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What separates a religion from good advice?

July 21, 2010

Every so often, I have what I feel is great insight. I think to myself: “Hey, there are some nifty ideas that I’ve learned from reading x religious thinker or from practicing y religious practice…why if I integrated that in my daily routine?”

And so I’ve done things like this.

But at the end of the day, do I believe in god? No. Do I believe in the divine or spiritual foundation of these kinds of words? No. So, what about that?

I can understand that all this picking and choosing could be called “lukewarm” or whatever else, but I’d like to continue on with a thought experiment.

If I adopt one religious practice, but do not believe in the foundational claims of a religion, am I religious?

If I adopt a couple religious practices, but do not believe in the foundational claims of a religion, am I religious?

If I attend services and engage in several religious practices, but do not believe in the foundational claims of a religion, am I religious?

If I do all the above, as well as grapple with the words of the religious leaders, read and re-read the words of various scriptures relating to that religion, and mentally identify these texts and words as being of such importance as to deserve such repeated visitations, analyses, and breakdowns, but I do not believe in the foundational claims of a religion, am I religious?

(Or, if I am religious at any point of this stage, am I “defective” or substandard as a religious person? [This is not meant to imply that religious people are substandard or defective…just to ask: would I be a substandard *example* of a religious person?)

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  1. Oh, what the heck – I’ll take it anyway.

  2. The defining quality of religiosity is a belief that the doctrines of the religion came from a supernatural being. If you don’t believe that, you’re not religious, even if you mirror the practices of the religion.

    I don’t smoke, drink alcohol or coffee, or eat meat. Yet it doesn’t seem quite right to say that I ‘live the Word of Wisdom’ because I don’t have any belief that it came from a god. It’s just a collection of practices that I like to do. My actions lack an element of normative adherence.

  3. Seth, I cannot decipher that comment.

    Daniel, I can see what you’re saying, but is it not possible for a religious person to argue, “I believe in x doctrine not simply because it came from a god, but because it is good for my life.” Would a religious person reasoning that way be “less” religious? And wouldn’t a person who, for example, backs his reasons for following the WoW based on secular reasoning about the harms of some of these things have an easier time keeping those habits even when he disbelieves?

  4. There is a profoundly religious point of view that belief is pointless the action that accompanies it. “Faith without works is dead.” Or, consider the parable of the two sons, the one who tells his father he’ll come work in the field and is a no show, and the son who refuses his father but then shows up to help out anyway.

    I think from a Mormon perspective, one would say that righteous behavior prepares the heart for faith, it plants the seeds of faith. So no truly religious person would consider it anything but good for you to engage in good works, even if you don’t “believe” in the religious framework that’s used to justify some of those good works.

    Whether those acts are religious or not, I could not say. But from a religious perspective, one could argue that it does not matter. Consider, again, the parable of the sheep and the goats. When, at the final judgment, Jesus says to the sheep: “I was hungry and you fed me, sick and in prison and you visited me, etc.” note he’s not saying here, “You believed in me, therefore receive your reward.” From this religious perspective, good works are a form of faith, perhaps the most important form.

    That’s why I personally believe that the last day shall be far more tolerable for many atheists than it will be for many “religious” people who used their religion as an excuse to make life miserable for everybody else.

  5. Your religious person would be saying, “I believe it’s from a god, AND it’s a good idea.” The god-belief is still there, so it’s religious.

    If that person were to say, “I don’t believe it’s from a god, but it’s a good idea,” then we would have reason to doubt that their observance of the idea were religiously motivated.

    Yep, I’d still say that the belief that the principle comes from a god is the sine qua non of religiosity. I hope I’m not missing a part of your argument.

  6. John: Interesting about that parable.

    Here’s a question: I reject Jesus, but I try to do things that I think will be good for people, like a good humanist. If I’m wrong, will the Lord give me a pass? Big question, I know.

    I think many Latter-day Saints would argue that my good works are all very well, but I didn’t have a covenant relationship with Jesus, so it’s off to the Terrestrial Kingdom with me. (Or even Telestial, since I’m an ex-Mormon and full of enmity and so on.) Maybe the Terrestrial Kingdom is an attempt to split the difference.

  7. Daniel – well, yeah. But not if you take the parable of the sheep and the goats at face value.

    Jesus is saying, essentially, I am every poor person, every sick person, every person in prison, every lonely person you encounter. When you minister to them, you minister to me. And when you minister to them/me, you enter into my kingdom.

    I don’t see any other provisos in there. Works = love = faith.

    I think covenants have value to the extent that they strengthen us in the path of love. Any good Latter-day Saint will also tell you that covenants don’t mean anything if there isn’t the righteous living to back it up. And what Jesus is teaching us in this parable is: This Is How You Live Righteously. By loving your neighbor.

    The loving action is the reason, the be all and end all of the covenant. A person who lives righteously needs only a formality to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The formality — the covenants or promises — are simply a registration of consent: Heavenly Father, I consent to live with you (and promise to live in a way that is consistent with living with you). An atheist — someone who cannot intellectually accept the existence in God — can’t subscribe to a formality with someone he doesn’t believe in. But if believers are correct that at the last day God will reveal himself in such a way that it will be undeniable to anyone, at that final revelation a righteous atheist will easily enter into such formalities.

    On the other hand, a believer who entered into the formalities but failed to behave consistently with them… Well, woe to that person is the best thing I can think to say. Because the formality stands as a testimony against them. It’s like a big fat sign saying “I should have known better.”

  8. I think if you attend worship services regularly and engage in religious practices you are religious. Regardless of whether or not you believe in the foundational claims of whatever religion.

    Another interesting thing, I heard someone talking the other day about how they didn’t belong to any particular faith, but they talked to God every day. By my definition (above), they wouldn’t be considered religious – because to the outside world, they didn’t participate in religious activity.

    But that doesn’t seem right either. Very interesting post.

  9. aerin, that example seems like an instance of “spiritual but not religious,” which seems to be commonly understood and understandable by most people.

    I just don’t know whether religious-but-not-spiritual would make sense too.

    • I’ve known people that I would call “religious but not spiritual,” but not in the sense you’re talking about. I’m talking about the ones who follow a religion’s letter of the law to the T, but miss the point of religion completely and fail to develop compassion or humility of any kind of balance and happiness in their lives.

      This is a very interesting question. I’ve been going to services, meditating and pondering religious texts myself because I enjoy the perspective I gain and the way it helps me to focus and become the kind of person I want to be. But like yourself, I don’t believe in God or in religion as a way of understanding the world factually.

  10. Leah, I find that dichotomy curious. So if “not spiritual” can mean “failing to develop compassion, humility, any kind of balance or happiness in one’s life,” then do you think that developing these things are spirituality itself?

    • Interesting. Seems everyone has a different definition of “spiritual.” I’m not sure I have a firm one myself. đŸ™‚

      Let me try… First off, I don’t believe in spirits, be it the Holy Spirit or any other spirit. I use the word “spiritual” because we lack a better one.

      When I refer to myself as a spiritual person, I do mean striving to be a better person, which for me means more compassionate and loving, more peaceful, less apt to anger and hatred. It’s the feeling that we are all connected what happens to another human being is as important as what happens to me. It’s a respect for other life forms and for our planet from which we all arose. It’s the hope that we can overcome our “us versus them” animal roots and, at the risk of sounding all woo woo, learning to live in love and harmony with each other.

      I suppose you don’t need religion for any of that. Those are the basic tenets of humanism. I personally like the perspective I gain from religion though, through the various myths and symbolism.

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