The Insult of Religion
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called “I’m Not Spiritual but Not Religious (But I Can See it From Here). It was a gesture of empathy, if of an exceedingly grudging sort, toward some of what might be animating this ubiquitous declaration that echoes throughout the post-Christian landscape. I could appreciate, I said, the suspicion of institutions and the labour they require. I get it, I said, that it’s frustrating to come to a religious institution with a hunger for God and meaning and get asked to join a committee. It’s understandable, I said, that endless debate and “discernment” and bureaucracy can have the effect of stifling the profound human yearning to know and be known by God. Given some of the drearier realities of what the word “religion” conjures up for many, I could understand why some gravitate toward a statement like, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
I wrote that post after a weekend immersed in provincial church business meetings, so I was probably in a weakened and vulnerable state 😀. Three-and-a-half years later, even the grudging empathy for the expression that I was able to muster then seems to have largely evaporated. It’s possible that I may even have heard it on a podcast while taking a road trip recently and angrily blurted out a defiant (and solitary) riposte: “Well, good for you. I, on the other hand, am religious but not spiritual!” Surprisingly, my little temper tantrum wasn’t as cathartic as I’d hoped. That’s what blog posts are for, I guess.
“I’m religious but not spiritual” is not a statement that I would expect to get much traction these days. Words like “religion” and “religious” often function as insults, full stop. Religious people are ignorant or violent or both. Religious people get Trump elected. Religion is the source of all the nasty “isms” and “obias” in the world. If you want to discredit a movement, just call it a “religion” and watch the fireworks of protest erupt. The other day, I was listening to a podcast where the decidedly irreligious Sam Harris was discussing anti-racism with Columbia linguist John McWhorter and it was fascinating to observe how the word “religion” operated in their conversation. Calling anti-racism a “religion” was almost enough, in and of itself, to discredit it.
(I happen to think Harris and McWhorter are mostly right in pointing to the religious character of antiracism and critical race theory more generally but would differ in my assessment of what that means. Another post for another time, perhaps.)
Similarly, Tara Isabella Burton’s new book Strange Rites uses the word “religion” in a way that I suspect would be most unwelcome among the people and movements she describes. The book is a fascinating tour of the “remixed” spiritual landscape of the early twenty-first century, locating everything from Harry Potter fandom to “woke” social justice culture to alt-right atavism to Silicon Valley tech-utopianism to wellness culture to sexual kink and polyamory within the broad category of “religion.” According to Burton, religions provide their flocks with four crucial things: meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. People may be fleeing more traditional sources of these things in droves, but they’re still scratching that itch somewhere, she says. I think she’s exactly right. But I also think that nothing would irritate an adherent of any of the above communities more than calling what they’re doing “religious.”
Even those who should know better have little use for the word “religion.” It’s not hard to find popular Christian churches, speakers, and authors downplaying or even outright rejecting the word “religion.” Come to our church, we’re more about relationship and connection than religion. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion, after all—he came to hasten the end of religion, if anything! We’re nothing like that boring old church you grew up in with all its dry rituals. Etc. Jesus evidently needs to be set free from the religious shackles we have imposed upon him to make any hay in the twenty-first century.
I, on the other hand, am growing fonder of the word. There are as many disputes about the etymology of the word “religion” as there are about its merits, but one that I have always been drawn to locates the origins of the word “religion” in the Latin religare, which means “to bind.” The one common thread that runs throughout post-Christian west is a lack of binding. Whatever language we employ to describe it, faith and spirituality in the twenty-first century is profoundly fluid and amorphous. It has no fixed address, if you will. Burton describes this as “intuitional religion”—we do not look outward but inward to discover create truth and meaning for ourselves:
We are, in other words, too special, too unique, too singular for the communal demands of ordinary, traditional religion. We curate and render bespoke everything else about our lives. Why should our faith not be similarly fluid?
Why not indeed?
Well, for starters because I am not, in fact, too special, too unique, too singular for the demands of ordinary religion. Left to my own devices, I’ll invariably come up with something stupid, selfish, and insufficient. I need religion to bind me to a truth outside of myself, my own intuitions and preferences, my own insatiable need to enhance my brand and perform my virtues on the public stage. I need religion to provide ancient wisdom, to “insult” me with uncomfortable truths about who I am and what I’m prone to. I need religion for confession and absolution and judgment and mercy and transcendence and meaning beyond what I am able to manufacture for myself. I need to bind myself to Christ and his church in order to be set free.