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On Not Being Religious

Are you religious?

It’s a question the pollsters Gallup have been asking Americans since 1999 – and charting a slow decline in the percentage of the population saying yes.

It appears in polls and surveys this side of the Atlantic too, including one I filled in the other day. The pollsters clearly feel the question is uncontroversial and unbiased, a helpful tool to winkle out the desired information.

The same question crops up in online dating encounters. From experience, it tends to come after hobbies, pets and hilarious dating disasters.

Are you religious?

If you happen to be a pollster – or a hot date, for that matter – there’s something I need to tell you:

It’s the wrong question.

In fact, it’s so much the wrong question that it’s likely to elicit the opposite response to the one you’re digging for – at least from me.

Faith has played a big part in my own story: journalist-turned-priest after serious car crash, writer on faith and culture; setting up new churches. To a pollster, or a date, that’s going to sound very like a yes to being religious.

But it’s still a no from me. In part, because I think there’s something dubious about the category of religion.

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Inventing Religion

The idea of religion as something distinct from the rest of life didn’t exist before the 17th century.

It emerged at the time of the European Enlightenment, an age that idealised progress, reason and the separation of church and state. Sacred and secular were uncoupled. Religion became a term for a sub-set of human activity, a cabinet of curiosities where beliefs and rituals were displayed.

I’m not convinced religion was ever a helpful category, because it misrepresented what it claimed to describe.

The Hebrew Bible has no word for religion – or even a word for Judaism, for that matter. From the perspective of historic Judaism, the idea of separating faith from the rest of life seems bizarre.

The Qur’an has no word for religion. Islam sees itself not as religion but as whole-life submission, with sharia law regulating all areas of life.

There were no words for religion among the various Native American peoples, who found the term untranslatable. Distinctions of sacred and secular are meaningless in a worldview where nothing is not sacred – including lakes, mountains, plants, animals and clouds.

The Japanese had no word for religion until the 19th century. Shukyo, principles or teachings, only came to mean religion after contact with American culture and the arrival of modern Western categories.

The words Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism didn’t exist till the 19th century, even if practices associated with them go back millennia. The labels came from western thinkers imposing an expectation of what religion is, and how it ought to work, onto a diverse mix of cultures, lifestyles and practices.

India had no concept of Hinduism until the British Empire invented it – Hindu was simply the Iranian word for Indian.

We peer into the deep well of history and shout, ‘Aha! I spy religion!’ But that’s rarely what it would have felt like to those involved.

Many would have described their mix of belief and lifestyle as law. The Hebrew halakha, Sanskrit dharma and Arabic din may be thought of in religious terms today, but all three historically meant law. Tao (or Dao) means path; early Jewish Christians referred to themselves as The Way.

Jesus calls whole-life disciples, not cosplayers in a spooky realm distinct from the rest of life.

To call the Jesus movement religion is to impose an alien template on it. Like the innkeeper Procrustes of Greek myth, who stretched guests who were too short for his bed and lopped limbs off those who were too tall, it imposes categories and chops bits off in the process. (a)

I’m a Christian, albeit one with lots of questions. I don’t want lugubrious gents in mutton-chop whiskers insisting religion is hymns, hell and hassocks, when my faith invites me to a wider horizon that includes jazz, justice and joy.

So how would I describe my faith? Holistic, maybe. Or finding the sacred in the ordinary. Or finding wonder in unexpected places.

What I’ve never felt is particularly religious.

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Cultural Myths About Religion

Let’s back up for a moment. Maybe I’m just playing with words here. After all, everybody knows what religion is: organised systems of belief, devotion and ritual.

Look up any definition of religion. That’s what pollsters have in mind when they ask if I’m religious. For now, let’s accept the popular understanding of religion.

On that basis, how could someone like me not admit to being religious?

Because the word religion also smuggles in a baggage of cultural myths beneath its bulging overcoat. Here are four of them.

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Myth 1: Religion v Spirituality

Earlier we referred to the Gallup polls that ask Americans if they’re religious. The actual question is more specific:

Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your beliefs -- you are religious, you are spiritual but not religious, or you are neither?

This divide between religion and spirituality is a feature of our culture. It not only appears in opinion polls, it’s common in dating too: almost all dating apps give the option of spiritual but not religious. It’s become the normal way lots of people describe themselves.

In the popular mind, religion is institutional, hierarchical, dogmatic; spirituality is personal, unstructured, intuitive.

Religion is imposed, spirituality is authentic. Religion is unthinking obedience to arbitrary rules and authorities, spirituality is free. Religion is outer, spirituality is inner. Religion is legalism, spirituality is liberating. In this framework, not only is religion not the home of spirituality, it’s a hindrance to it.

This is a cultural myth that would have sounded weird in any culture other than the modern West.

If I were asked, I’d say no to being spiritual as well as religious – because I find the word spirituality equally unhelpful. But that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, the point is this. Our cultural myth of religious v spiritual says religious people are inauthentic, legalistic slaves to arbitrary rules, performers of mindless rituals mandated by a hierarchical institution.

Who’s going to admit to that?

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Myth 2: Religion v Science

Another of our cultural myths is that religion and science are enemies. The myth gained prominence in the 19th century, and became a trope of the New Atheism in the early 21st.

This myth believes religion is irrational and obscurantist – opposing the march of science, unfettered inquiry and progress. The fact that this myth is mostly untrue hasn’t held it back from popular acceptance.

The Islamic Golden Age, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, could hardly be accused of neglecting the sciences, mathematics, astronomy or medicine.

