Oblige me with a quick thought experiment.

Draw a picture in your head of someone who is religious. Think about what they’re wearing, what kinds of objects they might be carrying, and most importantly, how they behave and the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are in their head.

And then draw a picture of someone who is not religious. Again, think about what they’re wearing, what kinds of objects they might be carrying, and most importantly, how they behave the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are in their head.

Was it easy to do this? How immediately did images and ideas come to you?

Today our society is divided along many lines. But one of the most entrenched and politically supercharged is the one demarcating religion from non-religion. We tend to have very specific allegiances to one side or the other, and we each also tend to have very firm opinions about the values, morals, and ways of life of people on both our own and the opposite side of the divide.

Take for example the side of the non-religious, who culturally have an increasing amount of disdain for religion and the people who identify with it. Ricky Gervais says, for example: “Imagine if you carried on believing in Santa and the tooth fairy into adulthood. And even killed & started wars over it. Haha. Imagine that.” Or take an example from network television, a place not particularly renowned for its controversial viewpoints: “Rational arguments,” says Fox’s beloved if maligned genius doctor House, “don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise, religions wouldn’t exist” (Egan 2007).

And of course there are the new atheists, who have fallen out of vogue of late, but whose reverberations are still felt deeply across secular culture. The New Atheist Sam Harris who is a New York Times bestselling author and top ten podcast host writes that “[t]he danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy” (2005: 73). A New York Times review of Harris’s book says that “Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say.” To reiterate, a columnist for one of the most widely read publications in the world says that Harris writes what a sizable number of us think but are unwilling to say. What is it that this sizable number thinks? That religion gives people leeway to believe in irrational, even crazy, things—and then do irrational, even crazy, things. Religious people are blinded, brainwashed, ignorant.

I understand that generalizations and stereotypes have some grains of reality buried underneath their layers. You may think that your estimations of one side or the other are more or less true.

But what if I told you the divide between religion and the secular doesn’t really exist? What if I told you that religion doesn’t really exist?

How Religion was Created

In some very important senses, this is absolutely true. Religion doesn’t exist. At least, it does not exist in the sense that it is not what philosopher’s would call a “natural type.” Natural types are categories that would exist in nature whether we identified them or not. Some examples of natural types include quarks, hydrogen atoms, red giants, fingernails, and homo sapiens.

Obviously there are many things in our culture outside of religion that are also not natural types: lattes, for example, or political parties. But what is special and important about the lack of naturalness about religion is that people are always trying to locate religion within our genome or our evolutionary history. Scholars and lay people alike are looking for ways to understand religion as a real thing—as a concrete phenomenon with discrete bounds, something approximating a natural type.

A portion of these people seek this because they are longing for more validation of their religious longings or dispositions; Andrew Newburg and Eugene d’Aquili for example published a book in 1999 called The Mystical Mind that argues that a religious or spiritual sense is somehow embedded in distinct neuroanatomical and neurophysiological mechanisms in the brain. We were made for God.

Another portion of them seek this because they simply do not know any better, or they do, but their nuance is either too understated or overlooked. Scholars in the cognitive science of religion such as Pascal Boyer and David Sloan Wilson have produced bestselling books that explore the evolutionary origins of religion. These authors are somewhat sensitive to the complexities of seeking ancient origins of religion, but one major and general effect of their work is to anchor in popular culture the idea that religion has a certain and concrete history as it relates to the human species. Boyer’s book on the evolutionary history of religion is even called Religion Explained.

The problem is however that when it comes to the origins of religion, they’re looking in the wrong place. The real origin of religion as we know it today wasn’t 500,000, 50,000, or even 5,000 years ago.

It was 500.

The real origins of “religion”—the most cutting edge scholars in the field of religion will now tell you—are actually dated to sixteenth century Europe. This is because even while the word “religion” existed before then (notably, only in Latin, and literally not anywhere else), it meant something entirely different from what we mean when we use the word today.

Cambridge historian of religion Peter Harrison has demonstrated at length in his seminal text Territories of Science and Religion that the original meaning of “religion” was not “belief” or “faith” or anything remotely like what we consider to be religion today. Instead, it actually meant something like “inner piety” (Harrison 2015: 8), or sometimes “worship”. It was an “important moral virtue related to justice” (Harrison 2015: 7) which, according to the highly influential St. Thomas Aquinas, refers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, out of which the more external behavior such as vows and tithes would follow, but the interior component was primary (Harrison 2015: 7 see also Deferrari et al 1948: 960). “Religion” wasn’t a belief proposition in the ancient sense: it was a virtue.

