I had many expectations about what I would read when I opened “Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious” by David Dark. Primarily, I expected that the book would attempt to soften the term “religion” specifically regarding Christianity, making it less polarizing for the purpose of encouraging people to consider it. However, as I delved deeper into the book, I realized that its scope was broader than Christianity alone. The book was not about wooing new believers, but about changing the connotations associated with the term “religion” to stimulate conversation and connection among people of diverse backgrounds. Here I will discuss several points on which I agreed and disagreed with Dark.
From the start, Dark opens the discussion to all people. Without wasting time, he addresses the reaction of nonreligious people to the word “religion”: they label. When people hear the word “religion,” their emotional baggage automatically rises to the surface, leading to judgment. Dark recognizes the necessity in identifying the labeling problem within the introduction: “When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully… they have been taken care of” (Dark 13). This creates a strong conceptual foundation for Dark’s arguments throughout the remainder of the book.
Dark also weaves several central Christian principles into the book: the need for community, the relational aspect of religion, and how it’s for everyone. I concur with these points — community is an integral part of Christianity, going hand-in-hand with its relational aspect. In fact, Christianity serves a triune God who, in His very being, is a representation of perfect community. You cannot ignore the relational aspect of the faith because its entire foundation is a God who is relational — a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit coexisting together in flawless unity. To deny that aspect is to undermine a pillar of the faith. Dark recognizes this much, spending an entire chapter imploring people to recognize the importance that community has in our life. He captures this in the phrase “chother,” a shortening of “each other.” Our chother — our family, our community — is the iron that sharpens iron.
While Dark offers a thorough motivation of community as a basic human need, he fails to tie it directly to Christianity. Dark acknowledges that community is a universal necessity, not only for people of faith but for all of humanity. In the words of Dark “everyone needs at least one of two people asking them to tell them specifically how they’re doing in this unfolding tale” (Dark 114). Indeed, this key principle of Christianity is for everyone, but Dark stops short of explicitly connecting it Christianity. This point could have been made by explaining that the principles were laid into place by an intelligent, intentional God who knew His creation would need each other and, ultimately, would need Him. Dark acknowledges a deep desire for meaning within us and that “the idea that any of us can have our meaning alone…is a death-dealing delusion”(Dark 139). However, he never brings his point full circle by mentioning where this deep desire came from. I read all the way to the end of the book expecting Dark to draw this connection, but he failed to address it entirely.
However, my primary critique is of an integral aspect of the book: the idea that we can be religious about anything. Dark says you can be religious about “your obsession with Game of Thrones” or “your determination to hold onto that plastic bottle till you’ve found a recycling receptacle” (Dark 22). Dark goes to significant lengths to level religious playing field in an attempt to bridge the gap between those who think they’re religious and those who think (or even assert strongly) that they are not. This move is problematic because it cheapens the concept of “religion” itself. Dark defines religion as “the what, the to whom, and the how of our everyday lives” (Dark 115). He defines it this way so that the idea of “being religious” is no longer something that people can separate from themselves. In this way, he strives to make religion a less polarizing, and more accessible, topic. However in doing this, he devalues the very notion of religion in some sense. Religion has historically been held to be sacred precisely because of its relationality — it uniquely describes the tradition of how people relate with God. Dark’s “religion” capture no such relational aspect. Dark allows religion to be replaced by a fake replica of relationship with whatever it is that people invest their time in, no matter how trivial. By construing “religion” as something so casual and commonplace, he undermines its relational principle.
This criticism becomes especially important in the context of Christianity. For Christians, religion is sacred because it represents a relationship. People often associate rules with religion, perhaps because they were taught to have that relationship, to be more holy, they must follow the rules and jump through the religious hoops. But at its core, religion should always be used to describe a relationship between two beings. In my case, it is me and a triune God. In others, it may be someone and Allah, a person and Mother Nature, or some unnamed god. But in each case, it is a living human with another perceived being — not with an object. To use religion to describe a relationship with an inanimate object lessens the significance of religion as a relationship with another being. This is somewhat like insisting that someone is married to the TV because they watch it all the time. But in reality, that demeans the concept of marriage as a relationship between two people.
If the goal is to draw people into a more comfortable place with Christianity, we must not attempt to convince them they’re already religious. That risks minimizing the notion of religion entirely. Furthermore, it desensitizes people to the word “religion.” The way to sway people towards Christianity is to shift the discussion away from religion and towards the relationship. Relationship is where the gravity and sacredness of religion lies. That is why the Gospel is all about cultivating a relationship with God and knowing Jesus. Forgetting about relationship cheapens religion and misses the point of the Gospel.