Why I am Not Religious

November 2002

I used to be religious when I was young, but I got better. I suppose that, in some ways, I still am religious - but not in the way you are thinking. Okay, this is going to get very murky and confusing unless I define some terms first. This is especially necessary for the term "religion" since it is one of those words which is ill-defined in the minds of most people (based on my informal survey), with negative or positive connotations depending upon your point of view.  Certainly, we cannot talk intelligently about any topic unless we first comprehend the meaning of what is being said.


How do we define "Religion"?

Webster defines "Religion" as:

1 a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

and "Religious" as:

1 : relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity <a religious person> <religious attitudes>
2 : of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
3 a : scrupulously and conscientiously faithful b : fervent, zealous


Despite how Webster defines these terms, common usage seems to favor definitions 1b, 2, and 4 for "religion". Note that although most people would define religion in relation to a deity, the definition of "religious" includes "devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity" (emphasis mine). Any faithful adherent of a philosophy or scientific theory could be said to manifest devotion to an "ultimate reality". By that definition, and definitions 3a and 3b, Atheists and Evolutionists are also "religious". Atheism and Evolutionism also certainly rank as "religion" under definition 4. Mentioned repeatedly in both definitions are"faith" and "faithful". Certainly some people put their faith in philosophic or scientific theories. But although a faith is considered religion, faith itself is not. I am afraid the definitions given by Webster are so broad as to be nearly useless. This is not surprising since Webster defines the word by its usage, and its current usage is vague to pointlessness. However, if we ignore the usage of "faith" in the definitions as too broad, there remains one common thread that ties these definitions together: the idea of observance. To put it another way, religion has to do with faithfully observing certain practices, or rituals. In fact, if we look at what Greek word is typically translated as "religion" in various versions of the Bible, we find "threskos", which means "Ceremonial observance". Therefore, I submit to you that "religion" is essentially "following rituals". The rituals followed will vary from religion to religion, and from sect to sect within a given religion - but there are always rituals. When used in the context of faith in a higher power, the rituals have to do with things such as when/how/where to pray, what (not) to eat, who to associate with, how/when/how much to give, and so forth.  Incidentally, this working definition lets our Atheist and Evolutionist friends off the hook as far as being "religious".

Or does it?

An atheist capitalist is someone whose faith is ultimately in the capitalistic system. An atheist scientist is someone whose faith is ultimately in science and/or technology. An atheist Marxist is someone whose faith is ultimately in Marxism. In fact, among the much reduced numbers of this last example are people that hold to their faith in Marxism, even in the face of its failure. Any of these atheists would likely feel a need to promote their viewpoint and hold to a set of precepts which more accurately define their position and, even, how to live out their philosophy. Sounds like religion, doesn't it?

I submit that all humans are religious to some extent (as in definition 3a of "religious"). We all seek rituals for a sense of security or efficiency.  For instance, I have a morning ritual that I have honed over the years to maximize the efficient use of time such that I can sleep as late as possible without being late for work.  But I seek no further significance in the strictly self-prescribed ritual.  I also submit that we all have faith in some things.  When that faith is in a supreme being, coupled with appropriate rituals, I think most people would agree that is "religion".  But what happens when ritual and faith do not coincide?  My morning ritual has nothing to do with faith (other than the faith that, most likely, if I follow the ritual then I will have maximized my usage of time in the morning).  I believe in a Supreme Being, but I'm not religious about it.  In fact, when it comes to faith in God, I am adamantly anti-religious. (Granted, this has been a gradual realization for me, and I'm still divorcing myself from religion bit by bit as I come to more clearly see it within myself.)

So, our working definition of "religion" is faith in a Supreme Being, coupled with appropriate rituals. This is the definition I will use for the remainder of this discussion. Finally, we can let various philosophies, such as Atheism, off the hook as far as being religions. In fact, I will shrink the scope of the following to include primarily Christian Religion (as opposed to Christian Faith - the distinction should become clear as we continue).


Manifestations of Religion

Time for full disclosure: as I've already stated, I am anti-religious. I try to be tolerant of those of are religious, and who view religion as something desirable. But I must admit that, in my heart, I have trouble with these people. I submit to their right to hold their own opinions, but I cannot admire those opinions. In extreme examples, it is the religious who justify the more heinous acts of mankind - including the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Taliban, and people who purposely fly jet planes full of passengers into office buildings. Even many of the Nazis were religious. Those responsible for turning Jesus over to the Romans were the religious leaders of the day. Those who persecuted the early church were the religious leaders. But the admitted extremes do not, in themselves, mean that less aberrant expressions of religion are wrong. I know many religious people and I think that most of them are, in the main, decent people. And, of course, there are the occasional shining examples of religious people, such as Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. So, I will try to suppress my personal distaste for religion and look objectively at the more acceptable religious rituals in practice today and see what conclusions we can draw.