Indeed, in early Christianity and the Middle Ages people sought “true religion,” but this was not a distinction between right and wrong belief. It was actually a distinction between worship properly and improperly directed. Tertullian, an ancient “church father” was the first to use the phrase “true religion,” and when he did so he was, according to Harrison, referring to a “true” worship of a “true God,” as opposed to a fictitious one (8). One of the most prominent theologians of the twelfth century, Peter the Chanter, distinguished religion that is pure and true (munda et vera) from that which is vain and false (vana et falsa) (Harrison 2015: 9). His student, Radulfus Ardens, also spoke of true religion, in his words entailing “the fear and love of God, and the keeping of his commandments” (quoted on Harrison 2015: 9). Religion wasn’t a system of propositional beliefs; it was devotion, worship, piety. “Religion” as we know it today simply did not exist yet.

The word religion first began to change from piety into its more modern meaning in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg castle church door. This kicked off the Protestant Reformation, which was the period of time in which people began to develop their own beliefs about how Christianity should be practiced. Visionaries had made attempts similar to Luther’s throughout the Middle Ages, but they had failed to gain enough ground to stand up to or reform the church. Luther and the people he persuaded to follow him were on the other hand able to make headway because they had the power of the printing press behind them. With the printing press, an increasing proportion of people could read the Bible in their own languages and really begin to interpret it and think for themselves—or at least follow others who did so. They could spread new ideas and stand somewhat united behind them. They could—in the end—develop what they would come to call their own “religions.”

Peter Harrison determined how this change took place in popular culture simply by tracking how the use of the word religion changed over time. One of the seminal books of the Reformation period, a book by John Calvin now known as Institutes of the Christian Religion, was originally published in Latin. Latin is a highly context-sensitive language in which articles such as a and the are more randomly placed than they are in English. This means that translators must use their discretion trying to decide what the author intended. In 1561 Thomas Norton published the first English translation of the Institutes, and he titled it without putting a the in front of “religion”: The Institution of Christian Religion. This had the effect of communicating the original, pre-sixteenth century concept of religion as a virtue to be cultivated. According to Harrison, this was apparently what Calvin intended, as Calvin declared in the preface of the book an intention “to furnish a kind of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness.” By 1762 however the text was being translated as The Institution of The Christian Religion—having the effect of formalizing a specific set of beliefs. The 1813 title Institutes of the Christian Religion endures to this day (Harrison 2015: 92-93).

Harrison also documents this change as occurring throughout English publications as a whole. In English books printed during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the expression “Christian religion” without a the placed before it is used five times more frequently than “the Christian religion”. By the end of the century the ratio is flipped: the expression “Christian religion” is used almost seven times less than the expression “the Christian religion” (Harrison 2015: 93).

We also see these changes play out on large, geopolitical scales. One of the first instances of this is found in the Peace of Augsburg, a treaty signed in 1555 by the Holy Roman Empire and an alliance of Lutheran princes called the Schmalkaldic League. In the text of this treaty the two sides are not divided along geographical lines per se but rather between the “old religion” of Catholicism and the “Augsburg Confession” of Lutheranism; the document calls these groups religions—not territories, not alliances, not fiefdoms—but religions. This was the first time in history a treaty was signed explicitly between religious allegiances as opposed to political ones (Harrison 2015: 97-98).  And it happened this way because the quality of inner piety that people had once sought increasingly came to be characterized by the specific ideas they had about how to go about it. Pious binding eventually developed into tribalistic belief.

And tribalistic it really did become. As protestant Christian sects began multiplying and growing across Europe, war broke out left and right. At least 10 million people died in what are known as the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Europeans became divided along a multitude of lines that had never existed before. So now they faced a new problem: Was there a way to live side by side without killing one another? Could they learn to co-exist in peace?

