A Little Religious Etymology (Part 1)

At work, a conversation between two coworkers.

“Your sister’s really cute.”

“But you know, she’s also really religious.”

“Yeah, well…” his intonation finished the sentence.


Our culture hates religion. Even the church speaks disparagingly of it. In fact, we hate it so much that the very word is makes us cringe! Why bother figuring out what we hate? It’s much easier to use the word as a universal insult or curse.

The world is a step ahead of the church in this: they at least have a good idea of what this thing called religion is which they hate. To them, involvement in any organized faith constitutes religion. But as long as you only are involved on a Sunday, you’re not really very religious. Truly religious people change their lifestyle due to your beliefs (organized faith or not).

So, when the church uses one of its favorite un-think phrases, “Christianity is not a religion,” people stare at us in disbelief. I made up the word un-think for situations like this. It sounds a little dumb, which I think communicates its own definition really well. Anyways, we have big buildings. We meet and do religious things (like sing, study, and pray). We don’t do certain things like live with the girl you love before marriage. We give money to this “non-religion.”

How is that not a religion from the world’s perspective? To say otherwise sounds hypocritical. We fail to communicate with the world, which means we fail in our job: communicating the gospel. We have refused to become all things to all men, because it’s just so hip in the church to trash talk “religion” (whatever that is). In fact, when we insist that Christianity isn’t a religion, we actually sound very religious. It’s like how a cult-member will tell you very strongly, “I swear, I’m not in a cult!” If they admitted otherwise, they may still be in a cult, but at least we would respect them for their honesty.

Definition

What does religion mean? I hate it when people pull out dictionaries during sermons, so I’m going to wing it.

My definition of religious beliefs has always been beliefs about the meaning of life, the existence and character of God, life after death, the morally correct way to live life, and the spiritual realm. A religion then is an organized society based on similar religious beliefs. In this sense, atheism is a religion as much as Christianity as much as Wicca.

Of course, that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about “religious.” The word has become twisted in the last century as a result of a boom in secularism, agnosticism, and the omnipresent postmodern worldview.

Nowadays, a religionis a society organized around a belief in a god and a set of rules. In another un-think move, atheism steps out the picture here, because by definition it doesn’t believe in God. For some reason, secular humanism has categorized itself in a separate category from “religion,” and has made itself the de facto church in American schools and public debate, despite the fact that it answers all the same questions of life as a religion. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I dislike the popular definition of religion: it lets some religions get away with claiming they’re not religions.

Colloquially, “Religion” contains a nuance of an organized religion (i.e. someone with a  vague, new agey spirituality might not be part of a religion). It also contains a nuance of someone who is dogmatic, unreasonable, and disrespects people with different beliefs. But more commonly, we have pictures of Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtering Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. We have pictures of people bombing abortion clinics. We have pictures of a preacher in a nice suit publically disowning his pregnant daughter as a shame to the family name. “That’s religion,” we say. Whatever the technical definition, those images characterize the popular definition.

And this is why preachers across the nation spout the phrase “Christianity is not a religion.” Because who wants to be associated with that word?

In the more traditional terms of a few centuries past, a religious person was one who followed the commandments of the Bible. Someone who cared for the homeless was religious. Someone who spoke in anger was not. In these terms, the Crusaders were some of the least religious people in history, because their actions so contradicted the faith they claimed to follow. It used to be a very positiveword.

This is how the Bible uses the word: “Religion that God our Father honors as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

I’ll throw out one more definition, which is how we usually use it in the church. You could substitute the word “legalism” for “religion.” In these terms,  religious activity is activity that has the appearance of holiness without true holiness. It can also be an extra-Biblical command that people treat as mandatory. A religious statement is that Christians should never drink alcohol at all. A religious attitude is that dating is inherently wrong. A religious person is the man who doesn’t drink, smoke, dance, or cuss, but he speaks disrespectfully to his wife and children. I’d sum this definition up with the verse about the Pharisees, “You wash the outside of the cup, but the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25b)

Don’t forget to read part 2!

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