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.


  1. Huh? I am Christian, and I have no problem saying that Christianity is a religion. Most Christians I know have no problem with it either, so I am not sure who you are talking about. I have never heard of Scientific Materialism. Anyway what is so wrong with calling something a religion?

  2. This is proably silly, but I need some assurance. In the "Reason, Faith, and Truth Seeking" thread, I wrote:

    < quote >
    The problem is that in rejecting fluffy-headed mainstream Christianity, we can too easily conclude that the only alternative is that other prevalent religion of our culture: scientific materialism. But this religion lies as well. [...]
    < /quote >

    I'm sure this isn't what you are referring to in the present thread. If you were, I would want to point out that (1) I also refer to Christianity as a religion, and (2) this is an instance of poetic analogy, not a claim that materialism is literally a religion in the ritualistic sense.

    - S

  3. No, I wasn't assuming you were saying Christianity wasn't a religion. That's something I have heard from a variety of preachers trying to "reach the lost".

    I did think you were claiming Scientific Materialism was a religion, although I have read that claim in plenty of apologetics books. It was the fact that some people make both these claims that struck me as peculiar, and hence that post.

    I'm intending to reply to your post from last weekend, but haven't had the chance yet... will reply soon.


  4. Hi Daniel:

    I am one of the Christians you refer to who calls Scientific Materialism a "religion"... I am currently writing a paper which will explain and demonstrate that NeoHumanism is the predominant Religion of our Post-Modern era, and Scientific Materialism is a fundamental component of that religion...

    The definitions you included for us, for the word "religion", cover a pretty broad scope; SM can easily be seen as a religion if we use #4 from Webster and #3 from Chambers:

    -- #4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    -- #3: anything to which one is totally devoted and which rules one's life (e.g., "Mountaineering is his religion"...)

    If you have read much material at all written from the perspective of a Scientific Materialist, and if you have spent any time discussing World Views with a Scientific Materialist (I have done a fair amount of both), you will be impacted by the "ardor" and "devotion" with which these folks practice their faith...

    And regarding "faith", I prefer C.S. Lewis' definition: Continuing to believe what you were once convinced by the fact to be true... ("continuing" is the emphasis, there)...

    I would also add an additional element to the discussion: "Religion" is merely the consistent practice of the activities which stem from one's World View (as in, "she works out at the gym 'religiously' ")...

    So in this broader sense, SM is very much a religion; and it, like others, involves consistent practices which stem from a deeply-held World View.

  5. gskern:

    I think what you are showing is that there are some people that hold onto scientific materialism like a religion. But that is not an inherent property of scientific materialism; it is just the individuals that you refer to. Name almost any belief and you can find people that hold onto it like a religion. If that makes it a religion, then every belief becomes a religion and being a religion loses its meaning.

    So I think you need to show a lot more in order to make your claim that SM is a religion.