We aren’t a religion

The best way to get away from all the accusations against religion is real simple:  just claim that you are not a religion.

I can’t tell you how many times, I have heard religions say that their religion “… is not a religion.”  Of course, each denier has their own reasons for claiming not to be a religion, but I don’t care what reason they give because basically it comes down to them simply saying, “Look, we are different than all the rest.”

Don’t believe me?  Choose your favorite search engine and type in:

  • “Christianity is not a religion”
  • “Islam is not a religion”
  • “Judaism is not a religion”
  • “Hinduism is not a religion”
  • “Buddhism is not a religion”

Sure, whatever trait they claim that makes them so different from other religions may be interesting, but still, by claiming not to be a religion like all the others is just silly — and worse, it is universally silly.

Why this post?  Well, I am studying Vajrayāna Buddhism (see my new site if you care) and more specifically I am interested in a practice/philosophy of Buddhism called “Dzogchen”.  Today I was reading “The Crystal and the Way of Light” by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, a famous Dzogchen teacher, who (on pg. 31) says, “But Dzogchen shouldn’t be regarded as a religion, …”  Damn, there it is again !!

You see, the Buddhists do it too.

Question for readers:  Have you found similar such deniers in other areas besides religion?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

27 responses to “We aren’t a religion

  1. Brandon

    Not so much with the word “religion” itself, but I’ve often heard something similar from evangelicals when they speak of a “personal relationship with Jesus” – to be contrasted with the “legalistic” structure of “the church”. Their big disclaimer seems to be of “the institution of religion” rather than religion in general, as a practice or a belief.

    Casually thinking back, most of the times I’ve heard someone disclaim “religion” it was in the context of “religion is not for me”, be it active atheism or passive atheism/agnosticism.

    Of course there is that “not religious but spiritual” line, usually from new-age types, in my experience, scoffing at their parent’s religion before pulling out a deck of tarot cards.

  2. Personally, It bothers me when I hear Christians say, “it’s not religion, it’s relationship”. For one, it is religion. It is an attempt to pre-rebut the objection “I don’t like organized religion” as well as trying to remove the Roman Catholic-esque cerimony and ritual imagry.

    There are a few things you never hear from the “relationship Christians”:

    1. what it means to have a relationship.
    2. what the relationship is supposed to look like.
    3. and most important, where that idea is supported in the Bible.

    The first century set up a religious system with creeds, beliefs, ordinances (baptism, communion), church structure, church government, etc. etc.

    Too much emphasis on feelings and not enough ontheology and doctrine.

  3. @ John Barron:
    So you agree, Christianity is a religion, right? Wouldn’t you say it shares lot of traits similar to lots of other religions? And wouldn’t you say that most Christians want to say their religion is categorically different than all other religions even if it shares traits? Thus, you can see how if those Christians would feel their ‘faith’ is categorically different than other religions why they may go far enough to say it isn’t really a religion. So you can see my point why everyone wants to say what they have is unique. It clouds or view of reality. IMHO.

    @ Brandon : LOL! “… pulling out the deck of Tarot cards”

  4. Funny, Sabio, when I read the title of this post before clicking on it, I thought you were going to say, “But atheism isn’t a religion!! Honest!”

    Buddhism IS a religion the way it’s practiced widely across much of Asia. Lots of magic, hocus pocus, and pure faith.

    But there are forms of Buddhist study that, to me at least, seem decidedly nonreligious. For one thing, in my corner of Buddhism: there is no Buddhist God. Yes we have our Kwan Yins and so forth, Gods in the mythical sense, but not a literal God (or Gods) like you find in monotheistic religions. And for another thing, Buddhism insists that one’s experience with the teaching define its usefulness, truth, and value to the practitioner.

    What is religion but a thought system to which you’re irrationally attached?

    To answer your question: Have you found similar such deniers in other areas besides religion?

    Oh my! How about John Choon Yoo’s “This isn’t torture.” baloney?

