Can you be too religious?

Actually, I seriously dislike the words religion and religious. First, there is no such thing as generic religiosity. There are Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus. No one practises religion, as such. And second, precisely because the word "religion" describes the common outward format through which these very different belief systems express themselves, it cannot describe each in its specificity. This is particularly tricky when it comes to Christianity, because at its heart is a figure who was thoroughly suspicious and condemnatory of religion. "Jesus came to abolish religion," says the Washington-based poet and evangelist Jefferson Bethke. His YouTube poem Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus received 16-million views within two weeks of it being released. He's right: the New Testament must be one of the most thoroughly anti-religious books ever written. It makes Richard Dawkins look very tame fare indeed.

Jesus spent much of his time laying into the pious and the holy and lambasting the religious professionals of his day. And this was not because he was anti-Jewish – as some superficial readings of his anti-Pharisee, anti-Sadducee, anti-Temple polemics would have it – but precisely because, as a Jew himself, he came out of that very Jewish prophetic tradition of fierce hostility to religiosity. Here, for instance, is the prophet Isaiah on feisty form.

The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Lord.I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. Stop bringing meaningless offerings!Your incense is detestable to me. New moons, sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

This is the sort of theology to which Jesus looked for inspiration. And partly, it was this uncompromising anti-religiosity that got him nailed to a cross.


You may think I am being slippery with the word "religion". So let's take, for instance, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim's influential definition of religion as that which divides up the world into the sacred and the profane. But here again, the Jesus stories have him as thoroughly anti-religious, not least in those narratives that surround his birth. For the idea that God might be found not in the spiritually antiseptic space of some sacred temple, but in the smelly cow shed out the back, is about as hostile an idea to religion as one can possibly imagine. When it comes to Christianity, just being a little bit religious is being too religious. Religion is a pejorative term. So the answer is yes.

Of course, I'd say you cannot be too Christian. That's a different kettle of fish. And if "being too Christian" makes you think of Christian fundamentalists, I'd want to insist that they are simply not Christian enough. Indeed, that it's their lack of faith that makes them cling to a bogus form of certainty and literalism. Mostly, Christian fundamentalists worship a book. They like the safety of having pat answers. But this is just another form of idolatry of which the Hebrew scriptures regularly warn. Worshipping a book and worshipping God are two totally different things. Falling down before a baby, with all the inversion of power that this implies, takes courage not intellectual suicide. It is about the world being turned upside-down, the mighty (including the religious mighty) being cast down and the weak being held up. It is about placing something other than oneself at the centre of the world. And no, I don't think there can be too much of this. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Giles Fraser
Guest Author

Related stories

Public officials must treat all marriages equally

Religious beliefs are no longer allowed as on objection to solemnising same-sex partnerships and rightly so

Marriage officers should have the right to object on religious grounds

‘Beliefs and convictions rested on religion should be allowed the freedom awarded by the law to share the public sphere with all the other non-religious beliefs and convictions’

Review: ‘Ikhaya Likamoya’ by Sethembiso Zulu — Ties that bind us all

Multimedia journalist and healer Sethembiso Zulu’s debut solo show embraces a fierce, raw and broken timelessness that encapsulates what it means to be human

Eusebius McKaiser: A school’s Christian ethos doesn’t justify prejudice

Christian Life Private School barred a pupil because he wore a bracelet with cultural significance, but the decision — even in the private sphere — is constitutionally wrong

Battle for the truth about UFOs

The United States Navy has confirmed that three videos of unidentified aerial phenomena were taken by Navy pilots in 2004 and 2015

I buried my father on Zoom. Was I laying my culture to rest?

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented me from leaving London to be at my father’s funeral in Uganda and perform the rites. Instead, I attended it online
Advertising

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday