I’m not religious, I’m a Christian!
One of my friends refers to himself as an “Irreligious Follower of Jesus,” another writes on her Facebook profile that “I’m in love with Jesus, its [sic] a relationship NOT religion.” Dan Kimball wrote a book called “They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations.” A recent commenter on this site wrote:
“Christianity is not about a religion… Christianity is about a relationship…” I even recall myself saying, on probably more than one occasion, “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian.”
What is this incessant need to disassociate Christianity from “religion?”
Is it because religion is too structured? Is religion barbaric? Is religion primitive and uncritical? What do these people mean when they say they are Christian, but not religious, or that the essence of Christianity is not religious. What do these Christians see about “religion” that makes them want to deny their religiousity?
Psychologically speaking, I am pretty sure it is an attempt to set Christianity apart from other religions. There are two problems with this. One, this is simply rhetoric. The distinguishing feature tends to focus on the idea of a “relationship with Jesus.” Don’t ask this person to describe what they mean by this because they will simply fling more rhetoric in your face – this is the rhetoric of relationship. The other part is the rhetoric of religion – what is religion? Of course they won’t define it – professional religious scholars have troubles defining religion, but I’ll get back to that. The second problem is related to the first: Christians, for the most part, know nothing about any other religion except their own. Sure there are comparative theologians, but their premise for investigation is apologetics, not actual unbiased scholarship. But try asking a Christian why their relationship with their man-god is any different from a Hindu’s relationship with the Brahma or a pagan practitioner’s relationship with divine spirits or the ancestor worship of various cultures.
The above concept of the irreligious follower is based on the attempt to distinguish Christianity itself from religion. But what about those who see Christianity as a religion, or that Christianity has been corrupted into a religion of some type, and see themselves on a more spiritual path? You see the same idea in Wiccan, New Age or Spiritualist circles, but some Christians have co-opted the idea for themselves. Rather than setting apart their entire religion, they set themselves apart from their religion. Apart from the pious arrogance involved, what is really going on here?
Religion has gotten a bad rap, mainly for all the reasons I wrote earlier: structure, barbarism, uncivilized, uncritical, etc. These, of course, are ways to describe some actions of religions (including, of course, Christianity), but they are not defining points of religion. The definition of religion has been problematic for various reasons for scholars of the subject. It’s hard to know what religion even is. Is religion simply a category? Or does it have an essence? I won’t get into the details, but lets take a couple very simple definitions of religion:
• “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.” (Oxford American Dictionary)
• “the service and worship of God or the supernatural” (Merriam-Webster)
Both of these have glaring problems in that they are too limited. The first finds its limitation by its use of “controlling”, yet there are numerous examples of religions that don’t have a “controlling” supernatural element – one could argue that even Buddhism is such a religion. Again, the second definition is limited by the verbs, as not all religions necessitate service and worship. These definitions, of course, are not a problem for Christianity, which neatly fit into either. Maybe these definitions are too simple. How about Timothy Tweed’s recent convoluted definition: “religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” Tweed’s definition has its own issues, but no Christian would take this as anything but a compliment.
The commenter I mentioned above which distinguished Christianity as a relationship and not a religion argued that religion “is based on man’s ability to work or be moral enough to justify God’s love.” I think this is a fairly accurate representation of these people who deny their religiousity. Had this thought not been so prevalent among the evangelical community (or other Christians), I could merely disregard this writer as poor example. Yet if I remember my own reasoning from my youth correctly, I would have agreed, more or less, with this commenter. And it doesn’t appear to simply be the two of us: the idea that Christianity is not a religion because it is based on a relationship was used numerous times on the same thread (the now infamous, “Don’t Ask Me To Read Your Holy Book.” Yet as you can see from the three definitions above, is this really an issue? As far as I know, this would exclude many religions, including some of the major world religions.
My conclusion? These Christians are dishonest about their religiousity. They are dishonest because they are embarrassed. They are dishonest because they are ignorant. They are dishonest because they proud. They are dishonest because they are arrogant. They are dishonest because they want to be more special than they actually are.