My experiences with people who claim to follow Jesus but not be religious differ slightly from Mr. Mehta’s in an interesting way- while he seems to have encountered people who reject religion and also the label of ‘Christian’, all the non-religious Christians I have known are still happy and proud to refer to themselves and identify as Christian.
While the keeping or rejecting of this label is somewhat of a triviality, for those who are happy to keep it, this does imply that rather than removing the religion from Christianity they are removing Christianity from religion. They want to keep Christianity the associated label, and simply re-brand it outside of the current concept of religion. Re-branding is something we see often in the corporate world; it can often be a strategy for businesses who have acquired a negative image they need to shed. A great and still on-going example would be McDonald’s fast food who, like religion, have come under fire for much of their existence. In the case of McDonald’s, it is the majority of their menu items being unhealthy and this being directly responsible for childhood obesity, among other things. In recent years, the company has re-branded themselves completely into a franchise that provides healthy options, promotes healthy living, and responds to customer feedback.
But at the end of the day, we all still know exactly what McDonald’s is, a shitty cheap fast food joint. The re-branding has done its job- we’ve all accepted the new image McDonald’s has given itself- but the root of what caused it to come under fire still exists. The fat filled burgers are still on the menu, they’ve just been surrounded by a new philosophy and some salad!
Anyhoo, end segue. So, why has this sudden burst of non-religious Christians come about anyway? Why the need to re-brand? Like McDonald’s, religion has come under fire. That’s nothing new, but what is new is the volume of people who are aware, informed, and talking about it. It’s an obvious answer for atheists to assume that by re-branding Christianity, Christians think they can separate their faith-based belief system from the thousands of others out there. This needs to happen, because right along side us non-believers, Christians have been experiencing the same influx of awareness and deluge of information regarding all things negative when it comes to religion. All the controversy, all the unsavory history and all the doctrinal hypocrisy – they too have learned that RELIGION IS BAD! (Thanks, internet!). So, the hope is that this separation will somehow legitimize the christian belief system, by claiming it has been wrongly lumped in with all these other false faiths – often even the christian church is included as an example of true Christianity gone wrong.
For many people, the awareness and information the internet provides has led them to atheism. For others it has proven biblical prophecy (1 Timothy 4:1-3) and enhanced their faith. Then there’s the Jesus group: the people who have learned that religion is an undeniable atrocity but who can not, and will not, give up their savior. In his article, Hemant Mehta says that many of these people say they just want to “be like Jesus”, and they’re right in claiming that that, in itself, is not religion, but as we all know, the ideology of being like Jesus is just the tip of a huge theological iceberg.
So what does it mean to be a true christian, to be like Jesus? I have heard so many versions of this from so many Christians it’s hard to pin down a specific answer, but generally speaking the message is: Christianity is a lifestyle choice based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ as documented in the holy bible. It is a good choice because Jesus was a really good guy, oh, and PS, he was the son of god and the savior of all mankind.
But it’s totally not a religion.
Unfortunately, just as Christians like to use the definition of the word to label atheism a religion, we can use it here to show this new description of Christianity still confines it to the box of religion. Semantic technicalities are a petty way of looking at this issue though. As I mentioned earlier it is the current concept of religion that Christianity is trying to move away from, and the concept that defines religion in a cultural sense is a belief in god – which god exactly, is irrelevant, just that there is a belief in a god. As long as Christianity maintains this belief, and as long as faith alone is required to maintain that belief, Christianity, no matter how well re-branded, will be labelled a religion.
The simple solution would be to remove all the ‘goddish’ and magical elements from Christianity and truly bring it back to that grass roots claim that Christianity is just a choice to ‘be like Jesus’ which, again generally speaking, means to be a good person and help others. Does he really need to be the son of god to be seen as a good example? Of course not! And is separating from the god concept really such a bad idea? I mean, Christians are already accepting that religion itself is flawed, the doctrine is flawed, the church is flawed, and they are making changes. Why not take it one step further and remove the biggest flaw of all? There are many answers, all of them fear based. The two most dominant reasons in my mind during my deconversion from Christianity that kept me clinging to the god concept were the fear of loneliness, and the fear of death. I am positive the same is true for many Christians currently wrestling with maintaining their faith.
When you’re a christian, you don’t simply believe in god and Jesus. You know them. It’s a living relationship, and it’s personal. Christians know Jesus the way they know their family, their friends, etc. Calling it a belief can even seem condescending. Knowing god, rather than just believing in him, is great as it tends to completely negate those two fears I mentioned above. There is no loneliness when god is always with you; he is always loving you, encouraging you, and he is always there for you – you have no reason to feel alone, EVER. That is valuable. Even more valuable is the promise of heaven, not so much because it sounds like an awesome good time up there, but because it takes away the mystery and fear of death – it gives an answer to the unanswerable question – ‘what happens when we die?’ And what a fabulous thing to not only be given an answer to that question, but the answer actually transforms that fear of death’s mystery into joy. Who would want to give that up? Nobody!
For these promises to remain intact, god must exist. Without god, there is nobody when you’re alone, and there is nothing to alleviate the fear of death. So they are unable to separate Jesus the man from the deity he has been unfairly conjoined to for 2000 years. They need him to be the son of god: his teaching, life example, and conviction of his beliefs mean absolutely nothing – unless he is the son of god. How sad! How sad that these teachings and examples are only worth following if there are prizes to be had. How sad that an amazing human being who died upholding his beliefs is only celebrated by so many because they attach him to a god. Jesus is just not enough for Christians – they need their god rewards, and they will manipulate every element, every tradition, everything sacred within the christian institution in order to keep them, even if it means essentially abandoning and rejecting the lessons of their saviour.
Christians need to make a choice. Either have your god, and call Jesus Christ his son, and accept that framing your beliefs in this way makes Christianity a religion, OR leave god behind, free yourself from the constraints of the bible, and accept Christ for the amazing human being he was and allow yourself to truly follow his example because you can see how kick ass he was and how extraordinary it was for someone to have lived such a life and affected so many people.
It’s true that Jesus died for you, though not for your sins, or to fulfil a prophecy. He died to set an example for us. He shows us that the idea of spreading peace, offering service and complete acceptance of one another are the only values worth dying for. He died, not with a promise of heaven, or knowledge of prophecy (where’s the awesomeness in that anyway?), he died simply as a man. How insulting to him that this extremely brave and revolutionary human act is minimized to the point where people more or less believe that Jesus was born for the sole purpose of being killed on that cross, that he was placed on Earth just to die for you. What a fallacy! And how selfish!
This needs to change. Christ needs to be saved from Christianity as religion continues to fade, so will the memory of this courageous human being. Christians everywhere need to fight against this, and the only way to do this is to release Jesus from his ‘god prison’ and let him go. See him for who is, not what you need him to be to make yourself feel ok.
1 Peter 2: 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.