Cultural religion

I feel this one’s going to be a bit of a ramble, I have a few things I want to get in.

I find it strange that there are so many different grades of religion. I’m speaking mainly about Christianity here, as usual, and not in the denominational sense. On the one hand there is Christianity, as in the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of the God of Moses and Abraham, but on the other there is ‘cultural Christianity’, where someone is a Christian only in the sense that they keep Christian traditions such as Christmas and Easter, although they do not believe in God or the Jesus of faith, as I like to call it. Among these we can count Richard Dawkins who says he sings Christmas carols because it’s a part of his culture. Some apologists may find it strange that such an oft-quoted uber-atheist would refer to himself as a cultural Christian, but I think it shows that Dawkins is a voice of reason rather than an illustration of the far end of an anti-religious spectrum. Personally, although I’ll happily spend Easter and Christmas with my family, I specifically opt out of the traditionally religious aspect, such as carols (which I’ve always seen as a form of prayer), and attendance at Christmas mass (particularly difficult in my family, but I don’t want to make it look like there are more practicing parishoners than there actually are). Strangely, I have no issue with singing along to Bob Marley, despite the religious imagery.

I was visiting a friend at Durham University last week. Durham is a beautiful city, but everywhere you look you see some symbol of religion, whether it’s the Cathedral, one of the seemingly millions of church buildings (which are actually still churches, as opposed to Edinburgh where they’re more likely to be kitchen showrooms), or the cemetery. My friend told me that the Christian Union go out of their way to convert students, staying behind after meals to talk to those who are still in the room, and using their late night toast-supplying events to try and convert drunks before they go back to bed. I looked forward to a full blown debate but it seemed most of them had gone home for the summer, and the only person who approached me had nothing to do with the University. This is an example of genuine Christianity, the evangelical wing, rather than the take it or leave it approach of the cultural Christians.

I was on my way to the train station when a guy in a sash handed me a leaflet advertising a DVD. I glanced at it and noticed the title (paraphrasing – it appears an over-zealous neat freak has thrown the leaflet out. I’m looking for it online but no luck) ‘The Christian Institution of the Family: A Dynamic Instrument for Changing Society for the Better’, and stopped in my tracks.

I went back to this guy in the sash (who turned out to be American), and asked if his group was involved in the making of this DVD. Of course, was his reply, so my first question was “why does it say ‘Christian Institution of the Family’?”
“I don’t know what you mean”
“Well, do you for some reason believe that people didn’t have families before Christianity?”
“Oh of course they did, but Christianity really introduced marriage and monogamy.”
“So what you’re saying is that before Christianity, people had never heard of the concept of staying with one partner?”
“Err… well… not really, but Christians made it more commonplace”
“So this ‘Christian Institution’ is really more of ‘Christian tweak’ on an already existing institution. It’s a bit of an outlandish statement to take claim for something that was already there in the first place, don’t you think?”
“Well there are statistics on monogamy and success of the family unit, correlated with the Christian tradition, on the DVD”
“I’m sure there are but Christianity has flourished in Europe, America and Oceania, three of the richest areas in the world. I’m sure there are other reasons behind those statistics. Don’t you think it’s more likely that monogamy and the tendency to stay with one’s partner and family is a product of evolution, rather than a religion?”
“Oh, I don’t believe in evolution, Sir.”

On the other hand, I was in the pub with a friend of mine who I’ve known since I was 4, and her boyfriend, neither of whom are churchgoers. We got talking about the whole Catholic vs Protestant thing which is so prevalent in my area, and the boyfriend said “I don’t define myself as either, I just call myself a Christian”. I replied “I always say I was brought up Catholic, but I’m not a Christian anymore.” This led to a quick argument with my friend who was adamant that I am a Christian, simply because I was brought up Catholic and went to Catholic schools, regardless of whether I believed in Jesus Christ or not.

There’s a danger. Many people (admittedly those who care least about such issues) cannot or do not differentiate between a cultural Christian and a genuine one, and so it can be dangerous to label ourselves using the word Christian when we do not hold the specific beliefs that define a Christian. There are many people who’ll happily put down on a form that they’re Christian when they don’t believe in God, which elevates the status of religion in our society, and gives it an influence inflated above that it deserves.


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