In Greta Christina's recent article, "(X) Is Just Like A Religion" -- No, It's Not, she argues against one of my favorite hobbies -- conflating certain kinds of fandom, and religion. I wanted to respond to her points, but I don't know exactly what I want to say. This is a sort of thinking-out-loud post (a format I am directly stealing from Greta.)
Because I agree with her point, that when people talk about religion, with overwhelming consistency they mean something to do with a belief in the supernatural. And I agree with her point that religion is either different from other forms of human group-forming, or it's not. But I think there's room for some subtlety here, and I don't think the best response is to declare that there's no possible analogy between a sports following and a religion.
Because there are things that involve belief in the supernatural that aren't religions. Depak Chopra's work is not a religion, neither is The Secret. If we're defaulting to the commonsense view, then there are plenty of supernatural beliefs that don't remotely qualify as religious in nature -- things that might have some relationship to the religious, but aren't inalienably connected, like Leprechauns, or things that simply have nothing at all to do with any religious tradition as it was ever actually practiced, like 2012 apocalypse theories.
I think religion as it's generally understood is a complex phenomenon, with a number of necessary elements. I think it has to have some sort of organizational structure (which it has in common with politics), it has to have some sort of holiday-like events or rituals (like football), and it has to have some sort of narrative through which one can draw guidance from it (like Doctor Who).
And, yes, it needs to have elements of the supernatural (like fairies or woo).
And I think Greta's right that this combination makes religion dangerous in a unique way.
But I also think that certain elements of that collection, like the narrative or the rituals, have intrinsic value, and those aspects of religion don't bother me so much.
I've been telling people lately that my litmus test for whether someone's going on too much about religion is: if I would be comfortable bringing up Doctor Who this much, it's okay for them to talk this much about Jesus. Now, I don't talk too much about Doctor Who, I think, but I don't talk about it not at all, either.
And there are key differences between fandom and religion: I can be a Whovian and a Browncoat and a Nerdfighter and a Star Wars fan, and I'm not committing any sort of idolatry. I can pick my own dietary restrictions, and nobody's telling me I'm going to hell. And since no one ever claimed the writers are infallible, I can cherry-pick without guilt.
But there's still something very, deeply similar about them, and I think that's not insignificant. Personally, I'd love to see more people switch from religion to fandom -- even if it just means a bunch of huge Bronze-age nerds promoting the Bible and the Quran as literature.
I agree that the distinction is important. But I think those similarities are really important, too, and we're losing out -- not on rhetoric, but on the ability to understand each other -- if we ignore that.