Religions and Religion Like Things

(This is the second in a series of three posts, the first is here)

Over the last five years I’ve looked at a lot of different religions, from the big ‘world religions’ to small new religious movements. They are very different, spanning a huge range of ideas about God and about the human condition; and with a huge diversity of spiritual practices and rituals.

But there is also a unity among them as well. But its not quite Karen Armstrong‘s unity, nor the kind of unity that lends itself to a definition. in fact I’m not even going to attempt to define what a religion is, because as I said in part one, that’s a fool’s errand.

It is a unity of texture: they all seem to work in a similar way. They stress belonging, dividing people into us and them; they provide processes to engender feelings of profundity; they tell a story of the cosmos and show how you fit right in it; they rehearse their own importance and supernormal potency; they answer unanswerable questions; and they empower those who pull the strings. Notice I’ve not said anything here about God. God is very important to some faiths, but the character and identity of ‘God’ is not significant in many other religions. What unifies religions is what they do for the people involved with them.

Other things have these features too. Things we’d not normally describe as a religion. The book “The Culting of Brands” (Atkins 2005), looks at the co-opting of religious zealotry for consumer brands such as Harley Davidson and Apple. They are religion-like, I think, but it may not be very helpful to talk of them in that way, because they are also “Brands”, and that word is more expressive of their character.

Another religion-like-thing I’ve come across, which seems to me more usefully seen as such, are self-help organizations.

Let me give one example (not to pick it out as being special, just to be concrete). Landmark Education Trust puts on a whole series of personal and business development courses. Its initial offering is called “The Forum”. In the Forum, participants are hothoused in a series of very emotionally intense lectures and interactions, where they are encouraged to look at their own behaviour critically. Participants are encouraged to see themselves in archetypal terms, to make breakthroughs by abandoning unhelpful stories about themselves (called “rackets” in the Landmark jargon), and to put right their relationships with others (known as “integrity”). As evidence of a participant’s transition to a no-nonsense, can-do, person, they are encouraged to bring others to future Landmark events. The inbuilt evangelism and the emotional intensity of early sessions, lead to it being labelled a Secte or cult and having to close in France, Belgium and Sweden.

As I said, I don’t want to pick on Landmark, it is not a religion (much less a dangerous cult, in my opinion). But I would call it a Quasi-Religious Movement (QRM, or ‘quirm’ for short). It stresses community; it pities those still trapped in their rackets; it tells stories of its supernormal potency (look at the website for examples); it tells a story of how humans function (not a cosmological story, in this case) and fits you right into it; it answers unanswerable questions; it gives processes that devotees can use to feel like they’ve made profound connections with others; it has an evangelical mandate and sees itself as an important transformative force in the world.

We can come up with some fancy rationale for labelling anything a QRM based on those criteria (as we can make an argument for why a table is really a chair, if we just use the ‘criteria’ of what makes a chair). I am not trying to do that, I am instead stating that parts of it work and feel like a religion. Something picked up by the French and Belgians (even if they do have a hair trigger). It is misleading to call Landmark a religion, I think, but I seeing it as a QRM helps us be honest about its religion-like aspects.

There are other things that I’d want to label QRMs: some conspiracy theories, some alternative medicine modalities. And — as I’ll discuss in the final part of this post (with various qualifications) — Atheism and Skepticism.

Atkins, Douglas. The Culting Of Brands. Portfolio, 2005.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Religions and Religion Like Things

  1. How would you relate the open source software movement (if there can be said to be such a thing) to your notions? Or maybe it doesn’t relate.

  2. Neil, interesting. Us-them operates on a couple levels. I think yes, a QRM.

    Ian, typo on final word.

  3. TWF

    Good post Ian. There are definitely other QRM’s that come to mind to me too. And they do “work and feel like religion.” I’m looking forward to your take on Atheism and Skepticism.

  4. Ian

    @Neil – yes. but I don’t think anything ‘is’ a QRM, in the sense that we’re discovering some fundamental ontological category. For many things we could discuss as a QRM, there may be more helpful labels to use. Particularly as labelling something ‘religious’ is often intended as an insult. For 99% of the situations in which I can imagine OSS being called ‘religious’, it would be making the pejorative point, I think. In the other 1%, I’d be happy to say it is a QRM.

    @Mark, thanks a lot. I ignored the underlining, because I wanted it to be spelt in the US way, and I knew my spell checker would object!

    @TWF Thanks!

  5. Scepticism is British spelling.

  6. Ian

    @Mark, yes exactly. I’m using a British spell checker.

  7. Interesting post Ian. Do you see these types of movement as a new phenomenon (perhaps emerging to fill some of the gaps as the influence of traditional religions has declined) or modern versions of a type that has been around a lot longer? I wonder if far right/left political groups could also be classified in this way.

  8. Ian

    Hi Paul, and welcome. Its a great question. I’m not sure my historical knowledge is good enough to give a good answer. Certainly they go back into the 19th century, there were a whole host of civic societies and gnostic groups who founded, and ran on very religious lines. I think underlying this is that this model *works*, which is why Landmark uses it, I think. It isn’t particularly because of religion envy, its just that successful religions and other groups use the same features of group psychology to grow and strengthen, I think. To that extent, powerful communities will usually display some of these features, including those based around strong political ideologies.

    It is that aspect that fascinates me most. Given that there is a huge similarity in the way different religions work, what can we learn about human psychology, and can we test the things we learn in non-religious spheres and see if they have similar effects. I think so.

    But that’s probably for other posts, the purpose of this series is because I want to get to a point where I can address the oft-repeated challenge that atheism is just another religion, something which (as an atheist) I get told a lot, and to which I partially agree.

  9. Thanks for the response Ian. I wonder if atheism (or at least some shades of atheism) has more religion-like features than some of the movements you describe above. For example, atheists share a certain narrative about the origin and purpose of the Universe, and tend to be hostile to other competing narratives.

    From interacting with some atheists on the internet on the topic of mythicism, it seems to me that at least some atheists manage the evidence for an essentially non-philosophical question (i.e. the existence of Jesus) in such a way that it supports and reinforces their wider philosophical beliefs. Again, this appears to me to be a “religion-like” feature.

    Looking forward to your third instalment…

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