Everyone Is Religious

What is religion? I found myself thinking about this question today. It’s a big one, unless you already decided long ago what religion is and therefore you don’t have to spare it another thought. I’m not exactly sure yet how to organize my thoughts on the subject, so I’ll share some ideas that may or may not flow one to the next, but I hope together they form something like a coherent whole. After all, that’s the root meaning of “religio,” re+ligere, to re-bind or re-attach. The Latin ligere is the same root word as in ligament. In this primal sense, religion is a shared life orientation or practice which binds together the way we see existence.

I don’t have the reference in front of me, but I learned that the adjective “religious” preceded the noun “religion.” The religious were those people who had taken a vow to practice a way of life. They were the cloistered, the mendicants, the desert fathers and mothers, the monks and nuns and covenanted mystics, as opposed to the “laity” who had other primary vocations such as archers and harpers and smiths and actors and weavers. So, before there was “religion,” there were the “religious,” those whose primary vocation was to practice a particular form of living.

Arguably, there is no such thing as “religion” in the Bible, at least not in the modern sense. There was such thing as life and culture and worship practices and roles and myths and stories and wars and poetry. If there was religion, it was the way a person or group would express their relationship to their culture and the diversity of other cultures surrounding it. In other words, religious practice was a verb; it was something you did. It was not a noun, something you had or belonged to.

The Bible itself doesn’t present just one religious expression, but a variety of them, sometimes agreeing but often in conflict. The ordered 7-day story of creation in Genesis was a polemic against the Babylonian story of creation. Both started with chaos, but in the Babylonian version chaos was overcome by an act of cosmic violence. In the Genesis version, chaos was overcome by nonviolent speech that resulted in a word of blessing. In the Bible, people didn’t ascribe so much to a religion as to a people or a culture.

What is religion today? For some, it is their chosen spiritual path. For others, it’s the tradition they have been born and nurtured into. Some think it is a pathology, a scourge, and an unwillingness to accept the creeds of modern post-englightenment culture. For others, there is only one true religion and it is the one they happen to belong to.

For my part, I am prone to think that to all humans are religious in the sense that all humans have religious questions. Where do we come from and where are we going? What is the meaning of life? What value shall we humans place on our own existence and the existence of the Earth and our co-creatures? What does it mean to live an ethical life? Does anything matter outside of my own personal needs? How do I interpret the full range of human experiences from my basic observations through my deepest intuitions? There are many more.

Someone reading this might be thinking, “Yes, I have those questions, but why do we need to call them ‘religious’? Why can’t we just call them “Questions about life’?” You certainly could, but I want to highlight that the tendency to divide people into religious and not religious is usually done from the religious or anti-religious side as a way of ascribing greater value to one’s own side and lesser value to the other’s. From the religious side, this sounds like, “Non religious people can’t be ethical because they have no greater power to provide them with a basis for their ethics.” From the anti-religious side, it sounds like, “Religious people insist on believing things that can’t be proved or logically justified.”

I think a more honest and wholistic approach would be to recognize that all humans have “greater powers.” In fact, most of us are beholden to several of them despite our professions of a particular faith. It’s a confirmable fact that people with no professed religion are ethical, often more observably ethical than people who claim the name “religious.” A question for all humans is, “What is the deeper basis of your ethical action, whether you have acknowledged it or not?”

It’s true that religious people believe things that can’t be proven or repeated or logically explained, but that is the case with all humans, even those who insist most vehemently that only logic and reason and science should guide our thinking. Perhaps they are right, but the reality is that lots of things guide our thinking, not all of which can be observed, proven, or reasoned. I have a friend who is an avowed devotee of logic yet he is the first person to cry at a wedding. It just overcomes him. True, a neuroscientist could explain the origins of emotional triggers, but the explanation would not do justice to the fullness of his experience, would not exhause all “reasonable” explanation for why this moment impacted this person in this way.

This far into my post, I’m realizing why people write entire books on this subject. There’s a lot to ponder. I’ll close with this. I recently finished “The Religious Case Against Belief” by James P. Carse. I bought it over ten years ago and finally picked it up again this past fall. Carse concludes that religion can’t be defined because it is too large a phenomenon to define. Consider that a religion doesn’t just create culture; it spans cultures. Christianity is, arguably, the most diverse multi-cultural phenomenon in the history of the world. Religions have an incredible ability to splinter and merge, to spawn innumerable interpretations and expressions. Buddhism has countless variations growing like fractals from three main branches. Religion creates and influences culture, include art and music and drama and literature and even science. Islamic scholars invented algebra.

