Faith vs. Religion

August 25, 2010    By: Matt W. @ 7:39 am   Category: Theology

Seth Godin, in his somewhat disappointing book tribes, (disappointing in that it hammers the one note of the wonders of the internet and social media, which everyone already knows, and in that it reads like a bunch of blog posts thrown together into a book.) brings up an interesting conversation about faith, that I’ve been thinking about for about 6 months now. We often seen setups where faith and science are made to be contra one another, but I found his setup very interesting, faith vs. religion.

‘Faith goes back a long way. Faith leads to hope, and it overcomes fear. Faith gives our ancestors the resilience they needed to deal with the mysteries of the (pre-science) world.Faith is the dividing line between humans and most other species.
Religion, on the other hand, represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out.

Religion works great when it amplifies faith.

That’s why human beings invented religion. It’s why we have spiritual religions and cultural religions and corporate religions. Religion gives our faith a little support when it needs it, and it makes it easy for your peers to encourage you to embrace your faith.
Religion at its best is a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you are going.

The reason we need to talk about this, though, is that often religion does just the opposite. Religion at its worst reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith.’

I am pretty conflicted in terms of this statement because I totally agree with it, and also totally disagree. But rather than share my views, I want to hear from you.

What do you think?

How good is our church at boosting faith?


  1. At first glance this seems like it was written by someone who might not believe in God at all. It seems strange to me since I believe that my religion (at least its foundations) were revealed by God. So predictably I think it might describe other religions, but not mine.

    I think our church gives my faith something to do. It helps me exercise it. I might not do much with my faith otherwise.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 25, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  2. It’s hard for me to articulate, but having been a member of the Church for my whole life, the Church discourages faith in many ways. My relationship to the Church/God has been more one of following rules, commandments, guidelines, supporting programs, etc.

    Over the past few years, I have studied a lot about Buddhism. Ironically, for a “faith” that doesn’t necessarily define “God”, it has helped me develop MORE faith. Buddhism doesn’t have a strict set of “rules” to follow imposed by some outside authority. There are guidelines that are pointed to as the “best” way to develop oneself, but it’s up to each person to internalize these and decide how to best implement the guidelines in your life. Going through this process with Buddhism has helped me find my faith in God much more than my life in the Church.

    And at the end of the day, I think I understand the core principles of the Church better, while not caring about the societal crusts that have built up on it.

    Comment by Mike S — August 25, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  3. Eric: Interesting response. Looking around the web, it seems a lot of christians have had a similar response.

    I can get behind the idea that God revealed my religion to amplify my faith.

    Mike S. – as a fan of Buddhism, I can agree on that front, though I don’t know that I agree that the church discourages faith. But I can see how you would feel that way. That is part of the reason this thought from Seth is conflicting me.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 25, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  4. Faith without Religion is Philosophy, not spirituality.

    Comment by Jettboy — August 25, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  5. Matt W

    I agree with you – I don’t think that the church “discourages” faith and I think it certainly tries to encourage faith in its members. For me personally, however, the church’s reliance on a check-list of boxes doesn’t do much for my relationship with God (ie. what to wear, whether to have a tattoo or earring, home teaching, calling, FHE, dietary requirements, required donation amounts, assigned “service” projects, assigned cleaning “opportunities”, etc.) In the church, you can “check all the boxes” and be a good Mormon, serve in high callings, have a temple recommend, etc., yet not really have “faith”.

    As you know if you’ve studied it, Buddhism won’t specifically give you lists of “rules” like the church does. It is up to you to truly internalize the principle and determine how that is practically applied in your life. It’s the “intention” that counts. Changing your thinking to form that intention forces you to confront faith directly, and for me at least, has deepened it MUCH more than my 4+ decades in the LDS Church.

    Comment by Mike S — August 25, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  6. #5 Jettboy

    I disagree. I think that someone can have faith in God without an organized religion. Some of the most spiritual people I know would be considered “inactive” in the LDS Church, yet God has a much deeper meaning in their lives than some of the white-shirted people that show up each week in my ward.

    There are obviously deeply spiritual people in the Church, but being a good Mormon does NOT equal being spiritual, and vice versa. Therefore, faith without organized religion CAN be deeply spiritual and isn’t necessarily Philosophy.

