Christianity: Philosophy or Religion?

Short answer: Yes. It’s both. Now, if you’d consider a little more detail…

Conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly (AKA “Papa Bear” if you’re Stephen Colbert) really stepped in the rhetorical poop pile recently when, in an effort to defend the claim that there is a war in our culture on Christmas, took some bait from his show’s guest David Silverman (President of American Atheists) and claimed on the air that Christianity was a philosophy and not a religion.

Yes, I could give you the actual news story, but why do that when Jon Stewart breaks it down in a much more entertaining way?

Yes, O’Reilly ended up looking a little ridiculous (especially after recanting a couple of days later and buckling on air under questioning from…a priest. But actually I think it’s an interesting discussing, barring the theatrics and opportunistic jockeying that both Christians and atheists have been doing on the issue.

To start with, I think it’s worth addressing a couple of things that Stewart himself mentions in his commentary. The way he distinguishes religion from philosophy (in his own pithy, comedic sort of way) is two-fold: Christians acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, and they believe in particular (rather than universal) salvation.

On the second point, this is obviously a belief held by many Christians, but not all. I explored this in some more detail in this post about the new movie, “Hellbound?” which explores the Christian doctrine(s) of hell. From the time of Christian leaders like Origen, the notion of universal salvation for Christians and non-Christians alike has been around. It may not be the most popular doctrine when it comes to salvation, but it’s hardly a radical fringe idea either.

As for Jesus’ divinity, this one is harder to tease out than it might seem. Yes, some believe Jesus IS God. Others believe he is the SON of God. Some folks believe in some combination of the two. Some believe he was particularly anointed/endowed/enlightened with a transformative message that forever changed the course of humanity. Some take the stories of healing and other miracles in scripture literally, while others understand them more metaphorically. Still others are comfortable to sit with the mystery of not knowing entirely what to make of things like miracles, the ascension, the afterlife and other hard-to-explain phenomena described in the Bible.

So what is Christianity, then? And where is the line at which point it goes from being a religion to being a philosophy?

The problem is, you’ll get about as many answers to this as there are Christian in the world. Even those who may recite similar (or even identical) doctrine on the matter would inevitably reveal various understandings of that doctrine if pressed to excavate the ideas in more depth.

For much of my life, I have studied Buddhism while also practicing Christianity. Similar questions have been raised about Buddhism, given that there is no particular central tenet that requires its adherent to submit to the authority of a supernatural being. And yet, there are branches of Buddhism that have many practices that suggest they have incorporated worship of the supernatural into it. Does this mean that they aren’t really Buddhist? or does it mean that a Buddhist religion has emerged from a larger Buddhist philosophy?

And could the opposite be said about Christianity? Has some constituency within Christianity become a philosophy, in that it does not claim certitude about the existence of a supernatural “other?” I know that, for some people (some Christians in particular) the distinction is very important. But I think that this delineation is increasingly less relevant to a growing number of people, including those who claim to identify as Christian and who practice Christianity.

Which leaves us with government. Like marriage, it seems unnecessarily important what our laws and elected officials believe Christianity is. And like marriage, I’d be content to see government get entirely out of the business of semantics (and the power that comes with it) when it comes to people’s personal lives. What does this mean, practically speaking?

With regard to “marriage,” it means that, from here forward, the government would have the power to acknowledge civil unions (a right afforded to all couples regardless of sexual orientation and identity). Churches can chose to perform marriage ceremonies for whomever they do or not not choose to serve. And conversely, people can call themselves married whether a church blesses the union or not, particularly because there is no legal power behind the term. It is a social contract, or in more religious terms, a covenant, made between two people and God.

On the matter of “religion,” the government would also be out of the business of endowing tax-exempt status based on their assessment of whether or not a system of beliefs and group of people qualify as a religion or not under law. Instead, religious organizations would be treated like other nonprofit organizations. If they don’t qualify as a charity under the laws defining what a nonprofit, they pay taxes like any other revenue-generating organization.

I know this doesn’t settle anything, but I’d argue it’s not something that can be settled without a singular, authoritative power to declare what is and isn’t within the so-called lines. Granted, Catholics and some other religious groups have such authorities, but not all who claim Christianity recognize that authority. So, then, we’re left to discern for ourselves what we believe, why we believe it, how we will practice it and with whom.

And really, if we’re to look at Christ’s example when asked about which laws were the most important in governing our lives, he directed us inward, searching our own hearts rather than digging through the volumes of laws for answers.

Are you a Christian? Are you religiously Christian? The good news is that, despite what Bill O’Reily, Jon Stewart, the government or religious authorities say, that’s something you get to decide for yourself.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob robert davis

    AMEN.

  • Frank

    Sorry there is nothing in scripture that tells us we get to define what it means to be a Christian. If I am wrong please show me.

    Christianity becomes only a philosophy when that happens.

    • http://twitter.com/iamstillrob robert davis

      boo.

    • Chad

      Somebody came up with the definition of what it means to be a Christian. In fact, several somebodies did, even you. How is that unbiblical?

      • Frank

        Jesus came up with the only true definition.

        Scripture: Mark 8:27-33

        27 And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare’a Philip’pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Eli’jah; and others one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

        • Chad

          Where does that define the word “Christian”? I didn’t even see that word mentioned in the passage.

