Religious But Not a Member of a Religion

I believe religiousness has a positive role to play in human life.  It can inspire ethical behavior, give us the feeling (or perhaps the reality) of communing with the absolute, and great art.  However religions have contributed to inter- and intra-religious warfare, persecution and anti-scientific thinking.  Is there a way to have the good part of religions without the intolerance?

I think there is if we give up the notion that being religious requires one to be a member of a religion.   As an alternative approach look at our attitude towards music.  We love music, it helps us emotionally connect with other people and provides a glimpse of the transcendent, but we don’t expect our musical tastes to give us an identity.  I can be a fan of Mississippi John Hurt and also a fan of J.S. Bach.  If you are a fan of one but not the other that’s fine.  I may be very sad and disappointed in what you are missing out on if you don’t like either one, but I am unlikely to try to force you to like them, or to claim you like them if you do not.  My fandom can be as narrowly or as widely focussed as I wish — so for example I could love Charley Patton and hate Robert Johnson or love all the blues or love just pre-war acoustic blues.

This strikes me as a good model for religion for the human race going forward.  If there are religious books or experiences or leaders whom we love we can love them and try to educate others to love them as well.  But we would not look to religious membership for an identity, and we would not try to police others so as to get in line with what we love in religion.  That way we would get the good of religion without the bad.

I think this perspective goes a long way towards putting to rest fears that Judaism is disappearing.   Judaism is not disappearing any more than the blues is disappearing.   The messages of Judaism may be more popular among different ethnic groups, and they may be mixed with other traditions, but the central message of Judaism “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God” will not disappear, any more than the blues chord progressions will disappear.  It will only become more powerful as it touches more hearts.


11 thoughts on “Religious But Not a Member of a Religion

  1. Sean says:

    This is an excellent idea. It reminds me of Rorty’s notion of romantic polytheism, where we can all have our own ‘poetry’ which structures our ethical engagement and phenomenological experience with the world sans any claim to privileged moral status or absolute Truth.

  2. Not being religious myself, I support your idea. But it neglects the fact that, in many religions, one can’t be religious without being a member of the religion. Catholicism requires the taking of communion — one can’t be Catholic without being a Catholic. A tolerance of and sharing of overarching moral beliefs is good, but is that really properly called “religion?”

  3. N.S. Palmer says:

    I like your distinction between religiousness and religion. Religiousness is a comprehensive world-view, along with ways of feeling in relation to the world. Religion adds group-specific ways of acting in relation to the world.

    However, IMHO the idea that religion causes warfare (etc.) mistakes an effect for the cause. The cause is kin selection. Darwin didn’t see it because he was limited by the science of his time.

    Individuals can propagate their genes into the next generation either by having their own offspring or by helping relatives do so. As a result, they are biologically programmed to help their genetic relatives and oppose non-relatives who might compete against their own kin. The latter tendency is the biological root of war.

    How do animals know their relatives? Field studies suggest the criteria are location, familiarity, phenotype (including behavior), and sometimes genotype (odors, etc.). Humans apply the same criteria, but they add post hoc explanations about why they are doing it. Religious practice is a kind of behavior that hooks into biological programming and inclines humans to treat co-religionists as their genetic relatives, whether or not they really are.

    Bottom line: Humans form in-groups and out-groups because of kin selection, and religion is just one manifestation of the process. It has a bit of impact here and there, but it’s not a fundamental cause. Getting rid of religion, even if it were possible, wouldn’t change much.

  4. There have been periods of history which have been more violent and periods that have been less violent and societies which have been more violent and murderous and societies that have been less so. So even if there’s a sizable genetic factor I think there must be a cultural factor as well, and since it is easier to change culture than biology it is worth focussing on it. No?

    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Undisputed. Even the biological factor is not immutable. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” makes a case that violence has declined in relative terms even with our greater technological proficiency in killing each other. He thinks that genetics might be one of the causes.

      As you say, however, we want to get rid of the bad without getting rid of the good. Religion exists because it serves a purpose, so we must be careful about tinkering.

  5. Mikey says:

    I think of myself as about 20% humanist, 10% Muslim and 70% Christian, divided into about 55% Protestant, 10% Catholic and 5% Orthodox. So maybe I’m in the perfect position to adopt this attitude. How does it work? When people say to me “are you religious?” I normally say “Yeah, quite. I go to church.” Should I start saying “Yeah, I’m a big fan of religion.”? What if they say “Are you a Christian?” I guess the answer should be something like “I’m a fan of Christianity, sure, but I have eclectic religious tastes.”

    • It depends what they are after with their question and what you hope to get out of the encounter. Sometimes honesty is called for, sometimes a mask. You could say it depends upon if you want to make music with them and if you do, what kind of music. If they want you to teach Sunday school at their church you might want to keep the Muslim 10% under your hat or you might not. For myself, sometimes I like to get along with people sometimes I feel the urge to be deliberately annoying. Also if I feel somebody is genuinely interested I find it’s more helpful to ask the question “What do you think about God?” “What do you think about the soul?” “What is joy?” “How should we teach children to be good?” rather than the “what religion are you?” since the religions hide different answers to these questions. They also hide commonalities — sometimes the mystics in each tradition have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists who are not mystical.

  6. Mikey says:

    I’ll try asking people what they think of your idea. And when I say “people” I mean the people from my church, for example. I doubt many of them will like it much so I’ll start with the most receptive.

  7. Mikey says:

    Weirdly I had my first opportunity to try this out. I became a godfather to a friend’s daughter and the other godfather said to me outside the church “are you religious?” When I told him I was a fan of religions, he said “Oh, like Salinger? He couldn’t ever work out which was his favourite.” I don’t know if that’s true.

    • “Fan” may send people on the wrong track cause fans generally have a spectator relationship to what they are fans of, rather than creating it too. Maybe Christianity is like having your own Jesus cover band.

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