In 1689, John Locke proposed a solution: stop seeking a way to settle which religion was “true” and instead turn religion inward. He wrote: ““the care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate, because his Power consists only in outward force; but true and saving Religion consists in the inward perswasion of the Mind” (1689: 6). If people would isolate their metaphysical beliefs to the private sphere, in the public sphere they could elevate their loyalty to what were then developing nation states (Nongbri 2013: 6). This would give everybody a higher authority under which they needed to co-operate, while still allowing them the freedom of their personal beliefs.

That is—people needed to turn this part of their life that was literally everywhere into something that was just inside their hearts. France even made it a cornerstone of its constitution in 1789 that no religion could be deemed the official religion of France, and more recently in 2004 codified laïcité in schools and in 2011 in hospitals, decreeing that conspicuous religious symbols cannot be exhibited in these public spaces, period. This partitioning of “religion” away from the rest of life seemed to Europeans then and continues to seem now the only logical way to keep everybody from breaking off into various religious alliances and killing one another. In some sense we could reasonably say that it is because of a series of wars that happened in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that today we conceive of “religion” as a belief system a person cherishes but separately from the rest of the realms of their life (Nongbri 2013: 6).

From European Religion to World Religions

As dramatic as all this unfolding on the European continent was, the idea of religion as a universal and inherently human activity took another few hundred years to solidify. Up until the nineteenth century the concept of religion was not quite complete because religion in the eyes of Europeans was still confined to a reasonably similar set of beliefs and practices. Included in the idea of “religion” were only Abrahamic traditions: the various Protestant sects, the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and “Mahometism.” Western scholars had no idea what to make of anything else.

This perplexity was apparent everywhere, perhaps especially in the case of the Southern African Hottentots (now generally called Khoikhoi). Up until the mid-seventeenth century, Europeans generally assumed that the Hottentots and similar groups were completely without religion (Kolb 1738; Nongbri 2015: 114-115). This was simply because their culture didn’t look like anything they had encountered previously.

The first attempts to squeeze the Hottentots into religious categorization came in 1719 when a German writer and traveler named Peter Kolb contested their supposedly lack of religiosity by describing what he perceived to be Hottentot similarities to Judaism: there was “a sort of circumcision,” period withdrawing from their wives, dietary restrictions, a lunar calendar was used, and women were excluded from cultural rites, among other things (1738: 30). But the Hottentots were also distinct from the Jews because they also had, crucially, “no memory of the children of Israel, of Moses, or the Law” (30). That is—they had no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. And yet Kolb persisted in considering them somewhat Jewish, as he said of their dancing, shouting, jumping, and “stamping” that “Dancing inter’d into the Divine Worship in Times as early as the Flood” (99; see also Nongbri 2013: 115). Were these people without religion, or Jewish, or part Jewish? How can they possibly fit within the current system of dividing up cultures? The jury would remain out on that one—and on a multitude of similarly non-Abrahamic cultures—for a very long time.

The verdict would come in during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as scholars began to consider the possibility that these strange people also had “religion,” if of an extremely different variety. But very importantly, there was no religion in the languages or ideas of the people thus encountered. Indeed, “religion” was a word and a category completely imposed on them by the West. The first recorded uses of the names of each of the Eastern religion occurred in English: “Boudhism” in 1801, “Hindooism” in 1829, “Taouism” in 1838, and “Confucianism” in 1862 (Harrison 2015: 101). In a very certain and real sense, Buddhism, Hindusim, Daoism, and Confucianism were invented by Western academics in the nineteenth century.

These new names for religions words were not pulled out of thin air, of course: they were co-opted from various contexts within the native languages. “Hindoo” for example was a commonly used word in Southern Asia, but it referred to people and things from the Indus River Valley (Nongbri 2015: 110), not to the content of their metaphysical beliefs. It only became this once Westerners decided it should, as it aligned with their own religious, social, economic, and political interests.

The thing about having a category such as religion is that once you define something—and if you are in a position of power—you can control it. Manipulate it. Bend it to your will. This is exactly what happened when Westerns brought the idea of religion to the rest of the world: they identified a culture’s “religion” and then proceeded to attempt to erase it and replace it with their own. Consider what happened to the Parsi people in India, for example. They had ancient sacred writings but these were not central to their lives; a scholar of religion named Max Müller wrote of them that “[t]ill about five-and-twenty years ago [that is, about 1837], there was no book from which a Parsi of an inquiring mind could gather the principles of his religion.” But, in response to pressures from Christian missionaries, the Parsi people composed a “small Dialogue…a kind of Catechism, giving, in the form of questions and answers, the most important tenets of Parsiism” (1867-1875: 1.170-71). In essence, the Parsi people, under duress from Christian missionaries, undertook to define and codify principles of their “religions” in writing.

