Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?

Religious symbols
Does any religion make more sense than any other?

Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we’re often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We’re accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely-held religions are valid targets for critique — but that’s another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. “Sure,” they’ll say, “a lot of those other religions are silly — but my religion makes sense! Don’t you agree? Don’t you? Huh?”

For the most part, it’s a game I don’t like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems — or are all religions equally crazy?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Are All Religions Equally Crazy? To read my thoughts on whether some newer, less-established religions ([cough] Mormonism [cough]) really are much battier than more conventional religions, or whether all religions are equally out to lunch, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

31 thoughts on “Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

  1. 1

    I haven’t read the article yet, but I do want to call attention to your usage of the word “crazy” in the title of your blog.
    Many neuroatypical people find it a problematic usage. Maybe think about replacing “Are All Religions Equally Crazy?” with “Are All Religions Equally Absurd?”?

  2. 4

    This article pretty much sums up the way that I have come to regard religions over recent years. The Hindu gods are particularly interesting because they tend to be depicted using really cheesy and garish artwork. You think, do Hindus actually believe that blue guy with four arms and an elephant’s head really exists? surely not. Then I get to thinking about the religion that I was brought up to believe, Christianity, and it is just as absurd as Ganesh not least by being internally contradictory. The Resurrection was supposed to be a uniquely significant event but according to the Bible dead people come back to life on a pretty regular basis. Dead people coming back to life? Yes really.

  3. 5

    I agree with Puck; the word “crazy” has a lot of loaded meaning, and should be avoided.
    To Nathaniel: I see where you’re coming from, it’s annoying having to skim through off-topic and editorial comments. But, when it’s done right and for the right reasons, I think deliberately trying to change language usage can be a good idea.
    The word “crazy” is a pretty classic pejorative; it’s a general term for things being wrong or bad, but it’s also a specific descriptor of particular people. It’s got the same problem as calling a bad movie “gay” or calling a coward a “pussy”.

  4. 6

    I’m not sure I agree. I think a lot of the more mainstream religions have done a pretty good job at removing the most absurd elements from their theology, making them symbolic, metaphorical, or allegorical. It’s far less absurd to say that a story about an apple and a talking snake represents something essential about the human condition than it is to say that an apple and a talking snake are responsible for the human condition.

  5. 7

    I think that some religions can be more crazy than other religions especially if one religion builds upon another one. For instance, Mormonism is more crazy than Christianity because it takes Christianity and adds more crazy stuff. Hence, it is more crazy.

  6. 8

    It always makes me laugh when Christians say something like “Can you *believe* Mormons think their underwear is magical?” when I know full well they believe something equally batty.
    PS: While I don’t generally see a problem with changing language to be more inclusive, “absurd” and “crazy” pretty clearly aren’t interchangeable. Is there another word that means what Greta has defined “crazy” as (ie. detached from reality and removed from normal society) that does not have historically problematic usage? Otherwise, it might be better to work on removing the associations with mental illness from the word, since in my experience people are pretty reluctant to give up language if they have nothing to replace it with.

  7. 9

    I take the view that all religions are equally incorrect, and I agree with your point that familiarity sometimes makes the absurd sound less absurd. For example, I find myself feeling an immediate “that’s ridiculous” reaction to reincarnation, while the afterlife was something I once believed in and found difficult to let go of.

    The fascinating thing about Mormonism is that we can see this process happening in real time. As a religion founded within the last two centuries, during a time of good historical record-keeping, Mormonism is an intriguing case study of how a religion transforms from a despised fringe cult to a popular branch of mainstream modern faith. And part of that picture is the ways that the fringier elements have either been abandoned wholesale or kept out of the public eye. .. and indeed kept out of the eyes of its own adherents until they’ve already bought in.

    This is something I was thinking about when I came across a copy of the Book of Mormon/Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price at the used book sale at my local library. This is a denomination whose history is so recent that one would think their attempts to change the faith would be more readily recognized. I think part of it is that we (as a society, and especially more moderate religious believers, a group to which I once belonged) are so accustomed to accepting religious leaders’ explanations/excuses for their faith that it seems easy to extend this courtesy to the newer religions as well. After all, if a person accepts it when their own religious leader insists that certain parts are metaphorical or mean something different, then why not accept it when other religious leaders do the same?

