The seven secular myths about religion

by Jonas Khizrau Atlas

Even though religion is a core theme of many contemporary debates, a solid definition of the concept cannot be procured. Several possibilities have been proposed by plenty of academics, yet they vary greatly and no single definition ever became generally accepted. As such, it isn’t easy to clearly determine what exactly we’re talking about when we’re discussing all that ‘religious stuff’.

This lack of a definition does not necessarily cause many problems for our daily discussions. With or without a definition, we mostly assume we’re able to recognize a religious phenomenon when we see one. We’re aware of the fact that religions encompass a variety of elements (such as rituals, ethics, ideas, texts, traditions, and so on) in different constellations, but we also feel they portray particular traits which eventually make them into a religion.

Those traits can be summarized in seven assumptions about religion.

1. Religions are determined by a series of dogmatic beliefs and clearly circumscribed behavioral rules the adherents should follow. This is probably the most central conviction about what makes religion so religious.

2. Religions are structured hierarchically. And those who stand at the top of the structure determine what adherents of a religion should believe and which rules apply to them.

3. Because of their beliefs, rules and structures, religions can be clearly separated from one another. This means that we can, for example, say: “this is Buddhism and this is Christianity” or “this is a Muslim and that is a Hindu.”

4. Spirituality and mysticism contrast with religion. Spirituality is more often perceived as beautiful and liberating while religion is seen as limiting. This results in a large group of people stating they’re ‘not religious, but spiritual’.

5. Science and religion have a tensioned relationship. This tension stems from the fact that religion bases itself on faith while science is built on reason and logic.

6. Religions are dangerous because their irrational truth claims easily lead to violence. Which immediately brings us to the last assumption.

7. A secular society is different (and much better) than a religious society.

Taken together, these seven assumptions form a sort of basic framework that determines the contemporary view on religion. As such, we can easily find variations of these assertions in all sorts of newspaper op-eds, political debates, Tv-documentaries and educational curricula.

The only problem is that not a single one of those assumptions is factually true.

1. Religions are determined by a series of dogmatic beliefs and clearly circumscribed behavioral rules the adherents should follow

It goes without saying that strong convictions often come to the fore in religious environments. Yet that doesn’t mean those convictions always take a central role in the daily life of the faithful. Also, what adherents of a particular religion believe can often differ day and night.

To give but a few examples: some people who strongly self-identify as Jewish do not believe in God; while reincarnation seems to be the only common conviction which largely connects the different Hindu traditions, there is also a school of Hindu thought which does not advance this concept; and only one of the five pillars of Islamis about what Muslims ‘believe’ (and, even more so, that ‘basic belief’ is contained within two short sentences). The other pillars of Islam aren’t about ideas but about acts, such as fasting, praying, alms giving and making a pilgrimage. The same is true in Jewish and Hindu communities: performing traditional rituals is, in many ways, of greater importance than inner convictions.

In this respect, some will speak of the difference between orthodoxy (when religious traditions are mainly focused on specific creeds and teachings) and orthopraxis (when religious traditions are mainly focused on specific deeds and actions). However, let us not exaggerate such orthopraxis either. Every rule comes with loads of exceptions. It certainly isn’t the case that all Muslims pray five times a day and millions among them never make a pilgrimage to Mecca simply because they’re too poor. This certainly doesn’t make them ‘less Muslim’, let alone ‘less religious’.

On top of it, a focus on beliefs and behavioral rules ignores a major aspect of religiousness since the religiousness of individuals often originates within experience. This can easily be witnessed in the stories of converts. Their conversion is seldom a matter of specific teachings or regulations. In general, people convert because of an experience: an experience of intense divine mercy, an overwhelming experience of beauty, an experience of discovering a teacher or an experience of feeling at home within a particular group.

2. Religions are structured hierarchically

People often speak of ‘organized religion’ to refer to the hierarchal nature of religion. However, in reality there’s little as unorganized, messy and unstructured as religious traditions. Neither in Asian traditions, nor in Islam, nor in Judaism is there any central authority which could determine what the one and only, true and correct interpretation might be. They’re all strongly decentralized religions. Of course, the Catholic Church is a hierarchical and centralized institution, but even within Christianity a counter example is easily found in Protestantism: even though it consists of an enormous amount of church communities, there is no central and overarching authority.

