Religion 101

Religion 101


How MANY Religions Are There? (Part Two: When Is A Religion “Not A Religion”?)

posted by Reed Hall

In my previous blog entry, I asked the seemingly simple question: How many religions are there in the world, today?

(Never mind about all the myriad bygone religions of the remote past. And never mind how many people think exclusively of their own religion alone as solely and genuinely qualifying as “authentic religion,” thereby deeming all other faiths to be something less than “true religion.” We covered all of that in Part One.)

Before proceeding further in addressing the opening question, however, there’s yet another “never mind about” item which should perhaps be addressed and gotten out of the way, right up front.

Christianity sometimes wants to be taken as being the one and only “true” religion in the world, in contradistinction to all of the other (allegedly “false”) religions with which it shares that world.

At other times, however, Christianity often seems to want to paint “religion” itself as being some sort of negative, emphasizing instead that Christianity is “true” precisely because it is, itself, not really a “religion,” after all.

(If correct, then whenever we do finally get around to actually counting up all of the world’s religions, the total number will end up being shorter than most people would probably otherwise expect– shorter, that is, by exactly one religion — if indeed Christianity is not really a “religion,” per se.)

Where am I getting all of this? From that fairly sizable (and rather vocal) contingent within contemporary evangelical Christianity who often stridently insist to all within earshot that “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship.”

The implication here is that Christianity is somehow special (distinctly different from all of those “mere religions” out there), and somehow unique by comparison.

I have never quite gotten the logic of this particular way of thinking.

Many Christians today certainly do tend to regard their Christianity primarily in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and to emphasize how unique that makes Christianity. However, I fail to see how this can in any way fundamentally differentiate Christianity from all other entities commonly known as “religions.”

Firstly, every religion is unique, in one way or another, differing from all other religions in certain respects. So, any religion can easily point to something (anything) that happens to be unique about itself and say, “Aha! See? This is what makes us uniquely special! This is why we’re not ‘just a religion,’ but something else (and something far superior) altogether!”

Secondly, yes, many Christians today think of Christianity as being all about “a relationship with Jesus Christ,” period (and as if this somehow has nothing to do with “religion”). In this view, “religions” are just false manmade edifices constructed of vain beliefs and practices, rather than any sort of “living relationship.”

However, such a view seems to overlook the fact that even Christianity as a presumed “relationship” (rather than a “religion”) is itself likewise predicated upon a set or system of certain highly specific beliefs, practices, scriptures, and institutions that can be only characterized as essentially and inarguably religious in character.

For Christianity to be “not a religion” but instead primarily just “a relationship” already implies the affirmation of certain very specific religious beliefs. For instance, there is obviously a belief that there is, in fact, Someone out there (e.g., that Jesus Christ exists at all), a belief that Jesus Christ is who and what the Bible seems to say he is (as per the believing reader’s interpretation of Christian scripture), a belief that Jesus Christ actually exists in the particular manner, and with the particular characteristics, that the believer believes he does, a belief that such a “personal relationship” is even possible at all, and of course a belief that such a “relationship” is supremely desirable and infinitely beneficial — including also specific beliefs regarding precisely what the beneficial effects of such a relationship will be for the believer (eternal salvation, spiritual fulfillment, etc.).

In addition to an entire package of quite specific and detailed religious beliefs being implicit within the seemingly simple claim that Christianity is “not a religion, but a relationship” (specific beliefs about the very nature of that relationship, how it is established, what its value and meaning are, etc.), religious practices, religious scriptures, and religious institutions are also seldom very far away, either.

After all, even those Christians who insist that Christianity is best understood as a “relationship” (rather than as a “religion”) nevertheless themselves follow any number of related and clear practices – practices that can only be construed as essentially and undeniably “religious” in character. They certainly pray, for example, in order to actively participate in that “relationship”; they may seek to emulate the central object of their relationship, by attempting to behave or be more “Christ-like” in character themselves; they may observe certain traditional Christian religious holidays, or other Christian religious traditions; and they may also actively seek to spread the word of the gospel message as they understand it, attempting to recruit others to this “relationship” (or this “religion”) that they enjoy.

Additionally, even those who maintain that theirs is a “relationship” rather than a “religion” do other things which adherents of admitted and avowed “religions” also do: they read, study, and abide by what they believe to be holy scripture (there are a whole host of additional implicit religious beliefs regarding the nature and status of the Bible, by the way, which they also accept on faith).

And they may even be involved, to varying degrees, in highly structured and institutionalized aspects attaching to this “relationship.” They may affiliate with a local church, for example. It may be a church which is part of an established Christian denomination (each of which also has characteristic and quite specific religious beliefs and practices of its own), or it may be a so-called “non-denominational” church (which will of course still have specific beliefs, doctrines, practices, etc.). Or they may choose not to attend a formal church, but may instead perhaps opt for an informal Bible study or a “home church” (in which case they are still part of a “church” or worshipping community, if in a somewhat looser sense). Even if all they do is watch Christian televangelists on TV, or listen to Christian radio, they are still watching or listening to undeniably and inescapably religious broadcasting.

So, this whole “not a religion, but a relationship” thing has always struck me as not very well thought out, and not particularly well supported by the bigger picture (which is already implicit within that particular Christian catchphrase, as a moment’s reflection will reveal).

Okay, end of rant.

Now, back once again to our opening question: How many “religions” are there in the world today?

(To be continued, in Part Three.)

 

 



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