A New "Religion"?

Most of us are probably familiar with the popular and somewhat new self-identification many people embrace in calling themselves "spiritual but not religious." This was originally a term primarily used by those who had disassociated with traditional organized religions in favor of a personal privatized spirituality. But in recent years it seems that a great many Christians have embraced the "not religious" designation as an important part of how they view their own experience of Christianity.

I am, on the one hand, not a fan of using the word "religion/religious" in this way. But at the same time, I have become convinced that many of those who employ this language are identifying a very real and dangerous phenomenon that exists among many Christians, one that we need to be aware of even if we don't favor the "not religious" terminology.


With all the good intentions in the world, the "not religious" proponents, by their language, often promote a wholesale distrust of religious organizations. Some do so rather explicitly. Perhaps the example most of my readers are likely to be familiar with is Jefferson Bethke's viral spoken word video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus which managed to elicit a response from Fr. Robert Barron because of its popularity.

While I would consider Bethke's video a mixed bag of making some excellent points but overgeneralizing the faults of "religion," others have absolutely pegged this phenomenon that some name as religion or the spirit of religion. I think the first time I was able to get over the misuse of the word "religion" and recognize this phenomenon came while reading John Eldredge's Beautiful Outlaw.  The difficulty in naming this phenomenon arises out of the fact that it is, in fact, a subtle counterfeit of true religion. "The religious fog uses sanctified words and activities, things that look and sound very Sunday school to distort our perceptions of God and our experience of him.  It is cunning as a snake and adaptive as the flu, infiltrating our practices to make them ever so false" (Beautiful Outlaw 168).


So let's go on to identify the characteristics of someone under the influence of "religion."  What I have been describing as a phenomenon is really best described as a mindset.  The following list is not exhaustive but represents some of the characteristics of this mindset that I encounter most frequently, particularly in Catholic circles.  The so-called "religious" mindset...

...emphasizes rules over relationship.

A rules-based mentality says, "What's the minimum I need to do to keep you off my back?"  It is a mentality that wishes to avoid punishment rather than cultivate relationship.  A husband approaching his marriage with this mentality will buy flowers thinking, "This should buy me some time until the next obligatory romantic gesture," rather than with a mind to bless and affirm his wife.  The goal of this attitude is the avoidance of punishment rather than the pursuit of intimacy.

...emphasizes intellectual knowledge over experience.

Doctrine becomes paramount to one's faith-life.  True religion is equated with believing a certain set of teachings without any need to experience them.  For instance, St. Paul's list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 might be accepted and believed, but there is no felt need on the part of the person to actually operate in the gift of prophecy, or healing, or evangelism - they are content with merely understanding.

...is skeptical of emotional expressions of faith.

The emphasis on intellectual knowledge says that if I believe the truth that I am a child of God through Baptism, then there isn't a need to feel like a child of God.  In fact, desiring to feel the truth of what we believe is seen as an affront to faith which "believes without seeing."  If experience is devalued, then the emotional responses that often accompany authentic encounters with God are viewed with suspicion.  At the very least, they are seen as concessions for those who are "weak in faith" and need the emotional buttressing.

...lowers scripture to the level of experience.

"Don't lower scripture to the level of your experience, but let your experience rise to the level of scripture."  I was riveted by this exhortation at a conference recently.  Oftentimes, those who are content with intellectual understanding will interpret scripture in a way that accords with their experience.  They will reduce the gift of prophecy, for instance, from being a genuinely supernatural action by saying, "We all prophecy when we tell others about our faith."  The gift of healing has the miraculous gusto removed from it and is associated with "the healing power of kindness."

...places a higher value on suffering than on victory.

I believe that much damage has been done by an over-emphasis on the value of suffering in the Christian life.  We so often hear about the need to "carry our cross" without ever being told that "the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses" (2 Cor 10:4).  As a result, many continue carrying certain sufferings around - especially in the form of guilt and shame - that God never intended for them to bear but meant for them to overcome by receiving the promises of God and taking up spiritual authority.

...prefers servanthood to sonship.

When the prodigal son returned home, he wanted to be treated like one of his father's hired hands.  A servant shows up to work, performs the duties on his checklist, and then goes home.  Being a son is a round-the-clock responsibility.  A son carries his father's name and helps fashion his father's reputation.  But along with the greater responsibility there is greater privilege.  Like the prodigal son, many of us would happily accept the lesser privilege for lesser responsibility.


What I think is at the heart of all this is that the "religious" mindset turns Christianity into a human endeavor rather than a work of divine initiative.  In this climate, God's favor becomes a prize that is earned rather than a gift that is given.  Perhaps what reveals the presence of the "religious" mindset in a community most clearly is the presence of two extremes of pride and shame - pride and a triumphalistic attitude for those who have succeeded in following the rules, shame and self-condemnation for those who have failed.

The only way to overcome this "religious" mindset is to embrace an authentic Christianity which places God's acceptance at the beginning of the journey rather than at the end.  It means putting people in contact with the all-sufficient atonement in Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection so that they can experience the unconditional love of the Father and begin learning to live out of a new identity as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.  Thus begins that beautiful process which Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 3:18: "All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit."


I am reluctant to turn this post back to the issue of terminology for fear that it will distract from the more important aim of understanding the phenomenon of the "religious mindset."  And yet, a new terminology may help clear the path for a better understanding of what we're dealing with.  To this end, I invite a conversation down in the combox in the hopes of finding a new "religion"!