No, this isn't a joke. It's just the title of the post.
Gandhi famously said “I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.” Was he completely off the wall? Last week I was having dinner with Don and we were discussing the whole - is Obama a Christian thingee. We have always had different views of words and religion, but, I’ll stick with mine and let him comment with his opinion if he likes. And, I’ll give you a heads up. I don’t have what I would call a real strong opinion about what defines a religion, but more some ideas about what cannot.
Of course it matters how you define those religions. “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” Voltaire.
So, what about President Obama - Christian, Muslim, what? My answer is Christian. I believe it strongly, but, of course I can’t be certain. Though I think Republicans and/or conservatives have hurt themselves immensely (because in a presidential election in a roughly evenly split country, a few percentage points are huuuuuge) by insisting on it, that isn’t the point. If they were right and believed it, in my view, of course, I’d say have at it. I say both right and believe it, because if they do not believe it, then whether right or wrong, it is silly to bring it up. You just end up looking foolish as they did before the 2008 election (thanks to Trump).
Of course, some people do believe it strongly. But, their reasoning seems to be weak. The most obvious inspiration is that he also has an Arabic name. Of course, his father comes from Kenya and was a Muslim, although I understand became an atheist, and his step-father was also a Muslim, though barely. It’s hardly a surprise. It isn’t clear if when he was very young if he received Muslim religious training. It seems probable to me (I haven’t read any of his books) that he was considered one as an infant or very young person, but, that is meaningless to me because I don’t believe someone can be a member of any religion until they are old enough to make a choice about that.
Their parents, of course, would differ, and in fact most of the world considers themselves to be the religion of their parents. And, we know statistically, most people do stick with the religion of their family. But he had a Christian mother and was raised for a long time by his grandparents, also Christians, went to a Roman Catholic School where he was nominally registered as a Muslim – his father’s religion – and then secular school, that he joined Rev. Wright’s church in the late 80s and left it during the 2008 campaign because Rev. Wright’s anti-American rhetoric was discovered. Now, I understand he is nominally a Baptist or at least his pastor is. I don’t really know if all this is 100% accurate, but it is what is reported. It doesn’t make that much of a difference to me because I only care about what he considers himself for the most part.
So, what makes someone a member of religion? Who gets to say? My answer in general is, it is not simple. For one thing I reject that other people can determine your religion. You are not genetically any religion. You are not a Christian or Muslim or Jew when a baby because your family or neighbors decide you are, any more than you would be a stoic or a nihilist just because your mom said so either, except, I guess in the most nominal fashion, like if you registered Republican or Democrat by accident.
And I also reject that any one person or group can define a religion except for themselves.
And I also reject that any one person or group can monopolize a name or word. And though that has been tried, it has always failed. Take for example Catholic. We often refer to the Catholic Church, but, in America, we usually mean the Roman Catholic Church. But, any number of churches refer to themselves as Catholic. The largest, I believe is what we usually call the Eastern Orthodox Church, but they call themselves the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. Even the Roman Catholic Church quarreled in their history as to who was the Pope and it was usually, though not always, determined by force.
In my own view, when determining what religion someone is, there has to be two things present, both subjective but one personal and one reasonable according to the broad community. Does the person believe themselves to be of a particular religion and do they have some beliefs reasonable consistent and not completely inconsistent as to central tenets of the religion. I do not say this is a comprehensive definition, because it is pretty vague and I think in a few minutes we could come up with hypotheticals or exceptions. I just say those are the things that matter. But, at the same time I believe an individual can say what he/she is, I also say that no one else has to accept it. At the same time, a third person might find the declarant or the objector unreasonable. In other words, as clear as mud. And not only should it be this way, but it really always has been as I describe. That’s why people have always quarreled or debated religion even going back even to ancient Egypt when worship of the god Aten briefly obliterated the other gods until his worship was itself was obliterated. The decision as to what the religion was simply depended on the Pharaoh in power. Of course, I am sure this debate went back to the first notions of religion, which are lost to us because there was no writing, and perhaps one group gave prominence to the sun god and another to the moon.
Naturally, many religious groups have far sterner rules for what makes someone a Jew or a Christian too. Not all. Buddhism, which is hard to discern from a philosophy in some aspects of it, is fairly open as to who may consider oneself a Buddhist and it easily blends with other religions. The Romans were actually very open to the worship of additional deities, so long as there was an element of their own worship involved (usually, I believe, their emperor as a god).
