My religion is an odd one. My involvement in it has given me some insights into the phenomenon as a whole but mine in particular isn’t as important to understand as some others are, really for two reasons: our population is relatively tiny (the worldwide ratio of Muslims to Jews, for example, is roughly 100/1) and our tribalism is more extreme than that of others because we are defined both by our tribe and by our religion. However, as I said, my own religion has given me some insights into much larger examples of the phenomenon.
I’ll start with a concept: Orthodoxy. You might think of this as fundamentalism but I think orthodoxy is both a more precise term and a term that has uses in some non-religious belief systems. I’m not looking up the term here; I’ll just define it as I’ve seen it used. Orthodoxy is the belief that the entire central texts of a belief system should be adhered to as closely as possible, both in terms of belief and of conduct.
As to whether belief or conduct is emphasized more, that depends on the belief system. In Judaism there is a greater emphasis on conduct but in most strands of Christianity that I know about there is a greater emphasis on belief.
Most belief systems, particularly religious belief systems, have ambiguities, internal contradictions, dilemmas. How these are resolved within any given belief system varies and varying resolutions often divide belief systems. These resolutions are often resolutions of convenience or of personal priorities that do not actually come from the central texts, though you will rarely see that admission. An added difficulty with belief systems is that the dividing line between law and tradition/common practice is often less than clear, making the landscape more difficult to navigate honestly.
Not everyone who belongs to a given belief system is orthodox. In Judaism, that distinction is pretty clear because it’s actually sectarian - those who are Orthodox call themselves that and act on that as communities.
A word about orthodoxy: If you are honestly orthodox, you are constrained by your central texts. Maybe you believe that your central texts came from God. In that case, orthodoxy is a matter of obedience. This obedience takes precedence over personal convictions - you might disagree with God - and perhaps write off your disagreement as insufficient understanding - but your conviction is secondary.
A religion that has been discussed here lately is Catholicism. Catholicism’s hierarchy would like Catholicism to be orthodox, but an awful lot of the membership isn’t. When asking why people don’t leave Catholicism when they disagree with the Pope, it is necessary to understand this.
So why stay in a religion if not orthodox? What’s the point?
There are a lot of points, actually. I’ll try to come up with an off-the-cuff list which I do not guarantee is complete.
Being as I’m thinking as I write, I may stop there because I’m not sure how much of what I can think of doesn’t fall into one of those categories.
Abortions are common in Ireland. The Church hates this, the Irish aren’t about to stop just because the Church hates it, and yet no one is thinking in terms of mass conversion. The former President of Ireland might state that a policy of the Vatican is Evil (he’s right) but that’s a fight within the family.
So far I’ve been talking about Catholicism. Some of these points also apply to Islam, but differently. Like Judaism or, to a certain extent, like Protestantism, Islam is sectarian in ways that Catholicism is not (though Christianity is) though, more like Catholicism than Judaism, there is a lot of variation in orthodoxy outside sectarian boundaries. Unlike in Judaism (though kind of like within Jewish Orthodoxy - capital O here because in Judaism, Orthodoxy has strongly sectarian implications), a lot of the sectarianism is based on something other than level of observance. There are different varieties of orthodox Islam that are roughly equivalent in orthodoxy but different in beliefs. Ignoring all these variations in Islam is how Americans make serious mistakes about Islam, one being the massive mistake in evaluating the Ground Zero Mosque and another being utterly misdiagnosing the implications of Sharia in America, neither of which is remotely threatening to American life in general.
Regarding Pope Francis, being as he has been a topic of discussion recently: Early on, he built authority with portions of the Catholic population with whom he is now squandering that authority. I can’t tell you if he is squandering it out of personal conviction or out of what he views as internal political necessity - or out of wanting to build credibility with more conservative Catholics - but he is absolutely squandering it.
Some of what he does can be attributed to the constraints of leading an orthodox organization and having to respect that orthodoxy to maintain authority, but within those constraints he has a certain amount of latitude. I’ll illustrate that with his handling of the Kim Davis flap in 2015, in which a high-up conservative American Catholic clergyman attempted to force his hand and he refused to play along. Kim Davis was an official in a Southern state who refused, contrary to State policy, to issue a marriage license to gay applicants and was fired for it. The claim was made that she had an audience with the Pope during his American visit, arranged by the aforementioned clergyman. As it turns out, her “audience” was a place on a group line. She claimed she’d had a private audience. The Vatican replied that she did not, that Pope Francis only granted one private audience on his trip, and it was to a gay former student of his and that student’s partner. Which is pretty much Pope-ese for “If you think you’re going to get me to support persecuting gay people in the civil sphere you can go fuck yourself.”
That’s not who we’re seeing lately. One can’t legitimately justify sheltering pedophile priests from the consequences of their actions while not doing a damned thing to shelter their victims. That stand is obviously not due to the constraints of orthodoxy, that’s just a failure of character. In all probability, Jesus would be furious. (Or, if you’re Christian, Is furious.) It isn’t necessary to state that the only acceptable family union is between a man and a woman. Advising wives to forgive straying husbands while not advising husbands to forgive straying wives is both straight sexism and, again, protecting the victimizer while not doing a damned thing for the victim. This smacks of the “morality” of complaints about reverse discrimination. It isn’t the dominant population who needs the most protection, a reality which a Jesuit Pope from the Latin American Liberation Theology tradition should understand with utter clarity.
So what do you do with orthodoxy when you live there, when you fully believe in obedience? That issue was approached in Judaism a couple of generations before Jesus in the persons of sages running two competing schools: Hillel and Shammai. Generally speaking, when they disputed, Hillel took the humanistic position and Shammai took the strict obedience position. For example, Jews are supposed to say the Shema, a prayer, upon rising and in daylight. But what of workers who rise before dawn? Hillel’s position was that you say it wherever you are when the sun rises. Shammai’s position, if I remember and understand it correctly, was that you wait for day to go to work. Ultimately, the conclusion was made, ostensibly by God, that the way of God is the way of Hillel. One of my biggest problems with ultra-Orthodox Judaism is that they show signs of demanding a recount for Shammai, ratcheting up requirements in ways that make no sense, like a sudden problem ultra-Orthodox men have developed with being seating next to a strange woman on an airplane.
For non-Orthodox sects/religions, things are easier: Settle your dilemmas in favor of justice to the best of your ability because justice is inherently a primary religious value.
What’s the best way to deal with religion from the outside? Telling people they shouldn’t have a religion is both pretty much guaranteed to be ineffective and ultimately smacks of advocating the threatening of a fundamental freedom of belief. Also, it depends on what you want to accomplish. Does religion in the case you’re worried about just offend you by existing or is there a prohibition in religion that you feel restricts people’s lives unjustly - assuming that they agree with you and feel restricted? They don’t have to, that’s their call.
My suggestion is to address issues through dilemmas, dilemmas which the religious often don’t notice. Religious people have serious problems viewing their religions as unjust because that says that their god isn’t perfect. In ancient paganism that was no big deal because moral perfection wasn’t expected of gods but modern Western religions tend to view that issue very differently, particularly in orthodoxy. It also helps to point out when a stand is obviously more based on personal feelings, tradition, and perhaps convenience than actual scripture. For example, even in strict orthodoxy, restrictions on the roles of women are way more indicated by tradition than by law. Or, to choose an example from my own religion, Israeli Orthodox figures are leading their government to crack down on accepting political refugees while the Torah, the central document in Judaism, talks about treatment of strangers more times than any other topic.