  8. 10

    I agree with Puck and DSimon.
    Nathaniel: Is is language policing if we suggest that white people not use the N word? The N word is genuinely hurtful to some black people, and I think that’s a good reason to ask others to refrain from using it. Likewise, I know that some crazy people say that they find the pejorative use of “crazy” is hurtful to them. Are you suggesting people should just shut up when something hurtful is said?
    There are two good blog posts on this at Feminists with Disabilities / Forward (you can probably find them by Google).
    Some other alternatives to “crazy” as the title of this piece: ridiculous, silly, devoid of sense, nonsensical

  9. 11

    @ Margo K.: I know that some crazy people say that they find the pejorative use of “crazy” is hurtful to them.
    Without trying to get unduly snarky, this is the least ambiguously offensive context in which to use the word “crazy”. People suffering from schizophrenia or OCD or bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses are, well, mentally ill. Not crazy.

  10. 12

    Some people with mental illnesses do prefer to be referred to as “mentally ill”, but some actually identify as “crazy” for various reasons. When dealing with individuals, I use the word their identify as; since I’m not referring to individuals, I used ‘crazy’ to make a point that it should not be a pejorative word. And I have read accounts of people with OCD and bipolar disorder (I can’t say the same of schizophrenics) who call themselves “crazy,” so I question your assertion that they are not “crazy”.
    And another thought came to me. What if someone had written an article called “Are all Religions Equally Gay?” and there was a paragraph like this:
    ‘First, just to be very clear: I’m not saying all religious believers are gay. I’m saying religious beliefs are gay. I’m criticizing the ideas, not the people. And when I say “gay” (or “queer” or “faggoty” or what have you), I don’t mean “literally, clinically homosexual.” I mean “gay” in the colloquial sense — out of step with cultural norms, or out of touch with good taste.’

  11. 13

    @ Margo K: I’m not criticising your taking issue with Greta calling religion crazy. I think that’s a worthwhile and valid discussion.
    I’m taking issue with you using the word “crazy” to mean “mentally ill in the clinical sense of the word”. If you know people who are that, and they call themselves crazy, lovely and groovy. I know gay men who call themselves faggots, lesbians who call themselves dykes and transpeople who call themselves trannies. That doesn’t give a straight cisgendered lady like me leave to use those words in a public forum as a description of GLBT people generally.

  12. 14

    @ Indigo
    Usually, I would not use ‘crazy’ as a general classifier either, but I used it in this specific instance to make the point. True, that does not give me a free pass, and I might have overstepped my bounds. While saying ‘people with mental disabilities or illnesses’ would not have made the same point, it is also less likely to be hurtful, and that is a higher priority than the point I was trying to make.
    At the same time, even though I would be much more careful about how I use the word ‘dyke’ than ‘lesbian’, I would also not claim that women sexually attracted to other women are not ‘dykes’.

  13. 15

    I do think that “religions” which don’t require that people believe various contrary-to-reality doctrines are “less crazy” than those which do. So, for instance, Unitarian Universalists are less crazy than Congregationalists, to put it in terms comparing two groups who I tend to think are usually on the side of “good”.
    It’s surprising how few doctrine-free religions there are, and more surprising how few religions are free of demonstrably false doctrine. (Certain forms of Buddhism, the “orthopraxy” based religions which don’t care what you think as long as you follow the practices, and others.)
    All such religions are, of course, *atheist* religions, or at least ones which are happy to have atheist adherents.
    Even among these, religions which don’t require you to do arbitrary irrational things might also be considered less crazy than those which do.
    At which point people start asking “Is that really a religion?” Religion is a poorly defined term.
    A religion without doctrines or even shared beliefs and without required rituals is an unusual thing, but I’d contend that they exist. They are generally driven by a sense of community, and perhaps that’s all they are. I guess this is why UUers are often less crazy than most religious people; community can be a decent and useful thing (though it isn’t always).

  14. 16

    I guess I could write my previous comment shorter. Not all religions are equally crazy because not all religions are equally based on *faith* (or *obedience*). All *faiths* are equally crazy, and all forms of mindless obedience are equally crazy, but there are other things which we call religions which may lack faith and obedience entirely.
    Though some wouldn’t call them religions.
    I therefore often avoid criticizing “religion” and make a full frontal attack on “faith”, since faith is entirely hostile to empirical observation of reality.