    Comment by Mike S — August 25, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  7. Godin says: “we have spiritual religions and cultural religions and corporate religions.” Seems to me Mormonism is all three, and one can focus on any of the three, but all three are important and work synergistically.

    I would have used Mike S’s characterization of Buddhism as an equally valid description of Mormonism, but he seems to see only the cultural and corporate aspects. I’m not sure how he evaluates the spirituality of others, whether active, inactive, or non-LDS, unless he makes a surface-level judgment based on whether one wears a white shirt. Seems to me a critical aspect of spirituality is community, including working with others to make a difference in the world.

    I recognize the notion of an inward-focused, monk-like spirituality that ignores community and charity, but that has always struck me as an illusion.

    At the same time, to the extent an LDS is satisfied with the corporate and cultural aspects of Mormonism, he/she is ignoring the whole point, as repeatedly expressed in conference, the scriptures, and by the Spirit.

    My only quibble with Godin (apart from the man-made assertion) is his suggestion that reinforcing the status quo is necessarily bad. Certainly part of this depends on what status quo one refers to, but overall, modern society seems to fray precisely when we reject the status quo, in many respects. In discerning what to keep and what to change, religion plays a central, probably essential, role.

    Comment by Jonathan N — August 25, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  8. Jettboy:

    I don’t really know what you are saying. Faith without religion could be thought of as undirected, but I don’t know that it could be considered superstition.

    Mike S:

    I think buddhism has it’s 8 fold path, and depending on the segment, it does have it’s cultural moors as well. From a high level, it does have a lot to offer, and I think internalizing the 4 noble truths should be something every mormon does. However, I think there is more to life than self-effort. Reliance on Jesus Christ to get us past those things we can not attain by our own will, for one thing.

    Jonathon N, well stated.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 25, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  9. To be honest, I can’t tell whether I agree with the author or not. I don’t want to say that his main idea is wrong, but I simply cannot bring myself to let all of his many unsupported assertions pass by without wincing a bit.

    I would basically agree that faith is something that is part of the person while religion is something that the person is a part of. Thus, i would also agree with religion being something which is essentially social and faith as being far more personal.

    Now as for the purposes which faith is supposed to serve, I’m a bit agnostic, but hopeful. His characterization of religion, on the other hand, I reject immediately. I don’t think the rules are all that strict when compared to non-religious societies. I don’t think that it is essentially conformist. I don’t think that religion’s primary aim is to increase faith. I don’t think that human beings “invented” religion.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 26, 2010 @ 2:55 am

  10. Jeff, I can agree with that, but at the same time, I can also see where any religion (or society for that matter) has a given set of criteria which they ask their membership to follow in order to be a member in good standing.

    Seth Godin’s Marketing premise is all about differentiating yourself for fortune and glory, so the hole idea of him railing against conformity is not surprising to me, but his use of religion as an example, like you say, doesn’t directly match my experience, and further, undermines his point, in my mind, because while it is good to stand out, lead the pack, etc., it is also good to work together, fit in, and have synergy (or community, not sure which term is best) with others.

    So I agree with you.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 26, 2010 @ 7:07 am

  11. Matt W: While I agree that Buddhism, as practiced in various countries around the world, does have it’s cultural moors, I would argue that it is much less institutionalized than in the Mormon church. As the Dharma has been transmitted to the West in the past few decades, for example, many of the peripheral issues can be jettisoned without affecting the core. Buddhist practices in the US, for example, are very different than in Thailand, because of differences in culture, etc. Yet the core teachings are the same and people in both places can be seen as “good” Buddhists (although that term isn’t necessarily defined in that sense).

    The Mormon church, on the other hand, has formally institutionalized cultural practices, ranging from the significant to the trivial. 19th century United States racism was formally institutionalized into the ban on blacks and the priesthood. This is completely different than “black” and “white” churches that self-segregated at the time because it became an official part of the doctrine and not just a cultural practice of where Mormonism happened to be. Similarly, with the trivial aspects of culture, we hear “official” talks about what color shirt we should wear, how many earrings we should have, and tattoos. These cultural things are elevated to the point in Mormonism where if you don’t follow them, you can’t go to EFY at BYU, for example. If you don’t follow these cultural things, people question your commitment to Mormonism itself.

