The word religion
has gotten a bad reputation lately, not with atheists, but with Christians! I decided it was time to find out why. To quote the famous words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Haters Gonna Hate
Search for the hashtags #ihatereligion, #religionstinks, and #godhatesreligion on Twitter, Facebook, and even Instragram, and you will find posts (to use the term generically) from a variety of people stating why they hate religion. The reasons are often specific and the language quite emphatic. At a high level, the vast majority of the posters can be classified as belonging to one of two broad groups of people.
Atheists. As one might easily guess, Atheists comprise the first group. Some just want to rant, often targeting Christianity or Islam explicitly. The bases for their opinions are not new: religion is a collection of fairy tales, religion contradicts science, religion is only good for starting wars, etc. Others have simply lost their faith and deny God, usually because they are suffering from a great loss. Ever hear someone ask how a loving god could possibly allow something so awful (e.g. cancer, terrorism, etc.) to exist? But today I’m not interested in exploring why Athiests hate religion. It’s expected. It’s what they do. It’s in the name.
Christians. It’s the second group of posters that seems counterintuitive: Christians! After all, wouldn’t most people classify Christianity as a religion? This notion isn’t exactly new. You may remember a viral video released by Christian evangelist Jefferson Bethke in 2012 titled Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. With almost 31 million views to date, it is still available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure. I’d really like to decompose the content of that video, but that’s a post for another day. Bethke’s message is that religion always interferes with one’s ability to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The aforementioned posts sing pretty much the same tune. By the way, there are a good number of evangelical pastors that exude this message on social media channels, constantly re-enforcing the hate rhetoric amongst their followers.
On a side note, I really expected to see more posts from the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, not so much the New Age followers, but the disenchanted Christians who for one reason or another have given up on church, but can’t bring themselves to totally give up on God. Common reasons for holding this position include hypocrisy within the church organization to which they belong and sheer boredom with the routine they’ve been forced to keep since childhood with no perceived benefit. Sometimes they claim to hate “organized” religion. Even if they really do hate religion, they don’t seem to be very vocal about it. You are more likely to hear them express their non-religiosity when you extend an invitation to attend a worship service.
What Is Religion Anyway?
It seems appropriate that if you are going to hate something so badly that you have to tell the world about it, then you should at least understand what it is first. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case with our Christian hater friends. Let’s take a moment to examine the meaning of religion and get a feel for what it really means to be religious.
Etymology. When it comes to defining words, I always like to start by studying their etymological origins. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, religion is derived from French and Latin, and is defined by words and phrases like devotion, respect for the sacred, reverence, conscientiousness, moral obligation, faith, and worship. Given these definitions, it is hard to understand why any Christian would object to religion, since these words describe Christians of just about any stripe. Faith is obviously an important Christian concept, and any Christian excited about their faith will likely self-identify as being devoted to Christ. Christians worship in a variety of ways, some traditional, some contemporary (some with rock concerts). And based on the parables of Jesus, Christians generally agree that they are under a moral obligation to love their neighbors as themselves, even if they don’t believe it is required for salvation. Next, let’s examine how the word has been used by various writers throughout time.
Cicero (45 B.C.). In writing on the nature of the [Roman] gods, Cicero wrote, “Piety, as with other virtues, cannot exist as a pretense (i.e. an outward display only). Without piety, sanctity and religion must be eliminated, leading to a life of turmoil and great confusion.” [De Natura Deorum, Book I, Chapter 2] In this case, Cicero uses the word religionem, which can be translated as: conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation, duty. This agrees with the French usage explained above. It is noteworthy that Cicero distinguishes between those who offer an abundance of prayers and sacrifices for something (in the case of this text, for the long lives of their children) as a superstitious people and those who carefully read (and reread, i.e. study) about those things which the gods require in worship as being religious. The former are admonished and the latter praised. [De Natura Deorum, Book II, Chapter 28] Here, Cicero uses the word religiosi, meaning one who is devout, which again agrees with the etymology described above. [Please note, I am referencing Cicero only because his works are often cited to show how the English word ‘religion’ was derived from Latin. The fact that he writes in the context of a pagan religion is irrelevant to the usage and meaning of the word itself.]
