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Why I Never Used the Word “Religious” When I Was a Christian

born again or religious

Several years ago, I participated in a two-and-half-hour phone interview on the subject of the labels we use to identify ourselves. The man doing the interview was working on his master’s thesis. One label he asked me about was the label religious. Focusing on my days as an Evangelical pastor, he asked if I ever considered myself religious. I told him, absolutely not. The “religious” label was reserved for Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other mainline groups. THEY were religious, WE were Christians. This was especially true back in my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days.

I viewed most other Christian sects with a good bit of skepticism. Catholics were immediately dismissed as fish-eating, beer-drinking believers in works salvation. Catholics were prime evangelistic targets, even though I found them almost impossible to evangelize. Protestants such as Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians were far easier to lead to saving faith in Christ. I considered such people, as a whole, to be religious, but lost. I found these kinds of people to be ignorant of what the Bible taught concerning salvation. Using the soulwinning (salesmanship) techniques I was taught in college, I would show them what the Bible “really” said about life, sin, God, Jesus, salvation, and life after death. Often astounded by what I showed them in the Bible, these prospects for Heaven would pray the sinner’s prayer and become born-again Christians. These new converts went from being religious to new life in Jesus Christ. Or so I thought, anyway.

Of course, I now know that the only difference between Bruce, the Baptist preacher and those I targeted for evangelization was our religious beliefs. I was every bit as religious as Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. My refusal to use the word “religious” allowed me to view myself as superior to others. I was a True Christian®, a devoted follower of Jesus. Christian people outside of my cult lacked the right beliefs and commitment to God. It took me a number of years to realize how arrogant I was, thinking that my God, my beliefs, and my way of living were the right/only way, truth, and life. When modern-day Bruce Gerencsers stop by this blog to regale us with their infinite and absolute understanding of truth, I am reminded of the fact that I once was just as they are. I remember when “absolute truth” fit within the confines of whatever Baptist church I was pastoring at the time. Like the prophets and apostles of the Bible, I was a man of God who was given a message by God to share with saints and sinners. My goal was to turn religious people into Christians/Baptists/people who thought just as I did.

Over the years, scores of Christian commenters have attempted to show readers of this blog how exalted their reasoning is compared to that of ignorant atheists, agnostics, and, well, anyone who doesn’t think as they do. These men have even self-described themselves as brilliant. These preachers of TRUTH are certain that their interpretations and beliefs are right. As I read their words, I say to myself, Bruce, you said the very same thing years ago. Thinking I was a True Christian®, I considered everyone else outside of my little corner of Christianity to be religious, but lost. I had such a small view of the world, with every person fitting into one of two categories: saved or lost. True Christians® were saved, everyone else, including billions of people who worshiped some other sort of God, was lost. As a younger pastor, thanks to my IFB training, I even viewed many Evangelicals as religious, but lost. Calvinism later did the same for me, allowing me to cast aspersions and doubts upon those dirty Arminians who believed in salvation by works.

I still have moments when I think that I have an exalted intellect and understanding of the world, but tripping over the cat or a misplaced Lego (Goddammit, Ezra!) quickly brings me back to earth. I am not suggesting that all worldviews and beliefs are the same or equally valid. I reject attempts to smooth out the edges of the public space. But, at the end of the day, all of us are feeble, frail people who will soon find ourselves six feet under or the smoke wafting up from a crematorium smokestack. Knowing this should teach us humility, a reminder that none of us is an all-knowing deity.

How about you? Did you consider yourself “religious?” How did you view people who were not a part of your sect?  Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.


Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.


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    This has never made sense. “christian but not religious” is like “blue but not colored”. Maybe you could explain it?
    What people mean by “religion” is never obvious in the first place, but I think no matter what one thinks of that, blue is one of many colors; christianity is one of many religions. Me, I consider myself religious (according to my notion of it) and atheist, “a personal relationship with jesus” is to me a meaningless phrase, and reciting the Shahada, pledge of allegiance, Apostle’s Creed, whatever, has no effect on anything. It’s baffling.