  15. cat

    Maybe this is just me, but surely the problem with ‘crazy’ is precisely that it has been historically used to describe those individuals that society designates as belonging to the coercive and inappropriate category of ‘mentally ill’. Re-designating it to describe such a socially powerful but also wilfully thoughtless and self-gratifyingly fantastical grouping as religious believers seems to me somewhat progressive. I don’t necessarily see a problem with saying that the ‘mentally ill’ are, in my experience, generally far less ‘crazy’ than Christians or Mormons. To put it another way, if ‘crazy’ is a word for criticising those who are out of step with either reality or society (as if they could easily be differentiated) then the historical problem with it is that it has been used by the powerful against the powerless. Greta’s usage seems to appropriate it to criticise the powerful or socially-valorised, to say that they are the ones that are really ‘crazy’. As such, I am unconvinced it shows any animus or prejudice against the ‘mentally ill’,

  16. 18

    Just a point about Catholics not knowing that, according to the church, the wafer “literally” changes to the body of Christ. I’m no Catholic, but as I understand it, that’s not actually the doctrine. I think it might have been up until the big Vatican II re-tooling of the doctrine in the early 60’s, when they dumped the Latin mass. But as I understand it, the current deal is that the “substance” of the wafer, as Catholics use that term, changes to the body of Christ, while the actual physical reality/chemistry/biology/physics of the wafer stays the same. It’s all about the way they define “substance” (when *I* use a word, said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone . . .), but I don’t think the church’s position is that it actually, literally (in the ordinary English sense of “literally”) turns into a piece of long pig.
    Those who have actually taken catechism classes can correct me; I just picked this stuff up from growing up with a lapsed orthodox Jewish father who desperately wanted to be a Roman Catholic.

  17. 19

    It seems to me the whole transubstantiation insanity falls, along with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, into the WGAF (who gives a …, well you get the drift)category for me, and squarely into the fully delusional.

  18. 20

    It used to be a burn-at-the-stake offence to suggest that the wafer doesn’t turn into human meat.
    There is some waffling about how it ‘seems’ to be a cracker, but the message it hammered home:
    CANON I.-If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.
    CANON lI.-If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.
    CANON III.-If any one denieth, that, in the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist, the whole Christ is contained under each species, and under every part of each species, when separated; let him be anathema.
    CANON IV.-If any one saith, that, after the consecration is completed, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are not in the admirable sacrament of the Eucharist, but (are there) only during the use, whilst it is being taken, and not either before or after; and that, in the hosts, or consecrated particles, which are reserved or which remain after communion, the true Body of the Lord remaineth not; let him be anathema.
    and so on for 7 more Canons.
    That makes the Church of England that much less crazy for saying:
    “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
    PS: will you niggers chill out over the ‘crazy’ shit?

  19. 21

    Well all these “bat-shit” cerebrally constrained individuals around the world are about to be proven wrong.
    May 21st is around the corner, if Jesus Christ doesn’t return please become an agnostic, or at least read a book on the basics of Science.
    Read a little on evolution preferably.
    Without knowing the basics, phylogenetics, people seem to think we’re claiming to be coming down from apes. A major problem with people today is they trivialize the science and make it sound simplistic when it is not. Why should it be simple? That’s a gross misconception that the Universe ought to follow our worldly views, the universe cannot even be fathomed. We’ve not even seen more than 1% of the universe, rather thats the level of accuracy we have (confirmed) which is more than religions can say.
    Greta I want to see a new post on the whole Abortion and stem cells debate, if you can kindly write something up, even if it is short, at least we can have a discussion/debate on it.

  20. 22

    Posted by: Puck | May 13, 2011 at 11:16 AM
    In this case what you are saying is valid because Greta uses “crazy” in the story, but in general please try to avoid criticising a writer for the headline.
    The original was published on Alternet, which means a sub-editor likely wrote the headline, not the article’s author.

  21. 23

    Are we done with the linguistics lesson? Personally, I would use the word “bizarre” to describe the “beliefs” of most religions. It would appear that the true reason for any religion’s existence is controlling people no matter what the origin of the religion are. If one examines the records of ancient religions and include the pictographic and statuary the “Ancient Alien” assessment is actually more valid than the religious interpretation, and what could be more bizarre?

