There is a tendency in our culture to consider ‘religion’ as a unit. If you come across someone advocating religion, you can know basically what they’re on about and you can surmise that they’re a nutter, to some extent or another.
It strikes me that this view of religion could only flourish in a very secular context. (Of course, NZ and western nations more generally are not thoroughly secularized in terms of religion having been eradicated, or anywhere near it – but it has largely been successfully removed from public discussion and education/science, and these are the areas I’m interested in). It’s a similar view, it seems to me, as one that could’ve been held by a religious person (let’s say a Christian), in the middle ages. For him or her, there were two classes of people: Christians (or Muslims, etc.) and heathens – or if you prefer, ‘infidels’.
Such a categorization strikes us nowadays as a bit silly; clearly people have different reasons for not being a Christian (etc.), and you can’t just treat them all the same! (Atheists, for instance, it might be thought deserve some kind of special treatment, as a result of the greater degree of rationality inherent to their kind). But regularly we see religions grouped together as if they were an amorphous blob of human ideas and behaviours; “sure there’s some differences, but they’re all essentially the same, damn-it!” And not only amorphous, but amorphously evil and/or useless, if you take the writings of some self-proclaimed public intellectuals seriously. You’ve got Religion in one corner, cowering away in the face of impending Progress, and standing triumphant on the other side (or perhaps trampling upon Religion), there’s us, the rational scientific normal ones, occasionally wondering why the Other persists even now in this Enlightened moment of history.
A more nuanced study of religion will be careful to acknowledge areas of difference as well as similarity in the claims made by the world’s many faiths. Recognition that secularism and atheism can also be subjected to sociological and psychological study can also help cultivate humility in this area. Perhaps particularly frustrating is when one of the myriad (and inconsistent) secular explanations of religious belief is trumpeted as adding to the ascendency of Science, or secularism, over religion. The converse possibility of giving explanations of secularism or unbelief (or even, gasp, science!) which rely on theological premises does not interest many people; after all, we know that the secular account is always superior, right?
The vicious circularity frequently cropping up within the project of secular debunkings of religion is worth a careful ponder next time you’re tempted to be impressed by it.