Is God dead? Is organised religion a farce? Whatever your answer, I would subscribe to you that everyone is religious, not just those who say they are.
A comment that I hear with ever increasing regularity is “I’m not religious”. People usually say this when they either have no belief in a higher power, or they do have a belief, but don’t see themselves as actively exhibiting the behaviours associated with said belief. Owners of the statement would usually describe themselves as somewhere between atheists and deists. Some people would even describe themselves as non-practicing Catholics, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. There’s an awareness and a semblance of respect there, but they’re either completely resistant, or not “all in” on what these beliefs suggest.
It’s an interesting idea. For millennia, faith belief systems were the foundations of all the kingdoms on earth. You can back as far as Jewish and Sumerian history and see religion formed the basis of a society’s pursuits, moral code and legal structure. You have the various empires of history entrenched in religious ideology – Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Roman, Greek, Islamic, even British and Spanish – everything from architecture to weekly routines to gender roles to rules of engagement were all driven by various religious views. Although there were proponents of godless ideology (eg. the Greek Epicurus, father of modern atheism), the vast majority amongst societies maintained faith of a kind.
Even after the great empires fell (or ceased to be such a dominant concept), religious beliefs dominated prevailing thought.
With the invention of the microscope in the late 1500s, the seeds of “free thought” were born, when it was discovered that bacteria and viruses were the cause of many illnesses, causing many people to begin to doubt the views they once held as foundational truths in their lives. They had believed that demons and evil spirits alone were the cause for such illnesses. Rather than maintain a view that perhaps both realities were possible, many people started to question the foundations of their faith. What were these new discoveries which fostered alternative possibilities than what those of faith had believed at the time? Scientific thought broadened its horizons to consider existence without intelligent design or heavenly input.
Carl Marx’s thoughts that eventually lead to a prevalence of communism in parts of the world became a driver for atheism to become state religion of many countries, although strong Christian Orthodox faiths still existed amongst communist regimes (although under persecution or the need to heavily conform to government practice). An exponential increase in the judicial system and the globalisation of society led many nations to identify issues with the unification of church and state. Whose church, which state, and why are you telling me how I can and can’t live with your antiquated beliefs? And what if I believe in something different?
We also have seen a dramatic increase in knowledge sharing across the world. Dramatic. Instantly connected, always on, always aware. And somehow, this widely diverse, knowledge sharing world needs to run in a way where everyone can live in harmony in order to preserve the peace. Enter the birth of multiple scientific explanations and schools of thought that remove the religious undertones from things like the origin of life and the purpose of mankind in order for us to all co-exist in a way where these divergent belief systems can all co-exist… or none can be selected. Perceived limitations and contradictions in ancient documents and ways of living have been a sticking point for many people who feel they are unable to maintain faith in a modern, “progressive” society.
I think knowing where society has come from gives us an important context for any discussion on religion and faith at large.
So now we’ve got the history lesson out of the way, why would I say after all that that “everyone is religious”? It seems like I’ve almost established the basis for people to move away from faith altogether.
It’s simple really. It’s just that no matter what system of belief a person subscribes to, I continue to see behaviour that is typically associated with religious belief.
Most religious systems of the world follow a document of some kind. For myself as a Christian, it is the Holy Bible. For the Jews, it’s the Torah. For the Mormons, they have a number of different books. Islam has the Qu’ran. So on and so forth.
I continually see people using other books, videos, teaching series, what have you, in the places where these sorts of documents existed. I have been involved in many debates around faith and belief with people, and every single time, without fail, people on both sides are whipping out quotes from noted figures and documents of their movement. Statements that drive their behaviour. Where one person may quote a Scripture or reference from a text which frames their view on marriage, family values, whatever it may be, a “non-religious” person will similarly have references to others who drive their values. More typically, these tend to be the common sages held up on television programs or websites. It’s super common to see someone basing their whole life off of something they read on the Internet in some quote or video or book somewhere, but yet there is still such reluctance when it comes to the beliefs of “organised religion”. I wonder where you got the truth that you subscribe to? I wonder whose voice, what path, whose words you hold dear to when life gets challenging and you have to find the right path forward? I would say that you’re still considering some book or belief system “holy” in the same way a person of faith would.
