DIY religion


Yesterday, the Pope warned against "DIY" religion. The BBC represented it this way:

The Pope told the crowds there were dangers in people finding their own religious routes.

"If it is pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product," he said.

 "People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it.

 "But religion constructed on a ‘do-it-yourself’ basis cannot ultimately help us," he said.

"Help people to discover the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ."

I understand that in matters of religious belief and doctrine, the correct interpretation is whatever authorities say it is. There is no such thing as a sensible or strategic approach. Religious leaders are obliged to represent the will of God as this has been revealed to them. 

Still, the Catholic Church has from time to time done the strategic thing rather than the orthodox one. Keith Thomas documented one historical moment of this accommodation and the adjustments were extraordinary and thoroughgoing. 

Ironically, the Pope has put his finger not just on any feature of contemporary culture when he objects to “DIY religion.” No, he has managed, no doubt in his wisdom, to identify what is perhaps the single most important feature of contemporary religiosity. 

It’s a pity then that he insists on using this particular language. To use "DYI" makes religious belief sound like a home improvement project, regrouting the bathroom, say, or building a new deck out back. (And the Pope would diminish still further by attributing a profit motive.) But it is wrong to think of the DYI aspect of our culture as self indulgent, giddily wrong headed or opportunistic. This is to miss the anthropological point, and to underestimate how formidable is DYI as a competitor for even faithful hearts and minds. 

How much better it would have been if the Pope has used a term like “chosen religiosity.” In our culture, the act of commitment (to marriage, to identity, to commitment of many kinds) almost always now begins with an act of choice. We are a culture that has moved from assignment to choice in virtually all the dimensions of personal belief. Certainly, there was a time when people were Democrats because, and so to honor the fact that, their parents were. But now this idea is unthinkable. People choose. It’s not doctrine that is obligatory. It’s choice that is. This is what it is to be a culture devoted to individualism. More simply, every one of us is more or less entirely DIY.

I understand that choice is precisely what the Reformation was for, and that the Protestant churches may be seen as so many deliberate variations on how much freedom of choice the individual may exercise. But there must be a way of making room for choice within approved options, say. Or, declaring some things open to choice (yes, “indifferent”) as long as the fundamentals are honored. The alternative is to insist that the Church knows better than the individual even when the individual is prepared, accustomed, and in many cases obliged to decide for themselves. 


Anon. 2005. Pope warns against ‘DIY’ religion.  BBC. here.

Thomas, Keith. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Penguin. 

10 thoughts on “DIY religion

  1. JohnO

    As a “religious” person I can see your point with his choice of words “DIY”. Your suggestion of “chosen religiousity” means the same, but doesn’t have the same punch his does. I can remember a quote from a musician “Yea, I believe in God, but not a God who says I can’t drink and have sex”. Essentially, modern people have placed God in a box in which they are comfortable with him. God does not live in anyone’s box, and to assume so is quite blasphemous.

    I’d also like to make a point on: “I understand that in matters of religious belief and doctrine, the correct interpretation is whatever authorities say it is”. While orthodoxy might tow this party line it is quite wrong on many fronts. Christianity is based on a text. Islam is based on a text. Judiasm is based on a text. For each respective religion the text is the baseline. I think in all the above cases the accepted orthodoxy has drastically shifted from the historical orthodoxy of those who wrote the texts (Christianity perhaps the most deviant).

    I’ll share with you one of my favorite quotes to show just how far it has come:
    “Moreover, I pointed out to you that some who are called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics, teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish. But that you may know that I do not say this before you alone, I shall draw up a statement, so far as I can, of all the arguments which have passed between us; in which I shall record myself as admitting the very same things which I admit to you. For I choose to follow not men or men’s doctrines, but God and the doctrines[delivered] by Him. For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this[truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians,…” – Justin Martyr Dialouge With Trypho a Jew 2nd Century AD.

    While Justin was quite correct, based on the text of the Bible, concerning the destination fo the deceased, he was, however, misled on his ideas of the divinity of Jesus – mostly based on his former Greek philosophical underpinnings.

  2. dilys

    I have heard that the Eastern Orthodox call saints “living theology,” that is, certain sets of behaviors and ways of life embody certain concepts, and vice versa.

    If one believes (some moderns don’t) that holiness, as ultimate sanity, is both desirable and not always self-evident in its means, then engaging robust tradition on the subject is as indispensable as a good teacher in studying tap-dance or calculus. The Deposit of Faith can seem rigid because it is a practice-and-instruction course of transformation, not a set of condo bylaws. As they say of Anglo-American law, it’s mostly a seamless web. The metaphor suggests caution in pulling threads or reweighting the system.

    And there are continuing arguments, of course, as to what rips the web, and what is an indifferent dew drop or dust speck. And what, being clumsily explained or evilly practiced — “infallibility,” “indulgences,” “inquisition” — causes people to stumble badly enough to tear the web.

    Incidentally, regarding “choice,” that modern-and-beyond touchstone, the idea of the religious life is to reach and share robust happiness and real freedom of choice beyond conditioned and evolved instincts, red-at-some-level in tooth and claw, and the tyranny of pervasive fear and trivial-if-insistent desire.

    Post-Marxist analysis would hold it’s all about power. But regarding DIY religion, the Pope seems to me like Hermes or Cartier confronting sidewalk-vendor knockoffs. He is convinced his product holds up, and is worth what it costs. He suspects theirs doesn’t.

  3. JohnO

    His own priests know their product is false based on the biblical text. Over the years many a Catholic scholar has written tomes that the Kingdom of God on Earth is the biblical promise, not heaven. Yet Catholics must listen to the pope who upholds the ifallibility of previous popes. Many have also agreed that true monotheists (the Jewish perspective) has a much much stronger case based on the biblical text than the orthodoxy of trinitarianism.

  4. gary

    Inasmuch as there are two sets of Ten Commandments, one Protestant and one Catholic, and the RCC is the one that has been fiddled with, I’d say the Pope comes off looking a little ridiculous.

  5. Peter

    As a marketer, Grant, surely you can see what the pope is doing — re-emphasizing the core, unchanging values of the brand, values whose communication has become confused as the company has grown and spread into new markets.

    Of course, there will be consumers who don’t like the taste of “Catholic Classic”, but the loyal core who remain with the company are likely to be energized by the focus on core values (“that ol’ time religion”). Thus, the company may be more profitable with a smaller market share.

  6. Ben

    As I recall from my wold history classes… in reaction to the babylonian captivity (when the pope was relocated to Avignon) and the great schism leading into the renaissance period where religious leadership from the catholic church was abscent, local priests were often inarticulate (or worse) and sometimes corrupt, there emerged the “personal piety” movement that saw the creation of prayer beads, stations of the cross, etc. So there is a well established record of DIY religion in the catholic church when the masses have felt a lack of personal / emotional connection to God and their church isn’t filling their needs…

  7. ephriam


  8. Carlos

    There is a new religious movement called Matrixism that has sprung up out of the motion picture The Matrix. To be more accurate it is based on The Matrix, the Baha’i Faith and the writings of Aldous Huxley. The fourth tenet of this religions main doctrine would seemingly appeal to those interested in do-it-yourself religion. The official website for this nascent religion is

    I have also come across a very interesting paper on evolutionary neurotheology that might also be interesting to readers here. It is titled Evolutionary Neurotheology and The Varieties of Religious Experience. It basically integrates neuroscience with Jungian psychology and behavioral anthropology. Here is a link to it

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