    This is what I meant by the list of “rules” that have crusted around the core of Mormonism, where if you don’t follow them, your “Mormonism” is questioned. We become more focused on following the rules and how we appear to our peers on the outside, than the true faith we develop on the inside. Granted, you can obviously have both and ideally do, but in my 40+ years, it seems people want to avoid even the “appearance of evil” to a great extent.

    My faith has been more expanded by studying other religions more than my own – which I, too, find quite ironic.

    Comment by Mike S — August 26, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  12. Mike S.- So, having lived in the Philippines, I can say all your statements about Buddhism apply to Mormonism. It has it’s core, and can jettison it’s peripheral issues without affecting it’s core. Maybe we just disagree on what is peripheral.

    And I live in Texas, and while I consider our area a very republican leaning, white shirt wearing neck of the woods, with not many tattoos or double piercings. I don’t see a lot of judgment regarding those things as reflective on people’s Mormonism, but rather that Americans still frown on those things.

    I don’t have 40+ years of experience, as I was only baptized 12 years ago, and I have never lived in Utah except in the MTC (which doesn’t count), so sure your mileage may vary.

    I can understand getting insight into personal faith from the study of other religions, but I guess, as a convert, I have to recognize that my faith is anchored by the personal experiences that brought me into our shared religion. No other faith building experiences, whether intellectual or spiritual, compare with those personal experiences I’ve had where God told me this was the route I was to take in life.

    Now that said, I also have to say that I’ve always felt that the church’s “seek after these things” clause fully allowed for the exploration of other traditions as something totally within the bounds of our faith.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 26, 2010 @ 7:42 am

  13. Faith without Religion is Philosophy, not spirituality.

    Whooooaaa. That’s like, like totally deep man.

    (And don’t worry, I believe you use that stuff for medicinal purposes only)

    Comment by Geoff J — August 26, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  14. It seems to me that faith requires religion. Faith seeks expression in sharing friendship and, more importantly, in organizing to bring about the vision that faith inspires to love others by inspiring others to accomplish what one cannot accomplish alone. Faith without a religious community is like a sunset without a sun and someone else to share it with.

    What the writer calls “religion,” I call priestcraft. There cannot really be a priestcraft without religion, but that doesn’t mean that one couldn’t have a religion without a priestcraft. Perhaps a better word for Mormons to use rather than “religion” is a “covenant community” of the kind envisioned in Mosiah 18:8-10.

    Comment by Christine — August 26, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

  15. #12: Matt W

    Your comments actually support my argument, about what you experienced in the Philippines as well as in Texas.

    It’s hard for me to articulate, but if you program, an example might help. In a programming language such as C#, you can define a “generic” class. This contains the basics of something, kind of like a template. But it is abstract and doesn’t really exist.

    To do something with a class, you have to instantiate it into an object. Now you have something you can work with. Different objects can be derived from the same class. Depending on where and how they are used, particular things may be added to them. They may all therefore be a bit unique, but they derive from the same class.

    Now, picture a religion such as Mormonism or Buddhism as a class. As such, it is abstract and doesn’t truly exist except as instantiated in people’s lives throughout the world. As religions are practiced, they necessarily take on some aspects of the culture in which they are practiced.

    Buddhism in Tibet took on some aspects of the native Bon religion that preexisted it. In the Philippines it is different than in Myanamar. Zen Buddhism in Japan is different too. But, they all follow the basic tenets of Buddha and consider each other to be different facets of the same gem.

    In practicality, Buddhism is also different. Take the example of sex. In Buddhism, the basic tenet is to avoid wrong-doing with regards to sex. And that’s basically it. In many Buddhist cultures, homosexuality is looked down upon, but this is more cultural. In other cultures, someone in a faithful, monogamous homosexual relationship can actually be keeping this precept. Someone can treat their spouse with disrespect in a marriage and break the precept. Someone may not be in a marriage yet keep the precept. It all depends on the context, the society, etc.

