I have two questions. Here’s my first: if a crumb from a cookie falls to the kitchen table and breaks into four pieces, do you now have one cookie crumb divided by four, or four cookie crumbs?
Here’s my second question: is the first question merely an artifact of imprecise language, or does it also conceal an important philosophical dilemma?
With regard to the first question, I think it’s not answerable in any ultimate sense. With regard to the second question, I think it’s the latter. There’s a philosophical issue at stake: essentialism. What is essential about a thing?
A cookie crumb falling to a table and breaking into pieces seems to me a good analogy for the birth of any idea that falls from a human mind. It’s never clear how someone’s original idea will impact the world, but when it leaves a person’s brain and comes in contact with its contingent environment—and is then picked up by others—over time it becomes increasingly difficult to say what, exactly, was (or is) essential about it.
And this brings me to religion. After Pat Robertson said that Haiti’s earthquake occurred because Haiti had made a pact with the devil, other Christians distanced themselves from his statement and had a different reaction: don’t worry so much about the question of theodicy, but help those in need and see God’s hand in those offering assistance. But this response from some Christians so irritated atheist Richard Dawkins that he declared himself with Pat Robertson (in his interpretation of what Christianity is really all about):
Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. . . . It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.
I think that Dawkins is in error. If Christianity was first birthed from the mind of, say, Jesus—or one of his first followers, like St. Paul—it is difficult to say which response to the Haitian earthquake constitutes the true and genuine “Christian” response. Religions, like cookies, crumble, and given enough time, it is almost meaningless to ask the question, “Which existing crumb retains the essence of the first crumb?”
This is why I think it’s problematic to speak of particular religions as characteristically evil or good or violent. Religions, like other ideologies, do not exist in a vacuum, but are contingent phenomena. This is not to say that we can make no generalizations about specific religions, but it is to say this: we should show a good deal of caution in our generalizing about religion (and irreligion, for that matter). Otherwise we are likely to find prejudice substituting for clarity and precision of thought.