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    We considered “religious” people to be merely going through the motions of faith. Rather than having “religion,” we prided ourselves in having a “relationship” with God, a living exchange as opposed to mere dead works. We spoke to God, he spoke back – through prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge, inspiration and intuition, and let’s not forget that favorite Christian word, “discernment.” We had the inside track with the Almighty, we knew his mind, his will, his plan. We alone had the Truth.

    We were, of course, completely full of shit. It was all pretending: pretending to be certain of things no one can be certain about, pretending to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when it was all our own superheated imagination; pretending to feel divine leadings in order to impress our “brethren” with how spiritual we were; pretending to have deep insight and knowledge of Eternal Truth. The most important persons we had to convince with this game of pretend was ourselves. Once you fool yourself, you can be fooled by anyone.

    And so we rejected the “still, small voice” in our minds; the voice that, all the while, whispered the real truth – that it was all a game of Grown-Up Pretend. We called it the accuser, the voice of Satan, or the sin-nature, the voice of our “flesh.” Turns out, it was instead the voice of the obnoxious kid in us, the uncompromising realist who refuses to play along, refuses to be fooled, and who is not afraid to point out that the emperor’s new clothes are entirely imaginary. I should have never stopped listening to that part of myself.

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      Very clearly said, Rob. Thanks for that… I love the phrase of emphatic dawn following the rigid certainty of faith: “We were, of course, completely full of shit.” That we stop listening to our own inner realist might have to do with the undermining influence of religion, the way it plays into the harmful sides/aspects of people and gives them justification to harm themselves and others. If we are exposed to this at a young enough age or with enough force, then is it really so strange that we begin to doubt our own realism? The emperor wields great power…

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    The rejection of the religious label comes from wanting to assert that we have a ‘relationship’ with God.
    But funny thing is this relationship doesnt involve any things that you do in an actual relationship but rather doing things like talking with no response, attending church, bible study, reading bible at home… All things that seem very religious.

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    Your story is eerily familiar to mine. So much so, that it almost seems as if I wrote the words myself. I grew up marginally religious with my mother taking me to church (Baptist) here and there over my childhood years. When I married, my wife had been brought up in the Pentecostal faith and after several years of traveling down the non-denominational path, we ended up in the Pentecostal jungle. I “believed” that I had been given a calling to preach the Word of God and spent several years soaking up all of the doctrine of the United Pentecostal Church. There was always a question in my mind as to the legitimacy of their standards, the exclusivity of their doctrine, and the isolationist mentality of us against the world, but nonetheless, I bought into almost everything that they proposed. The oneness of God, Acts 2:38 salvation plan, and the ecstatic worship all seemed like the real thing to me for 10 years. About a year ago, I was ready to get my license and become a minister in the UPC, but my pastor was adamant that I needed more study before taking this step, so that is what I did. Only this time, I did not buy books that were UPC exclusive and instead started to read the other sides point of view. After reading Hitchens book “God is not Great”, I was hooked, and over the next 6 months I read as many books as I could to try and figure out what I believed. Needless to say, I am now atheistic in my beliefs and now must struggle with the fact that my wife and children are still a part of what I consider to be a cult of epic proportions. It is a daily struggle to try and bridge the gap between the world of make believe and that of reality with them and I am making progress. Thank you for your blog and sharing with us your journey to the other side. It is affirming to see others who have crossed the chasm from belief in a deity to a rational, reasoned affirmation of what is.

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    dale mcinnes

    I think it all started when science began making strong inroads on religion that “religious” people started to become very uncomfortable in being on the side of “non-reason”. They withdrew back into “Christianity” and began to disascociate (sic ?) themselves from that which was under attack by science. That was a bad move on their part. They let down the shield. Now science is coming at all religions separately [divide and conquer].

