This is an old chestnut which I have cracked before, but I wanted to say a few words about the idea that a person’s personal relationship with some particular god is somehow not religious.
Most people in our culture believe in a god. Not only that, but the tradition from which most people get their idea of god tends to identify this supernatural being as having some relationship to Jesus; Jesus is the Son of God, is God, etc. So, when people in our culture start talking about god, you have a pretty safe bet they are talking about Jesus.
Which means they are talking about the Bible. Or, more specifically, some limited exposure to the collection of books which was put together by a group of people in the 4th century who had specific theological and political motives. And those motives allowed them to choose certain books and dismiss others for the theological content within. Those theological ideas became a religious tradition, or a set of traditions, we now call Christianity.
In other words, the idea of God that they have is not divorced from religion, it is wholly dependent upon it.
And yet, more than a few times (Hell, more than a few dozen times) I have heard people who “believe in Jesus” claim that their relationship with Jesus is not religion. The idea is ridiculous to me. But before I say precisely why, I want to clarify something related.
It is possible to have ideas about god and other supernatural things without being religious. That is, you can come up with an idea for god (some call this “revelation”) and believe it, and until you start collecting other followers and perhaps throwing in some rituals and so forth, you are nowhere near having a religion yet. You simply have an unwarranted belief, truly personal and possibly unique.
But is that how people find out about Jesus? Is there really anyone who has simply came up with the story of Jesus, or at least the essential highlights of it, without some connection to the long theological, historical, and religious tradition of that idea? No, there isn’t.
Have these people not gotten their idea of Jesus from a religious tradition? Of course they get it from that tradition. They may claim that they had some personal experience with some god or other supernatural force, but it is their relationship to that tradition which causes them to identify it as Jesus, the Holy Spirit etc rather than Allah or Vishnu.
That is why any person who has a personal relationship with Jesus is religious; they need the religious tradition to give context and focus to the experience they had, and the religious framework of some specific Christian theology formed their interpretation and understanding. If they merely had an experience and said to themselves something like the following:
“that was pretty wierd, I wonder what that was. It felt like something divine, but it never gave a name or anything”
then at that point they can at least have some basis for saying they have a relationship with something divine that is not religious.
However, very few people make this type of claim. In most cases, people pull out Jesus and all of the religious implications of that name when they have personal experiences and forget that they must justify doing so. Why have they identified their personal experiences, their personal relationship, as having anything to do with Jesus or any other specific god?
By not realizing this oversight, they make their personal experiences into religion without realizing it. If they just dealt with their personal experience on their own terms, and hopefully with a little skepticism, then the gap between it and the religious traditions of the world would be more apparent.
And there would probably be more atheists.