Later, modern science and technology emerged in Christian Europe. This built on the scholarship of the Christian universities in the Middle Ages, and was made possible by innovations in medieval Christian Europe – such as water and wind power, casting iron, mining technologies, new building techniques, and improvements in timepieces, glass lenses and navigation aids. (b)

Many of the leading scientists, mathematicians and engineers of the modern age were practising Christians, including Kepler, Boyle, Faraday, Mendel, Meitner, Lavoisier, Kelvin, Babbage, Heisenberg, Anning, Davy, Linnaeus, Morse, Lister and Pascal.

In our own day Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project and one of the world’s leading biologists, is a Christian and founder of BioLogos, a forum on faith and science.

But dirt thrown in the 19th century still sticks. We’ve inherited a myth that pits religion against science. The religious person is the one who takes refuge from reality in fairy tales.

Who’s going to admit to that?

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Myth 3: Religion as Control

Another cultural myth is that religion is essentially a tool of the powerful to oppress and control.

It’s what I call the Wizard of Oz objection: sonorous, godlike words are revealed as hollow or deceptive when the curtain is pulled back – to reveal a weedy charlatan desperate for personal power and prestige.

But this objection is misleading. It lumps all religion together, and writes off the whole lot as a power-grab. This is clearly untrue.

Throughout history faith has been the strongest motivation for fighting oppression, often at severe personal cost. Just a few prominent examples:

  • Wilberforce, the Evangelical Anglican politician leading the fight in the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade.

  • The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists leading the non-violent defence of Tibetan cultural identity and rights under Chinese rule.

  • Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero speaking out against political violence in El Salvador; Catholic trade unionist Lech Wałęsa leading the Polish pro-democracy movement that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

  • Bonhoeffer and other Lutheran leaders resisting Nazism in Germany.

  • Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr and other Christians leading the US civil rights movement.

There are countless examples of less high profile groups and individuals living out their faith in practical, caring ways – such as the British Sikhs feeding huge numbers during Covid lockdown.

The early Christians inherited from Judaism the idea that human beings were made in the image of God. As the faith spread through the Roman Empire, the high levels of infanticide in Greco-Roman culture (particularly female infanticide) dropped. The early Christians were benefactors of cities in the ancient world; they transformed the status of women; they cared for the poor and sick. All of this ran counter to the culture of the day.

Today the Church of England alone runs 33,000 social action projects. Faith groups take the lead in a vast range of charities and caring initiatives. The many faith leaders I’ve known down the years have been dedicated and selfless.

But the myth survives: religion is a mask worn by the powerful, concealing an agenda to control and manipulate.

Who’s going to admit to that?

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Myth 4: Religion as Violence

Not only is religion about control, says our culture, it’s invariably linked to violence.

I’ve lost count of the times people have told me most of the wars in history were caused by religion, and religious zealotry is the fuel for hatred.

Clearly it’s true that religion is sometimes invoked to justify slaughter. As I write, news reports are carrying the story of another stabbing in a European city, in which the attacker called out the name of God. It’s also true that religious labels have been attached to wars and conflicts through history. (c)

And then there are the Maya. Oh my goodness, the Maya.

In Mayan Central America, between the 3rd and 17th centuries, civic events such as the opening of public buildings were accompanied by rituals of sacrifice to the gods. One involved a human victim, often a high-ranking captive, being painted blue all over, decapitated, and his skin removed and worn by the officiating priest. (d)

Down the centuries, it’s hard to deny that some expressions of religion have had blood on their hands.

Where the modern myth-making begins is with the claim that all religion tends towards violence, and that removing its baleful influence will make society kinder and more open-minded.

What would remain, according to this narrative, is the tolerant, soft-focus humanism of John Lennon’s Imagine:

Nothing to kill or die for,

And no religion too.

Imagine all the people

Livin' life in peace.

Recent history has a rather different narrative.

The 20th century can be seen as an experiment in creating heaven on earth by stamping out the superstitions of religion. Stalin’s Russia; Mao’s China; Pol Pot’s Cambodia: over a period of just 60 years, 100 million people were killed by their own governments.

The rise of atheism was not incidental to this. In the 18th century writers pointed to evils done in the name of religion, and 19th century thinkers such as Marx believed society would be freer and happier if religion were outgrown. Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge slaughtered two million Cambodians in its killing fields, studied in Paris as a young man and was influenced by the student Marxism he found there.

State-sponsored atheism killed 10,000 times more people than the Spanish Inquisition, in a dramatically shorter period. The power of the state became absolute, unchecked, brutal. (e)

Post-spiritual utopianism found its own justifications for industrial-scale violence:

We have a glorious vision of paradise-on-earth, but an enemy within is blocking progress.

One generation can be sacrificed for the sake of future generations.

Troublemakers must be eradicated for the good of the People.

State-sponsored atheism proved less tolerant, and far more violent, than the worst excesses of any religion. But still the fake news circulates: to be religious is to be filled with an irrational zeal that leads to violence.

Who’s going to admit to that?

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On Not Being Religious

Are you religious?

The pollster and the date mean well. They think they’re asking a factual question that isn’t loaded.

If the word religion didn’t stagger in weighed down by the baggage of so many cultural myths, maybe that would be the case. Meanwhile in the real world, here’s how the question sounds:

Are you an inauthentic, legalistic follower of mindless rituals and arbitrary rules; a dogmatist with no inner life; a tinpot despot who controls and manipulates others; an irrational and violent zealot?

Forgive me if I don’t rush to say yes.

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(a) Don’t get me wrong. The Enlightenment and Victorian eras had many positives. But their sacred-secular divide messed up all sorts of things, including how we think about faith.

(b) David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press 2009), pp71-73

(c) Even when the underlying causes were more political or tribal. Genuinely religious wars are rare.

Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Lion 2006), p86

(d) It’s unclear where the Notices and Intercessions came in a Mayan order of service.

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© Mike Starkey 2023

Pic: Mike Starkey, from painting in the Victoria & Albert Museum


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