Religion is a language

A few days ago I came across this post about an American muslim who killed his two teenage daughters, allegedly because they had boyfriends who weren’t muslims. A double ‘honor killing’. The post spouted a debate, in which I mingled. The same old questions that buzz around the crusades and Christianity are evoked here. If people indicate they act, inspired by Islam what does that say about Islam? If other Muslims act contrary to what their coreligionists do and claim they’re doing so, inspired by Islam, what does that say about it? If Muslims condemn the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, what does that mean for our understanding of Islam? And what the hell is ‘Islam’? Is it what its sacred writings say? Is it what those who confess to its creed actually do? And if so: even if it contradicts the sacred texts?

A while later I came across this post at Café Philos. It takes the discussion to a more abstract level. What is the relationship between religion and practical morals? Is religion an ‘enabler’? Or more than one? Does religion actually inspire people to act contrary to their ‘nature’? (that word is not used in the Café Philos post) Does it do that more often than we’d want? The comments so far add a few other possibilities: primitive philosophy, social unifier, a tool. The post is accompanied by a quote from some Steven Weinberg, that summarises the question very well:

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things – that takes religion.

I would like to add that lots of believers think it’s the other way round: religion is intended to make bad people do good things. But that’s a sidestep.

So: enabler, faciltator, primitive philosophy, social unifier, tool? I’d say ‘all’. Religion is a language. It’s the language we use to talk about things we really cannot talk about. My native tongue has a proverb that says: “Blood crawls where it can’t go” meaning that people will go anywhere, do anything if they’re interested enough, even when it’s impossible. It’s a bit like the square root of minus one. It doesn’t exist, you can’t have it, but we still called it i and started doing mathematics with it. A friend of mine who knows much more about this than I do, tells me you can’t build radios without i. So it works.

Religion works. It unifies social groups, it harbours philosophy, it determines cultures -and vice versa- it manipulates people, it enables speculation, it facilitates hypocrisy, it lies, it tells the truth, it formulates laws and writes poetry, it issues death sentences and declares love. More importantly: it is often misunderstood, just like language.

Most importantly: sometimes people say things that seem contradictory, but they still mean exactly the same thing. The metalworker in Baghdad kicks a bump in his coffee pot to make it imperfect ‘because only Allah is perfect’. The carpenter in Virginia -a Quaker- even decorates the invisible back side of his cupboards ‘because God is perfect and sees everything’. They say the same thing, but their words seem to contradict. That’s religion.


2 Responses to “Religion is a language”

  1. Dishonor killings are believed to have their origins in misinterpretations of pre-Islamic Arab tribal codes. They pre-date Islam by centuries and, in fact, are un-Islamic.

    Nonetheless, it is fairly obvious to an experienced eye that the murders of the beautiful Said sisters in suburban Dallas were dishonor killings.

    Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
    “Reclaiming Honor in Jordan”

  2. […] Every time scientists want to get a grasp of belief or believers, they fall into the same pits: uninformed, hideously unclear questions about the fuzziest of concepts, that altogether betray an unhealthy familiarity with only the most vocal, most literal and most primitive forms of the belief studied and desperately trying to force believers to speak their language. […]

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