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Fortunately, You’re Not Religious

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David Mills - published on 02/03/15 - updated on 06/08/17


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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