It will be interesting to see the results of the recent Census of the Australian population. An ever growing number of people are ticking the box for ‘No Religion’.
It’s an interesting question just what people mean by that.
As indicated in the discussion of Voting for Jesus, a significant number of people are interested in the person of Jesus, in a way, but they are really turned off by what they see of the church.
Which part of all this is ‘religious’?
I have always been a strong critic of ‘religion’, as I think Jesus was, too. So are many of the people I regard as good Christians. Many of my friends who consider themselves Christian say that they are not religious.
What do we mean by this?
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the twentieth century, thundered against religion, and once called it ‘the last bastion of godless [human beings]’.
What do we mean by religion here, and what are we for when we say we are Christian but not religious?
One helpful place to start here is to consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought.
In his papers written in prison, he began to explore the idea of a ‘religionless Christianity’.
Bonhoeffer’s biographer, Eberhard Bethge, has helpfully summarized what he thinks Bonhoeffer meant by ‘religion’. (The biography is just called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There are many editions.)
Bethge has a section called "The New Theology, An Essay", pp. 757-795. He notes the importance of Karl Barth’s influence here: Barth’s concept of faith, worked out in the Church Dogmatics involves a radical critique of religion. Barth counter-poses faith and religion.
Bethge lists "the characteristics of the concept of religion for Bonhoeffer" pp776f:
a. Metaphysics: here he means the idea of God as in some sense postulated and demanded by an understanding of the world: and so God is conditioned (or made ‘necessary’) by that understanding of the world.
Bethge says: just as Tillich targetted the idea of the supernatural, and Bultmann the mythological, so Bonhoeffer "wants to get rid, for the sake of God, of the ‘religious’ trappings, i.e., an objectification of God that is conditioned by a particular age."
He wants therefore to break down the dogmatic structures that have been allowed to define discussion of God, in order to begin a new dialogue about theism, and ‘a-theism’.
b. Individualism Bonhoeffer is very critical of the individualist thrust in pastoral care, in piety, even in existential theology. He is pressing towards a much more social element in his Christian concepts.
c. Partiality: for this we might even use the expression ‘sectional concern’. The idea here is simply that in recent history religion has carved out an area of life which it defines as its preserve, and defends that: a domain over against other areas of life.
He is particularly critical of the defensive nature of this stand. "the church on the defensive. No risk taking for others."
d. Deus ex machina. As he sees it all religion depends on this concept; the idea that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc, and religion, preachers, become like a chemist shop, pointing people to the answer to their problems: take this remedy and all will be well.
In fact such religion is dangerously deceitful, even in its piety: it fails to show just how godless it is! It involves an attempt to escape from life.
In contrast the Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering, in and with the world.
e. Privilege. Throughout its history the Christian religion has been continually perverted into a form of privilege.
Faith becomes a possession, a way of distinguishing people, a system of power relations etc. often used to justify violence against others not of the group.
f. Tutelage. Closely related to the privileged character: the role of acting as the ‘guardian’ of people and of society: especially evident in the institutions, which have been persistently monarchical and patriarchal.- but these characteristics are also true of the thought categories.
"Nothing will be as difficult as overcoming the monarchical and patriarchal structures of hierarchies, theologies, and, indeed, dogmas, for coming of age has an element about it that is alarmingly unreassuring". p.780-1.
g. Dispensability: This was in fact Bonhoeffer’s starting point, in some of the letters: the point that religion can in fact be done away with: that Christians themselves have allowed their faith to become a Sundays-only activity, and their lives so fundamentally un- or perhaps a-Christian. Christianity has become mere religion: (Bethge notes the question whether, historically, this is not inevitable for any and all faiths…)
While I find all these points insightful, I think there is more to our own, local version of the critique of religion. In general, Australians are resistant to all formal structures. We resist institutional claims as such, and we tolerate institutional offices only if they prove their value, in pragmatic and practical ways. We especially distrust hierarchy and pageantry, both of which seem to be well entrenched in the major forms of ‘church’.
If this what religion is, then we don’t want it.
But at the same time, it is worth asking what positive values and personal commitments are expressed in this resistance to ‘religion’.
What form of community do we value, and is this entirely inconsistent with a faith community?
It’s intriguing that Bonhoeffer’s critique sees religion as fostering individualism. Most of the Australian critique of religion is, I think, expressed in terms of individual interests and individual rights, over against the presumed homogeneity of religious communities, as if religion threatens our individuality.
There is I think a major issue worth exploring here.
Another big issue is just what people are denying, when they say they are not religious. Is it about intellectual ideas, about God, community, values, etc.? Or is it about practices, and especially about ‘going to church’—and thus about ‘worship’? Or is it about values and life-style, and perhaps expectations of something we must live up to?
I guess it may be some combination of all these. What seems interesting is the popularity of ‘spirituality’, without formal intellectual belief systems, and without formal gatherings for worship. But any spirituality taken seriously will affect our life style.
‘I’m not religious, but …’ can still indicate a seriousness about something spiritual.
What do you reckon?