What might the Parsi “religion” have looked like if it weren’t for Western expansion and colonialism? The culture, at least not at this time, would not have bifurcated itself into discrete parts. It wouldn’t have become legalistic in its treatment of beliefs and ideas. It wouldn’t have so valorized written texts. We can’t say for sure what it would have looked like, but we do know what did happen and how it changed the face of Parsi culture irrevocably. And this is just one example of so many in which Western expansionists made the world look the way they wanted it to. In essence, both colonial missionism and “world religions” were born at the exact same time.

Ideas are never without power. In this case, the category of religion permeated the world, designated who was “in” and who was “out,” and forced cultures far and wide to codify belief systems in response to Western concepts. It is for this reason that Peter Harrison has called the development of world religions “the projection of Christian disunity onto the world” (1990: 174). None of this developed because religion exists in the hearts, the minds, or the genes of men. Religion is not a thing—it is no natural type that exists outside our imagining. Religion as we understand it today was imagined—in some ways very intentionally constructed—by powerful men no more than a few hundred years ago today.

How “religion” is toxic to our progress and flourishing

In response to my claims about the construction of religion, people often ask if the category can still be useful, since even given that religion was born of tumultuous political times and colonial interests, it appears to be a functioning part of our society today. The flaw in this question however is the assumption that religion is a more accurate category today than it once was. But it isn’t. It’s still just very wrong.

Let me begin to demonstrate why by returning to an example of modern discourse I shared earlier in this article. Sam Harris has said that “[t]he danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy” (2005: 73).

I agree with Harris and his ilk that fundamentalism is problematic, and I even agree with Harris that we shouldn’t universally respect all religious beliefs (2005: 15). But, like many of Harris’s opponents have pointed out countless times (e.g.), this isn’t necessarily what “religion” entails. And, since I’ve just demonstrated that the category of “religion” is a mere construction anyway, nothing is necessarily what religion entails. Not ritual, not faith, not gods, not allegiance to certain principles or texts, not dogmatism. Actually nothing.

It is worth noting that of all the scholars who have studied and tried to define religion over the past two centuries, virtually none of them agree about what it is. Some theorists, like Alfred North Whitehead, think religion is what a person does with their own “solitariness” (1996: 15-16)—that is, within their own personal relationship with existence. Others like Bronislaw Malinowski think religion remediates anxieties (1944). Some like Ernest Becker say it’s a response to your fear of death (1973). Some like the famed Emile Durkheim prefer a more sociological definition of religion and say that religion is a public phenomenon (2012). Some says it’s power, like everything else (Schaefer 2015). Some take a more mainstream approach and say it has something to do with organizing around supernatural, or what Kevin Schilbrack calls “superempirical” beliefs (2010; 2013). Thousands upon thousands of scholars have studied religion and only very recently begun to wonder if the reason they can’t agree is because they’re barking up an impossible tree.

I understand that as human beings we like neat categories and there is something satisfying about being able to say a certain person fits a category or not. Scholars of religion have been all about this since the field was invented. But there is a problem with trying to define something as amorphous as religion that extends beyond simple inaccuracy. When we categorize things, we automatically—instinctively—allocate value judgements to them. We prefer one or the other. We align ourselves with one or the other. We divide ourselves according to one or the other. And to reiterate—this is over something that isn’t actually definable in the first place.

For a growing percentage of people in the world and especially American elites who value science and are wary of fundamentalism, religion is “bad.” What they actually mean to say is that unquestioning allegiance to doctrine is bad—but here is a very trenchant fact: unquestioning allegiance to any kind of doctrine is bad, whether it is a “religious” kind of doctrine or not. And it happens all over the world, in every person’s life, every day, religious or not, secular or not, republican or democrat, repeatedly, on-end, because this is something that’s very natural and easy for humans to do.

