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Atheists Call Out the “I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” Crowd. Amen!

This may be one of the few times I agree with my atheist friends.

Jesus-ReligionIt comes in response to Jefferson’s Bethke’s new book, Jesus>Religion: Why He is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough. The opening line in the Washington Post’s interview with the author is simply, “Jefferson Bethke hates religion.” The interview makes clear that the religion Bethke hates is “institutional” religion, not necessarily the Church or the essentials of the faith. Of course, when the interviewer asks Bethke straight up, “Is it fair to call you an evangelical Christian?” the author waffles:

“I don’t know, I’m never really asked what I am so I don’t know. . . I just kind of love Jesus. Obviously from this conversation you can tell I have a lot of problems with the modern evangelicalism as well so I don’t know what I call myself.”

As sincere as Bethke appears and as genuine as his faith may be, I’m beginning to see this approach — “I don’t know… I just kind of love Jesus” — as an incarnation of the same thing:

  • “I hate religion, but love Jesus.”
  • “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
  • “I quit Christianity, but follow Christ.”

I get the ethos here. Organized religion often comes off as weird. Rules and traditions and ecclesiology confuse a simple relationship with Christ. People wrongly equate following Jesus with church attendance, membership, and rituals of inclusion. Then there’s the fact that some Christians look like complete buffoons, religious history is quite bloody and divisive, and culture warriors have hijacked religion for political and social ends.

I get that.

But as Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, puts it in this video, religion and Jesus are basically the same thing.


Sure, we can quibble about the distinctives of your religion, but the fact is: You can’t love Jesus and NOT be considered religious. Argue all you want that it shouldn’t be this way. It IS this way. If you’ve “found Jesus,” you’ve “found religion.” Go ahead, dissociate yourself from the “politics” of religion, the “ceremony” of religion, the “history” of religion, whatever. When it all comes down, if you believe in a Supreme Being who created the world, that Jesus was sent by Him to die for our sins and rise from the grave; if you pray, read a holy text, and look forward to a place called Heaven, you are religious.

In this, the Friendly Atheist and I totally agree.

Bethke may not have atheists in mind whatsoever as he expounds his thesis. He may simply be seeking to remove obstacles from those entangled in religious peripherals. I hope so. However, the reason that atheists pick up on this trend to dissociate oneself from religious identification is that it appears as a move to the middle, a move toward inclusion, a move away from the absolutes that have traditionally defined Christians.

In his post on this subject, Can You Hate Religion but Love Jesus?, an apparent supporter of Bethke objected:

What Jeff was talking about, was the corruption, self-justifications, hypocrisy, violence, and other misrepresentations that comes from religion. Christianity was never meant to be a religion (but merely a relationship with our savior) but man has made it so.

To which another commenter responded with the obvious:

Do you worship a deity? Do you own a holy text? Do you attend a place of worship? That’s religion.

Stop pretending words don’t mean what they mean.

Memo to Jesus-lovers: You most likely “worship a deity,” “own a holy text,” believe Christ died for your sins, believe He rose the third day, believe in the afterlife, believe in a final judgment, believe in a moral Law, etc.  If so, you’ve got religion. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.

The more Christians try to move to the middle and resist the label of “religion,” the more they should be called out. The sad thing is when we need atheists to do it.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Melissa Ortega November 13, 2013, 8:18 AM

    “Do you worship a deity? Do you own a holy text? Do you attend a place of worship? That’s religion. Stop pretending words don’t mean what they mean.”

    So, I guess this means atheists are religious then? As far as I can tell, he just described everyone in Oxford’s science department and I’m pretty sure they don’t consider themselves religious. But they definitely worship a deity (man – as the all-seeing, infallible observer of the universe), read a holy text (Darwin’s Evolution of Man, Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, etc.), and make religious treks to places of worship (CERN) with tremblings and oohs and aahs.

    So, that’s “religion”. I mean, semantically and anthropologically speaking…

    Of course I’m sure his answer would be “Oh, but that’s different, because *we* are right.”

