I get asked this treacherous question a lot, and I know I’m not the only one. The question, in its variant forms, is not only asked to those who teach, write, or talk about religion professionally. Obviously these folks are subject to scrutiny simply by virtue of their trade. But others too have faced this excruciating question at some point. Once the most anticipated meet-and-greet questions have been asked—questions like “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?”— there are only so many other ways to keep the conversation flowing. Eventually, mundane conversations give way to discussions about the sacred, and people want to know what others believe about religion.
The reason why the religious question is so difficult is because very few responses turn out well. If you answer in the affirmative (e.g. “Why, yes, I certainly am a very religious and devout person”) then immediately you are seen as smug and self-righteous. On the other hand, if you say, “No I’m not very religious…” then you get may get characterized as a crass materialist. The optional added phrase “… but I’m spiritual,” could simply lead to the perception that you are a spineless agnostic or hokey New Ager. All of these characterizations are unfair, especially for the thoughtful and intelligent readers of Wondering Fair.
So how does anyone, religious or not, answer this question? First, it is important to ask Mr. or Ms. Socrates to clarify what they mean. Is a “religious” person one
who goes to a house of worship on a regular basis? Someone who prays before meals? Or tries to convert others to what they believe? Or has weird beliefs about creation and the dinosaurs? Whatever the assumption, it’s critical to have this issue addressed preliminarily because “being religious” means different things to different people, and no one wants give an answer only to have it immediately misconstrued.
Second, and more importantly, the question “Are you religious?” mistakenly assumes that some people are religious while others are not. Granted, not everyone participates in organized religion, but all people are functionally religious about something. Everyone who walks the planet organizes their life around a set of ideas about the world, what is of utmost value, and how we should live. Regardless of how well people articulate these ideas, the particular way of life that emerges from this set of beliefs, if you think about it, is in essence a religion.
Recently, the people most fervently discussing the idea that we are innately religious creatures are not theologians and rabbis, but rather a group of anthropologists and archaeologists. A few years ago, National Geographic Magazine did a cover article on what is now believed to be one of the world’s first religious temples ever built. Located in Southern Turkey, the site archaeologists have uncovered called Göbekli Tepe is not only fascinating because it predates Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza by thousands of years, it is also striking because it has forced anthropologists to reconsider a long-standing belief that religion came into existence after the rise of agriculture. This theory held that religion was born out of a need for social cooperation and the establishment of shared beliefs and values. In other words, first there were humans, then came agriculture, and then later on came religion. Now, however, in the words of Charles Mann, “What [Göbekli Tepe] suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.”
To me, all this sounds similar to the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans: “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” If Paul and the archaeologists at Göbekli Tepe are right, then the best question is not, “Are you religious?” Instead, since it seems we are all religious about something, the real question is, what will that something be?
 Mann, Charles. “The Birth of Religion.” National Geographic Magazine. June 2011. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text
 Romans 1:20
Great angle Paul … I like the question “what are you religious about”? In the Australian context, saying you’re ‘religious’ is death to a conversation … we tend toward scepticism, but overall as a nation are largely indifferent to formal religion. But having just watched our “State of Origin” football final between Queensland and New South Wales, there’s no question that we’re ‘religious’ about our sport–fanatical even. Players were saying that this is a war; spectators with painted face claimed this was a more important occasion than their wedding.
At least in my context, when I’m asked with a bit of sting, “so … are you religious”, I’ve found it helpful to answer politely, “well, you could say that. I do believe in God; I follow Jesus. But I’m less religious than a realist. It’s either true or it’s not. If what I believe is wrong then I’d dump it today. But if it’s real, then what matters more?” … at least this has led to some interesting follow up conversation, more so than a change of topic that usually comes when people discover I’m a Pastor!
Thanks for your comment. The religious question is a tough one, and I’m not surprised it gets asked in Australia as well as in the States, and over here, sports are likewise treated with the seriousness religion brings. Could you explain what you mean when you say that you’re “less religious than a realist”? I haven’t heard the term used in that context before. Cheers!
apologies for my brief wording. What I meant was not that “I am less religious than a realist”, but–in fuller form–I’m less a religious person, than a person interested in reality … i.e., it’s not some strange and abstract desire I have to practice ritual, but rather a pursuit of what is real that has led me to a God-shaped life.
For a lot of Aussies disinterested in Christianity, it stems from thinking that the whole ‘church’ thing is some type of divine guess work and a game we like to play, rather than a rigorous belief (not essentially opposed to rationality, even as it goes beyond the empirical), trying to make sense of the way the world is. Thus, if I said “yes, I’m religious”, the standard reply would be something to the effect of “oh. I’m not really into that kind of thing … but it’s fine for you.”
Hopefully that clears up what I meant. By saying, then, that I’m into reality, it lays the foundation for a shared exploration of what is real, and how we each try to make sense of the world–which should be on the agenda for every person–rather than avoiding the issue as taboo, or digging into polarised positions in a debate.
Ah yes, Dave, thanks for this. That makes plenty of sense. And I like your suggestion about taking reality seriously. Indeed, we all need to do that and see where it leads us.
If I had a proverbial nickel every time I have been asked that question! Over time I’ve honed my response by saying, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” That usually stops the conversation from going further because most people don’t know what to do with the “relationship” part of the response. Usually, though, their faces show what they are thinking: “Yeah, she’s one of those religious people.” However, my response opens the door to discuss religion vs. relationship, and I have had great discussions with people who are thirsty to know more.
Reading your thoughtful post caused me to think of a more provocative response of, “What is your idea of a religious person?” It puts the ball back in their court and I learn more about them, thus giving me the opportunity to speak to their uniqueness of their journey—why are they making their way to the well? It puts the interest on them, which makes great conversation. Thank you for sparking more thought to this oft-asked question.
Thanks for your comment and for reading the article! It is always helpful and encouraging to hear how others have fielded this question. Cheers and blessings.
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For those of you who might just happen upon this article after its first appearance, here’s a recent article that questions the conclusions made in National Geographic. Despite the apparent controversy, I think it’s still significant to realize that humans have been invoking gods ever since they’ve been able to build, and Gobekli Tepe only confirms the human proclivity to worship.