On personal relationships

Rod from Avenue Q“I’m not religious; I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Perhaps you’ve heard this line before. Perhaps you’ve delivered this line before. Setting aside for the time being the interesting phenomenon of religious people accepting the adjective “religious” as negative, I want to talk about what it might mean to have a personal relationship with someone.

Do you remember that kid who got teased in middle school or high school for not having any success at dating, who insisted that they had a significant other they met at summer camp but who lived far away? (Again, perhaps you were the one to deliver this excuse.) I’m certainly not endorsing teasing and bullying, but I think it’s worth looking at how others responded to this claim. They’d ask probing questions like, “What’s her name?” or “Can I see a picture of her?” or “When was the last time you talked to her?” (Adjust pronouns as necessary. I’m going to stick with the TV Tropes angle and assume it’s a girlfriend in Canada.) They’d ask for stories, and they’d ask for those stories to be retold so they could check for inconsistencies. If the kid couldn’t produce even a dimly compelling story or any corroborating evidence of the relationship, the S.O. was declared fictional. And that seems like a pretty reasonable standard, even if the context of the argument is a misguided one.

Is it so surprising, then, that when Christians tell us that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ we atheists can’t help but be skeptical? Christians can’t get the story of Jesus straight, even in the book that’s supposed to contain authoritative knowledge of him. They tell us that they talk to Jesus, but Jesus never seems to talk back to them, especially not to say anything specific — or, if they claim that he does, even other Christians dismiss that person as delusional. I wouldn’t claim to be in a relationship with someone if I didn’t know any more than a couple sketchy facts which might be true about their life and had never seen them in person or had a real conversation with them. That’s just not what a “personal relationship” looks like.

I mean, seriously. John Hinckley, Jr. had more of a relationship with Jodie Foster than any Christian has with Jesus Christ.

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  1. Being honest with myself about my “personal relationship with Jesus” was a huge part of my deconversion. Your post illustrates the part of that silliness perfectly. (here is my similar post)

    Yet those of us that have done it (or seen kids do it), know the power of imaginary friends. (see this amazing story of imaginary friends and childhood)

  2. It somehow becomes a religion again when it is time to fill in your census though.

  3. I don’t think you are being fair here. A personal relationship is just an inadequate way to describe how someone feels their belief. You can’t really compare it to the hideous embarrassment of not having a girl/boy friend at a certain age.

  4. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 7, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Hi NFQ,
    Thought I’d drop in a be nosey.

    The “personal relationship” vs “religion” stems (apart from the marketing angle) from the position that for most of the Organised Religious types ‘religion’ means doctrine, written doctrine, canonical written doctrine!
    Thus “personal relationship” is all about the beliefer. It’s a personal gnosis and an instant me culture which is a much easier sell. Then they can use the older psychological techniques to mold (or reject) the faith-filled.

    Another beauty of this is doctrine and testimony can be debated. Personal gnosis (aka experience, belief, opinion) cannot.

  5. I always ask those people who say they have a ‘personal relationship’ with Geebus…. ”How do you have a relationship with someone who’s been DEAD for 2,000 years?”

  6. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Actually Skeptic, what worries me is they seem to have about the same level of “personal relationship” with sanity and truth… (and that’s c.f. me!)

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