Friday, June 23, 2006

True Christianity is Not a Religion ... but Scientific Materialism Is

Many times I have heard the claim by evangelical Christians that "true Christianity" is not a religion but rather a "relationship with God." The argument goes something like this: "Religion is a human concept by which people try to reach to God through various rituals or good works. However the message we preach is that God did all the work himself and now wants a relationship with you. Since this salvation is God-dependent it is not a religion". Clearly a key goal of this argument is to distinguish "true Christianity" from the thousand and one other religions that have similar-sounding claims on individuals.

In other discussions, I hear the claim that Scientific Materialism is the "religion of this age." It is a religion because it is believed on faith and it largely affects one's interpretation of the world. The goal of this argument is to throw back on the naturalist the same criticism he makes of the person who believes in the supernatural: it is all a faith belief.

It is interesting how Christians are so happy to redifine the word "religion" in different ways in different contexts so that it applies exactly to their enemies. These two definitions are clearly inconsistent: if Scientific Materialism is a religion because it is dependent on faith in unproven assumptions, then surely "true Christianity" also is a religion. So why not just use a dictionary definition. Here are a couple from Webster's dictionary and Chamber's dictionary:

    Religion [Merriam-Websters]
    Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
    1 a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion) b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
    2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
    3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
    4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    Religion (noun) [Chambers]
    1: a belief in, or the worship of, a god or gods.
    2: a particular system of belief or worship, such as Christianity or Judaism.
    3: colloq anything to which one is totally devoted and which rules one's life • mountaineering is his religion.
    4: the monastic way of life.
    ETYMOLOGY: 12c: French, from Latin religio bond or obligation, etc, from ligare to bind.

So religion is a broad term. It clearly applies to "true Christianity" whatever relationship with God is implied. It is not required that religions believe that people work their way to heaven. Denying this is being deceitful, although I have seen worse forms of deceit in making converts.

Does religion apply to scientific materialism? By this I assume what is meant is a rejection of the supernatural. Surely this can include all kinds of beliefs, certainty, lack of certainty, devotion or lack of it, atheism or agnosticism or even deism -- basically just about anything. To call this a religion is again a misapplication of the word religion. In justifying the claim, Christians might point to a devoted camp of naturalists who act with religious zeal. I don't think it applies to these either, but even if it did, that does not mean people in general who reject the supernatural have a religion.

The term religion should be used honestly and it should clairify the issues. Unfortunately the way some Christians use it is often the opposite: it is both dishonest and it is used to muddy the issues in the debate with naturalists.