NOTE: Throughout the text you will bracketed purple text insertions that begin with the word “Discussion”. These are suggested discussion questions for small group leaders, who would like to go through these topics in an interactive group setting.
Before we can study any sort of claims about religion, we must start with the question: “What is religion?”
[Discussion: How would you define religion?]
The Oxford English Dictionary1 defines religion as follows:
“The service and worship of God or the supernatural”.
However, it is important to note that a religion does not have to necessarily include any belief in superhuman agency or a god or gods. Zen Buddhism doesn’t believe in God at all. Hinduism on the other hand doesn’t believe in a supernatural world beyond the material world. Yet, hardly anyone would attempt to claim that Zen Buddhism or Hinduism aren’t religions. Thus, it can be argued that the following definition from the Merriam-Webster1 is more accurate:
“A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”
Historian C. John Sommerville has pointed out that “a religion can be judged only on the basis of another religion.” You can’t evaluate a religion, except on the basis of some ethical criteria that in the end amounts to your own religious stance.”
[Discussion: Do you agree with Sommerville?]
Most of our convictions originate from our internal beliefs, which are almost impossible to prove, or even to justify to those who disagree with them. For example, let’s say there is both a person and a dog drowning, and you can only save one. Which one do you save?
Person A may feel that human lives are more valuable than the lives of dogs. Person B may feel that all life is equally valuable. Person A may object saying that humans have more developed brains, so the drowning human should be saved over the drowning dog. Person B may ask, “What if the person in the water is an adult with an under-developed brain and the dog is smarter?”
As you can see, Person A and Person B have now arrived to a situation wherein there might not be any way to convince the other what is the right thing to do without our referencing of some external standard, which would amount to some kind of religious belief as defined by Wikipedia. Everyone who wants to make any sort of moral reasoning must be religious, whether or not they have taken time to reflect and think about it. Everyone who says, “You should to do this,” or, “You shouldn’t do that,” reasons from their implicit or explicit moral and religious positions.
Tim Keller gives an excellent definition of religion in his book The Reason for God. He says that religion is:
“A set of beliefs that explain what life is all about. Who we are, and the most important things human beings should spend their time doing.”
For example, some think this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and the most important thing to do is what makes you happy without letting others impose their beliefs on you. Notice although this is not an explicit “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things. Yet, if you really struggle with the term religion, feel free to replace the word “religion” with the word “worldview” or “narrative identity” as we continue.
Often the word “faith” is closely associated with religion, but what is faith?
[Discussion: How would you define faith?]
Faith contains two aspects:
Mental assent is believing something to be true. Trust is actually relying on something being true. A parachute can be used to help illustrate this.
Mental assent is recognizing that a parachute is designed to safely land the person who is using it. Trust is using the parachute. That’s what a leap of faith is.
I can’t prove the parachute will land me safely until I use it. However, I’m ready to strap it on and take that leap of faith. The Bible defines faith in a similar manner.
[Discussion: Do you recall how the Bible defines faith?]
The Bible, in Hebrews 1:1, gives this definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Simply put, faith is trusting in something you cannot explicitly prove. (More about faith here: https://www.gotquestions.org/definition-of-faith.html). While the Christian way of thinking has many good reasons and evidence to support it, it still requires faith, which, Christians believe, only God can give.
Secular people may sometimes say they only believe in things that science can prove and they don’t live by faith
[Discussion: What do you think of this statement?]
If you see yourself as a secular person, who only believes in what science can prove, I would ask you to reconsider if you’re not taking similar leaps of faith as Christians.
Stay tuned for part 2.
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