But because the Harris crowd has unquestioningly embraced a very specific idea of what “religion” is, they are able to take very complex and diverse phenomena and call them all the same. They are also able to take problems that are caused by things other than belief—say, terrorism—and call them religious simply because they are juxtaposed or intertwined with belief. Geopolitical factors such as the hegemonic, war-mongering policies of the United States in Middle Eastern countries or the strife and zealotry that foment in times of stress are legitimate reasons terrorism has been so rampant in the world in recent decades and especially the Middle East. Blaming terrorism specifically on “religion” takes the spotlight away from problems that are legitimately, even drastically important in the fight to dismantle terrorism at its root cause: education, food shortages, poverty, employment.

The academics who first began theorizing about the category of religion drew lines in the sand that have long since turned to concrete. There is very little middle ground; you’re either in or you’re out. It used to be a bad thing to be out, but it is increasingly problematic to be in. It is still true that the majority of Americans think you’re evil if you’re religion-less (generally speaking Americans find atheists and rapists equally distrustful), but a growing and very influential percentage of the rest think you’re evil if you’re not. This name-calling however looks extremely ridiculous to someone from the outside who knows that the category of religion is arbitrary and the types of things people consider distasteful about both religion and non-religion are found on both sides of the aisle.

My favorite and one of the most important examples of traditionally “religious” qualities of human nature that actually belong to all of us is the fact that humans are susceptible to promises (there are others, such as holding sacred values or exhibiting favoritism towards your own group). Life is really hard. This means that if we encounter Gods or zealots or presidential candidates or anything powerful enough to promise us salvation in literally any sense of the term, we will fall for it hook, line, and sinker. There is even a large group of scholars engaged in what is called Utopian Studies who take this phenomenon as a foundational fact. Promises are roiling masses of power, and if human beings can be said to be compelled by anything, it’s a promise.

Secularists such as Harris tend to think that they are above this sort of thing, but they aren’t. For Harris, the promise-maker is science. Harris’s 2009 book, The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Moral Values (2010) presents a textbook utopian vision, one that places near implacable faith in the power of science to save us—should we find the strength to bury religion once and for all—from our weaknesses, our limitations, our disasters, our political and moral dilemmas. Harris says he’s rational, and he is, more or less. But he is not particularly self-reflective about the ways in which he clings to the seemingly neat promises of the sciences, and how his desperate attachment to an orderly world engenders in him an irrational rage and a problematic approach to the issues of terrorism and fundamentalism that is not unlike a bull in a china shop.

When we demonize one side or the other for something we all share, we condemn ourselves to endless fighting when we could otherwise be working together to address our limitations and build a more peaceful world. Nazi Germany is a pristine example of this. A decades-long debate rages as to whether the Nazis were godless atheists or devout Christians with a history of Anti-Seminitism (for a recent rehashing of which see this video). Harris naturally emphasizes their Christianity and spends six pages in The End of Faith arguing that Nazism arose “logically and inevitably out of Christian faith” (2005: 106). And yet, the quote with which he opens this section of the book makes no mention of Christian or traditionally religious symbols or ideas, only a “higher call”:

Rudolph Hess, in a speech in June of 19334, said that “The National Socialism of all of us is anchored in uncritical loyalty, in the surrender to the Fuhrer that does not ask for the why in individual case, in the silent execution of his orders. We believe that the Fuhrer is obeying a higher call to fashion German history. There can be no criticism of this belief” (Cited in Glover 1999: 328).

Many popular and vocal voices have had the direct opposite opinion of Harris. Pope Ratzinger for example in 2010 spoke of a “Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.”

Here what both sides are trying to do is demonize the other based on the content of their beliefs—they think the metaphysics is what matters here. But if you step away from the category of religion and your chosen side what you see is a much more accurate picture: you see humanity in all of its susceptibility to promises. It doesn’t matter if Hitler’s followers were Christian or otherwise, if Hitler used religious symbols or otherwise. Among other things, perhaps most important of all was that Hitler promised salvation (sweetened with racial scapegoating), and every human who ever lived is susceptible to that sort of thing.

Any reasonably intelligent person who studies “religion” well knows that it isn’t the gods that matter, it’s the power they have and the promises they make. The same kind of power can be found in a politician or rebel or zealous ideologue, and the same kind of compulsive obedience, what our culture often calls “religious” longing or hope, can be found anywhere. You don’t need a god for that. You only need promise.