Tithing. The word inherently means giving 10%. Thus, a "tithe" of any other amount, more or less, is not technically a tithe. The religious types will hold to a strict interpretation of 10% of one's income. However, there are numerous problems with trying to be dogmatic here: is it 10% of your net income, 10% of your pre-tax income, or 10% of your disposable income? Do you include fair market value for all gifts given to you? If you lose money on an investment, do you tithe a negative amount for that loss? Is it 10% of your "first fruits" or 10% of everything you receive (and what is classified as a "first fruit")? I've even heard some people say that whenever your investments increase in value, you should tithe from that increase - even if you have not cashed them out. They don't mention what you do when your investments lose money. This is the religious way of viewing the tithe. The first problem is, the way it is practiced today doesn't resemble the way it was instituted in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 14:22-29) . The way it was set up was that you took your tithe and used it to have a big party to celebrate the blessings God had given you. Every third year, it was instead given to the politico-religious government. In other words, on average, 3.3% per year was given to the "church" and the other 6.7% was used to celebrate. When was the last time you heard a sermon on tithing mention this? The only analog we have today is Thanksgiving, but I don't see anyone spending 6.7% of their annual income to celebrate it. It certainly would be amazing if our government only required everyone to pay a flat 3% tax. But that was the other purpose of the tithe. The tithe was designed to provide for the Levites who ministered (governed) and to remind people once a year of how much God has blessed them. These two practical purposes for tithing are lost on those who practice ritual tithing. Another problem is that ritual tithing reinforces the idea that 90% of your income is for yourself. Once you've paid your 10% tax to the church, the rest is all for you. The truth is that everything we have is from God, and it all belongs to Him. The ritual tither gives exactly 10% and not a penny more. The non-religious tither gives what they can to help where they can and doesn't worry about the exact amount. They give cheerfully, not grudgingly, and do not feel guilty about spending some for themselves with thanksgiving to the One who provides for them.

The Sabbath. The Ten Commandments say that the Sabbath should be kept holy. You will find plenty of ritual Sabbath-keepers. But there are problems with dogmatism here too. The Bible says to do no work that day, but the religious leaders of Jesus' time had built up a huge set of rules as to exactly what that meant. We do not have space here to cover those rules. However, modern day ritual Sabbath observers are not much different. Some would say that doing anything other than going to church and sitting quietly is breaking the Sabbath. That means, no sports, no parties, and so forth. But Jesus said that the Sabbath was meant for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Modern day religious types seem to have the same incorrect perspective as the Pharisees. Besides this, with the exception of the Seven-Day Adventists and Orthodox Jews, most religious types don't even observe the Sabbath on the Sabbath (Saturday). Some have said to me that the church has changed the observance to Sunday, as the believers met on the first day of the week. This is setting aside the command of God for the traditions of men - exactly what Jesus blasted the Pharisees for. Of course, all of foregoing is the religious view of observing the Sabbath. Paul states the non-religious view in Romans 14:5: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike." (NIV).

In fact, the way that the religious view all of the Ten Commandments is a bit skewed. I believe that there are two main reasons for the Ten Commandments. First, they are a set of rules from a loving God to protect individuals and society. My young children are infinitely creative in finding very dangerous activities to perform. When their mother and I detect said activities (like trying to lean out of a second-story window), we immediately put a stop to it and institute a rule to cover the situation (if one doesn't already exist). It is not our intent to load them down with a bunch of rules and regulations. It is our intent to protect them from serious harm and even death. They don't have to understand the reasons for the rules (though we try to explain) - they just have to obey. And they will live longer if they do. The Sabbath is the same - it is God saying, "Take a break every seven days - don't work yourself to death". Second, the Commandments provide a common frame of reference for communication with God. You cannot communicate with someone with whom you share no common understanding. I believe that the second purpose of the Commandments is to provide a framework in which we can be in relationship with the Almighty. More on this later.

The Lord's Prayer. To me, this is the epitomy of ritualistic behavior: a group of people reciting the same words, in unison, on a regular basis. Jesus may have told His disciples to pray "in this manner", but it is telling that outside of this response to a question from His disciples, there is no mention of this specific prayer being used anywhere else in the Bible. Now, the lack of a record does not prove the absence of something. However, the fact that other prayers are recorded, and there is not even an oblique reference to this particular one, makes me think that the religious types have got it wrong again. I believe that the prayer Jesus "taught" His disciples was intended to be a template and an example of an acceptable prayer - not the exact words to repeat. Those who believe that the specific set of words is somehow sacred are missing the fact that the original prayer was in Hebrew, translated to Greek, and then to English. Therefore, they are not repeating the original words as given by Jesus. Further, there are slight differences even in English translations (for example, do you use "debts" or "trespasses"?) So what is the sanctioned set of words? This is the religious view of praying. The non-religious means of praying is simply talking with God - without a script.