I know I’m just scratching the surface of the conversation here, but I think it’s a conversation worth having and it’s worth deepening the conversation beyond the slogans slung back and forth. My own contribution is to suggest that all people are religious in the sense that to be human is to have questions about the depth of reality and the meaning of life on the planet we share. Instead of deciding who is religious and who is not, placing everyone in one or the other camp, and then dismissing them based on our category placement, let’s engage seriously with other people and with the variety of religious commitments we hold, traditional and otherwise.

6 responses to “Everyone Is Religious”

  1. In light of your thought, is there difference between being religious and being spiritual. The two seem intertwined, yet one often hears comment about being spiritual but not religious. Spirituality is often described as being an individual practice. Seems like one flows from the other though and both adjectives describe a way of living and relating and being bound to all of creation. Good stuff to ponder!

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    1. I see being spiritual and being religious as essentially the same thing. Spiritual emphasizes the individual whereas religious emphasizes a shared tradition. While I understand the “spiriitual but not religious” designation, it’s always struck me as another way to say my individual relationshiip with the divine is better than your tradition-bound relationship with the divine. If anything, I think spiritual is one way of being religious rather than the other way around. Spiritual but not religious is like saying Democrat but not policital. I’m aware that some see it exacly opposite from the way I do.

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  2. One Saturday afternoon I attended mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Old Colorado City. My friend, Fr. Eric Schimmel CSC was preaching to the title “Why I Am a Religious”. He was using the word as a noun and I later learned that priests who are part of an order (Fr. Eric is Holy Cross) and referred to as a religious (noun) have a dual duty of obedience, to the bishop and to their abbot, or equivalent. In contrast most priests are only duty-bound to their bishop. So, riffing on your word study, those priests who are part of an order have additional attachments, ligaments if you will. And as far as all humans have a religious impulse, I agree, in so far as we are essentially communal in nature. It’s the best and most difficult part of being church, to exemplify community, but that is our calling. I’m grateful for your writing.

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    1. Steve, thank you for this. I want to tell you that something you said many moons ago still sticks with me when I think of this topic. You were speaking in forum about the commonality of baptism and communion across Christian faith and that so many other doctrinal disputes were, I don’t know, fringe? But you didn’t speak at all disparagingly about any of it. Instead you called these doctrinal differences, “the genius of Protestantism.” I think of that phrase a lot and how God is too big to contain in any of our own individual spiritual philosophies. This diversity doesn’t prove Christianity is wrong or religion is pointless. Much the opposite is true. We need each other, including our diverse beliefs, to try to get a fuller picture of the mystery of reality.

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  3. God seems to require this interplay between personal pilgrimage to their shores and a more purposive journey enriched by tour guides made up of a faithful cohort of believers. The spiritual path and the religious path. The mystical and the body of Christ.

    Many friends — too numerous to count — have turned against religion for largely the same reason: religious people tend to misuse religion. “Misuse,” is a softened word. “Warp,” would be more accurate and, “Weaponize,” might be more fashionable. Given that, I fault no one for defining themselves as, “spiritual, but not religious,” despite the fact that it’s a little like calling oneself, “human, but not mammalian.”

    I had the opposite experience. Solo spirituality was disorienting after a time. I saw I didn’t need to abandon religion at all, I instead needed to rethink what God’s inspiration and revelation really meant in light of my own experiences. I need the tour guides so I don’t get lost alone on my pilgrimage or miss a lot of important landmarks on the way. At the same time, I’ve gone much deeper into contemplative prayer in the last four years than ever because you can’t really grasp the world only reading Fodor’s.

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  4. In my humble opinion, Jesus isn’t concerned with our “religious” affiliation or our proclamation of belonging to one group or another. Jesus is concerned with the condition of our heart. Jesus/God wants us to love Him first, and then our neighbor. This is how we know the Holy Spirit is at work.

    Jesus isn’t caught up in the labels we have invented to divide ourselves from one another. Jesus only ever preached and taught love, unity, fellowship and forgiveness. Yet we have figured out a way to make it about ourselves, which group we belong to, and which of us is right…instead of making it about Him and our neighbors.

    Am I religious? I have no idea, but I do know that, as I study scripture, it seeps into my very soul. And for that I am truly humbled and grateful.

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