It has become increasingly popular for people to deny that they are religious or a member of a religion, all the while espousing religious doctrine and encouraging religious practices. Sometimes it seems that there are no religious people left in the modern world at all.
Between 10% and 33% of people in the U.S. identify as “spiritual but not religious,” a curious phrase considering that historically the two terms were synonymous. For example what people now label “spiritual experiences” are extensively described in William James’ 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Before you read on, think about the connotations of “spiritual” versus “religious” that you have and that you hear in the culture. What’s the difference?
This video of a young man giving his testimony in Jesus Christ recently went viral, accumulating over 15 million views. The odd thing is that his very specifically Christian beliefs that he expresses here also includes numerous attacks on “religion.” His testimony (but not his politics) would fit right in at any evangelical church in the United States, yet he says, “I hate religion.” What the heck is going on here?
The video is entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” and begins with the phrase “Jesus > Religion” (Jesus is greater than religion) displayed prominently. Whatever does this young man mean by “religion” if not a belief system, set of practices, holy text, and community—which in fact is the Christian religion? How could someone “love Jesus” without thinking that the Bible is a sacred text in some fashion, having a very specific belief system about the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus, etc.?
Here’s another example, in this case of a man who writes an article about how he’s not a Buddhist. Blogger Nella Lou (I almost wrote “Buddhist blogger,” but Nella Lou recently gave up the “buddhist” part of her blogging, but I think still identifies as a Buddhist when she’s not blogging) points out how odd it is that this article is published in BuddhaDharma magazine:
Here’s a thing I don’t get. Guy doesn’t want to be a Buddhist. No problem, don’t be. You tried it, didn’t suit you, fine. Why make the big hoopla over it? Same with Sam what’s his name, the atheist guy…oh yeah Sam Harris who’s had more than a few pages in Buddhist publications.
And why do Buddhist magazines publish this? It’s really odd.
I decide not to be a Muslim, Christian, Jew or Wiccan, do I expect their publications to put my articles there? Would they? Not too likely. Seems like a lot of these guys are hating on Buddhism but still trying to get some attention or make a buck off of it by scraping a few things off and repackaging it. Are the magazines that desperate for content?
The author’s article Stephen Schettini uses phrases and ideas from Buddhism and talks about attending a conference for Buddhist teachers, but is adamant that when he talks about Buddhist ideas, “I stick to plain language, but this isn’t stealth dharma; I talk openly of the Buddha and my past without calling myself a Buddhist.” Referencing the Kalama Sutta, that oft quoted Buddhist holy text which warns against believing without evidence but also calls for dedication to the teachings if one sees them as valuable, he says he is one of the “disillusioned, the irreligious, and the skeptical.” But he also adds “I draw a line between the Buddha, a man with something to say, and Buddhism, an institution with an agenda.” Sounds oddly like our not-Christian friend above.
Both this video and this article went viral, being spread around the internet. In the video, the non-Christian Jesus loving man says, “let me clarify: I love the church, I love the bible, and yes I believe in sin / but if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in.” The non-Buddhist author says “In that moment I recalled my students. With no need to belong to or believe in anything, they sought nothing but peace of mind.” It seems clear to me that both of these men are not anti-religious at all, despite their words saying such. I think it is simpler to describe the first man as a Christian and the second as a Buddhist, and to say that both are interested in the heart of their religion’s teachings and arguing against some aspect of the belief system or community they think is corrupt or somehow missing the most important elements of the religion.
The poetic young man says, “Jesus hated religion” but a case could easily be made for the opposite—Jesus loved religion so much that he dedicated his life, and indeed died for the cause of religious reform. The second commenter on the not-Buddhist writer’s article says “I call myself a non-religious Buddhist” but one could also say that he is interested in getting to the heart of the Buddhists’ teachings and practicing Buddhist religious practices with an authentic devotion instead of blind faith and mindless mantra repetition.
Of course these people would probably disagree with these categorizations, and in fact very strongly. The most offensive thing a person can say to an atheist is that they have an almost religious fervor in their quest to destroy false idols (which is what Jesus did), or that their “metaphorical” conception of God as a grand mystery that science cannot yet or possibly ever explain is nearly identical to how most Protestant theologians conceive of God (which usually it is). Yet looking more objectively on the situation, I’m not sure how else to make sense of the bizarre claims from what appear to me to be deeply faithful individuals seeking answers to the ultimate questions of life and death. Ultimately nobody hates religion exactly—what we hate is dogma, corruption, and inauthentic or mindless religious belief and practice…and that orientation is shared by a great many people of all religious orientations, whether they call themselves religious or not.
Update: I found this interesting opinion piece about the viral video on the Wall Street Journal.
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