Baptism. This is one of the only two rituals in which Jesus instructed His disciples to take part. John the Baptist didn't invent baptism, but he popularized it among the Jews of the first century. It was, effectively, a public renouncement of sin. As far as that goes, it was a fairly innocuous cultural ritual. It also was tied up in issues of faith, but most things in first century Palestine were. In other words, this was not a religious ritual as much as it was a means of making a specific public declaration in a way that was culturally relevant to the time and place. Jesus validated Baptism in His command to His disciples (Matthew 28:19). But I believe it was for the purpose of people starting a walk of faith with a public declaration. This was the initial, and non-ritualistic, purpose of baptism. However, over the centuries, consider how it has become a solely religious ritual, separated from any cultural relevance to the partakers. Once it became purely religious, the problems started: does baptism require full immersion, partial immersion, or sprinkling? If sprinkling, what method? Must it be in still water, running water, outside or inside? What ordained words are recited at the event? Is it required for salvation? And so on...

Communion. This is the only ritual with Jesus instituted (Luke 22:19). However, He did not implement it so much as a ritual, but simply as a means of remembrance. Paul formalized communion to an extent due to some excesses in the early church (1 Corinthians 11:21). But, still, the focus was not on the act but on the remembrance of what Jesus did. I liken this to an yearly event in my family's life: the harvest of apples from our apple trees. These trees are special to us because they were purchased just after we moved into our house. The money was a gift from my grandmother. She died a few years after that, but each time we harvest the apples, I remind my children of their great grandmother, whom they were too young to remember well, or at all. I don't turn the event into a religious ritual, and we'd harvest the apples even under other circumstances. But as we have seen, the religious types can turn anything into a ritual. And once that happens, dogmatism creeps in: what frequency do we take communion: annually at Passover, each meal, once a week, once a month? Do we use wine or grape juice? Do we use bread loaves or wafers? Do we need someone sufficiently "ordained" to oversee it? Do we drink from the same cup, or individual cups? Suddenly it is no longer a remembrance - it is a ritual for its own sake.

There are several other examples we could examine, but the common thread in all of these religious behaviors should be obvious by now. Before we discuss that, however, we would be well served to examine why people are religious. There are several reasons, and any combination of them could apply to any religious person.


Why religion?

Pride. Some people feel that religion is a contest. If they can out-ritual others, then they can feel spiritually superior. This allows them to look down on others, or to try to help the spiritually inferior "see the light". Such people should remember what Jesus said about the Pharisees who went around making other Pharisees and what He said about their proud hearts (Matthew 23:13-29).

Self-justification. Some people do not believe that what Jesus did on the cross is enough. It could be that they feel so bad about themselves that they cannot believe that His death and resurrection were sufficient. It could be that they are simply ignorant of God. In any case, these people feel that they can work their way into salvation.

Laziness. It is easier to recite someone else's words than to speak from the heart. It is easier to give 10% than be lead by the Spirit. One wonders what the point of religion is for such as person - it must be one or more of these other reasons.

Getting Man's favor. Some people perform for the sake of the approval of others. In a culture where religion is looked upon favorably, this is a way for them to develop their self-esteem. Sometimes people will not act religious entirely for this reason, but they may alter their rituals to maximize the approval they get from others.

Getting God's favor. Some people don't believe that they can earn salvation, but they do believe that they can only obtain God's favor if they perform the right rituals. They forget that God's favor currently rests on mankind in this hour of salvation (Luke 2:14; 2 Corinthians 6:2). They forget that He is a loving Father, rather than a taskmaster. Such people should hear what Paul said to the Galatians (v 3:1-3). This is the issue of "works", as opposed to faith.

A variation of this is the idea that we can force God's hand and manipulate Him into doing what we want - if only we can say the right prayer, or fast at the right times, or whatever. Have you ever heard someone talk about "invoking the blessing". It sounds like some sort of sorcery: if we speak the right words in the right way, we can get what we want. But God is not a cosmic soda machine, which if we put in the correct amount of change and press the right button will give us what we want.

Now, while it is wrong to do things to get God's approval, it is not wrong to want to do things that please Him, out of love. There may not be any apparent difference in behavior, but there is all the difference in the world as far as motives. The first motive is religion, the second is relationship.


Religion is irrelevant

It should be obvious by now that religion is about externals: what you do, how you do it, when you do it, etc. Since the rituals are an end in themselves, this is a classic example of form over function. Jesus, on the other hand, made it very clear that the externals are simply the overflow of the internals. He said that hate is the internal root of murder; lust is the internal root of adultery (Matthew 5:21-22, 28).