Religious practitioners have for millennia carried out a variety of forms of worship. This is where they give honour and praise to their deity of choice, whether by way of offering, financial sacrifice, or way of word or song. The more I look around, the more I see that no one is actually any different on that front. The same activities may be carried out towards a band, a sporting club or league, or one’s own self. Corporate gatherings of pride and celebration associated with one’s sexual expression and identity, with political allegiance, even with the type of books you enjoy reading, rule the day. People complain about how much money is given to religious institutions and the grandeur of their public expression – I see exactly the same expression and financial expenditure on multiple other unifying beliefs, views, and preferences. Everyone is worshiping something, whether they’ll use that word or not.
Purpose is at the centre of the human condition. “Who am I? What is my purpose in this earth?” were the two questions that the late Billy Graham put forward as the key drivers of human existence. The questions that drive every person. Try as they may, very few people have come to an acceptable conclusion within themselves that their life isn’t significant, that their actions aren’t without purpose, that their giftings and talents have come from nowhere. I listen to Hawking, Dawkins, Hitchens, and their contemporaries any day and hear them attempt to form some semblance of an answer, but they’re never far away from still highlighting the significance of human life and endeavour. Ricky Gervais, comedian as well as a noted atheist, put forward what he believed to be his purpose alternative in the film, The Invention of Lying. It’s about a man who lives in a world where no one ever lies, but when his mum is one day about to pass away, he finds that he is able to tell a lie about how she will go to a happy place when she dies. He then writes down a bunch of rules to force others into his way of thinking. Questioning his purpose, the film puts forward that once he ends up with the love of his life, he is complete and that’s the reason he is alive, not some existential calling or additional reason for being.
Isn’t that a religious statement on its own? Where a majority of faiths would frame your existence as being about this, that, or the other – isn’t any statement made to answer that question inherently religious, also? Even if the answer is, “your life doesn’t matter”, or “find the woman who makes it worth it”, or “make your own destiny”? Because as many people have had other worldviews “shoved down their throat”, similarly I have had multiple scores of people try to force this sort of belief down mine. Collectively, they celebrate, post about, write about, ponder and discuss this piece of philosophy. I remember hearing it in school, I heard it over and over in university, I get emails from every whichway in the workplace claiming to have found the answer and to enforce systematic secular groupthink, and just a few seconds on the internet will have you preached to about how purpose is entirely self defined or even irrelevant. Every great atheist will also seek to answer this question in his or her own way, and every single statement I’ve ever read has multiple people who live their lives by it. In essence, they have become the ministers of secular society. In this regard, I see no difference. You’ve replaced one belief system with another. And you’ve replaced one priest, Imam, prophet, pastor and Rabbi with your own. It looks like preaching, it leads to habitual behaviour I would call religious duty, and it is broadcasted across all facets of life in a manner I would label evangelism.
In essence what we really have in all our expression and religiousity, even though we may not call it that, is a search for truth. We live in a world that puts forward that you have your truth and I have mine, and whilst that enables us all to get along and live next to each other, the reality is that we are all trying to find the right path. We are all aware that not every truth can be valid as they are all incompatible with each other.
And so I would ask you, dear reader – how is your search for truth going? Are you truly content in yourself that you’ve found the right path for life? Are you confident that you are listening to the right people, subscribing to the right advice, living your life in the right way?
I think for many of us, we are inherently internally conflicted about anyone making decisions about our own lives. We all want to go our own way. We don’t like being told about right and wrong, light and dark. We don’t like the idea that we could be making decisions that are nothing but a path of self destruction, and destruction to those around us. And so, we push aside potential paths in favour of our own. Marching to the beat of our own drum, following our own internal compass, trying to find our way through this maze called life.
Everyone is religious in that all of us are searching for truth. I would encourage you to continue your search. I think it’s a brilliant and a beautiful thing to search for and find truth. Real truth. Truth that gets you out of bed in the morning, truth that fills your heart with song, truth that leads you to become the person you were born to be. And I firmly believe that if you seek truth with all your heart, you’ll find it.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous, for they will be filled.”