I’d like to look at this specific argument because I’ve seen it quite a few times recently. I’m not talking about agnostic theists here. I’m talking about the people who say “I’m not religious, I have a close personal relationship with God”, or “Religion is humans trying to find God – Christianity is actually knowing God (or God revealing himself to us personally)”.
Most people would see the contradiction in this, but there are some who use it to claim that while other people are religious, they themselves are not, because they believe in a real god and the others don’t.
The short answer to this is that regardless of whether or not your god really exists, if you have any belief in a god that is beyond mere speculation, you are religious by at least one sense of the word.
To clarify this, let’s look at the definition…
Definition of religion (source: Oxford Dictionaries)
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods:ideas about the relationship between science and religion
- [count noun] a particular system of faith and worship:the world’s great religions
- [count noun] a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion:consumerism is the new religion
By this definition (the first sense), the claim above has already been refuted, as it involves the “belief in and worship”… “esp a personal God or gods”. The second (a particular system of faith and worship), would apply to anyone who identifies as a member of any denomination. I’m going to ignore the third sense (a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion), because it’s merely poetic license (a simile or metaphor), and by this definition just about anything that’s popular can be called a religion (for example, “chocolate is my religion”).
In the interest of being thorough, let’s look at the entry in Dictionary.com:
- 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.
- a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
- the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
- the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
- the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
By these definitions anybody who claims to believe in a non-specific god, or higher power, is religious by at least the first sense of the word, and belief in God, Jesus, Allah, or any other specific god is religious in many more of the senses.
Only a person who thinks that the existence of a god is probable, but not certain, and doesn’t make any claims about the nature of this god, could be considered non-religious. Because the level of belief varies, it can be difficult to draw a line between non-religious and religious belief here. You might think it’s more likely that a non-specific god or higher power exists, but not God, per se. Or, you might think it’s probable that God exists. I would draw the line between these two, but either could be called semi-religious as the language is ambiguous. This doesn’t really make any difference to our central question though, because anybody who has what can be considered a belief in a god is religious by definition, as we have seen above.
Why Not Own It?
The definition of religion is quite clear here, and use of this argument is certainly contradictory, so why do they use it?
One reason that I think explains why a person might use this argument is that he knows his religion is just one of many, but wants to single it out as being special. He likes to think that there is something more in his own beliefs that set them apart from all the rest – which must be mere beliefs – unsubstantiated, irrational, and wrong. He wants to believe that all the rest are religious, but he is somehow above all that mundane god-seeking – somehow more advanced than the first humans who, when faced with the inexplicable mysteries of life, the cosmos, and the fearsome unknown of death, could only explain them by imagining gods or magic (which also explains the theist’s refusal to concede that their god employs magic) – and that he knows the real truth. Regardless of all this self-consolation, he is still religious by definition. Perhaps this refusal to admit one’s religiosity is an indication that the believer intuitively understands that their deeply held and maintained belief systems are nothing more than primitive superstitions.
One last thing I’ll mention is a comment that I hear often – the claim that atheism is a religion.
Of course, this might be true in Oxford’s third sense above (a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion) – atheists are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to religion, because of all the problems caused by religion. This, comically, is the argument that theists almost invariably use to classify atheism as a religion. Perhaps they have misunderstood its use as a simile, or disregarded it to serve their rhetorical purposes.
It doesn’t, in any way, meet any of the other definitions. There are some theist apologists who do use atheists’ acceptance of scientific theories (such as evolution or the big bang) and the existence of atheist organisations as examples of dogma, sectarianism and the like. This reasoning is very weak, but I won’t go into it here – I’ll try to get to it in another post soon.
To attempt to equate a disbelief in gods with religion suggests yet another veiled admission by the theist that his beliefs are unsubstantiated, thus he seeks to undermine the positions of others rather than support his own. It is analogous to an unintelligent person who, rather than trying to prove his own intelligence, simply claims that everyone else is as unintelligent as he is. If his beliefs had any substance, he should be able to reason for them, rather than try to bring everyone down to his level.
Religion is faith, or simply unsubstantiated belief, and any attempt to elevate this mere belief above primitive superstition, or drag other evidence-based beliefs or ideologies down to the same level, is not only futile but indicative of its own weakness.