In Part 1, I tried to give my readers a sense of how claiming to be in a ‘relationship with Jesus’ sounds weird to non-Christians, because it’s just not properly analogous to ordinary human relationships. I exemplified this by comparing it to my own marriage experience thus far.
In Part 2, I clarified what marriage meant in the ancient world, and how disturbing some of the portraits of Yahweh (as the biblical god’s proper name) really are. Speaking of which, how many of those c. 2 billion people saying that they are in a relationship with this deity actually even know his name?
Nobody would choose to be in a relationship with Yahweh if they had any other viable option. I didn’t use this term in my prior posts, but the word ‘abusive’ rings loud and clear for non-Christian and non-Jewish readers.
In this final part, I want to tease out the real reason for the popularity of the maxim.
3. Don’t Buy Into It – “Relationship” is not a USP!
In order to advertise anything, you have to create a need or desire for it, which often means demeaning something else or making people feel inadequate or incomplete as they are. This R-not-R claim is the best candidate for the “unique selling point” (USP) of Christianity, and why the original post on Soul Survivor and the previous two (here and here) on this topic have touched a nerve with some of my believing friends.
Here, ‘religion’ is basically a comparative byword for Judaism and Islam, being used by people who neither appreciate their complexity nor their appeal to some people. While it is true that Islam shuns the relationship idea, Judaism, as evidenced in Part 2, can also make such a claim. The only difference is who Jews might consider themselves to be ‘in a relationship’ with.
Other faith traditions make exactly the same claim not to be a religion, e.g. Buddhism (the Buddha is not supernatural or divine) or Scientology (an “applied religious philosophy”), except when religious tax exemptions are at stake! Why should the state subsidise your ‘personal relationship’, if it’s so akin to a romantic one?1 After all, ordinary romantic relationships can inspire people towards charity, create happiness and foster community spirit, no? Regardless, the question arises – which religious lover should you pick?
There are several forms of worship in Hinduism and bhakti matches closely the Christian claim. Bhakti in Hinduism (or Theravada Buddhism) can take several forms, such as close friendship with the deity, the deity as a lover, or even the deity as the child of the devotee! All these forms of worship are relational and for many believers intensely personal. If Christianity isn’t a religion, neither is Hinduism, so take your pick between the two. After all, Yahweh apparently created you with the freedom to choose.
Do you prefer Yahweh or Lakshmi? Jesus or Vishnu? Personally, I’d ditch Yahweh, as per Part 2. On that note, the whole point of the religious covenant / marriage with Yahweh only is that the early Israelites believed in more than one God existing, yet subscribed to the worship of one, i.e. monolatry.2
In videos such as this famous one by Jefferson Bethke, ‘religion’ becomes synonymous with ‘legalism’, which has negative connotations attached to it.3 In fact, ‘religion’ in general can evoke undesirable sentiments to many people, and not just in Western countries.4 As a result, most people of faith shun the label for themselves. In a 2011 YouGov poll, for example, of the 61% of people in England and Wales who ticked a religious box (e.g. Christian) for the question ‘What is your religion?’, only 29% actually then considered themselves ‘religious’.
‘Proselytising’ (religion) is another similarly disowned term, discarded in favour of the term ‘evangelising’ (spreading a “good news” message; i.e. relationship), and that is the other way of thinking about this. The former gives the idea of ‘salesmanship’ rather than ‘word of mouth’ recommendation. “People talk about what they love, or who they love”, it is sometimes said. If Jesus becomes “who they love”, then it grants legitimacy to broaching an otherwise taboo topic at work or over the dinner table.
As I tried to discuss in the original post on Soul Survivor, because this idea is more potent and drives people to think that preaching to other people is a really great idea, it can become a “meme”. People are more likely to psychologically “attach” themselves to a personal, relational deity, spread its message and gain converts.
This idea inevitably spills over into insulting non-religious viewpoints. For example, at a recent wedding, my wife and I remember being told that “without God [read: Yahweh], you cannot love”. The preacher was demeaning a non-faith perspective to emotively build up the case for his faith perspective. Humanism is not capable of love; therefore, Christianity.
