Is "religion" a dirty word? (and is that missing the point?)

Updated: Mar 22, 2019



You might say that the five books I have published appeal particularly to people who feel betrayed or shortchanged by organized religion, particularly the Christian religion. Many individuals who become disillusioned and lose faith in their religious beliefs or feel victimized through their religious involvement, abandon all belief in God and become intolerant of all religion.

My path has been different. Though I questioned my own religious beliefs, leaving many of them behind, I did not abandon my spiritual interests altogether. Instead, the process of deconstructing my Christian religious tradition and belief-system led to a deeper and more expansive and inclusive spirituality. In my earliest books I share the particulars of my journey as a theological scholar and church pastor who left my professional ministerial life to pursue a more authentic spirituality. My subsequent books have offered readers a “non-religious” way of understanding God, and an alternative view of the significance and relevance of Jesus.

There are many paths a person may take after they’ve divorced themselves from their religious tradition or belief system. One path often taken is antireligionism, which is opposition to all religions.

Antireligionism is not new and may have had its beginnings during the French Enlightenment with self-confessed atheists such as Baron d'Holbach who viewed all religion as an impediment to the moral advancement of humanity. Christopher Hitchens may be one of the leading antireligionists of the 20th century. Other notable antireligionists include Karl Marx, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. Antireligionists see very little or no value in the notions and practices of religion, and some even categorize religion as a form of mental illness.

It’s understandable why a person who was damaged by their religious involvement would actively oppose religion altogether. In this context, “religion” is a dirty word that represents abuse, oppression, fear, shame, control, exploitation and corruption. The destructive impact of toxic religion in many people’s lives should not be taken lightly. In my spiritual direction practice I have worked with countless people who have been deeply damaged by their involvement in religion. In the mental health field, this has come to be referred to as Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).

We can all agree that abuse, oppression, fear, shame, control, exploitation and corruption are abhorrent wherever they are present, especially in religion. However, it took many years for me to realize that my own personal experience of religion is not emblematic of all religion or people’s experiences of religion. Just as you could make the case that religion has been at the root of much hatred, greed, ugliness, discord, destruction and violence in our world, one could also make the equal assertion that religion has motivated the greatest acts and movements of love, service, compassion, solidarity, justice, charity and beauty. For all those who claim that religion has been an obstacle to progress, there are others who assert that religion has made it possible. Simply put, the answer to the question of whether religion does more harm than good or more good than harm, depends entirely upon who you ask.

It’s not uncommon for a person who leaves organized religion to become an atheist, and settle upon some form of humanism. But it should be said that not all atheists are antireligionists. There are people who do not hold a belief in God for various reasons but respectfully accept others who do. Many atheists are against the misuse of religion but not against religion categorically. While condemning religious fundamentalists and fanatics (as we all should), they leave room for people to practice their religion in meaningful but peaceful ways.

A kinder and gentler option to antireligionism, is the “spiritual but not religious (SBNR)” movement. SBNRs takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Mostly dissenters from institutional religion, the “spiritual but not religious” crowd feel a tension between their personal spirituality and membership in a conventional religious organization. Many people use the word “spirituality” to refer to their interior life of faith and “religion” to mean the necessary communal and/or organizational part. Many go as far to view organized religion as the major enemy of authentic spirituality, claiming that spirituality is private reflection and private experience – not public ritual. In contrast to religion, spirituality is associated with the interior life of the individual. Most SBNRs value curiosity, intellectual freedom, interspirituality, and an experimental approach to religion.

On my Facebook page I asked the question: Is there a fundamental difference between “religion” and “spirituality,” and if so, what is it? Overwhelmingly, people had a negative view of “religion” and a favorable view of “spirituality.” Here is a sampling:

“Religion = rules, one size fits all, product Spirituality = feelings, individual, process”

“Spirituality is freedom, out of the box and authenticity. Religion is laws, in the box and inauthenticity.”

“Religion is institutional and legalistic. Spirituality is personal and experiential.”

“Religion is an outward commitment to an organisation but spirituality is a relationship with God”

“Religion is needing something outside of one’s self to be whole. Spirituality is realizing the depths of wholeness that already dwells within oneself.”

“Religion = making rules for self & others to follow out of fear of punishment. Spirituality = discovering love in self and others that unites us all and is more than a "sum of the parts;" embraces and connects all of creation.”

“Spirituality is a personal relationship with the Divine. Religion is crowd control.”

“Religion focuses on Dogma. Spirituality focuses on Experience”

“Religion is following a set of rules or ideas already established by someone else or a group based on their understanding of old writings. Spirituality is the inner search in one's soul in for our connection and oneness with the divine.”

This kind of distinction between “religious” and “spiritual” has become prominent, particularly in modern Western culture. It has been uniquely advanced in Christian circles with the popular phrase, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” The growing assumption is that whatever could be called “religious” can’t be “spiritual.” Historically, the words “religious” and “spiritual” have been used synonymously. For example, American philosopher and psychologist William James defined “religious experience” as “feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” This description would certainly fit as “spiritual but not religious” as long as the word “religious” wasn’t attached to it.

In my own writing and conversation I have changed the way I talk about “religion,” which mostly involves using a qualifier. My first published book is titled: Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you). Since that book I have used the phrase “shedding religion” countless times. What I actually meant by the word “religion” needed a qualifier, but qualifiers don’t make for great book titles. In my mind, “shedding religion” meant shedding toxic, legalistic, fundamentalist, fear/shame/performance-based, judgmental, condemning, repressive, controlling beliefs, practices and relationships of one’s religious affiliation, namely within Christianity.

Using the word “religion” without a qualifier is unfair because, as I learned, my experience of religion wasn’t representative of all religion or all people’s experiences of religion. In the Bible, James defines “pure religion” as caring for the victimized, defenseless, vulnerable and homeless. In the sub-title of Divine Nobodies, I certainly did not mean: “Shedding compassion, care and help for those in need to find God.” It is also the case that antireligionists, atheists and SBNRs would affirm the value of coming to the aid of the victimized, defenseless, vulnerable and homeless.

James qualifies the word “religion” with the word “pure.” This may be an important distinction so far as what is often passed off as “religion” is contrary to its own original values. For example, in my view there are many instances where Christianity resembles very little of the example and teachings of Jesus. This is why I wrote the post, 16 Characteristics of Fake Religion. I could be accused of imposing my own ideals on religion. This is a fair criticism. I do believe what Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “Nothing in human life, least of all in religion, is ever right until it is beautiful.”

After writing my first book, Divine Nobodies, my Inbox was flooded with emails from people who were disenchanted, disillusioned and sometimes embittered with their Christian faith and church. I noticed a pattern in which some people became vehemently against religion and assumed an anti-religion identity. In many cases, it appeared that people were getting stuck in that place and never progressing past it – their new religion was being against religion. This motivated me to continue exploring and writing because I knew it was necessary to live and share an alternative. For me, Jesus was helpful in the process as one who both criticized and confronted what was corrupt and harmful about his religious tradition of Judaism, but also affirmed and upheld what was good and right about it.

Scapegoating "religion" for the problems of our world seems hollow. For myself, I’m finding it’s important to clarify what exactly I’m against and what I’m for. To say I’m either for or against “religion” doesn’t cut it. I am against the misuse of religion whenever it causes abuse, hatred, division, oppression, fear, shame, repression, exploitation, greed, injustice and corruption. I am for religion when it promotes love, peace, wholeness, compassion, solidarity, goodness, service, justice, harmony, beauty and charity. In my view, there’s nothing more “spiritual” than that.


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