        • Joseph Meenach

          Pretty sure you should be reading The Book of Acts. It was there in Antioch that they were first called Christians, because “they were like Christ”.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    When a belief system abandons the principles it says it stands for, ignores reality, supports bigotry, accepts thievery from the top, pedophilia and idolatry, it is no longer a religion or a philosophy, it’s a cult. Let’s accept that our Christian Churches are just that and remove their tax free status…Let them get on with spewing their hatred and bullshit.

    • Frank

      Talking about someone missing the boat….

    • Huero

      What principles and who’s reality? The reality that condones gay sex? Abortion? Legal drugs? 16 trillion in debt? Those principles and that reality. You’re the one spewing hatred. It’s easy to read through those lines. You’re the B.S.”er

      • Guest

        What are your arguments for and against each issue? The principles and reality we decide on is who can make the most rational and logical case for their position. Many of the religious positions don’t sound very logical and are not back up by any evidence, so it often makes them hard to believe.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phil-Fisette/100001088064189 Phil Fisette

        What are your arguments for and against each issue? The principles and reality we decide on is based on who can make the most rational and logical case for their position. Many of the religious positions don’t sound very logical and are not back up by any evidence, so it often makes them hard to believe.

  • Huero

    There is a huge difference between Catholicism and true Christianity. The first is a religion/philosophy and the latter is a relationship with God Almighty through His Son Jesus Christ.

    • Chad

      I’ve been hearing the line “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship” all my life. I still have no idea what that even means.

      • gtharby2

        They want special rights from the government by claiming “it’s not a religion” and thus not bound by the idea of separation of church and state. Of course they also still want their tax exempt churches.

      • Frank

        One is about rules the other is about love and obedience because of that love.

        • Chad

          That’s not the same thing as a relationship. At least not in the way that I’m understanding the term. I’ve always felt that that cliché was just a way of generating warm fuzzy feelings that people mistake for the Holy Spirit.

          • Frank

            Certainly people mistake the warm fuzzies for the HS.

      • Borecrawler

        Let me explain what this means: Christian, literally means “little Christ”.
        A Christian believes in a living God that is omnipresent (everywhere) and that Jesus came to Earth, lived a perfect life and was killed on a cross. This death served as a sacrifice for yours and my sins. The “relationship” idea comes from the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and is eternally alive. He is perfect, and, based on the fact that he eradicated our sins, can have a
        relationship with us. He offers this as a gift to all who choose to accept the offer of a relationship with the creator (Jesus, Christians believe, is God and was equally involved in creation with the Father God and the Holy Spirit). Christians also believe that this relationship is eternal.

        Granted, there are groups of people who call themselves “Christian” who believe differently, but I have done my best to explain what has generally been accepted as basic core christianity, shared by millions of believers around the world. The important question isn’t whether it is a religion or a philosophy. The real issue is whether-or-not it is true!

        Truth (like gravity) trumps both religion and philosophy.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    You two guys can get in your boat to Fantasy Island..I’ll be quite happy here without you on my way to reality. I never mentioned gay marriage or drugs, but yes…I say ‘butt out’ and mind your own 2000 year old morality and leave everyone else to enjoy their lives the way they see fit. As to debt.. Where the Hell did that come from? …So trot off to celebrate the birth of your “prophet’ with false idolatry, pagan holidays and of course a Macy’s Credit Card..Walk by the people holding a sign “Hungry, no job” and toss a couple of Jesus Dollars into the Church Fund for a new golden altar or stained glass window….After all..That is what Jesus was all about.. right? Best to all of you on this Norse Holiday!

    • Frank

      What a sad,bitter life you must lead. And don’t deny it. You post drips of it.

      • Urbane_Gorilla

        I lead a pretty happy life for the most part. I’m not sure why anyone that doesn’t know me would say otherwise…But I do catch you doing what you accuse me of…LOL! So I presume that loke your opinion of me, you must by your definition live a nasty, sour, bile-filled existence. Too bad your phony God can’t fix you huh.

        • Frank

          How sad.

        • Borecrawler

          You’re not fooling anybody!

          • Urbane_Gorilla

            Sorry? Try to be clear in your responses.

          • Lulu N Jaoz

            IF you believe in Jesus you will be with him when you leave this earth, but if you don’t, “as you already don’t” we as Christians must only do our duty to tell you about the Truth (HIM, JESUS) and move along. He loves you anyways and when you die you will hopefully remember these words, and HOPEFULLY you’re not in the eternal damnation of hell. but if that’s where you want to be then so be it! Jesus loves you anyways, IT’S HARD FOR ME TO LOVE YOU but Jesus asks me to, so I kind of have to reluctantly tell you about the TRUTH (I’m human you know! and I don’t like yoU!) but honestly, Jesus does and he will forgive you if you ask him. IT’S NOT TOO LATE. I really feel for you when it’s too late for you and you’re like ,”damn, i should have listened, now i’m burning in eternal flames….help help!!” But it’s too late!! but wait,! right now it isn’t. If you’re interested, go to the nearest Christian church and speak with the pastor directly, if you will continue to mock and ridicule Christians, I feel bad for you. We have to and MUST! move on with our lives. GOOD LUCK TO YOU MY FRIEND!!

          • Urbane_Gorilla

            I think you need mental help.

          • TheOneTrueScience

            They are religious of course they need help, that’s why they believe in this stuff to begin with.

  • Dan Mann

    This puts me in mind of a brief history of Christianity as told by Sam Pascoe, an Episcopal Priest.
    “Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece an became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.”
    I had a friend who added the addendum, “It came to Nashville and became a chart position.” (you may have to be in the music industry to get that last one)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X