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Fortunately, You’re Not Religious



David Mills - published on 02/03/15

Christians don't believe in "religion": they believe in Jesus Christ

In the very first line of the book, the author declares: “Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics.” This is the opening of a prestigious lecture given at Yale University just a few years ago by one of the world’s most famous literary critics, Terry Eagleton. You can imagine the learned audience nodding in approval.

Eagleton goes on to complicate the matter a good bit. “But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap,” he continues. “When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own.” The published lectures, Reason, Faith and Revolution, is a very good book.

The opening line was entirely sincere and gives the standard view of the average western academic and intellectual and those like news show hosts who present such things in to the mass public. It’s the sort of line the Christian passes over with a shrug — an unfortunate truth, and one unbelievers trot out all the time, but one you can’t contest. It’s a cultural platitude up there with “Cholesterol is bad for you” and “Don’t drink and drive.” It forms the conversations we have when something religious comes up, especially when someone religious has done something bad and the news has gone viral on the web.

As religious people, we begin any discussion of religion at a disadvantage. It’s as if you’ve applied for a job at the zoo but had to admit that your family was famous for eating endangered species, and that your brother had just roasted a Californian Condor and your aunt is the famous author of Fifty Ways to Prepare Mountain Gorilla. You may throw open your refrigerator and show the people from the zoo your tofu and bean sprouts, but they’ll still wonder whether you can be trusted. Unless you cut your family out of your life completely, you’ll be guilty by association.

The usual Christian response is to say that some religions are worse than others (we’re not waging jihad), or that religions are no worse in their effects than any other type of belief (look at communism or Ayn Randianism), or that religions fail when people don’t live up to their teachings (everyone with principles falls short of them sometimes). Your brother may eat Californian Condors, but you’re a vegetarian.

The responses are mostly true, but they look too much like excuses. As a Christian, you are still held responsible in some way for the Crusades (always described in the most prejudicial ways possible), the Salem witch trials (ditto), German Christians who supported the Nazis (you get the idea), the Ku Klux Klan, the massacre of the cult members in Jonestown, and that hateful group of Baptists who disrupt military funerals. You’re a vegetarian, but your brother eats Californian Condors. And your aunt cooks mountain gorilla.

To add to the burden, Christians are blamed for the sins of other religions, under the category of “fundamentalism.” This seems to mean any belief that we have been given a word from outside the world that tells us how to live in this world, because (supposedly) people who think they know what God wants will force others to do what they say and hurt them if they don’t. The same dangerous conviction, supposedly, drives the suicide bomber and the people saying the Nicene Creed at Mass.

Again, the criticism is not untrue, even though it requires all sorts of qualifications to be any real use as a description. We admit there is a danger in believing something to be definitely true and guaranteed by divine authority. We also note that there is considerable advantage in believing something to be definitely true and guaranteed by divine authority. It matters what you think God has said.

The Christian will want to ask whether it’s dangerously “fundamentalist” to believe that God wants us to love others as he loved us, and to give up our lives for them as Jesus gave his life for us. Christians might point that this is a “fundamental” upon which hospitals and soup kitchens have been built. No “fundamentalism” about the love of God demonstrated on the Cross, no hospitals and soup kitchens. Or far, far fewer, at least.

Secular critics of Christianity do not make this distinction. Belief is belief, and it’s dangerous. They often lump Christians together with every dangerous religious believer in the world just because we are both “religious.” All these people convinced they know what God wants bring the world untold misery. What we and they actually believe is irrelevant. Religion itself is the problem.

No, it’s not, because it doesn’t really exist. The problem with claiming that “Religion has wrought untold misery” is that we can’t speak about “religion” in any useful way. The word “religion” covers a great diversity of systems of belief and practice that don’t have much to do with each other, besides a belief in some sort of higher power, which is a very general idea, too general to make of everyone who holds it a single thing, so that one can be blamed for the sins of another.

As the Orthodox writer David Bentley Hart has written in his Atheist Delusions (which I highly commend): “Religion in the abstract does not actually exist, and almost no one (apart from politicians) would profess any allegiance to it. Rather, there are a very great number of systems of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call ‘religions,’ though they could scarcely differ more from one another.” Christians, he points out, don’t believe in religion, they believe in Jesus Christ.

He adds: “The most one can say from a Christian perspective concerning human religion is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the ‘natural desire for God,’ and as such represents a kind of natural openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace, as well as an occasion for any number of delusions, cruelties, and tyrannies.” So also, I would add, do ideologies like Marxism and Libertarianism, which have secularized the God that man naturally desires and are as “religious” as the religions.

To make the point practical, what exactly does the radical Muslim have in common with St. Theresa of Calcutta? Does calling them both “religious” tells us anything useful? Can we generalize from these two examples to say anything of value about religion and the various religions as a whole?

Not much, is the answer to all three questions. The secular idea of “religion” is more than a little unfair. It’s more or less the same as holding you responsible for the murderer who lives six blocks away because you both live in the same town, or have the same ethnic heritage, or both have two legs and two arms. You’d expect much more evidence of a real connection before being sentenced to jail for conspiracy in his crime.

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