But, turning back to the more organized religions, it turns out that their own requirements can be as vague as my own definition, because as soon as one part of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, etc., declares rules, another group will disown it and have their own definition, usually only remotely different to outsiders, but very different to pious believers. These may be defined with sacraments, creeds or similar distinctive institutions, but again, the split can come easily. Indeed, in America, we are very familiar with the Roman Catholic Church, but there are other churches which consider themselves “Catholic” or universal too. Other Christians believe themselves non-Catholic, but the true or universal church.
Similarly, in Judaism, there has been great debate at to who is a Jew. Normally, it is the more religious Jewish groups that consider the less strict factions as Jewish, while the less strict are more inclusive. In Islam, the big break is between Shia and Sunni, but there are other groups as well. Which is the true Muslim, the Jihadist who sees himself as willing to fight and die for his faith or the faithful Muslim who doesn’t believe violence to be permissible.
Not surprising, many of these groups believe they are what they say they are – and no others – because God told them so or divinely inspired some revelation. It is hardly surprising that as an atheist, I cannot agree. I don’t quarrel that they may feel divinely inspired, but if I don’t belief in a divinity, I cannot logically believe that there inspiration actually comes from one.
I want to go back to my own definition to give it a more concrete example of what I mean by it being both an individual choice, but some relationship to what are generally considered the central tenets of the religion.
Let’s take Obama. He declares himself to be a Christian. Many others who consider themselves Christian do as well, though, as we know, there is a smaller group which believes him to be a Muslim or at least not a Christian. I can’t help but feel that is more political than anything else, because even if there is a religious analysis involved, I have never known anyone who supported his policies to believe he is not a Christian, nor anyone who believed him not to be a Christian or to be a Muslim, who was not opposed to him politically. I cannot agree that this is merely a coincidence. If the central core of his religious beliefs include Jesus and he is a monotheist (and, of course, you could debate what that means too) believes the New Testament central to his religious beliefs as well then I would concludes he is a Christian whether he determined he was some type of Catholic or one of the many protestant sects. If, hypothetically only, he considered Jesus only a prophet, and Mohammad the last prophet, then I would consider him a Muslim. If he thought Jesus was God, but the Buddha and Morgan Freeman also gods, I would not see him as a Christian, nor do I think most Christians would. I see no reason to believe myself that those are his beliefs, whatever his policies. Now, another person might say, no, he can’t be a Christian, because only Roman Catholics (or Methodists, Baptists, etc.) are real Christians or you can’t be a Christian and be pro-choice, that’s fine. But, we disagree.
But, I don't think it can be that you just agree with the central tenets. I'd also say that you can't go beyond them in a way that just seems to inconsistent with them. For example, if someone believed in one God, or an indivisible trinity (not all Christian groups do) and consider the testaments holy books, I'd say if you also felt that Mohammad was a prophet or that Indra was also a god equal to God, then it would be hard for me to consider you a Christian, even if you did.
As an actual example, I will say that I am not sure about the debate concerning whether Mormons are Christians. They do consider themselves to be Christians, though not all Christians consider them so, even those who are relatively open minded about it in general. And if you look at the Christian creeds (the Apostle's, the Nicene, etc.), Mormons pretty much match up. Without going into much greater details, there seems to me that it is related to Christianity in placing Jesus in a central place (they are not, I believe exactly Trinitarians, having a twist with the Holy Spirit), but, I am pretty sure there is also a divine mother floating about and the notion that we all can become gods. I have difficulty seeing that as monotheistic. Certainly they consider the Book of Mormon as equal to the Old and New Testaments. In any event, don't get the idea that I care and if they want to be considered Christians, it is fine with me. At gun point, required to make a decision, I'd probably say yes. But, I understand why some Christians reject it as such.
I’ll end with my opening quote. Under my definition, can you be a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Jew, as Gandhi believed? Only under the belief that all religions are merely manmade manifestations of some monotheistic or monistic (Hinduism, a monistic - not monastic - religion, is usually described as having one central Being – Brahma – with many manifestations of it as other Gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganapati and many others; it is similar, though not the same as monotheism). That would probably suit a lot of people who believe in God but are non-denominational. They believe there is a creator or a central divine being, but feel mankind, or certainly themselves, are unable to further comprehend it. However, I also do not believe that most Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews feel the same way.
With religion, you can go over the same ground over and over in different ways and I will not fall in that whirlpool of theology, but end it here and ask for your own opinion. Unlike a New York Times article I just read that ended with a question for the reader which I eagerly desired to answer, you can actually comment here.