I recall growing up in school and hearing about religion in two senses: 1) a deeply held belief that one adhered to and celebrated generally centred around Christianity, and 2) that religion was the ‘opiate of the masses’; in that it keeps people in a state of being disillusioned and blind to what is actually true.
Even in movies, religious men are generally painted as hypocritical, fanatical, illogical, impassioned but wrong, tyrannical, or even simply naive. Outside of my observations through school or movies, in my conversations, religion seemed to be portrayed as rigid, bland and unattractive.
It was in the light of this, growing up in my teens, and into my twenties’, that this sentiment became commonplace: to want a relationship, and not religion. What compounded this belief was the argument advanced against Christianity that, in the name of religion, many evils have been committed: including the crusades, slavery, etc.
For some time now I have been musing on the sentiment that still exists today. There is still an aversion to being identified as being “religious”, since such a label communicates an idea about being a Christian that one would never wear.
Truthfully, none of the above are attractive and are labels I would ever want to wear. After all, who would ever want to be thought of as naive, rigid or blind? I certainly would not. Labels are indeed powerful. They have the power to excite pride or they can bring shame. Even beyond the idea of being religious, in some spaces some would prefer to be called a follower of Christ rather than a Christian, since the label of being a Christian carries unnecessary baggage.
I understand honestly when anyone struggles with wearing labels. They are often put on us without permission or understanding, but we can also be ignorant of their meaning, and so misunderstand their use. I have found both parts to be true, particularly the latter, which Peter Hitchens speaks rather astutely about.
He says that, “words are congealed thought- in some cases, very congealed indeed. Some words are congealed lack of thought. When we use words badly, it is because we are too lazy, or too hurried, to think about what they mean”. (Hitchens, Fantasy of Addiction)
In school during English classes, we would always have sessions of the class where we did ‘words and meaning’ to teach us not just about words, but the meaning of words and also when and how to use them.
I am in no way accusing anyone of being too lazy to ascertain the meaning ‘religion’ or ‘religious’. The above quote is meant to encourage us to find out the meaning of a word communicated and stand on that. In other words, if a certain word has a definition or meaning, changing it because of what others have decided to think about it, is not the only option.
Instead of cleaving to a new word, we can renew the word. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, religion is defined as, “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith”. Whether we choose to wear the label or not, the above definition is essentially anybody who holds to any set of beliefs. The crux of the matter I think will always be, is this true?
Another reason why I have been thinking about this topic is because of what James the Apostle says in his book James Chapter 1, Verses 26-27, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts 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”. (English Standard Version)
After reading about a religion that is worthless and one that the Father accepts, I could not conclude that religion was bad, or that we had a reason to be averse to labelling ourselves as religious. What I conclude is that there was a religion that we can accept, the one which the Father accepts.
Now, one may argue that to decide to change the word that has lost its meaning is harmless; and that the aim which is to remove the stumbling block from seekers or non-Christians is preferred. I’ll admit that the intention is noble, and may very well reap the intended results.
I would like to suggest another way to view it, for us to think about. It may very well be that the aversion is not so much to the idea of religion itself, but to the ‘strength’ of one’s conviction. The preference may be to hold loosely enough to a thing so as to allow differing views. The caution I think is noteworthy but, no conviction, or a loose conviction can be just as bad as too strong a conviction.
I would suggest the approach of humility that serves well when we engage with religious convictions. We must also remember that it was the strength of religious convictions that drove men to address slavery, poverty, illiteracy, etc.
On the side of believers who may say that what they see in religion is unattractive or untrue: that may very well be true, but I would say as a caution; that too often to get away from one wrong thing, we go to the other side of the pendulum and embrace something else that may be attractive, but have we questioned its truthfulness? I would encourage us to think about religion through the lens of Scripture - the basis upon which we judge all things.
Paul Lewis is a Staff Worker for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in Kingston Jamaica, where he also resides. He has aspirations of becoming a Christian apologist and he loves reading, especially topics like: History, Philosophy and Theology. You can follow him on twitter @PaulAULewis
Paul Lewis' previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/paul-lewis.html