James says that faith without works is dead (v 2:18-26), and some people take this as license to be religious. But what James is saying is that works are the evidence of true faith. You cannot have faith without works, but you can have works without faith. If you truly have faith, the works will come naturally out of that faith. Just as bread cannot help but rise when it is full of yeast, neither can a person help but do the work of God when he is full of the Spirit. It is as natural as water flowing downhill, or a tree growing toward the sun. Most to be avoided is behaving Christian without being Christian. We are told about those "holding to a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof" (2 Timothy 2:5). The power is the Holy Spirit living inside the true believer. In other words, the true essence of Christianity is being in a love relationship with God through Jesus Christ. True Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. It matters not how correct your theology, nor how pious your behavior. In the end Jesus says to those with everything except the relationship "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:22-23). It should be noted that "knew" here means intimacy - as between a husband and wife. It does not mean, as the Jehovah Witnesses (a very religious group) say, "knowledge about". It is obvious that God knows all about us, and yet He only knows some of us. It also does not mean that one simply has great admiration for Jesus, nor even that one believes He is Who He says He Is (see James 2:19). Rather, it means being in an all-consuming relationship of ultimate intimacy, to which, by comparison, all other relationships pale.

I don't know if religion is inherently right or wrong - but religion is irrelevant. And, it is a poor substitute for the real thing. I have known those who I truly believe were Godly men and women who had a love relationship with God but were also religious. And we have all seen those who are religious and filled with nothing but hate. Obviously, anyone and everyone can be religious. Strip away the common trappings of religion and what distinguishes the good examples from the bad? Their relationship to God. Some people wonder about those who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in 2001 - was it devotion to God that led them to those actions? Not at all. Religion did. Here's why: Muslims do not believe that there is any guarantee for salvation unless they die in Jihad. Upon doing so, they are welcomed into paradise and waited upon by seven virgins. So, by killing themselves and others, all they were concerned about was themselves. This is the essence of religion. Someone in a love relationship with Jesus is focused on Jesus and not on self or other humans or their rituals. From this relationship, a subordinate concern for the well-being of their fellow man develops. Those so consumed by love of God and love of fellow man are willing to die (but not kill!) to carry out His will because they consider themselves subordinate to all.


The problem with religious Christianity

Though religion may have no relevance to an individual's final destination, I believe it is having a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of the church in many parts of the world. The more the church clings to the traditions of the past, the less relevant it becomes to the average person in society. When the church takes part in culturally aberrant behavior, such as passing the offering plate, or doing unison readings, or only reading archaic versions of the Bible, it is placing artificial barriers in the way of other people coming to salvation in Christ. If the general weirdness doesn't scare them away, then they are going to be hard put to discern the message from all of the tradition. The truths of the Bible do not change, but we must be able to distinguish between form and function. We must be able to discern the difference between the essence of the gospel and the traditions of men. Whenever we act in a way for which no cultural analog exists, we had better consider why, and be willing to embrace change to be as a "Roman to the Romans". This is not to say that Biblical mandates are to be abandoned. If there is a clear mandate, then we had better follow it, no matter how culturally aberrant it may be. But unless you believe that the culture is absolutely 100% unredeemable, there are many opportunities to present the good news within context of the culture. We should carefully consider what religious practices should be jettisoned in order to present a clear witness to unbelievers, so that no unnecessary barriers are placed in the way of someone coming to Jesus.


Take the test - are you religious?

Answer Yes or No to each of the following questions.

1. Are you more concerned with the letter of the law (in scripture) than the spirit of it?

2. Are you more focused on things (the Bible, the church, the Kingdom, the cross, Missions, piety, etc) than you are on the Person of Jesus?

3. Do you ever feel superior to others whose understanding of spiritual things is less than yours?

4. Are you more concerned with the specific words used in the Bible or a hymn than you are with the meaning?

5. Do you care more about what other people think of you than what God thinks of your behavior?

6. Do you constantly take your spiritual pulse rather than being completely focused on Jesus?

7. Are you more interested in knowing about God than communing with Him?

8. Do you believe that someone must be a member of a particular institution to be saved?

9. Do you believe that salvation is based on correct dogma?

10. Is your behavior in a church setting wildly different from your behavior elsewhere?

11. Do you believe there is anything that a person can do to make himself or herself more acceptable to God?

12. Are you willing to allow others the freedom to make honest mistakes?

13. Do you believe that there is only one acceptable way to do things during a church service?

14. Do you view church more as a formal event than as a family get-together?

If you answered Yes to any of these questions, you might be religious. If you answered Yes to most or all of these questions, you most likely are religious.