“Religion can endanger the life of the pious individual, as well as the lives of others. Thousands of people have been tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith. Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale. A medieval cathedral could consume a hundred mancenturies in its construction, yet was never used as a dwelling, or for any recognizably useful purpose. Was it some kind of architectural peacock’s tail? If so, at whom was the advertisement aimed? Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Devout people have died for their gods and killed for them; whipped blood from their backs, sworn themselves to a lifetime of celibacy or to lonely silence, all in the service of religion. What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?”
– Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”
Last night I was at Starbucks, finishing work on a large proofing project for work. Dawkins’ words had a particularly congruous ring to them at that point, as I was spending time outside of work on something that was for work instead of on the rather pressing writing projects I need to be plugging away at. (Hmmm. Maybe that does make me a writer.) Researchers estimate that we spend over a third of our lives at work, and I’ve written in the past about the necessity of being invested in a career or line of work or activity that is driven by deep passion. Life is too short to waste it on so paltry a thing as a job.
Oh god, I sound like a Hippie.
The other day I was asked about the themes that I write about, and my off-the-cuff answer was something about the pursuit of truth in whatever circumstance you find yourself in; but the next morning in the shower I realized that religion is a dominating theme in my writing, and specifically, people living in its awful and haunting shadow. To be clear, religion has done positive things for the world and for society. It provides comfort, direction and meaning to billions of people throughout the world. Some of the greatest relief organizations have been founded and steered by Christians and people of faith. Without Christianity, we might not be as compassionate or charitable a culture as we are now, though other cultures and worldviews have developed both attributes independent of Christianity, which happens to have been the historical vehicle of transmission in the West.
I’ve been devoting a lot of time on this blog to attacking religion, which I guess makes me sound like one of those angry, bitter, cantankerous atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. If that’s so, I’m flattered and consider myself in good company. In the opinion of myself and many others, religion is one of the most serious problems still plaguing the world today, and it would be great to see the end of pernicious blind faith in my lifetime, though I won’t hold my breath. As long as gay teens are brutalized with toxic theologies about their innate and beautiful sexuality; Muslim women swelter in burqas on hot summer days because their patriarchal culture denigrates their bodies; or gullible churchgoers are duped into throwing their hard-earned money away; and as long as the Rick Perrys, Michele Bachmanns and Rick Santorums of the world are taken with any degree of seriousness, I will rail against religion and the evil that it is doing in the world, and the deeply distasteful, unpleasant and vindictive God looming over all of it.
My friend Adam is one of several people I know who are starting a church together. (I’ve mentioned it on here before in the past, SafeHouse Church.) This morning he posted about “Justice and the love of God,” a call-to-arms of sorts of putting your money where your mouth’s been running in terms of putting your resources to use where they’ll do the most good. Adam is passionate about social justice as an essential Christian virtue, something I find admirable and exemplary. He also rejects the absurd and destructive eschatology at the heart of American Evangelical Christianity; that teaches that the “End Times” are at hand and that God has orchestrated a final showdown between Good and Evil, and all that really matters is “saving souls for Jesus.” Were that more Christians shared Adam’s attitude, the church might not have as great a need for missionaries and it might be the compassionate and world-changing faith it was meant to be.
The other night I was over visiting two friends of mine, Joe and Jenny, who are also on the ground level of starting up SafeHouse. (Joe is one of the pastors, along with Adam.) In the discussion that took place that evening, I was trying to understand his theological and philosophical positions. I’m reminded of a line from an episode of the show Mad Men that I watched last night while finishing up the proofing work, where a Beatnik girl whines, “How come every time we have a party the ladies have to listen to the men talk?” (I imagine it’s what Jenny might have been thinking while Joe and I were talking.) Talking philosophy can be very dry going, but it was really a much more interesting discussion than that. Joe’s an intelligent guy and fun to talk to, but the question I kept coming back around to was, “Why bother with Christ at all? Can’t you do the things you do without dragging God into it?” These are the questions I’m pressing Adam with as well.
Joe is a post-modern (whatever that means anymore), doesn’t believe in absolute truth (at least as far as I understood him), and accepts evolution as the most likely explanation for life on earth. As best I could discern from him, Christianity is the narrative that works best for him and for his church, and that they feel the most connection to. Douglas Adams likens religion to feng shui, an ancient architectural philosophy built around making spaces to suit dragons. “It’s worth remembering,” he said in a speech delivered at Cambridge, “that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.”
Or, as William James said, “It doesn’t work because it’s true: it’s true because it works.”
But still I’m wondering, “Why bother with Jesus or God at all?” If you don’t really believe it’s fundamentally true (and I do think it matters a great deal whether it’s true or not), why not take the positive tenets of religion – altruism, kindness, generosity, love – and jettison the rest? Instead of superimposing a theistic narrative onto everything, throwing your money away on a church building and its ecclesiastical-ish trappings, wasting hours on Sunday morning singing communal songs to God (which is really more of a themed rock show anyway), and fretting about filling seats every week; why not go out and campaign for free speech (or marriage equality and gay rights – take your pick), raise money to go dig wells or medical relief in third world countries, or feed the poor and sick and take care of widows? Those are the things that the Jesus of the bible seemed concerned about.
Just as it’s a waste to spend life working a job, religion ultimately robs humanity of valuable time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to other more worthy pursuits. When I think of the priests who have spent their lives in devoted, celibate service to God; of the men and women who have beat themselves up trying to conform to the bizarre Evangelical Judeo-Christian sexual mores; and of all the people who have gone willingly to a gruesome martyr’s death (to cite just a few examples), it makes me sick with sorrow for humanity. Let’s say what we really mean, not what sounds nice, comforting or convenient. We don’t need to be good for God. I doubt God would be concerned with that anyway.
As the popular Christmas song goes, “be good for goodness sake.”