Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Death of Words: "Religion" and "Religious"

One of my favorite themes to look out for in our ever changing culture is the changing meaning of words. The changes occur subtly and gain a momentum such that most people are unaware of the fact that they are playing a role in a far greater game than simple word-play. 

The following example across my desk recently,
"Religion is for people who are scared to go to Hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there." - Bonnie Raitt.
The singer/song-writer has defined "religion" for the modern age.

The Oxford Dictionary explains that the word has an older and perhaps now lost meaning.
"Middle English (originally in the sense ‘life under monastic vows’): from Old French, or from Latin religio(n-) ‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’."
More commonly but still in Oxford usage the word means,
  • "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods."
  • "A particular system of faith and worship."
  • "A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion."
 Bonnie Raitt and the zeitgeist follow the popular notion that religion, and I presume she is including Christianity, is built on fear of eternal punishment, damnation, and the fires of Hell rather than trust in a God who loves us so much that he would go through Hell himself to save us.

Yes we should fear Hell, but to assume that those who are "spiritual" have already been there and are not setting themselves on a path to go back there is a bit of a stretch.

Again, let's reference Oxford,
Spiritual: Adjective
  • "Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things."
  • "Having a relationship based on a profound level of mental or emotional communion."
  • "(Of a person) not concerned with material values or pursuits."
  • "Relating to religion or religious belief."
As we see, in the older sense, "spiritual" and "religion/religious" are related.

To the modern singer/songwriter, and to many people today, they are totally unrelated things.

I think this is a change which creates a negative association with "religion" as opposed to the positive connotation given to "spirituality".

The Barna group has studied the "spiritual but not religious" group and concluded,
"By definition, the 'spiritual but not religious' are religiously disinclined, and the data bears this out in a number of ways... 
...It’s one thing to be disinclined, but it’s another to claim harm. The broader cultural resistance to institutions is a response to the view that they are oppressive, particularly in their attempts to define reality. Seeking autonomy from this kind of religious authority seems to be the central task of the “spiritual but not religious” and very likely the reason for their religious suspicion."

"Secondly, as functional outsiders, their view of religious distinctiveness is much looser than their religious counterparts. A majority of both groups (65% and 73%) are convinced that all religions basically teach the same thing, particularly striking numbers compared to evangelicals (1%) and practicing Christians (32%). Again, the “spiritual but not religious” shirk definition. The boundary markers are non-existent, and that’s the point. For them, there is truth in all religions, and they refuse to believe any single religion has a monopoly on ultimate reality."
I think that Bonnie Raitt may be claiming harm from religion, and in so doing she is guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The Christian religion has so much to offer, and to throw it out based on a stereotypical assumption that "religious" Christians are obsessed by the rightful fear of Hell is a very dangerous thing to do.

Matthew Henry centuries ago described the baby this way,
“The Christian religion is the religion of sinners, of such as have sinned, and in whom sin in some measure still dwells.
The Christian life is a life of continued repentance, humiliation for and mortification of sin, of continual faith in, thankfulness for, and love to the Redeemer, and hopeful joyful expectation of a day of glorious redemption, in which the believer shall be fully and finally acquitted, and sin abolished for ever.”― Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible

When I mourn the death of "religion", I am mourning the loss of the older meanings for the word, for as C.S. Lewis wrote,
"And when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say." - C.S. Lewis, "The Death of Words" From (C.S. Lewis On Stories, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1982, p. 107)


  1. I have heard that line that "all religions teach the same thing" from atheist relatives and from non-observant Muslims in the Middle East -- thus showing that neither group knows anything about what religions DO teach. One has only to look at how people behave to know that their foundational beliefs about how things should be affect what they do.

    1. Even the spiritual and not religious have foundational beliefs, they just don't want to admit it.

    2. They do, and they also think their beliefs are superior because "religious" Christians are held to be merely superstitious. Often the "spiritual and not religious" folks believe some pretty strange things.