This is an extremely trenchant fact for today’s world. Humans are animals that long for salvation, and in being so are also susceptible to irrationality, in-group out-group behavior, self-interest, obsequiousness, and all the other failings of our kind. Basically, all of us act—or are at least highly prone to act—the ways in which secularists such as Harris think only religious people act. We must acknowledge this if we wish to eradicate the waves of fascism and terrorism crashing over the West and indeed all other forms of political insanity that loom dark and heavy over our horizons. We must acknowledge this if we wish to work with ourselves and one another to build a more harmonious world.

In our efforts to achieve peace, we need to stop focusing so much on the content of religious beliefs and prioritise instead factors that are deeply, intractably relevant to progress such as justice, empathy, communication, empowerment, and political stability. We also need to stop seeing the non-religious as above the kinds of compulsions usually attributed to religion. Secularists are just as liable to be compelled by beliefs and by promises of salvation as religious people are, even if these salvations look different than 72 virgins in heaven or eternal bliss in the arms of God. Secular longings may look like dreams of total political correctness, the spread of science to every corner of the globe, or extreme egalitarianism—but they can still be damaging, as China well knows.

And yet perhaps the greatest peril of the category of religion is not so much in the grandiose world problems as it is in how irrevocably polarizing it is on a day to day basis. Ask anyone whether they are religious and they’ll have an answer ready on their tongue, and a defense for that position, too. We fight over who is more evil, but we’re all the same. We might tend to find certain habits or attachments on different sides of this debate, but leaning into these generalizing tendencies will forever do us more harm than good.  I will never consider dogmatism, attachment, obsequiousness, fervor, or the desire to be saved to belong to the world of “religion.” Nor shall I ever consider rationality, clear-thinking, or a properly scientific attitude to belong to the world of the non-religious. This is easy, since I don’t think in terms of “religious” or “not religious”—which is exactly my point.

We have so polarized the West between those who are religious and those who are not that we simply fail to see how much we can have in common. Again we find a powerful example of what not to do in the work of Sam Harris. Harris believes that “moderate religion” should be scourged from the Earth because it makes room for “religion” in general (2005: 14-15), allowing fundamentalists a free pass. But people who identify with “moderate religion” would be some of his greatest allies in his fight against fundamentalist dogmatism. Saying someone is “religious” literally tells you nothing about the important things about them: their values, their personality, their intellect, their morality. The same of course goes for atheists. So why keep using the word?

I honestly am ambivalent on the question. After all this time deconstructing the category of religion, I must confess that I am constantly theorizing religion and do have a working definition of religion ready for use in my head. It’s a new definition—one that’s never yet been proposed in this particular way—and it basically says that religion is like any other human institution, except that it is unique in the amount of what I call existential power it carries and leverages amongst its followers. “Existential power” leaves a lot of room for variance to exist within the parameters: fundamentalist Christianity, scientology, Buddhism—always a stumbling block to people who define religion by “supernatural belief”—and even types of atheism all fit. Stalinism and Maoism fit too, because of their heavily reliance on utopianism. Things that don’t fit so much? Secular governments, sports teams, philosophies. Honestly, it works pretty nicely.

But I don’t think it would have all that much practical benefit for the world, and the use of the word “religion” on a regular basis is certainly harmful. It does literally nothing good for us and so much bad. It polarizes us, makes us defensive, pits us against one another, helps us draw massively broad and inaccurate generalizations, inhibits our ability to really understand who we are as a species, and prevents us from finding allies and friends where we otherwise would very easily.

Since the category developed and was in a sense invented two hundred years ago, the word has spread to nearly every household on the planet. It is a very entrenched part of our globalized concepts and psyches. The word won’t go away, and it probably won’t change to my preferred concept anyway. So I will say this, instead: we should—we need to—do away with the category of religion and whatever toxicities attend it as best we can. Stop calling certain kinds of behavior or things “religious.” Refrain from using the term in our personal dialogue. Don’t make snap judgments. Check ourselves and one another when we categorize people based on how they identify. And perhaps most important of all, instead of inquiring as to whether a population or a person is religious or not, ask about what their most important values and beliefs are. This way we will both be able to understand ourselves in our deepest humanity more accurately, as well as forge alliances and connections we would not otherwise have been able to. That way we can be truly strong in the fights for reason, community, and peace.




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