Why Christians Hate The “Religion” They Invented

I wanted to avoid adding another commentary to the now ubiquitous “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video. But it keeps being posted and reposted, despite a fairly obvious objection to it: only Christians of a certain kind think “religion” means what this guy says it means.

In the course of a facebook conversation on the video, I said,

This “critique” of “religion” and endorsement of (personal) faith in Jesus should be set within the longer discourse of Christian universalism and its articulation of religion/religions as failed approximations of itself. It is universalizing in scope, both in its account of religion and in its inability to see and accept its own historical contingency and particularity.

All I want to do is try to explain this terse statement.

For centuries (since the medieval understanding of the world, including religion, was shaken to the core by the discovery of new lands and peoples), Christians have been reflecting on the nature of religion (here’s a previous, related post). The conclusion was given at the outset: Christianity (as a civilization) was the highest, most authentically human, and divinely chosen form of life. All other forms of life were deviations, departures, failed approximations, or in some other way deficient manifestations of this universal Christian life. The category of “religion” explained Christian civilization’s superiority to all others (and numerous “definitions” of religion were offered to meet this demand throughout the centuries).

In this video, the poem defines religion as an antitype of Christianity (religion is -X but Christianity is X). Christianity stands, again, in a unique position of superiority. No longer the apex of religion, it is outside that field of human failure called religion altogether. Christianity overcomes the failures of religion and opens up the true form of human life all peoples desire (or should desire). The video thus stands in continuity with this longer Christian discourse of religion.

This account of religion is universalizing in two ways. It claims to give an account of religion, and hence all religions, and thus can claim to know in advance the true story of all people, itself and “others,” without any open discussion with them. Secondly, it is universalizing in that it has no sense of its own historical particularity. It takes its own peculiar definition of and distaste for religion as universal. It takes its own individualized account of faith (grace, moral striving accompanied by public confession of weakness, desire for authenticity, etc) as ahistorical, generic, ideal human norms.

The video is beset by numerous other problems (self-contradictory in its judgement against judgmental religious people; poor use of Scripture; random disconnected thoughts; hints of anti-semitism; etc). So why is it so popular now?

A partial answer is that it solves a current political dilemma for a certain evangelical-ish Christian population. It challenges the ideological use of Christianity by Republicans like Rick Perry while preserving and masking its own pretenses to universality. In other words, it jettisons the particular cultural forms of “Republican Christianity” (a good thing, no doubt) while allowing them to miss the fact that they are substituting one particular cultural formation for another (their own). Through the “abolition” of religion and endorsement of faith in Christ, adherents are able to wash their hands of the sin of religion (wars, social conservatism, etc) while still retaining their privileged place in the religious world Christians invented.

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10 Responses to Why Christians Hate The “Religion” They Invented

  1. Josh says:

    Ok, but I think a case can be made that the word religion has negative connotations for the majority of those not in churches today. So if we care about making Jesus accessible to people, isn’t it more helpful to remove that word from conversation than to try and educate people on why it isn’t a dirty word? To me, the latter feels like standing in a position of superiority and saying “I will teach you why the word religion isn’t dirty. Ignore your feelings and listen to my knowledge that surpasses your negative associations…” It also feels like you’re making an assumption here that the dude in the (bad) video’s aim is to separate himself from religion and introduce a new form of superiority (making his motives the same as those of the crusaders). Could it be that his intention is less about elitism and and more about removing things that cloud an accurate picture of Jesus? Isn’t that what the great historical church leaders like Paul did? They spoke the culture’s language instead of teaching them to speak their own.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Josh–
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I get what you’re saying and agree that the word “religion” has a whole bunch of connotations to many people. In fact, one of the gestures of this post was to try to point out just how much violent, Christian imperialist history is embedded in the very word, “religion.” However, unfortunately, simply dropping the word doesn’t mean one has altered or abandoned the way that whole paradigm of thinking functions. So, to put my point perhaps differently: this guy, unfortunately, still remains trapped within a very long and problematic discussion of religion even as he tries to critique religion. Or, to try one more way, his critique of religion is actually a repetition of the way the idea of “religion” has functioned in Western, Christian discourse for a couple hundred years (and longer). He has the wrong target: the problem isn’t that Christianity has mistaken itself for a religion (as works righteousness) but that Christians shaped the very idea of religion as a means to explain their sense of cultural universality and superiority. Without this latter critique, the guy stays within the logic of a very problematic way of talking about religion (regardless of and despite his intentions). As such, I don’t think he is making it easier for people to see Jesus at all but is in fact reaffirming a deep and highly problematic way in which Jesus functions as cultural property (as I mentioned, a culture that is decidedly suspicious of Rick Perry evangelical conservatism).

