On religion

Belfast, N. Ireland

“I’m really not that religious.” I hear this all the time. Often such a phrase follows statements like, “I definitely have my spiritual beliefs, but…” or “I would certainly say I’m spiritual, it’s just that…” etc. I understand what folks mean – at least I think I do. They seem to be suggesting that though they don’t ascribe to a particular historical or institutionalized faith tradition/structure, they still believe in or have a sense of divine mystery, that there is something other that exists in or beyond present earthly experiences. Essentially, they may not call themselves Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, for example, but that does not mean they are without theologies, or void of an understanding of that which is in us, beyond us, and not us. The problem I have with such speech, though, is that it suggests a narrow view of the term religion.

The term religion is often tossed about like a hot potato. We may talk about such complicated notions as the ‘violence of religion,’ or ‘religious practice,’ or ‘the role of religion in conflict and peacebuilding.’ Or we may flippantly remark about ‘drinking tea religiously,’ or perhaps being ‘religious about eating healthily.’ In the latter, frequently-used context, religion seems to hold a connotation of ‘that which we pursue with ardent conviction, that gives us meaning, and shapes our practices and routines.’ If I tell someone I drink tea religiously, for example, (as can probably be said of everyone here in Ireland and the UK!) more than likely they would assume I drink tea often, probably multiple times per day; that I find some form of meaning in the daily drinking of tea; that tea drinking perhaps holds ritualistic symbolism for me; that I have been drinking tea for a long time, perhaps all my life; and thus, that I am not wont to go a day without drinking tea, as it is a central component in the structure of my daily schedule. Such assumptions, if they are indeed accurate, are most revealing about the definition of religion in our vernacular.

If we agree, then, that religion is ‘that which we pursue with ardent conviction,” (perhaps too stark a simplification, but one that might be helpful to keep the prose flowing) then might we find it problematic, for example, to speak of our religion as Christianity if we only engage with its traditions and practices twice a year on Easter and Christmas? Might we also find it problematic to claim we are a/religious simply because we do not claim any particular, structurally- or popularly-defined faith tradition? In other words, should we not reframe our formal discussions around religion to correlate with what seems to be our popular definition of it? (Side note: I am working with the concept of religion as defined in everyday speech in an English-speaking Western context, since that is my primary experience.)

Friend and author David Dark writes in his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything that if we want to know what our religion/s is/are, then we should simply look at our phone bill, most visited websites, channels watched, places where we frequently spend time, books we read, music we listen to, etc. In other words, to know your religion, observe how you spend your time. This seems to relate well with ideas of another friend and author Peter Rollins who suggests that while it can be helpful for folks to strive for a marriage between their beliefs and their actions, such pursuits essentially miss the point: our actions are our beliefs. Rollins asserts that we have a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Facebook is a perfect example of this. Rollins describes Facebook as an idealized portrait of ourselves. Our Facebook profiles represent the people we wish we were, who we want others to believe we are. Yet, who we are is not the mask we present to the world, but rather how we live on a daily basis, when we are not updating our statuses or Twitter accounts. Rollins says that if I claim, for example, that I don’t believe in child slavery, but then I buy chocolate that I am pretty sure has been picked along the Ivory Coast by children who are abused and forced into labor through structural, direct, and/or cultural violence, then in fact, I do believe in child slavery, for my actions reveal my beliefs.

Take this website for instance. One of the stories I tell myself about myself is that I believe in humility, attempting to listen to the voices of the monastic traditions that call on us to lower ourselves rather than raising ourselves; to reach for the dirt rather than the skies; to embrace insignificance rather than prominence. I tell myself I believe this, but might the creation of this website indicate otherwise? Owning a domain of my own name (michaelmcray.com) does not suggest a proclivity toward humility or embracing insignificance, but rather the exact opposite. So the question stands, do I actually believe in humility (as I intellectually espouse) or rather in the promotion of my name (as my actions indicate)?

Or consider the iPhone. I have planned to buy an iPhone when I return home from grad school here in Belfast, though I know full well the conditions for workers in Apple’s overseas factories. I have read the reports that in order to meet the overwhelming customer demands, Apple has essentially implemented compulsory overtime for its workers, resulting in some workers committing suicide because of the oppressive environment. I tell myself that I believe that is wrong, that I reject the ethics of global capitalism, but if I buy the iPhone anyway, do I really believe it?

Essentially, my question is this: Should we stop claiming we are not religious, and instead, through careful self-analysis, discover what our religions actually are? For we are all religious. Whether we ascribe to the religions of capitalism, nationalism, traditional faith structures (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.), war, imperialism, nonviolence, peace, etc., we all practice religion. Most anything can become a religion if we pursue it with ardent conviction, allowing it to form and structure our lives. Which religion/s, then, do we actually believe in?

These are my thoughts today. Perhaps they will be different tomorrow,



  1. Neil Christy says:

    Well said, Michael. As you know, the Latin “relgio” has the meanings of reverence, respect, awe, conscience, scruples – which fall in line with your argument. Religion in its radical sense to me means that which we respect – – worship, that is, make a/the controlling force or principle of our lives. In that sense we are all religious; we have our various religions (belief systems). It’s obvious, as you so well point out, that we use this definition of religion in everyday speech. In that sense, religious and spiritual are not opposed rather quite similar.
    However, in modern parlance, when used to contrast to spiritual, it takes on the narrow, formalized, creedal, historically traditional sense of any particular set of beliefs and practices associated with a particular movement. As is so often the case an organism (religion) soon becomes an organization (Religion) and loses the dynamic, spirit-filled aspect of its original formation. The dynamic kingdom of God becomes the institutionalized, man-made construct where adherence to the rules trumps everything else. We are all religious in one form or another; we are not all adherents to a particular historical tradition or Religion.

  2. mtmcray says:

    Neil, thanks much for this thoughtful comment. Your insights are most helpful and worthy of much rumination. peace, mtm

  3. jonathanmcray says:

    “”A God without historical flesh and blood, a religion without the body of a community and its traditions, is a bloodless abstraction.” -John Caputo

  1. […] ourselves a story we want to be true, a story we wish was true already. As I mentioned in my post On religion, Peter Rollins argues that this is the nature of Facebook. It is an idealized portrait of […]

  2. […] linguistics, the importance of marrying our words to our actions. To me, this ties in well with my earlier discussions of Peter Rollins’ notions of understanding our beliefs as our actions rather than our espoused […]

  3. […] We tell ourselves a story we want to be true, a story we wish was true already. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Peter Rollins argues that this is the nature of Facebook. It is an idealized portrait of […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: