Are some religions more binding than others?

Monday, March 16, 2020.

Alan Watts (in Buddhism And Christianity) finds it confusing to treat both Buddhism and Christianity under the name religion or even to compare them. He says:

It gives me the same kind of shock I would get if I were reading a book about geology and suddenly came upon a chapter on birds. And I think the lack of understanding that the functions, the aims of these two traditions are so different. If we could understand this clearly, it would make for a great deal less recrimination between people who like to say “My religion is better than yours”.

The word “religion” is a very vague word, and it’s used for so many different things. And if we would agree to use the word “religion” for Christianity and for things like Christianity, such as Judaism or Islam, then we would have to find another word altogether for Buddhism because otherwise the word “religion” would mean so many different things as to mean nothing.

Now strictly the word “religion” comes from a Latin verb meaning “to bind back”. And thus the essence of a religion is a rule of life. If you use the word “religion” in its very very strict sense and you say of someone that “he has gone into religion”, this doesn’t mean that he suddenly got converted. it means that he joined a religious order, that is to say he became a monk or a nun. And that as one in other words who submits himself to a rule or law of life.

On the other hand, Buddhism is not a submission to a rule, and I have called Buddhism a way of liberation.

I stopped listening here because I simply don’t agree with Watts. His definition of religion is too weird. He has just met the wrong people. Also this talk is from a time when it was cool to smoke a cigar in front of a camera.

I rather agree with Tim Keller who says (in The Gospel-Shaped Life):

The Gospel is news, not advice. Advice is counsel that you get to help you get something accomplished. News is a report that something has been accomplished for you, it’s already happened in history, and you must response to it. Essentially all religions besides Christianity (and to a great degree a big part of Christianity is formulated this way, though it shouldn’t be) are all advice. Christianity is news, Gospel, Good News. Every other religion was founded by somebody, by a prophet or a sage or a figure, who came and said “Here is the way to find God”. Only Christianity was founded by a man who said “I am God coming to find you”.

Yes, religare means to “bind your mind” to a given system of ideas and concepts. Every human must do this choice. It is like learning a language. You may choose to not learn any language at all, but even this is a choice. Life is like traveling through the jungle trees like Tarzan: you need to choose some branch that will carry you through the air to the next tree. If can choose to not trust any branch, but then you are bound to walk on the ground. You are always bound to some system of ideas and concepts.

And regarding what Watts calls the “way of liberation”, every human chooses their religion more or less consciously, depending on their personal history and their preferences and skills for caring –or not– about philosophic questions. That’s why atheism is as much a religion as any other religion. It makes no sense to say that one religion is more “binding” than the other. They are all as binding as you allow them to be.