Fundamentally, this idea is either: (a) testable and demonstrably wrong, because other non-Christian human beings do kind things, and in some studies appear more moral than Christians;5 or (b) untestable and meaningless, if it refers to something which God has enabled all people to do in the claimant’s opinion. This preaching simply reminded me of how much of a bubble some religious communities are in; I hope this trio of posts will at the very least give a possibility of escaping the linguistic bubble and minimising accidental insult to non-Christian people.
To those who have heard this claim many times, it feels like a shallow marketing ploy, although it’s obviously not intended that way. It oozes naivety, and it often falls from the lips of a fresh convert zealous to change the minds of their peers. Many of the readers here who know me personally will remember this stage.
It sidesteps the fact that prayer does not at all work like ordinary human relational communication between lovers, friends or even strangers. It masks the reality that evangelical Christianity can (and does) suffer from the same downsides it tries to lump on “religion”: pointless ritual, closed communities, discouragement from questioning. (See Part 1.)
It selectively ignores how manipulative and twisted a relationship with (or rather marriage bond to) Yahweh in the Old Testament (OT) / Hebrew Bible (HB) was, and how, if the threat of hell was not present and there were plausible alternatives of other gods to be in a relationship with, nobody would rationally choose it for themselves. Otherwise, if being in a relationship with Yahweh is so obviously great, why not lean on “your own understanding”? One sign of an abusive relationship is forcing the abused to doubt themselves and the OT / HB as a whole has some pretty damning things to say about having self-confidence or trusting your heart! Personally, I’d recommend you stick to Aphrodite, though you’d have like 10 others to compete with (plus anyone else who takes my advice). (See Part 2.)
In summary, I think this ‘I am in a relationship’ idea is not just misguided, but can indeed be ‘dangerous and harmful’, as Pope Francis worded it here. I have argued this on three counts: (1) it is ‘special pleading’ and leads to a disdain for critical thinking and evidence; (2) it could idealise misogyny and other ills in earthly marriages; and (3) it treats ‘religion’ as a ‘dirty word’ and implicitly demeans those of different faith traditions who do not claim personal connections to the divine. I think religion is totally okay and – dare I say it – even cool!
Please, as ever, feel more than at liberty to disagree with me. I welcome your thoughts, heckles and questions! Why not follow the Facebook page… or ask Santa to follow it for Christmas?
- Yes, I am aware of the Marriage Tax Allowance in the UK, and I am sure other states subsidise marital relationships, yet I’m not entirely comfortable with these tax breaks for various reasons, e.g. divorce, death of a partner, committed couples who do not wish to get married yet still contribute as much if not more to society, how single people also contribute to society and get less out (esp. if they don’t have children). ↩
- For easily digestible evidence of the presence of monolatry in early Israelite religion, there are many sources: see here, here and here. Think about the context of the commandment to have ‘you shall have no other gods besides me’ (Ex. 20:3). ↩
- Sullivan, W. F. (2010) ‘Religion Naturalized: The New Establishment’ in Bender, C. and Klassen, P. E. (eds.). After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 82-97. ↩
- Popp-Baier, U. (2010). ‘From Religion to Spirituality—Megatrend in Contemporary Society or Methodological Artefact? A Contribution to the Secularization Debate from Psychology of Religion’. Journal of Religion in Europe. Vol. 3, Iss. 1. pp. 34-67. ↩
- I have read approx. 65 papers on this topic and have thoroughly reviewed them all in an essay on the place of religious ‘proselytising’ in the legal definition of ‘charity’ which I will pass on to any interested readers. For an example of where religious faith actually appears to have a negative impact on generosity (in children), see: Decety, J., et al. (2015). ‘The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World’. Current Biology. Vol. 25, Iss. 22 pp. 2951-2955. On religion and reverse causality, i.e. already good people join religious groups, see: Paldam, M. (2001). ‘Corruption and Religion Adding to the Economic Model’. Kyklos. Vol. 54, Iss. 2-3. pp. 386, 403, 411. Most importantly, either the result, when controlled for, is roughly equal across all major religions, or sometimes in Christianity’s favour and more often not. This means the ‘you cannot love without God’ claim is evidentially nonsense, and can only be taken in the untestable mystical sense in which everything happens by His will and he enables everyone to love. Well, uh… great? Whatever floats your ark! ↩