A challenge to the traditional understanding of “religion”, exploring religion’s attributes, and demonstrating how everyone is religious – even atheists.
Everyone is religious. However, religion is not always expressed in prayers, kneeling, and hymns. An atheist’s religion (yes, atheists are religious – see below) looks different from a Christian’s religion, but there are some core similarities between all religious commitments and expressions.
In this post, I aim is to challenge the traditional understanding of “religion”, explore religion’s attributes, and demonstrate how everyone is religious – even atheists.
Pastor Tim Keller helps frame the discussion in the first part of this video…
“Everyone is religious. Every religion points to something that is ultimate. Your religion points to what really most matters to you. Even if you just live for yourself and you say the only thing that matters to me is that I’m free to choose what I want to do with my life, then your freedom now is the ultimate thing. Your freedom is like your god. It’s what you put your faith in and your hope in as well as your own competence to make decisions about how to live life. So if you’re living for your own freedom, or if you’re living for your family, or you’re living for your nation or you’re living for God, or you’re living for a certain kind of god, that affects the way in which you live. Everybody has to serve something as their ultimate hope and meaning in life. Therefore everyone is religious.”
Keller’s point is poignant. Religion is not for elderly women who don’t know any better. Every person on the planet demonstrates a religious affection by serving “something as their ultimate hope and meaning in life.” Everyone has a “god”, if you will, even if they never go to church. And that “god” directs their philosophy, their morality, and their life direction. Or in short, everyone is religious.
Structure of Religion
Psychiatrist Scott Alexander wrote a post on Is Everything A Religion? In the post, he references other writers who identified several philosophies and movements that could be considered religions including transhumanism, political liberalism, political conservatism, and even Apple.
This idea may seem strange. How is a technology company like Apple a religion? Where are its pews or priests? How does one sin in the religion of Apple?
The Apple example is a bit extreme, but it illustrates the point that some people take their ‘i’ devices very seriously. These adherents to ‘Apple-ism’ uphold particular truths about the universe more importantly than others, based on their worldview. So whether we do so in an Apple, Christian, or Transhuman context, all people uphold this basic structure of religion…
- Scriptures – Books about the religion that are considered authoritative by its adherents.
- Gurus – Teachers and well-known figures that people follow in the religion.
- Traditions – Rituals and practices done regularly by the religion’s followers.
- Commandments – Recommendations from the scriptures or gurus.
- Sin – Anything that breaks the recommendations or traditions of the religion.
- Salvation – Following the religion will result in the betterment of the person or society. It can include, but does not necessarily include aspects of the afterlife.
Test this religion structure out for yourself. Take any philosophy, religion or pseudo-religion like Apple and use fill in the blanks using the above structure.
Test Case: Is Atheism A Religion?
For illustration purposes, I will use Atheism. Just like Christianity and Islam, Atheism is also a religion. The atheist has the same sorts of religious commitments as Christians or Hindus. Here’s how a run-of-the-mill atheist might fill out Alexander’s structure of religion.
- Scriptures – Humanist Manifesto III, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, or similar works.
- Gurus – He listens to and distributes lectures from atheists Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others (just watch the atheist’s Twitter or Facebook feed).
- Traditions – He holds to traditions like tearing down traditional Christian structures in Western society and promoting atheist education at the university. And so on.
- Commandments – Abortion on demand, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, etc.
- Sin – following Christianity (what they call ‘religion’)
- Salvation – human flourishing
So despite his protestations, the rabid atheist is just as religious as the fundamentalist Christian. Creation.com summarizes the idea of atheism as a religion…
“Contemporary Western Atheism unquestionably has six of the seven dimensions of religion set forth by Smart, and the remaining dimension, ritual, has also started to develop…other than the denial of the divine, there is little difference between Atheism and other worldviews typically labelled as religions.”
Universal Extent of Religion
In our post-Christian context, we have been conditioned to think religion is bad. No doubt, there are many irresponsible and immoral expressions of religion – think Islamist Jihadis blowing up public buses. Religion can incite murders and bloody revolutions. But the point is not that religion can be bad – it can be.
The point is that religion is inescapable.
Religion, in the traditional understanding, characterizes most of the habitable planet. Depending on which survey you read, people on the planet describe themselves religious: 33% Christian, 21% Muslim, 14% Hindu, with everyone else dividing up the rest of the pie. See chart below.
The takeaway from the chart is clear. Most people on the planet ascribe to some religion. Assuming the validity of these dated numbers, 84% of human beings are religious in the traditional understanding of the term. However, if we understand the remaining 16% of non-religious people as being religious (as I illustrated above) the number is much closer to 100%. In other words, everyone is religious.
“Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Conclusion: Religion is Inescapable in Human Experience
Religion is inescapable. If you are a human being, then you are religious. You can’t help being religious because it is how God created you.
However there is only one religion where a God-man was sent from heaven to die for the sins of his people and was resurrected to demonstrate his power over death. Only in Christianity did “Christ Jesus (come) into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15). Everyone may be religious, but only one religion’s central figure is Jesus of Nazareth, the savior of the world.
- Scott Alexander: Is Everything a Religion?
- Daniel Smartt: Is Atheism a Religion?
- An Alternative, but complimentary understanding of religion is Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion.
- Adam Ford’s Web Comic: Everyone is Religious
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.