      • Josh says:

        Thanks Tim for clarifying/expanding on your thoughts. I totally see what you’re saying. I guess I’m just not as confident inferring that Dr. Seuss video guy is repeating a historical pattern of Christian imperialism simply because he doesn’t point out that Christians have shaped religion to express superiority in the past. I can agree this inference, however, is probable due to his approach that exudes arrogance and ignorance as he bashes “religion” more than he visions for a culturally appropriate alternative. I do, however, believe that when attempting to make Jesus accessible to a culture that reacts negatively to words like “religion”, one must talk a little bit about what they aren’t (i.e. I’m not religious, I’m…). This gives people reassurance that there might exist someone (Jesus) who’s bigger than their negative associations caused by failures of religion…someone who feels worth investigating in a way that religion does not.

  2. timkumfer says:

    Tim,

    How would someone like Barth figure in here? It seems that his positing of faith in Jesus Christ over and against all religion including Christianity (i.e. Romans, CD I.2) is an iteration of this problem more than a pathway towards its resolution.

    I.e. your last post, Barth remains the backdoor through which apocalyptic theology (understood in a quite narrow sense) reinstantiates a [white, Christian, straight, male, North American, etc.] ideological universal that proclaims itself to be an apocalyptic refusal of such.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kerr’s work in this regard is the warm welcome it has received from Hauerwas. I think this is largely (if unconsciously) due to Kerr’s maintaining of a ‘smooth space’ for ‘Theology’ to proceed upon, a form of reflection untainted by the inherent striations of the social.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Tim,
      Thanks for the response. I think Barth is doing quite impressive work in I/2, especially given the context in which he is writing. Yet, his analysis of religion still operates within a lingering supercessionism (one that, as Carter and Jennings point out, is deeply connected to race and the colonial project). One of the most beautiful components of Barth’s critique, I think, is the way in which Christians can no longer claim to be at the apex or outside of the “religious” realm. He is overturning a very long and sustained tradition of thought in that regard. The problems arise in that the deep critique of whiteness (to simplify matters) can proceed in a way that is internal to whiteness and thus inadvertently repeats the problem in another register. It’s something I had to come to terms with in reading Barth for a couple years with the question of liberation theology at the back of my mind: I started to see that the strong critique of the identification of our work with God’s work was extremely helpful if you’re asking “how do I follow Christ without repeating the colonizing mistake of Christendom” but more difficult when you’re asking “how do we understand the ways in which God has been, is, and will be present in our historical struggles for freedom and dignity in a racist society.” I think one can productively read Barth with this latter question, but it is going to lead you to reconfigure Barth–highlight, expound, clarify, critique, and go beyond–quite differently.

      • Tim McGee says:

        To quote from J. Kameron Carter’s book,
        “Barth’s Christology can only account for history, as it were, deductively. Such a deductive approach alone is inadequate to go to the heart of the concerns of black theology, particularity in its emerging moments, with its concern to examine how black folks in their suffering of and cultural contact with the New World nevertheless theologically harnessed and redirected modernity…Because of the inflexible transcendence-immanence, God-world, and Christ-culture dialectic, it is difficult on strictly Barthian terms to theologically interpret and critically clarify the meaning of black faith” (Race, 181).

    • dbarber says:

      Tim, you say: “It seems that his positing of faith in Jesus Christ over and against all religion including Christianity (i.e. Romans, CD I.2) is an iteration of this problem more than a pathway towards its resolution.” And i absolutely agree. This, to my mind, is the great blindspot of the “apocalyptic” theologians. We had a bit of a blog debate on this awhile back: http://itself.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/on-the-critique-of-religion/

      And, if i may, i’m going to just go ahead and plug my book, _On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity_, which includes a critique of Barth (and Kerr) on precisely this point, while also presenting a broader account of just how deeply this construction of “religion” has functioned in Christianity (and secularism too). In fact i argue that this construction begins not in early modern colonialism, but that this period is a transmutation of a construction that began at the very origins of “Christianity,” i.e. Christianity doesn’t exist without the concept of religion. So it’s not just a matter of the wrong vs. right use of “religion” by theology (as Barth, for instance, would claim), but that Christian theology as such is implicated in religion — which is to say that the problem runs rather deep, such that the undoing of religion requires the undoing of theology as we understand it.

  3. dbarber says:

    that was directed at tim k.’s comment

  4. Pingback: Secularism and Me « The Taser's Edge

  5. timkumfer says:

    Dan: I have followed the AUFS debates on apocalyptic rather closely over the past couple years. I just picked up a copy of your book a couple weeks ago at SCE when it was here in DC. I look forward to seeing how you treat this and related questions there. I share your hunch, rooted I’m guessing in one particular line of flight from Yoder’s work, that the crux of the matter here lies much deeper than the developments of the modern period.

    Tim: Like a number of the past century’s towering intellectual figures, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambivalence to Barth–particularly in terms of his recuperability for projects of liberation. One which makes the questions you bring to such figures of utmost importance.

    I guess the thing that continues to nag at me is that most of those who have followed in Barth’s wake have typically employed his work–including the critique of religion–in service to a slightly different repetition of Christendom and its corresponding set of hierarchialized social space. A deployment that continues to be linked to a concern for orthodoxy, which in a way loops back up to my comment to Dan.

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