I try not to be anti-religion, because a majority of my friends keep religion in their lives in some capacity, and for some it’s a central part of their lives. But the whole idea is troublesome to me.
And what’s worse: the connection I have to my friends’ religion is, if anything, more troublesome than the idea of religion itself.
That connection is language. How some folks communicate their faith frequently makes it impossible for me to take them seriously. And that makes me feel like a jerk: my friends share their most spiritually intimate thoughts, and my unfiltered response is to make fun of them. So I want to take a step inward to understand myself, and a step outward to understand what sometimes make these expressions of piety disturbing.
I’m a word geek. The jury is still out on whether I’m a good writer, and my vocabulary is only a little above average. What I think I’m good at, though, is understanding the way words fit together to create meaning. That dynamic is what I geek out about.
It’s also what I nitpick about in my evaluation of the language I encounter on a daily basis. I find myself screaming in my head at the incongruous email conventions of my coworkers. “Please kindly reply with the requested information.” Say what? How in holy hell does “kindly” even make sense with that sentence? You’ve made a very dry, clinical information request, but you want me to supply it to you in a humane, considerate way?
I can see that’s a different essay for another day.
But when it comes to religion, that outrage just exponentiates. So it’s a function of my word geekiness on one hand. But, to be candid, it’s also the bottled-up fury of the repressive Church of Christ upbringing I endured as a child. Then, I thought every adult was wise, but now I look back on the cast of characters that inhabited the church buildings of my youth and see very little but ignorance, peer pressure, and social cliques.
And all of it was couched in holy-sounding language that many didn’t believe and many others didn’t even understand. So when I see that language echoed in social media posts, I bristle.
So, if you ever engage me in a religious discussion and use the word “thee,” what you have in fact accomplished is a double-whammy of activating the syntax police officer in my head and triggering the PTSD from not being able to turn on my Magnus organ in Gamaliel, Kentucky on a Sunday because my parents were worried that the churchgoers across the street might think we were trying to add instrumental music to God’s day, which is mentioned NO WHERE IN THE BIBLE and therefore can be considered sinful.
Yes, I’m serious.
So, OK, now you know about me. Now let me tell you about religion and language.
I’m not a theology scholar, but the armchair guide to Western civilization has as one of its short stubby, legs this idea that knowledge is power. And that, as a convenient way to both save resources by not investing in its citizenry and to keep it under its thumb, the various Christian churches (notably the Catholic Church but most all the others, as well) did not promote literacy and made people reliant on the “scholarship” and reading skills of their religious leaders, who essentially read sacred texts to them, then interpreted them.
And I am aware of the way this translates directly into the way most people consume religion today. Even the most devout Christians do little more than attend Sunday services, where they listen to the professional religious dude (or, thankfully and finally, gal) tell them how they’re supposed to feel about the things that God told them to do in the Bible, and then read the Bible in a mostly pedestrian way throughout the week in between services. There’s only so much demand for full-time religious dudes–the rest of us have to live in the secular world and make it function. That leaves us at the mercy of the religious dudes.
Literacy and language are integral to the way we think about religion. So, to me, it’s more than a cosmetic faux pas when someone lapses into 16th century English when conveying their religious viewpoints. It signifies a thoughtless, cosmetic approach to religion.
It’s beyond the scope of my analytical powers right now to dissect all of the problems with how people talk about religion. But here are a few of my personal pet peeves.
- Archaic or obtuse language. People use King James language because they’re used to the King James biblical translation, which from what I hear is a great translation, but itself needs translating after 400 years of language evolution. When it’s strictly a matter of comfort, I don’t mind people quoting verses the way they learned them when they were in Sunday school. But when language is used as a weapon, and it often is, it loses all quaintness and becomes reprehensible. By making concepts and rules more distant from everyday language and everyday experiences, people seek to confer divine status on their own words and promote problematic ideas with flowery or hard-to-understand language.
- Advancing one’s beliefs as truths in mixed environments. Your telling me what Jesus said, what God rewards, or what afterlife experience your favorite loved one is experiencing seems benign enough, but I believe that is because we’ve been incubated in a religious bubble in the U.S. If I just blurted out what my Wiccan* deity has in store for all humankind, you’d be at a loss and I would seem presumptuous for putting that proclamation out there in the world. Muslims in particular have to be particularly guarded about what they proclaim in non-Muslim forums like social media. The ease with which Christians make self-assured statements about spiritual “truths” makes me uneasy.
- Discretion-shaming. And for double insult, a lot of Christians will double-down on their “truth-telling” by either directly or indirectly calling out their fellow Christians for being ashamed of their God or their religion. These folks should actually be applauded for having the decency to not assume the entire world is Christian and to tailor their interfaith communications accordingly. This conceit is the impetus behind the phantom “War on Christmas.” Under the guise of “witnessing,” many are sending the message, “My beliefs are genuine and truthful, and yours, if they are different, are not.” And for those whose intent in “witnessing” is not malicious, there’s often an element of fear that I see in their actions–that if they’re not loud and obnoxious enough in their self-centered approach to religion, they may end up going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
- “Witnessing” actually brings me to my last pet peeve, which is similar to my first pet peeve, but a little different. There are archaic terms, and then there are nebulous terms that are current, just poorly defined and understood. They’re the equivalent of corporate buzzwords, full of potential but ultimately empty with overuse and misappropriation. Praise. Testify. Bless. Heck, sometimes “Love” even falls in with this crowd. They become empty symbols of something presumably more profound. Ask your average churchgoer to explain the mechanics or value of these actions, or their origins in any formal religious teaching, and my guess is that you’ll get back some blank stares.
And this brings me back full-circle to what may be one of my largest misgivings about religion the way it is leveraged today. Religion serves the practical purpose of making people feel good about themselves, their lives, and more broadly, their existence. To the extent that people seek to deceive themselves or others in the service of this process of making themselves feel good, my antennae go up.
And to the extent that language is used as a tool of this deception, my antennae go up even more. Because words are my friends, and I don’t want them drafted in the service of deception.
* I’m not Wiccan, by the way. It’s sort of my go-to pagan religion that a Christian would take issue with.