  5. @ Dan
    Obviously all this depends one’s definition of religion, and their are many. Being a psychologist, you may find interesting my attempt to create a definition using (irony intentional) the DSM IV model: Religion as a Syndrome.

    See if, using my definition, the nonreligious Buddhism still my be called religions. Remember, not all religions have gods. Also, many liberal Christians may consider their god mythical but still feel they have a “religion”. I say we keep the word “religion” broad, keep it ecumenical! 🙂

    Love the “This isn’t torture” parallel !!

  6. Adam

    In answer to your question, I sometimes see this pop up when it comes to political systems. Such as “the United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a representative republic” or “Soviet Russia wasn’t communist, they were socialist/Marxist/a totalitarian regime”. But outside of politics and religion I don’t see this type of argument come up.

  7. Sabio:

    Dont get me wrong, Christianity is wholly unique from other religions. Really all it has in common is some form of the golden rule and prayer. But its not the similarities which ought to be considered when making comparisons to other religions, but rather the differences. Christianity makes the claim that their central figure was a real person who lifed in a real place and did real things. They make a claim that God became a man and made a sacrifice for man which he could not do for himself. Christianity teaches that you cannot save yourself. All of which are unique to Christianity. I know you know these points, but Im just reiterating them. So Christianity is unique. But that being said, I do not think that is what most NRC’s have in mind.

    I do not think “no religion Christians” claim its not a religion because of a misconception. I am certain it is because of the negative connotation which accompany the “idea” of a religion. I honestly think it is a subconscious bait-and-switch.

  8. @ Adam :
    Yes, I see it in politics a lot too — that is what I was imagining. Have you seen Zen folks saying “Zen is not really a religion.”

    @ John Barron :
    Well I contend (as would all my other readers, I imagine) that Christianity is not “wholly unique from other religions”. And when you say that, you confirm the point of my post and I thank you.
    Many religions say that “their central figure was a real person who lifed in a real place and did real things.”
    Many religions say that “God became a man”.
    Several religions teach that “that you cannot save yourself”.
    These are not unique to Christianity.
    The benefit of studying history and comparative religion is that it challenges one’s parochialism.

  9. If it’s a relationship and not a religion then we atheists must be antisocial. 😉

  10. @ Mike :
    LOL! Now tell me, have you ever heard, “Unlike other ‘isms’, ‘Atheism’ is not a worldview”? I have. Do you think that fits the model of this post — a common human tendency to try to hypocritically separate from the commoners?

  11. PS — if readers will notice, I am trying to bring us back to the central theme — how ALL OF US try to consider ourselves unique. This is not a post picking on Christianity. I am pickin’ on everyone.

  12. I have heard it said that atheism is not a worldview, I’ve even said it myself, but with qualifiers. Atheism is not a worldview to the extent, or in the same sense, that most religions are. It does not add meaning to the world.

  13. DaCheese

    I definitely agree that you have religion without deities or spirits. I guess the question becomes where to draw the line? Eg., I like the secular aspects of Buddhist thought on many subjects, but I’m not much of a practitioner. Am I a Buddhist religionist, or just a philosopher? Does the fact that you (Sabio) are more of a practitioner make you more “religious”, even if we hold the same views regarding the underlying philosophy?

  14. @ Mike :
    If you haven’t before, and if you care to, see my post “Atheism as a Worldview“. And then see my comment to Da Cheese below.

    @ DaCheese :
    Part of what I am saying is that if we loosen up about our definition of “religion” we will feel less compelled to decry it. Likewise with the term “worldview” as Mike and I discuss above. I will recommend to you my post which I recommended to Dan: Religion as a Syndrome.
    Let me know what you think. Is my corrective clear, or do you think I am missing or confused about something?

  15. Adam

    @Sabio – I don’t know that I’ve seen “Zen isn’t a religion”, but I’ve certainly seen “Zen isn’t Buddhism!”

