Why Religion Is a Meaningless Category
How can two ideologies with polar opposite doctrines and consequences be labeled with the same word?
Atheists commit a common fallacy. They claim to oppose “religion,” then proceed to lump Christianity in with Molech worship, Egyptian sun worship, and Greco-Roman idolatries that worshipped Zeus, Aphrodite, Bacchus, and Dionysus. Anything that can be labeled “religion” gets stirred into a pot of poison stew that spoils the whole lot. This is like mixing honey with hemlock and castor bean and calling it “food.” Does the category “religion” describe anything useful? The same lumpers also conveniently define religion to exclude atheism, when the word religion is best used to describe systems of belief that individuals “rely” on to answer the big questions: Who am I? Where did the world come from? What is my purpose in life? Where am I going? According to that definition, atheism certainly fits.
When comparing “religions” as systems of belief and practice, distinctions must also be made between doctrines and historical practices of adherents. These are not entirely separable, though. A set of doctrines is expected to result in corresponding practices. For instance, a hypothetical religion that teaches “All Smogarians are evil and must be eliminated” would not be expected to develop missions to feed and clothe Smogarians (another hypothetical target group), whereas a church that teaches “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” should do so. Terrorism would be inconsistent with the latter teaching.
There is a caveat, however: since human beings by nature are prone to evil, ignorance and factionalism, a system cannot be blamed for all the behaviors of individuals who claim to follow it. The Pentateuch describes a “mixed multitude” that followed Moses out of Egypt, but most of them perished in the wilderness due to murmuring and unbelief. The Old Testament consistently depicts the core of honest God-fearing Jews as a small remnant. This “remnant” idea continues into the New Testament. Christian church history has seen a dizzying array of factions, sects, and denominations, often at war with one another. Is Jesus to blame for those? He warned the first disciples that “false Christs” would arise and lead many astray. Paul warned the early church that false teachers would arise from among themselves, like ravenous wolves, sparing not the flock.
There is a measuring rod: how close does a particular denomination adhere to the teachings of Jesus and the writings of his apostles? The point is, while disciples are expected to conform to the teachings, one must be cautious in blaming the source for the actions of those claiming to be adherents. Action should flow from doctrine but can go astray due to human fallibility. Theologians point out that God has provided authentic, but not exhaustive, truth. This can also lead to factionalism from those trying to fill in the blanks from the imaginations of their own minds.
Example: An Extreme Contrast
For any atheists reading this, or for theists wishing to converse with atheists, we offer an extreme contrast to show the meaninglessness of the “religion” category.
The BBC News reported the discovery of an extension to the Aztec Skull Tower: “Archaeologists unearth new sections in Mexico City.” The tower, constructed in 1486 to 1502, is a wall made up with human skulls used as bricks held together with mortar. These were not skulls of members of the society who died a natural death to remember and honor them, like some skulls that have been stacked in some European monasteries. They were skulls of victims that were killed because of Aztec religious beliefs. “It is believed to be part of a skull rack from the temple to the Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice,” the article says.
The tower’s original discovery surprised anthropologists, who had been expecting to find the skulls of young male warriors, but also unearthed the crania of women and children, raising questions about human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire.
“Although we can’t say how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies,” said archaeologist Raul Barrera.
“We do know that they were all made sacred,” he added. “Turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of deities themselves.“
The sight must have struck fear into the hearts of Spanish conquistadors marching into Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. The skull wall was not unique to this location; others are known. Interestingly, a later cathedral stands nearby. Aztecs were known for cutting the beating hearts out of their victims. Mayans also had grisly ceremonies of human sacrifice, sometimes of women and children who had been taught they were pleasing their idols. By contrast, Jews were taught to abhor the “religious” practices of the surrounding nations, including human sacrifice and sexual promiscuity.
And yet, those who practiced such atrocities sincerely believed they were carrying out the wishes of their gods. It was not an aberration; the practice flowed directly from the doctrine.
Now watch this short new video from Illustra Media:
As Christmas approaches in honor of this One Solitary Life, ask yourself. Is “religion” a meaningful category? Or are some worldviews more worth trusting than others? Where does the evidence lead?
You could call yourself an atheist and believe that nothing times nobody created everything. You could let an Aztec priest cut your beating heart out as an offering to an idol who cannot see, hear, or talk. Or you could believe the one who gave his life for you because he loves you, and proved his deity by rising from the dead. That One Solitary Life had power to change the world because He was its Creator.* His teachings would be unbelievable unless they were true. He said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16).
*In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1).
If you demand evidence before believing something, consider that over 500 people at one time saw Christ after he had risen from the dead (I Corinthians 15:6. This testimony was recorded by an enemy of Christ followers who was converted when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus after the resurrection. Consider also that many specific details of his birth, life and passion were prophesied centuries before he came. If you want a worldview that changes your life for good and offers peace, forgiveness and purpose in life, consider Jesus, who said to his disciples before his crucifixion, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:6).
For more on the uniqueness of Jesus compared to “religion,” see this short film, “Who Was Jesus?” (5 min); also, “The Uniqueness of Jesus” (6.5 min). And Merry Christmas from us at CEH! We hope this will be a turning point in your life for good.