    In the Mormon church, however, societal values are defined in the abstract CLASS, and are implicitly expected to be followed throughout the world. Because the elderly, white, Utah-raised, male generation tends to prefer the white-shirted, non-tattooed, non-earringed, non-bearded look, we get OFFICIAL talks from this. This cultural onlay becomes, not a part of Mormonism in Utah culture (or Texas), but an expected part of Mormonism throughout the entire world.

    There is a big difference between Mormons in Texas being “very republican leaning, white shirt wearing neck of the woods, with not many tattoos or double piercings” because that is a cultural thing in that area of the world and it being a quasi-official policy of the Church. In areas of the world where a Mormon “policy” happens to coincide with the societal values, things are smooth. When these conflict, however, it causes unnecessary conflict. Why should someone have to “throw out” Mormonism because they disagree with some of the cultural and non-doctrinal onlays?

    Comment by Mike S — August 27, 2010 @ 8:31 am

  16. Thanks for the post Matt. It may be useful to first contextualize and translate Godin into the Mormon worldview before deciding whether to agree or disagree. As a background, Godin’s book has less to do about religion and more about leadership. For Godin, faith is the quintessential characteristic of leaders, it’s risk-taking, vision. “Faith is critical to all innovation. Without faith, it’s suicidal to be a leader, to act as a heretic.” Yet, it’s the religion that “supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out” it “represents a strict set of rules.” Godin talks about the religion of IBM or the religion of the MBA, those rules that tell you what you have to do, it’s the ritual. But, Godin argues, you can create a new religion like Apple. “If religion comprises the rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take.”

    This distinction can be translated into the Mormon idiom quite easily. “Faith is the moving cause of all action” states the Lectures on Faith. “But faith is not only the principle of action, but of power, also, in all intelligent beings.” Yet, what bothered Joseph Smith the most were the creeds, the rules, the status quo, everything telling him how he is supposed to believe. “Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled.” The religion of Joseph Smith’s day did not serve his faith. “I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things,” Joseph explained, “but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further—which I cannot subscribe to.” The religion was too limiting, too confining, and too parochial.

    It was the religion of the day, the ritual, the rules that Jesus railed against in his ministry. “You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life” Jesus told the scribes, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates well the dangers of ritual. The religion of the priest and Levite on their way to Jerusalem limited their compassion. They were too concerned about touching a man who made already be dead, thus becoming ritually unclean and unable to officiate in the Temple according to the law. Those rules prevented them from showing compassion. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do “that which is not lawful” on the Sabbath, Jesus replied, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” All religious leaders seem to have challenged the orthodoxy of their time “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

    I think the tension that people feel is that while they can agree with this paradigm as it relates to Jesus or Joseph Smith, to those who broke from orthodoxy in the past, they seem to have difficulty identifying with them today without feeling like a heretic, feeling as if they are challenging the status quo. Yet, so many things in ritual are man-made but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a negative thing. God explained that he gave revelations to Joseph Smith in their own language using their own ecclesiastical vocabulary. Joseph formulated the temple ritual for the express purpose of revealing higher knowledge and endowing the saints with power. Thus, in one sense, the temple ritual is the epitome of the sacred in Mormondom, and yet in another sense it is not sacrosanct. The ritual is flexible, it can be, and has been modified over the years because the ritual itself is not the sacred object-it’s to what the ritual points. Thus, the message should resonate for us today.

    For many members of the Church, the project of correlation could be seen as the best example of “religion” (as Godin uses the term) in the modern Church. It was originally conceived and formulated for good, for the benefit of the church, and yet, members of all stripes continually lament the negative and in many ways unintended consequences of this project. Or I might point to Hugh Nibley, whose loyalty and faith is unquestioned, who himself also struggled with being correlated. Truman Madsen once remarked, “There have been some things said of Brigham Young University by others, none of them are as painfully critical as what Nibley occasionally says, and the same goes for some aspects of the Church, institutionally speaking, he really is its gadfly critic.”

    Comment by aquinas — August 28, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  17. Excellent points Aquinas. And like I said in the OP, that is one reason I agree and disagree with his statement.

    On the one hand, Mormonim is very open to this non-ritual type of religion. On the other, it has within it a hiearchical system of buracratic ordinances which requires constant supervision and systematic order.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 28, 2010 @ 8:15 pm