  22. 24

    Magistre, this is the internet, we are never done with the linguistics lessons. Besides, talking about the use of language that impacts a historically-marginalized group is certainly a better use of our time than debating something like the Oxford comma.
    Back to the topic at hand, what always strikes me about the religions of recent vintage (like Mormonism or Scientology) is that it’s easy to do the research to find out that they were completely made up. I mean, Scientology was invented by a SF-writer. How much more blatantly ridiculous can you get?
    Which is not to say that older religions are based on historical facts. But I do find it slightly less ridiculous for people to believe in a historical jesus because it was twenty centuries ago. Perhaps that explains why it took Christianity a few centuries to get off the ground–they had to wait long enough to hide the facts in the mists of time. So I’m not sure if I find the substance of the beliefs to be more bizarre, but I do find their act of belief to be even less reality-based than “normal” religions.

  23. 25

    Y’know, I’ve had some problems with mental illness in my life, and personally I’m just fine with the word “crazy”. It’s a simple word which expresses its meaning well. The language policing is not only tiresome, it’s counterproductive because it prevents normal interaction and tends to drive away the undecided.

  24. 26

    Re: Transubstantiation in Catholicism
    It all hinges on a terribly un-scientific notion of the word “substance” that comes out of medieval philosophy if I remember correctly. Catholics can admit that physically and chemically the eucharist still looks like a piece of bread, but they’re supposed to believe that in some metaphysical sense it is “really” the body of Christ.
    At which point a reality minded person should just say “this is nonsense” and go home, of course.
    (I’ll admit that vague apprehension about how to behave around those little wafers remains in my head as an artifact of my Catholic upbringing…)

  25. MV

    I think it would be more accurate to say that at least 40% of Catholics do not go to mass. Mass is pretty explicit as to what is happening. At least it was 20 years ago.

  26. 28

    Hi Greta,
    Great article. I’ve quoted some of it in an article I must have been working on at the same time you were working on yours. I’ve added those quotes at the end because I received your article after I had already written mine, but before I published it. It has a similar but more narrow theme, but your article provided a good post script for it.
    Folie a deux: the insane prophets of the Seventh-day Adventists and The Family International
    I have also added a brief blurb about you that links to your blog on this page:

  27. 29

    I think the word ‘crazy’ is entirely appropriate and the tone policing bewilders me. Religions ask us to believe – without the slightest evidence – things that are entirely outside our experience. Things that require us to suspend our disbelief to an unfathomable degree. That people sincerely believe these things does not tell us that we should respect either those beliefs or the people who hold them. Reality isn’t the kind of thing you get to vote on and batshit insanity shouldn’t be rendered respectable just because it’s popular.
    Are some religions crazier than others? A difficult question. We recognise as crazy those ideas that deviate greatly from the norm. We seem hard-wired to expect things like universes to need creating and perhaps creation doesn’t sound so crazy to a lot of people because of that. I tend to think of it this way: religions are crazy to the extent that they require desperate fabrication. Believing that some being or other created the universe because you can’t understand how it might have happened otherwise is moderately crazy and indicates broken thinking. Believing that therefore it must have been sneezed into existence by the Great Green Arkleseizure is madder than a box of frogs. Most if not all religions seem to be firmly in frogbox territory.

  28. 30

    I don’t see any magnitude of significant difference between fundie and moderate religions – both are dependant on rejecting reality as the framwork of understanding and sharing the world we live in.
    Saying “I think the rapture will happen” and “I think it’s this Saturday” is not a significant difference.
    As for complaints about atheists being agressive, disrespectful and rude, the absence of coddling religious sensibilities isn’t any of those things – if you don’t want your beleifs laughed at, then don’t hold so dearly clearly crazy beleifs.

  29. 31

    What a great site I have stubled into. My answers have been questioned – which is what I demand be done to every answer. Thinking flows from questioning answers. Those who have responded to mine have forced me back to the drawing board. Thank you.
    I do distinguish between dispelling the ridiculous hypotheses for the existence of God – a legitimate effort of any thinking person – and declaring that the impossibility of God because no testable hyposthesis currently exists.
    I return to my original obejection about anyone asking me if I believe in God. The question is never that limited in the mind of the one who asks. The question always seems to have the hidden motive of finding out whether I believe in God as the questioner defines the word. As yet, I have not found anyone with an acceptable definition and have none of my own that satsifies. By that standard I do not believe in God.
    Again thanks to all who responded. I’ll read the suggested links, think more on the responses and, perhaps, further question your answers.

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