlap in actual practice is significant and the slight differences are mostly ritualized and secondary.

so what makes these philosophies rather than religions? lack of belief as the basis. buddhism and confucianism don’t have a deity — unlike hinduism or roman and greek historical faith systems, they don’t have many deities, either. actually, buddhism and confucianism are both pretty clear and certain about belief being bad — that adherence to the belief side of a philosophical system is a path that leads to darkness. they are instructions in how to live without the need for an overseeing entity (deity).

does that make them better? no, not better. but far simpler. and fundamentally different.


which brings us to the other question, which has a very simple answer. fundamentalism in a religious context is literal belief. not just “i believe there’s a deity” but “this scriptural document is literally true”. this leads to disaster. actually, this can’t lead to anything but disaster. no document written a thousand years ago (or, in some cases, far more) can possibly be completely true. actually, when you think about it, it’s almost impossible for any document to remain true over time. look at a newspaper written only twenty years ago and i guarantee you’ll find assumptions that have now been showed to be completely false, predictions that didn’t come true, descriptions that were inaccurate (often unintentionally) and we now know better. was everything wrong? probably not, unless it was a truly awful newspaper. but can we take it literally and assume it’s all correct? absolutely not. and that’s just twenty years. multiply that error a hundred times to get the christian bible and you’ll see where the problem arises.

not to mention most religious documents are mashups and aren’t internally coherent or cohesive. what do you do when one part of a book tells you it’s ok to have slaves and another part says it’s not? what about when one part says sex is wrong and another says it’s completely natural? what about when it says the fundamental basis for the world is harsh justice then a few hundred pages later says it’s actually forgiveness and love without limits or conditions? these are philosophical arguments but they’re not coherent or commensurate. you can’t argue both sides at the same time and they’re just a tiny sample of the internal inconsistencies in christian fundamentalist writing. other faith systems have fundamentalists, too. there are fundamentalist muslims — wahhabism is inherently fundamentalist but it’s not the only group in islam to take this literal-only approach to faith and philosophy. there are fundamentalist jews but that’s far rarer — with such an incredible size of scriptural documents from torah to talmud, ritualistic literal interpretation is far more obviously impossible. while there are some who take the torah to be literally true, this is an untenable position (much like believing the same about the bible or the qur’an) but more obviously within the jewish community and such people are very rare.

why is fundamentalism dangerous? simple. it allows you to rely on others’ thoughts without necessarily having your own. and it forces you to have conflicting thoughts that don’t make sense together and think that’s perfectly ok. if you get used to the idea that the world doesn’t have to make sense (a common christian idiom, in fact), coherent arguments and logic become less and less important and your decisions are no longer based in fact or thought, only belief, superstition and emotion. the result of this has been racism, violence, war and, in the past few years, the predictable disaster of a pandemic that has been allowed to continue primarily as the result of conservative fundamentalism summarily destroying all logical efforts to stop its spread. fundamentalism has caused millions of deaths through the past millennia and will lead to millions more. it is the root of vast suffering. it is a plague and it prolongs and causes other plagues — literal ones, as we can see today.

final thoughts

religion is shared belief in something not true (this doesn’t mean it has to be false but it can’t be something decisively true or it’s not religion, just knowledge). this can become motivation for good but tends to go the other way, usually leading to absolute disaster, though that’s not an inherent requirement. various religions have developed philosophical systems and cultures that are usually separable from their beliefs and, except in the case of islam, now mostly exist independently and few adherents to the “religions” are actually believers, just philosophical and cultural practitioners.

many philosophies exist independently from the beginning like buddhism and confucianism but others are linked like hinduism and judaism. where they come from, though, is far less significant than where the end up and what’s interesting about human philosophy is that much of it comes from the same places and spreads globally but tends to follow predictable and equivalent themes, leading to very similar daily goals for their adherents — a buddhist practitioner and a secular hindu may be expected to have very similar outlooks on what is good but what strikes people as odd is that a jewish philosopher comes to much the same conclusions about what is a good life to live.

anyway, hopefully this clarifies these overly-used yet little-understood terms and gives insight where darkness tends to live — world religion and philosophy isn’t exactly a bundle of joy to study for most people. more content on these topics will follow, of course, but please let me know if there is a specific aspect of these ideas you would like more details on and i might be able to focus there in the near future. thanks for reading!

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