What Is Religiosity?

Disparaging religion has become a rite of passage for modern intellectuals. To become enlightened, it’s now necessary to equate “religious people” with “crazies”. Indeed, if you want to join the elite club of modern thinkers, you must reject the irrational superstition and magical thinking of religious folks and stick to the hard sciences.

I confess: I’ve never gained membership into this club. I’m just too fascinated by religious people to dismiss their ideas out of hand. I want to listen to their claims. Their ideas sound wild; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong.

Growing up in a Christian evangelical household, I have a unique inside perspective, and I would be lying if I claimed that “all religious people are just crazy.” That’s too easy. There’s more going on with religion than simply irrational superstition.

This article will not focus on why religious people hold their beliefs. Instead, I want to focus on religiosity itself. There’s some quality that religious people have; it’s noticeable when you see it, but what exactly is it? What makes the religious, religious?

I don’t find the popular explanations compelling. In science-y crowds, it’s fashionable to call “religiosity” essentially low-level schizophrenia.

Or, sometimes religiosity is about the nature of religious beliefs  – the existence of God, a soul, an afterlife, etc.

Still, other people equate “religiosity” with the method of religious thinking – blind faith and the rejection of Reason.

In my mind, all of these explanations are lacking.

Conclusions and Method

First of all, religiosity cannot be about a set of conclusions. Plenty of people believe in God or an afterlife, but they don’t seem religious, per se. They might believe in traditionally religious ideas, but they lack that essential “religious-ness” quality.

Religious ideas often seem crazy from the outside, but they really aren’t. The world is a weird place, filled with weird phenomenon, and any worldview will have seemingly-bizarre theories in it.

For example, think about the nature of consciousness. Let’s say you take the standard physicalist approach – all phenomena in the universe are composed of matter/energy and are reducible to the laws of physics. So how to explain consciousness?

Simple: when lifeless matter gets clumped together in a very specific way, a self-aware being emerges that navigates the world from a first-person perspective, starts referencing itself as “I”, and eventually worries about its own mortality. That complex clump of matter even tricks itself into thinking it has “free will” – that it can somehow break the chains of causality and “choose” to move matter around with its conscious mind.

Don’t tell me that doesn’t sound a little crazy.

Or, what about the techno-futurist ideas that are so popular today? Intellectuals commonly talk about the potential for human consciousness to be “uploaded to the cloud”, where we’ll be immortal androids for the rest of eternity.

If you think that’s possible, does that make you religious? I don’t think so. Radical beliefs do not equate to “religiosity”.

So perhaps religiosity is the method of religious thinking. Perhaps it’s the word we assign to people who make conclusions because of “blind faith”.

This, too, fails the test, for a simple reason: plenty of religious people don’t explicitly endorse blind faith. I’ve met many. They think all of their beliefs are well-reasoned and grounded in rationality. They might even agree with me that blind faith is a simple, unnecessary error – but still remain passionately convinced that Jesus was God on earth. They still seem to exhibit “religiosity” and might even self-identify as such.

Perhaps the most arrogant explanation is the one gaining the most popularity: seeing religiosity as a sign of mental illness – specifically schizophrenia or schizotypalism. This explanation is most popular among the self-described “skeptics” who relish the thought of their own intellectual prowess – and cringe at the lowly, irrational barbarism of religious thinking.

Needless to say, I don’t find this categorization persuasive. From my own experiences, I’ve interacted with a ton of religious folks in my life, and only very few of them had signs of schizophrenia.

For example, a clear sign of mental illness is articulating “word salad” – incoherent strings of words that lack any underlying sensibility. Now, if you’re an arrogant, confused intellectual, you might equivocate “religious arguments” with “word salad”, but that’s merely a reflection of your own shallowness, not of the incoherence of religious ideas.

What It’s Really About

In my mind, one example demonstrates why all the above categorizations fall short. Imagine all three qualities embodied in one person – some guy who believes that Jesus was actually God, because he has blind faith, and he’s also on the schizophrenic spectrum. Have we found a sure-case of religiosity?

I don’t think so. Imagine he tells you:

“Yeah, I believe all those things, but it’s just my own personal philosophy. I don’t push it down anybody else’s throat. I’m still a normal Joe like anybody else – I don’t freak out about these ideas.”

To me, even though he meets all the standard criteria, I still wouldn’t consider this person religious – kind of like the Catholics that you meet that are only “Catholic by birth”. They believe in Catholicism, sure, but they aren’t obsessive or aggressive about it.

So, I propose a new criterion for defining “religiosity”:

It’s the intensity of your commitment to act in accordance with the truth as you perceive it.

Notice, this says nothing about the content of your beliefs, nor your method for arriving at them.