If there are more exceptions than norms, perhaps it’s time to see the supposed norm as an exception. So, contrary to the common assumption, our premise should perhaps be that religions, generally speaking, aren’t structured hierarchically.

3. Because of their beliefs, rules and structures, religions can be clearly separated from one another

Since religions aren’t determined by their beliefs, since behavioral rules seldom apply universally among adherents and since most traditions do not have a hierarchical structure, it shouldn’t wonder that religions can’t always be clearly separated from one another. Again, to give just a few examples: in some Buddhist temples in Thailand, one can encounter statues of Hindu gods; in certain Chinese temples people express their devotion to not only Lao Tse andBuddha but Confucius as well; in trance rituals such as the Zar from Egypt or Gnawa from Morocco, Islamic tradition fused with so called animist elements from older North-African traditions; and African Ifa was interwoven with European Christianity in Haitian Voodoo, Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santeria.

Such examples of religious interlacing which breach the boundaries aren’t exceptional at all. Neither are they something of the past. Today as well, they abound — for which religious categories are we supposed to use for Jubu’s (that’s to say: Jewish Buddhists), adherents of the Santo Daime (a Christian Ayahuasca church) or people who feel inspired by New Age literature and decorate their living room with elements from diverse traditions?

4. Spirituality and mysticism contrast with religion

Because of the conviction that religion is a matter of hierarchical structures, dogma’s and obligations, religion is often contrasted with spirituality and mysticism. Even more so, many people have the feeling ‘true’ spirituality and mysticism are restricted by religion. They see true spirituality and mysticism as something inner and personal and as such they should be freely engaged in to retain their validity. On the other hand, the moment spirituality and mysticism become more externalized and regulated, they’re perceived as aspects of religion.

A typical example of this split between spirituality and mysticism on the one hand and religion on the other, is the way in which Sufism is decoupled from Islam. However, in previous articlesI showed how ‘Sufism’ actually has a normative and central place within the Islamic tradition, how its deeply religious, how it certainly isn’t limited to ‘private spirituality’ and how it also portrays many public, political dimensions.

In other traditions as well, decoupling mysticism and religion is quite nonsensical. When Buddhists burn incense in front of a Buddha statue and subsequently recite a mantra while the beads of their mala glide through their hands, would we consider them to be spiritual or religious? It is often claimed that Buddhism isn’t a religion but rather a ‘way of life’. As such, many would consider this to be a spiritual practice. But in what respects does it differ from Orthodox Christian monks incensing an icon of Mary and subsequently reciting the sentence ‘Come lord Jesus’ while the knots of their choti glides through their fingers? Without a doubt, this image will spontaneously be labeled as religious.

5. Science and religion have a tensioned relationship

We simply have to watch Jim al-Khalili’s BBC documentary about Islam and scienceto see how intrinsically both are interwoven and we simply have to read James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophersto realize that scientific research was actively supported by the Medieval Catholic Church. In Islam as well as Christianity, the acceptance of scientific research stemmed from the same theological consideration: since God created nature and didn’t do so in an erratic or inconsistent manner, one can discover certain patterns and laws of nature. By researching these patterns of creation, they hoped to find out more about the Creator.

It should not come as a surprise that we can find instances of critical research and a scientific attitude throughout the centuries among the adherents of all other traditions as well. The simple fact of the matter is that the search for truth has always been performed with all available means: concrete research, philosophical argumentation, exchange of experiences and deep self-reflection. The idea that faith and reason conflict is a rather recent idea. It first originated in Protestant milieus that wished to paint an image of the Catholic Church as an irrational and backward institution. When, subsequently, modern materialist philosophies gained more traction, this image was projected unto religion in general. In doing so, certain scholars hoped to amplify the contrast with their more positivist worldview. However, it has by now been amply researched and documented that this ‘conflict thesis’ is not supported by reality.

6. Religions are dangerous because their irrational truth claims easily lead to violence

No-one with the slightest understanding of history can deny the enormous amount of violence that was perpetrated throughout the centuries because of religious convictions. However, it’s less clear how exceptional religion would be in this respect.