Lactantius. Lactantius was an early Christian writer and advisor to Emperor Constantine. His work The Divine Institutes outlines the false worship of gods and the false wisdom of the philosophers, and then expounds upon true wisdom and religion, justice, worship, and how to lead a happy life. Like Cicero, Lactantius distinguishes between religion as the cultivation of truth and superstition as the cultivation of that which is false. He goes on to say that how one worships (e.g. which prayers are used) is not important in comparison to what one worships (i.e. the pagan gods vs. the one true God). In disagreement with the notion that being religious must come from learning, however, Lactantius claims that religion is derived from the bond of piety. God is, after all, our master and father, and deserves our full obedience. [Divinarum Institutionum, Book IV, Chapter 28]
Augustine (426 A.D.). Saint Augustine also employed religio to mean duty to God. In the tenth book of The City of God, Augustine explores the words that one might use to describe man’s duty to serve God alone. [De Civitate Dei, Book X, Chapter 1] Two chapters later, when commenting on Matthew 22:37-40, he says this about the love of neighbor: Hic est Dei cultus, haec vera religio, haec recta pietas, haec tantum Deo debita servitus (translated: Here is worship of God, here true religion, here right piety, here the service due only to God). Wait, did he just say ‘true religion’ and ‘God alone’? Evangelical Fundamentalists are often taken aback when they hear such words attributed to a Catholic patriarch; after all, shouldn’t Augustine be writing about worshiping statues of Mary and other such abominations? Maybe he too was spiritual but not religious, right? Wrong. In fact, he wrote a work titled On True Religion shortly before becoming a Catholic priest (390 A.D.). Primarily an appeal for the Christian faith to the Manicheans, it mentions much about religious rites and Christian discipline, and even the exclusion of members of other religious sects from the Catholic communion on the grounds that they differ in doctrine, despite similarities in their rituals. [De Vera Religiones, paragraph v,9]. Another point made by Augustine [paragraph x,19] with which many Christians would agree is this: “Don’t serve the creature instead of the Creator or have empty thoughts. That is perfect religion (perfecta religio est)“. Finally, he exhorts “Let religion bind us to the one almighty God” (religet nos religio uni omnipotenti Deo). In this last quote, Augustine clearly agrees with Lactantius that religion is more than mere duty, but a binding relationship with the Lord.
Thomas Aquinas (~1260 A.D.). In addressing the question as to whether or not religion directs man to God alone, Saint Thomas cites both Cicero and Augustine, explaining their various opinions, but reasons further that regardless of how the word evolved, it clearly denotes a relationship with God. Not only should be bind ourselves to God, and continually seek him, but we should always strive to recover the relationship with him that we lose whenever we sin. [Summa Theologica II-II, Q 81 A 1]
Modern Usage. Take a sample of definitions from modern dictionaries and you will find that the first definition will almost always refer to a belief (and worship) in a supernatural power (in a god or set of gods). This definition is usually followed, if not immediately, by a reference to rituals, ceremonies, observances, practices, teachings and rules. According to the same Online Etymology Dictionary article cited above, the English definition of a “particular system of faith” actually dates back to as early as 1300 A.D., not long after Aquinas wrote the Summa.
Ecclesiastical Usage. When the Church refers to someone being religious, it typically means that the person is a member of a religious order, living apart from society and according to a particular devotion. This refers, of course, to monks, nuns, and brothers and sisters in religious communities. These people bind themselves to God voluntarily in daily prayer and recitation of Scripture, and they make God the focus in every aspect of their everyday lives. The local parish priest is typically not a religious in accordance with this definition, though some parishes are run by, say, Dominican priests or Third Order Franciscans, to give two examples. Again, the notions of duty and binding, and even the concept of drawing oneself closer to God through re-reading are all present.
Pope Leo XIII (1885 A.D.) Returning to the modern meaning of religion as a particular set of beliefs, Pope Leo XIII had the following to say while examining the relationship between religion and the state:
To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice. And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name. [Immortale Dei, 31]
Clearly, this is a refutation of religious pluralsim, but it contains within it a basic principle born out of our own human nature: religious practice keeps man close to God. To keep from wandering into disbelief, man must find some way to bind himself with the Lord, and this binding, as we have seen in the previous excerpts, is itself religion.
From what we’ve read above, it doesn’t sound like religion is a bad thing at all. In fact, it sounds like an essential part of maintaining a right relationship with God. So where does the negative connotation come from?
Without an exhaustive study of religious literature, it would be hard to pinpoint exactly when this mentality become popular, but traces of it can clearly be seen in American Christianity and the revival movement starting in the mid- to late-1800s. In order to demonize Catholicism, Christian writers and preachers (who were either ignorant of or chose to ignore everything we’ve covered thus far) have since gone to great lengths to paint the Church as a corrupt organization with satanic intentions and superstitious practices designed to achieve nothing but to keep its members as far from God as possible. This certainly shines through in works like Ellen G. White’s The Great Controversy (1888) and Loraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism (1962). One might even successfully argue that these sentiments can be traced directly to Martin Luther. One quote attributed to Luther seems to use the word religious in the pejorative: “The Pope is a mere tormentor of conscience. The assembly of his greased and religious crew in praying was altogether like the croaking of frogs, which edified nothing at all.” If the hate for religion was seeded in Protestantism, it has been most effectively fertilized in Christian Fundamentalism.
I will close with this thought. If religion is binding oneself voluntarily to God, then it is perfected in Heaven where his will is done perfectly. Only in Hell is one truly free from religion, as no creature therein has ever chosen to bind themselves to him, for if they had, then they would not be there presently. In the end analysis, all hate originates from one source.