If intensity of commitment is the defining feature of religiosity, it explains a lot of things.

First, it explains why the “Catholic by birth” Christians (I’ll call them “casual Catholics”) often don’t seem religious – they aren’t intensely committed to their ideas.

Think about it: if you have a strong belief in the existence of an afterlife – your neighbor might live in paradise or hell for eternity – wouldn’t you feel a strong obligation to tell everybody about it? Eternal damnation is a pretty big deal if it happens; yet, I rarely see casual Catholics talking about it publicly. Your stereotypical evangelical, by contrast, frequently bugs their neighbors and friends about the idea.

Self-described “Jesus freaks” might believe identically with the casual Catholics about the nature of Jesus – but the Jesus freak wears his religion on his sleeves, while the casual Catholic rarely brings it up.

Now, of course, I’m not saying “Catholics aren’t religious” or any such nonsense. Neither am I saying, “If you’re intensely devoted to your ideas, you must be loud about it” – passionate evangelizing is only one form of religiosity. I’m just illustrating my point using common stereotypes.

Consider another group of people: radical environmentalists. I’m not talking about the “Hey let’s help the planet by driving a Prius” type of environmentalist. I’m talking about the “Hey, humans are parasites and should kill themselves for the sake of the planet” type.

From my conversations and observations with these people, I would say they qualify as equally religious with the most fervent evangelical. It’s not that their conclusions are radical – it’s that they are intensely committed to them, even willing to die for their perception of the truth.

Or, how about two other groups: Buddhists and Muslims. By my definition, an intensely religious Buddhist would be a monk – somebody who sacrifices their whole lives to their worldview. A “casual Buddhist” would be the stereotypical Westerner who thinks Buddhism is a nice and pretty theory – but whose life looks virtually indistinguishable from his non-Buddhist neighbors.

One version of an extremely religious Muslim is a Jihadist – willing to kill himself and others for his ideas. Less-religious Muslims might even believe the same things – they might desire Sharia law, for example – but they aren’t willing to strap on an exploding jacket for it.

Two-Edged Sword

By my definition, being religious isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s kind of admirable – we should couple our pursuit of truth with a commitment to act in accordance with it. But there’s one catch:

We better make damn sure our beliefs are accurate in the first place!

The problem I have with most religious people isn’t their religiosity – it’s their inaccurate conclusions. For all the zealous devotion to their ideas, almost nobody takes the time to carefully reason through the justification for the beliefs in the first place.

They are committed to being committed, but they don’t analyze what they’re committing themselves to.

You can think of it like a powerful car. The engine is firing on all cylinders, the driver is super-focused and slamming on the gas pedal – but he’s not thought about where he’s headed in the first place! He’s just going… fast.

Of course, this kind of mistaken religiosity is not unique to traditionally “religious” topics. The political left, for example, is unwaveringly committed to government welfare programs or raising the minimum wage, regardless of their real-world effects.

Mathematicians have some of the most intense religiosity of any group I’ve met – question the foundational axioms of mathematics, and you are immediately dismissed as a heretic and a crank. They are so devoted to their axioms, they cannot even conceive of the possibility for errors in their worldview.

Especially religious is the modern “skeptics” movement. The young atheist, materialist, empiricists, who are intensely committed to their conclusions; yet who are sorely lacking justification for those conclusions.

Now without a doubt, by my own definitions, I would be considered religious too. I am fanatically devoted to logic and rationality, and I will spend my life evangelizing about these ideas. Logic is the foundation for all rational thinking – it’s the key for understanding the universe, and I’ll talk your ear off about it. I am not a casual philosopher; I am a zealot.

But, in contrast to almost every religious person I’ve met, I have sound philosophic justification for my beliefs. My first commitment is to the truth – not to any particular set of conclusions. From the outside – especially if you disagree with my conclusions – I probably come off as “crankish”. But because I’m a zealot, I couldn’t care less – similar to the Christian who firmly believes that his conception of God and eternal life is objectively true.

One quality I find endearing about religiosity is the utter disregard for social norms. If the truth demands it, religious people are willing to give the finger to popular opinion. They aren’t willing to bend to political correctness or flow with public opinion. If something is false, it’s false, and it doesn’t matter how many people say otherwise. To me, this is a wonderful quality – as long as the individual can rationally justify his beliefs.

So, in conclusion, I do not think “insanity” or “stupidity” is a sufficient explanation the phenomenon of religiosity. Instead, it’s the intensity of commitment to living in accordance with the truth as you perceive it. And from my perspective, it’s only respectable when it’s coupled with philosophy and critical reasoning. Intense commitment, by itself, is pointless. Intense commitment to the truth – that’s something to admire.