Image by confusedvision via FlickrBy Josh Sullivan
"It's not a religion. It's a relationship.” Has anyone else heard Christians use this argument? It's hard to say when this phrase gained popularity. According to Gregory Kouki of the radio show, Stand to Reason, "this slogan has been a rallying cry of 1970s and 80s evangelicalism.” Whatever the case, the phrase is popular amongst Christians. You can read blog posts on it, watch Christians on YouTube recycling it, you can even buy bumpers stickers proclaiming it. But what bothers me about this phrase is how many things are just wrong with it.
This phrase sets up a classical logical fallacy, called a false dichotomy (more specifically, it's black-and-white thinking, a sub-class of the false dichotomy). The phrase implies that there are two choices. It's either religion, or a relationship. In reality, there are more than just two choices. A possible third choice is closer to the truth: it's religion and a relationship (albeit imaginary). Christianity continues to thrive because of religion. Christians continue thinking that they're developing personal relationships with God because of religion. With a little critical thinking it's obvious that a relationship with God requires the framework of religion to answer basic questions about the nature of relationships with God. It is a religion. Religion propagates the idea of a relationship with a personal God. Religion tells you what the relationship will be like. Religion reinforces the concept that God communicates directly to you. Religion encourages evangelism and indoctrination. A relationship without the framework of religion is meaningless. One begets the other.
Like most specious Christian arguments, the phrase is vague and packed full of equivocation. What is the "it” in this phrase? Which religion is the person talking about? Christianity? If so, which of the +20k denominations within Christianity? What kind of relationship? D. Q. McInerny, author of "Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking” warns against the use of vague and ambiguous words, "not because they have no meaning, but because they are especially rich in meaning”. Though, that doesn't seem to stop Christians from using vague, ambiguous, and equivocal words in their arguments. When Christians say "it's not about religion” they are using the word "religion” equivocally. I suspect that a good number of Christians who use this phrase are defining religion as getting up on Sunday, putting on dress clothes, going to church, singing hymns, and listening to a sermon. Religion certainly contains these activities, but religion is by no mean summed up by these activities. They are, in essence, setting up a false definition of what religion is in order to de-emphasize its importance.
Religion reinforces the concept that God communicates directly to you. Religion encourages evangelism and indoctrination. A relationship without the framework of religion is meaningless. One begets the other. In a strict sense, the two words mean pretty much the same thing. The Oxford American Dictionary defines religion as "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods”. So, religion can be defined as believing in and worshiping a personal God. Kind of sounds like a relationship to me.
It's not a relationship. At least not in the sense that they imply. Moreover, making a statement about the existence of a relationship with God means they need to give evidence of the relationship's existence. And resorting to personal experience (another logical fallacy, called "special pleading”) or using the Bible as a source of evidence doesn't count. Personally, I would love to see evidence that there is a God and that He is a personal God who communicates with us. The moment someone can show this to me I'll gladly believe. John Proctor, a character from Arthur Miller's work, The Crucible, said, "God never spoke in my ear and I can't think of any one else he's done the favor!”.
I'd like to see Christians dump this tired, stupid phrase from their repertoire of one-liners. The statement is false. If it's not about religion, then we can get rid of religion. If it is about religion, which I believe it is, then they should concede that the statement is bunk and that they're playing games with words.
Have any of you experienced Christians using this phrase as if it proves a point? How did you respond? What was it like for you to realize that the relationship Christians are so fond of is completely imaginary?