  16. i’m guilty of using that phrase of “Christianity is not a religion” mainly to try to get people into another understanding of religion because of how that word has been used and what it signifies. it’s more existential, more open to those outside the tribe, than the word “religion” implies, yet it’s still a religion. i still embrace history, a general world view, and a given set of ethics.

    as Robert Capon stated ““Almost all people, inside as well as outside the church, find that the notion of grace stands in contradiction to everything they understand by religion.” (Between Noon and Three, p. 136) and i agree with this. we’d sooner accept a god we’re fed TO rather than one we’re fed BY. we want judgment, penal substitution, and a contract-style, tit-for-tat type religion because it’s easy and understandable and logical. that’s not how i think religion should be, it’s not how i think the world should work, and it’s not what i read in the Gospels (or at least how i interpret the Gospels). here i stand and i cannot do otherwise.

  17. and your viagra site looks interesting… until i re-read it and found it’s about buddhism, not about what i thought it was about…. 😉

  18. Well I contend (as would all my other readers, I imagine) that Christianity is not “wholly unique from other religions”. And when you say that, you confirm the point of my post and I thank you.
    Many religions say that “their central figure was a real person who lifed in a real place and did real things.”
    Many religions say that “God became a man”.
    Several religions teach that “that you cannot save yourself”.
    These are not unique to Christianity.
    The benefit of studying history and comparative religion is that it challenges one’s parochialism.

    Well, I have been studying religion, and philosophy of religion for nearly a decade, and it is the details of Christianity which do cause me to conclude it is unique. Sure technically there are aspects such as prayer, belief in a single God etc.

    Reading back on my previous comment, I see I was a bit too brief. Obviously Buddhism had its central figure who was a real man in a real place. However, the idea of salvation being solely a gift by the grace of God, without any element of having to participate with good deeds, without the need for rituals or sacrifice, I have not seen. Maybe you know of one. Additionally, Of the religions which affirm “God became man”, we do not have eyewitness accounts which were written withing 20-50 years of the aledged “God as Man” figure. Nor do we have one who makes the claim where it is not solely legendary. Jesus is unique in this fashion.

    Without going on and on about how I would define my terms, I realize it was too brief for my own good, which I suppose is the drawback of posting in a comment section.

  19. @ John Barron

    I don’t think it was the brevity. I think you have some mistaken ideas. Each idea you put forward for the “wholly unique” category was shot down. Now, perhaps you can find something that is wholly unique, but you haven’t pointed to it yet. So what it does show is that you have convinced yourself of many false claims. Don’t get me wrong, we all do that, but your claim is a fairly strong one.

    To further illustrate what I feel are your mistakes: “Shin Buddhism” and “Vaishnavite Hinduism” have many of the grace and not works principles of Christianity. Are you familiar with these? Do you see what I mean?

    Concerning the “eyewitness” accounts — modern scholarship puts great doubt on this. And besides, do you really want your range of 50 years to be everything you bank on for “wholly unique”. Seems weak to me.

    Every person is unique — that is a tautology, of course. But making your religion “wholly unique” is the overkill part and only shows fanatic devotion and not real analysis. I get that you are devoted. We all get that. That is the point of this post.

    Why don’t you do a post on your site and tell us exactly why Christianity is “Wholly Unique”. I suggest doing it in a bulleted fashion with simple short declarations for each “wholly unique” characteristic. You can expand each bullet with a short paragraph explanation. But don’t make it a huge tangled essay — it would take way too much effort to dissect. Perhaps the substance of our conversation so far will give you material to work against.

    I’d love to see ZeroGhost (a fellow Christian) argue against you or with you. It might be interesting. But this thread is not intended to be a Christian apologetic thread — I will join you on your own site for a while to discuss if it is fruitful. Let us know here when you get that post going — if you do.

  20. @ Zero1ghost :
    Thank you for your confession of using this rhetorical device. It is a device used to persuade, of course. All language is persuasion. Truth is usually very secondary to all utterances. 🙂

    I must disagree that all of us easily understand grace — we get it from our parents and others. “Grace” is not a hard concept. Many Christians (like John below) try imagine it on steroids in Christianity but it is present in many traditions (Shin and Vaishnavites) not to mention in our families.

