Good observation, bad conclusion

Over on CNN.com, I noticed an article called “Why we should ditch religion”. It fits into the recent fad of prominent atheists denouncing religion. And, like many of these books and articles, the author is battling a straw man (or straw woman, if you prefer). Religion causes us, the argument goes, to focus on moral matters of relative unimportance, rather than great problems such as the alleviation of dire suffering.

Religion has convinced us that there’s something else entirely other than concerns about suffering. There’s concerns about what God wants, there’s concerns about what’s going to happen in the afterlife, and, therefore, we talk about things like gay marriage as if it’s the greatest problem of the 21st century. We even have a liberal president who ostensibly is against gay marriage because his faith tells him it’s an abomination. It’s completely insane.

There are, of course, two problems with this philosophers logic. First, there are plenty of self-centered atheists who — free from the ostensible oppression of religion — lack a significant moral compass. Second, to quote something I have read, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.

Religion, of course, cannot nor should be reduced to its immediate moral efficacy. However, nearly any religion — not just Christianity, but any religion — shows tremendous concern for the welfare of the whole world. The problem is that in our fallen state, we humans are selfish creatures, and we distort even our religions in our quest for short-term gratification. History books are littered with examples of gross misconduct in the name of religion. But those same pages are also covered with examples of selfless action, inspired by the highest calling of religion.

If Christians talk about getting their ticket punched to get into heaven and we stop there, shame on us. This would show a callous disregard for our tradition and for the scriptural witness of the Good News. While we are on a pilgrimage journey, we are called to engage fully with the world in which we live. As I write here regularly, the word sozo is translated into salvation, but also health, wholeness, and redemption. In our quest to “save” the world, we seeking to make it whole and to make it healthy.

We Christians must not let our actions or our reputation be defined by some number of narrow thinkers from our faith tradition, past or present. To be clear, some of the narrow thinkers to which I refer will be so-called liberals. The opposite of focusing on things heavenly is to disregard things heavenly. Plenty of Christians treat their faith as something to make them feel good (right now!) or to solve worldly problems. This is also a distortion of the Gospel.

We are called to love God with every fiber of our being. And then we are called to love everyone else. We follow the second commandment out of our obedience to the first, and not the other way around (though we will often find God in serving others).

Sadly, it is true that Christians get into the newspaper most often these days for tedious squabbles over minor points of moral theology. We must do better, for the sake of the Gospel. That repentance must include all sides of these debates. Simply put, if we don’t like the story that’s being told about us, we have to change the story.

Now, on the other side of this, there is the fallacious notion that religion somehow stunts people’s moral growth. The oft-stated corollary is that were people freed from the shackles of religion, they would be better moral agents. This is easy to disprove. Just look around at the actions of non-religious people. You’ll find no shortage of selfishness, greed, and failure to engage big moral questions. I’d hazard a guess that there’s not much observable difference much of the time between religious and non-religious people when it comes to big moral questions.

Our response to articles such as these must not be angry denunciations or defensive attacks. Instead, we must do two things. We must live our faith, well, more faithfully. And we must redouble our efforts to reach those who are not religious. It may not be our task to convert them, but it is our task to proclaim the Good News by word and deed. That would take care of charges that we are insulated from the world, morally or otherwise. If people knew what we meant by “Good News” they would not be so quick to judge us as a bunch of people removed from the concerns of the whole world.

Sadly, the author is right about one thing. Too often, religion has fallen short of the mark. In that sense, some of his observations are spot on. However, the conclusion is wrong. The failure is not in religion, but in fallen people. If we in fact behave more faithfully, religion will offer more good to the world.

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