For example, when we have a look at the ten most violent conflicts of the 20thcentury (i.e. the conflicts which produced most human casualties), we can see that not a single one of them originated out of religious motives. The greatest number of victims was created by nationalist conflicts (with about 100 million deaths throughout two World Wars), by explicitly anti-religious communism (under the rule of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot), by a number of civil wars (such as the Russian, the Nigerian and the current Congolese) and by many Cold War conflicts (such as Korea and Vietnam).

Ever since the Holocaust, the Gulags and two atomic bombs it’s rather absurd to view religion as the source of all violence. For no-one with the slightest understanding of history can deny the enormous amount of violence which was perpetrated throughout the centuries because of secular and rational convictions.

7. A secular society is different (and much better) than a religious society

A secular worldview is perceived as non-dogmatic, mentally free and scientifically valid in contrast to a religious worldview. A secular society is perceived as non-hierarchical and less rule oriented in contrast to a religious society. Secular politics is perceived as rational and non-violent in contrast to religious politics. But when religions aren’t determined by dogma’s, lack of spiritual freedom, aversion against science, hierarchical structures or compulsory regulations, where does that leave these contrasts? What exactly makes secularism so ‘different’?

Such questions become even harder to answer when we consider that secular societies often portray the same elements which are mostly associated with religion.

In secular societies we can, just as well, find strong beliefs which aren’t always based on facts. Ironically enough, the basic assumptions about religion, outlined in this article, are a good example thereof.

It’s also easy to find a number of hierarchical structures. Whether we’re talking about contemporary multinationals or the governments of nation states, the institutions which yield the greatest power are, generally speaking, structured extremely hierarchical.

Also, secular beliefs are seldom reduced to private matters. Adherents of all political convictions permanently try to convince others of the correctness of their ideology. No matter how scientifically grounded those ideologies might be, they’re always at least partially rooted in suppositions, desires, expectations, stories, ethical sensibilities and personal experiences. And each of those ideologies has filled history with much violence.

But what then would still be the supposed distinction between a secular and religious society?

Some will have a seemingly obvious answer ready to this question: “Perhaps certain elements might seem comparable, but religious societies essentially start from a belief in divinity and secular societies essentially start from humanity.” Yet such an answer only brings us back to the first assumption, which makes us repeat ourselves: religion isn’t necessarily determined by faith and certainly not by a faith in one God, several Gods or a more general divine.

If one subsequently replies that it’s not necessarily a matter of ‘God or divinity’ but that, at the very least, the difference lies in a focus on ‘something transcendent’, then the difference with secular convictions once again becomes rather unclear. A concept like ‘the nation’ is, in many ways, a transcendent concept which is often linked to mythological stories about that nation. Does that mean that nationalism is a religious ideology? The same is true in the case of a concept like ‘human rights’. It’s a transcendent moral notion which is assumed to be universally valid. Does that mean the UN charter is a religious document? And what should we do with a concept like ‘the invisible hand of the market’? It would be difficult to label it as a merely immanent, materialist and humanist idea. Does that mean liberal economists have a religious view of the economy?

Whether we like it or not, the supposedly obvious boundary between secular and religious frameworks isn’t very solid after all.


Nothing of the above goes counter the findings of contemporary religious studies and the specific examples I offered aren’t controversial at all. Nonetheless, the eventual conclusion of all of this is quite far-reaching: the concept of religion is directly opposed to the reality of religion. Differently put: what we think about religion does not concur with what religion actually is.

As such, our contemporary debates should be heavily scrutinized. Those debates do not start from a rational or scientific view on religion, but rather from seven myths about religion. They perpetuate an incorrect story about the clash between religion and secularism which does not bring any deeper insight about these phenomena, but rather ignites endless discussions about meaningless oppositions.

The seven secular myths about religion complicate life in a globalized world which is rife with the most wide-ranging cultures, religions, ways of life, ideologies and traditions. We’d do well to unmask these myths as the problematic, conflict inducing stories they are. We’d do well to thoroughly rethink the concept of ‘religion’.