    The “Viagra” comment was hilarious !! I am going to do a post on that — stay tuned bro!

  21. Well, I didnt see anything I said shot down, you had just dismissed what I said.

    Maybe you could tell me where in “Shin Buddhism” and “Vaishnavite Hinduism” they explain the need for salvation from God and that the salvation is a free gift based upon belief that God has taken the place you rightly deserve, without doing good deeds or rituals to earn it. That would be more helpful if it wasnt just asserted.

    I really am not trying to parse Grace on steroids, but trying to emphasize what Christianity means by grace as opposed to other theistic religious systems.

  22. @ John
    I will let you read about Shin and Vaishnavite Hinduism to learn how close the phenomena.
    Remember, if you add enough details to a trait, it is easy to make it unique. For as I said, everyone is unique compared to everyone one else. Thus EVERY religion would be “Wholly unique” compared to any other — but that sort of claim is rather vacuous. I am sure you meant something much more meaningful. I am contended that such a broad-level “wholly unique”ness will not be as easy to find as you may imagine.

  23. So, what is religion?

  24. And I would contend that if you generalize and broaden religious traits enough they all just about blend. That is the point of the matter. They are not just about all the same, the idea of salvation taken for every detail, since details matter, make Christianity unique. Its not enough to say ‘this one is just like Christianity because this one believes in salvation too’. Its like saying you and I are basically the same person because we both read english.

  25. @ Neighbor That is an important question, of course. In the comments above that came up with both Dan and DaCheese. It is a central question. I think I answer this question in a rather UNIQUE way (emphasis made as an ironic, self-deprecating humor handshake to John Barron). Actually, many other philosophers and linguists use my method but I don’t hear it applied much to religion. I should do a whole separate post pulling together my other posts concerning “Defining Religion”. I have sketched out a post called “The Myth of Definition” which is needed for that group of posts — so much to do. But for now, you might want to read my post on “Defining Religion with syndrome analogy“.

    @ John Barron :
    OK, I give. I will do a post called “Is Christianity Unique”? We can cont. the conversation there. You have given me some good material. I look forward to your help in exploring the approach — we both know what we believe, so perhaps the important issue is coming to agreement (or disagreement) about “approach”.

  26. Note to readers: it is a challenge discussing such things with such a variety of readers on this thread. For instance, we have here an Agnostic, Enchanted Atheist, Buddhist, New Ager, Conservative Christian, and a Progressive Christian (liberal). Each of us carries our own special language and terms. And each of us has a whole basket of unexplored committed preferences. It is a mutual journey.

  27. is Christianity unique? that’s a loaded question with a lot of nuance. i’ll pick this up on the next thread, but for now my short answer is “No.” Christianity offers nothing new to the world in terms of NEW, Never Seen BEFORE! as it’s a mix of various pagan and jewish theologies and symbols. how they are used and what they point to are sort-of new but not really because there were sects of jewish apocalyptics and mystics and social reformers that were doing similar things…. the nonviolent, self-sacrificing ethic is not new either. but how Jesus put all these things together is indeed “new” as in a new configuration.

    i also think Jesus borrowing and redefining things should be celebrated as it proves he was human and just as bound by time and culture as we are today.

    “I must disagree that all of us easily understand grace”

    oh, i never said that we didn’t understand it. i stated that we don’t understand it when it’s placed in the context of religion. we get grace, we experience it on a minute by minute basis in our lives… yet when it comes to religion we tend to prefer a systematic, tit-for-tat “my tribe is correct and right and others shall perish” style, which isn’t grace. it’s religion, but it’s not grace nor often a religion OF grace. just look at substitutionary atonement, the whole reason for the cross is SIN! like grace isn’t a good enough reason.. but ‘we’* don’t get that.

    *by we i mean the majority of Christians and those who have fallen away from that style of the religion.

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