    Atheists can define me however they want – I’m not really sure I care. I do however want the world to recognize that there is vain repetition and superstitous practices that are stark and empty and meaningless, and then there is thing called Romance that engages every part of your being (from which, springs devotional practices). Two couples can experience “marriage” but on completely different levels. That’s where the religious label fails in its delineation. All I know is that when an atheist says it, he’s rarely referring to an intelligent, soulful, spiritually engaged human experience – he’s usually just referring to vain repetition and superstition.

    The comment above “stop pretending words don’t mean what they mean” is just a patronizing way of saying that all faiths – no matter what they are – are alike – just a poor, group of blind idiots doing the same meaningless crap all over the world.

    • Thea van Diepen November 13, 2013, 9:36 AM

      “Atheists can define me however they want – I’m not really sure I care.”


      Why would we look to the world’s system and its proponents for how to speak, behave, or act? Regardless of whether they’re right, they are not who we should be looking to for answers. God and the Bible are that alone; Jesus is our example. We don’t come to God on our own merit, but through Jesus and his death, burial, and resurrection. We are to become more like him, not more like what atheists think we should be.

  • gretchenekengel November 13, 2013, 9:02 AM

    I agree with you. I tell people I’m a Christian or even that “I’m religious” even if it’s not politically correct in evangelical circles. The irony is that outside of the Christian ghetto, people refer to Christians as “religious”. We’re not changing their minds. We’re deluding ourselves into thinking we fit into this world. Except we don’t, and we’re not supposed to. Now we can do things to minimize the “weirdness”. We can get out of the Ghetto and meet those people who see us as museum relics or rare animals in a cage. They can see we’re 21st humans too but a little bit different. They ask questions. We tell them about our religion. Yeah. I’ve found out that some of “the others” like asking me questions about my thoughts on everything from evolution to female clergy. It’s kind of cool.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) November 13, 2013, 10:30 AM

    To me, it seems like the attitude can be condensed down to: I don’t want to be a dork; I want to be cool.
    In my personal life, once I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I would never achieve cool, I accepted my dork status and achieved a certain level of freedom.
    I hang with Christians who are sure to embarrass me. I know I embarrass them. I think if we are too proud to associate with Christians who are sure to embarrass us, then we are too proud.

  • Jason Joyner November 13, 2013, 11:07 AM

    I went through this stage. I saw religion as a man-made construct and often opposite of true life in Christ, so I would say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” I was also impacted by charismatic theology that would talk about a “spirit of religion.”

    I still do believe in the idea of a spirit of religion – the way the enemy is always trying to make God’s people overcorrect from righteousness in Jesus to self-righteous attitudes and judgments. I think the enemy loves to try and derail us by having us focus on works and rules and regulations instead of the life in the Spirit.

    Having said that, I gave up saying I’m not religious. I realized that I am part of a religion. Christianity may have a history of wars, persecution, and division. But to me I was throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Despite the bad stuff I just mentioned, I also walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, St. Augustine, St. Francis, Rich Mullins, along with Paul and John. There is awesome legacy there. There are brave men and women of God who went before in the name of Jesus and paved a way in faithfulness and worship to the Lord.

    So I don’t want to dishonor their example anymore. I am a Christian. I follow Christianity as best I can. I am not interested in the rules of man, but in the power of the resurrection life in Jesus through the Spirit (Romans 8).

    That’s my journey so far.

  • Frank Creed November 13, 2013, 11:21 AM

    One can be religious and not support organized religion beyond a Biblical personal home-church network of theologically like-minded Christians. Especially with the internet.

  • Justin Summerville November 13, 2013, 9:40 PM

    I’m not sure about it all myself. Whatever opinions I have on the matter have been mostly formed by hearsay – I haven’t read into the matter too much personally. For instance, I heard that my mother heard an eminent pastor say something to the extent that “the worst thing to happen to Christianity was religion.” Unfortunately, I don’t really remember who said that exactly or where, and I can’t find any source material at the moment, so I’m embarrassingly unable to back that statement up. I plan to look into it more to clarify for further reference.

    For something along the extent of that train of thought, I direct your attention to this blog post by a certain Jake McWhirter, which also contains a video by pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA:


    I should note, however, that I can only speak for the content of the post itself, as I have yet to watch the video as of this comment. I plan to rectify that as well.

    For the time being, I submit this for discussion.

