In a letter to atheist Richard Dawkins, pastor David Robertson comments:
“One final thought. You claim to be a religious non-believer. That to me is the worst of both worlds. I hate religion. I think that Marx was in some sense right – religion has far too often been used as the opiate of the people. In the name of religion a great deal of evil and harm has been done.” (Robertson, The Dawkins Letters, Kindle location 344-346).
Do you hate religion? Do you dislike religion? Do you find religion unhelpful? This is a popular sentiment among evangelicals. I’ve heard famous preachers disparage religion. I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered some variation of“I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” Here’s the title of a book selling on Amazon: Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough (Jefferson Bethke). A Christian friend of mine recently stated emphatically: “Religion is man-made.”
“Religion”, once a common word used to describe Christianity, has now fallen into disrepute – especially among evangelicals. This concerns me, although, to be honest, I don’t particularly like the word and seldom use it myself when a better option is available. I understand why others may avoid it. It feels musty; 19th century-ish. For many it evokes a picture of empty rituals, long boring sermons, and endless rules/protocols to follow. For others, it implies legalistic attempts to earn our salvation by doing good works. For still others religion reminds them of failed religious institutions. Some are not hostile to religion but merely want to emphasize that our relationship with Christ must be at the center (which I agree with). Probably even more influential is the sense that lots of modern people are turned off by the term. “I’m spiritual but not religious” is a common self-description. In this environment it may seem helpful to say “I’m not religious either. I’ve got something better.” That allows us to hurtle at least some of the anti-religion sentiment when talking with others.
So why am I concerned about our current disdain for the term “religion”? Why not just mothball it and upgrade to other terms? The English language is always evolving anyway. Actually, my intent in this article is not to promote greater use of the word “religion”. It’s a word with enough negative connotations in our times that usually we can find a better choice (like “my faith” or “my relationship with Jesus”). My concern is that choosing to use the word so disparagingly may create other problems.
What are the problems with making “religion” a negative term?
1. The problem with making “religion” a negative term is that it’s confusing
Dictionary.comdefines “religion” in this way: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
This definition reflects a long-standing use of the word “religion”. Notice its neutrality. Religion is basically a set of spiritual beliefs and practices — defined neither as good nor bad. Furthermore, religion does not even require an organization. It can be individually-based. Even more important, the Bible itself uses the word “religion” in this sense – calling it potentially “pure and faultless” (James 1:26, 27). Apparently James didn’t hate religion.
When evangelicals say things like: “I hate religion”, however, they’re usually not saying: “I hate essential Christian beliefs and practices”. What they usually mean is “I hate the misuse of Christian beliefs and practices. I hate the misuse of the Christian religion.” Those misuses often include things like works-salvation, legalistic rigidity, or corrupt religious leaders and institutions (all of which we should oppose).
These special definitions of “religion” are usually assumed to be understood by the listener. But are they? How do they know, evangelicals, that when we say “I hate religion” we’re not saying, “I hate essential Christian beliefs and practices”? Some of our hearers, do hate (or at least reject) essential Christian beliefs and practices. They label these “religion”. Unless we carefully define what we mean by “I hate religion” it’s easy for them to assume that we agree with them – that we’re rejecting basic Christianity itself.
2. The problem with making “religion” a negative term is that it creates a false dichotomy
Unless we’ve created our own custom definition of “religion” (which is what critics of the word “religion” usually do), religion and relationship are just as inseparable as a body and its shadow. My relationship with Christ doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If I claim to be a Christian, my understanding of the Jesus I’m relating to is defined by the Bible – in other words, by what’s usually called “religion”. I can’t have a saving relationship with Jesus without having religion. And if I ignore the Bible’s teachings about Jesus, wanting to avoid “religion”, will I still have a saving relationship with the real Jesus? Probably not. As Paul makes clear in the New Testament, salvation must be based on a true understanding of the gospel and not just any version of salvation that people happen to think up (Gal. 1:6-9). This leads to my third concern:
3. The problem with making “religion” a negative term is that it’s risky
What’s the risk? The risk is that someone will reject the biblically sound, spiritually essential elements often included in what we call “religion”. They may reject crucial doctrines, like the deity of Christ, or salvation by grace alone, because of their association with organized religion. They may sidestep moral purity because “religion” promotes it. And they may reject the local church because it represents “religion” to them.
The Bible, however, says that all of these elements are a necessary part of coming to salvation and then maintaining a healthy Christian life. Do problems sometimes arise because of them? Of course. Christians may be saved, but we’re still imperfect at this stage. And let me take a moment to point out that “relationship” is just as liable to go south as “religion”. Haven’t you met people who claim a relationship with Jesus whose lives are worldly and whose beliefs are unbiblical?
It’s risky to set aside sound doctrine, moral purity and the local church. The latter is a crucial source of protection, guidance and encouragement . Healthy Christians need the church (1 Corinthians 12:21-26).
So what am I suggesting? Here it is: avoid using the word “religion” if you want. I myself have shelved it for the most part. But when you feel the need to get negative about some aspect of spirituality, speak carefully and accurately. The problem isn’t “religion”. The problem is the misuse of religion. If you’re conversing with someone who “hates religion” find out what they mean by that. It may be that they hate some abuse of religion — in which case you can assure them that this practice is a distortion of what “pure and faultless” religion is supposed to be. It may also be, however, that they’re rejecting the basic essentials and practices of Christianity — in which case you don’t want to give their rejection of religion a blanket approval. And, without rejecting the concept of “religion”, we can still emphasize relationship. Someone has said that “Religion without relationship leads to rebellion.”A love relationship with Jesus is meant to be the incredible center out of which every other religious element of Christianity flows. Pursue that love relationship with all of your heart.