    Lots of religious people have a child’s view of a higher power because that’s what they were taught. The threat from science is not atheism. The threat from science is that quantum physicists are opening up new realms of reality and are to some extent re-examining the concept of “higher power” as a “higher form” of extraterrestrial civilization. It’s
    an adult way of ruminating over the existence of real gods [dependent upon your interpretation). So the religious may be best described as adults still beleiving and acting as children do. Because of their lack of knowledge in the thing they most believe that they know best, it is safe to regard them as big children. We’re not out there to point them to any “truth”. We’re out there to teach them to question everything … help them to grow up … become part of the more adult world. The hardest thing for us to learn ? You don’t teach children by threatening them. You show them how much more they can experience as individuals. Give them the power. Power to the people !!!

    Most people want to believe in an afterlife. They want to believe that there are others “out there” who have god-like powers. There’s nothing wrong with this wishful thinking. The difference between a child and an adult is that an adult will attempt to work to make their dreams and wishful thinking become a reality.

    Against this … religion has no armour.

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    I was 22 when I felt universal love for the first time. I’m guessing the euphoric high one gets from feeling God is similar. I wouldn’t know as neither God nor Jesus speak to me. And yep, I may have followed a New Age meditation path but my story is the same. I bought into the dogma, wore patchouli (I know – bug spray – I’m so sorry!!!) and believed to my core that I knew best for everyone else because I could ‘see’ it.

    Well, life tends to ease the edges from folk, although it pushes harder when the subject is stubborn. I understand each person has their own path and none of us can walk it for another. I’m also several decades older and hopefully wiser.

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    Well, I was religious, as that term wasn’t necessarily wrong in my denomination. Then I was “spiritual,” to mean my beliefs had changed and I didn’t attend church, but believed and had faith. Now, I still occasionally pray, but would describe myself as non-religious. Because I’m not concerned how others think, as much as how they treat others.

    (Of course their philosophies will shape their worldview and behavior. But a bad worldview will come out in people’s actions.)

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    The word “religion” was frowned upon among the Southern Baptists and Independent Fundamentalist Baptists that I grew up among. We were taught that anyone can be religious, that isn’t special. But we had “The Truth”, were saved by believing in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Grace of God, and were then indwelt by the Holy Spirit. That was considered a relationship, not a religion.

    Religion was considered a set of beliefs and rituals without the “heart”, without the relationship with God.

    How silly.

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      I cringed when I read this, knowing I was the same type of arrogant Christian whose faith was special and separated me from most other people who were religious but not saved. Although I never used the trite phrase that I had a relationship and not a religion that was how I felt. How ridiculous to go to church and worship someone or something regularly and then say you are not religious.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I never thought about whether I or anyone else I knew was “religious.” I guess not many kids think that way. But, nearly half a century removed from that time, I now realize that because I was in a fairly insular community where almost everybody practiced their faith in more or less the same way (church on Sunday, midweek CC for the kids who didn’t go to Catholic school, the sacraments and so on), there really wasn’t a need to declare one’s self, or others, as religious or not religious. Also, the only non-Catholics most of us knew were non-Orthodox Jews. It’s pretty difficult to judge the religiosity of someone in a faith or belief system very different from one’s own: It seems to me that people judge the piousness of people who have basically the same fundamental beliefs but interpret the more esoteric parts of it differently.

    So, perhaps it won’t surprise you to know that when I became an Evangelical Christian, I developed the arrogance Bruce described. I was not religious, I insisted. Nor were the other people in my church or others like it. We had faith, we had Jesus. All of those other folks, in their churches with their fancy windows and woodwork and empty rituals–and “wrong” interpretations of the Bible, if they read it at all–had mere “religion.” Like many other people who were trying not to deal honestly with themselves and live authentic lives, I had to believe that what I was doing was somehow superior and better than what I grew up with, and what other people lived. It’s ironic to realize, now, that I was engaging in my own kind of mental martrydom.

    “Dirty Arminian.” Now there’s a slur. Can you imagine some kid shouting it to another kid on the playground?

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Bruce Gerencser