  • Jason Haenning November 14, 2013, 6:18 AM

    One detail of key importance that underlies the distinction between Jesus and religion is that, as a dear friend has taught me over the years, Jesus did not come to start a religion, he came so that we may have a relationship with God. Often, the church’s focus has been excessively focused on the detailed practice of our beliefs (religion as the world sees it) rather than the foundational base of relationship.

    The bible is rather clear that, aside from core foundational beliefs and practices, we are granted substantial freedom in how we practice our faith day to day. Yet, many religious groups have become like the Pharisees and placed the focus on ritual and distinction of practice – most of which are man made and not commanded in scripture – rather than deepening intimacy with God, which is not found in ritual. Many congregations place a heavy burden on followers to conform to their certain system. Many forget that Jesus didn’t come to simply create a new law for us to follow.

    The practice of our beliefs will likely make little sense or hold little attraction to those who do not understand what is behind them. However, this is not what I find my non-believing friends rejecting. They struggle with a rigid, sometimes oppressive method of practice that is placed upon followers, often hypocritical and devoid of intimacy with God. So, there is truth in that Jesus is greater than religion, as long we properly define what that means. To paint every practice of devotion as somehow I opposition with Jesus is to then reject some things that are very important and good – even necessary – for our intimacy with God.

  • D.M. Dutcher November 14, 2013, 10:42 AM

    I don’t think we can blame Bethke alone. In general, fundamentalist Christianity used the relationship angle to be a contrast from the formulaic ritualism and philosophical Christianity of the mainline. We were the ones who said we weren’t a religion, too, because religion had the connotation of dead works.

    To be honest though, I think this has backfired. The relationship aspect of Christianity has become too strong to the point of driving people away. Jesus is not my Boyfriend, and I am not intimate with Him. Not everyone interacts with God in those kind of ways, and I think part of the reason atheism has grown is that a lot of people can’t relate to God in the predominantly boyfriend terms that many churches use. Yeah the Church is like a Bride, but individually we aren’t brides.

  • Tony November 14, 2013, 9:25 PM

    I’m religious. No shame there. I’m dedicated to Jesus, and therefor I’m dedicated to the church (i.e. The body of Christ). And I don’t believe in unorganized (?) religion. 😉

    When people say they’re not religious, it feels like they’re missing the point. Like they’re focusing on something entirely unimportant. Why should I, or anyone else, care what you call yourself? “Christian, Evangelical, Christ-Follower,” I don’t care! I’m more concerned with what you actually believe.

  • Forest (D&D Preacher) Ray November 16, 2013, 4:01 PM

    Yes, I am a christian, a follower of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a religious man (see James 1:27) and no I am not ashamed of the Gospel it is the power of God unto salvation (see Romans 1:16). I am not perfect but I press on to the prize.

  • Thomas December 19, 2016, 8:53 AM

    I believe Jesus was a brilliant and beautiful man. He taught people to love their neighbors and even enemies in order to have inner peace or the kingdom of heaven within. I have no clue if he died for our sins or even what that means. Or if he rose from the dead. Or if there’s a heaven after life. How could I possibly know whether any of that is true or false – that’s for people to decide themselves – their opinions or beliefs. I don’t go to church or follow any of its rituals. I did as a child. But now I don’t. I was religious but no longer. There are many online definitions of religion. The first is “relating to or believing in a religion”. For me that’s a no. Another is: “Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.” I’m not sure if I believe in God – definitely not in the God of the bible that alternately loves and judges, has mercy and then wipes out populations that sin. It’s pretty bizarre to think Jesus – a man – would be more loving than an all powerful God.
    You wrote: “If you’ve “found Jesus,” you’ve “found religion.” Jesus is a person not a religion by the way. What is striking here in this article is that the author is choosing a definition of religion that suits their argument, not a definition from a dictionary. So allow me to follow your example. “Atheists are people with vast insecurities who poke fun at people’s beliefs so they can avoid their own doubts and appear certain.” Is this true? No truer than “if you’ve found Jesus, you’ve found religion.” It’s true for some but not all.
    Don’t think you can play the “I’m superior to religious people” game without someone pointing out how silly your argument is. Mocking doesn’t lead to peace. There is more to life than science currently knows. Open your mind to different paths and different beliefs. Consider them just so you can experience new things. You might be glad you did.

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