This week Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine launched by Billy Graham, published an editorial repudiating the President for his “profoundly immoral conduct” and calling for his impeachment. Graham’s son Franklin pounced, dispelling any remaining respect we may had for his father by declaring that Billy Graham voted for Trump and supported him enthusiastically. Evangelicals lined up to to take shots at CT. This tweet from Fox News commentator Brit Hume explains their position.
Take a close look at Hume’s argument. He justifies his support for Trump by explaining that you are the enemy. Hume isn’t alone. A Washington State legislator is facing a domestic terrorism investigation. Rep. Matt Shea has been traveling the country, drumming up support for his plan to “kill all males” who resist the establishment of a fundamentalist Christian state. Shea was involved in planning the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and wrote a manifesto defending his plan for a genocidal religious war. Evangelicals are willing to support the Russians, the mob, the KKK, a rapist, whoever it takes, in order to defeat and subordinate you. If it seems like America’s religious nuts are unwilling to engage in reasonable political debate, it’s because they aren’t. These people aren’t interested in sharing a democracy with you.
A lot of people frustrated or frightened by the jihad being waged by evangelicals on our democracy are concluding that religion itself is to blame. It makes sense. If the only religion you understand is white evangelical Christianity, it’s reasonable to conclude that religion is inherently dangerous. That conclusion is spreading, but is it accurate? Is there any meaningful distinction between healthy and unhealthy religion, or is religion always an obstacle to human progress?
America’s fastest growing religious affiliation is “none.” Church attendance is in steep, accelerating decline, even among evangelicals. For the first time in our history, we are raising a generation in which Christians are a minority. Less than half of Americans born since 1981 identify as Christian. Why would they? Across their lifetimes, evangelicals have been a resolute force for bigotry, science denial, and now Fascism.
Our growing urge to resist religion in any organized form comes with a cost. Just as conservatives limit our horizons by their uncritical and thoughtless anti-government reflex, liberals dent our futures with an uncritical rejection of faith. There is a difference between faith which feeds the soul, and that which feeds on souls. Religion itself is not the problem.
A religion is a bundle of concepts, practices and ceremonies that help us transcend the boundaries of our finite, individual existence, bringing us an awareness of belonging to something greater than our mortal being. Faith, our ability to act on the belief in something that is not yet evident, plays a key role in most religions. Belief in some kind of god is common to many religions, but it isn’t universal or necessary. We tap this religious instinct in many contexts that we wouldn’t immediately recognize as religious.
Like any other institution or practice, religion can turn foul. Few human institutions are as destructive as a bad religion. Bad religion usually has these three characteristics in common, usually more than one at a time. Bad religions:
– Insist on belief in things that are objectively untrue
– Convert adherence into an identity
– Elevate a leader beyond accountability
The worst religions combine all three, though usually only briefly, as they work together to create a dangerously unstable cult.
Objectively Unreal Beliefs
There’s a powerful, if perhaps subtle difference between believing in a set of unprovable, transcendent concepts like Karma or God, and denying the evidence of our senses, common sense or science. One might conclude from rational thought that there’s no such thing as Nirvana or Heaven, but you can’t run an experiment to prove it. They are concepts, ideas that guide one’s values, not disprovable statements of material fact. One might believe that Karma operates in a manner that influences material existence without ignoring reality.
Christianity, however, is unique in being a belief-driven religion, insisting that adherents publicly accept a set of plainly fantastic assertions. This is unusual. At the core of Judaism is the Shema, a statement that there is one God. Jews need not believe that Moses was a real person who, on a given Wednesday, performed a particular miracle, in order to be authentically Jewish. Islam is based on the Five Pillars, a set of values and practices that define the faith. Nowhere among them is a statement that a certain unbelievable thing occurred one day in the real world. Hinduism and Buddhism are built around a set of philosophies and practices. Their traditions include miracle stories and legends of gods, but one need not ignore any material realities to practice those faiths.
At the core of Christian adherence, expressed most succinctly in the Apostles’ Creed, is a statement of belief in a set of things that didn’t happen. All the things Jesus did and said as an expression of his values are deprioritized by these beliefs, weighted down by enforced unreality. Like a bunch of grown-ups who insist that Santa Claus is real, Christians are supposed to pretend that Jesus was born to a Virgin, came back from the dead and he’s still alive out there somewhere. Few of the world’s religions are quite as burdened by denialism as Christianity, where it’s built into the fabric of the faith.
These fundamental Christian beliefs are at odds with sanity, and consistently obscure the underlying message of Jesus’ teachings. Your friend down the street brings a gift to your parties, answers your texts, and comments on your Facebook posts because she’s alive. Your great Aunt Nelda who passed away in the 90’s doesn’t answer the phone anymore because she’s dead.
Believing that you might see Aunt Nelda again someday in the great hereafter is a harmless philosophical concept. Insisting that everyone leave a place at the table for Nelda because she is actually alive, screaming at those who try to explain that she’s dead, and claiming you hear her voice giving you instructions, is an unhealthy delusion.
Jesus doesn’t attend church with me on Easter Sunday because he’s dead. Jesus “lives in my heart” because like Aunt Nelda, he doesn’t live anywhere else anymore. A religion that forces adherents to ignore obvious realities leaves them primed for exploitation. Once we train ourselves for denial, that habit can be turned toward almost any end. Serious, fundamentalist Christians in the US are wired for fake news.
Even among Christians, there are degrees of investment in these plainly unreal concepts. Most Christians accept the more patently unreal elements of their faith in the abstract without giving them much thought or concern. Pressed to take a position, many if not most would assign some philosophical or metaphorical significance to these beliefs rather than digging in, insisting that these fantastic events literally occurred. The literalists ruin things for everybody by insisting that everyone bend around their delusions.
Serious believers get upset when the obvious issues with their beliefs are mentioned because it takes a lot of mental energy to sustain impossible beliefs. They will retreat into cultures of denial, insulating themselves from the relentless cognitive dissonance produced by exposure to facts. Belief religions tend to build unusually closed cultures because they have no choice. Maintaining mental closure is essential to their survival.
Literal belief in fantastic or miraculous events is not a universal feature of religion. It isn’t even a universal feature of Christianity.
Even in the earliest days of Christianity, some of Jesus’ followers resisted these absurd beliefs. Their fight against their faith’s slide into fantasy made it into the New Testament. The final few sentences of the Book of Matthew record that even among Jesus’ disciples, some weren’t buying the bullshit. At the end of that story, the risen Jesus takes his disciples to a mountain for a final conversation, but the author is forced to acknowledge that “some doubted.” Right at the bitter end of Jesus’ supposed story is a reminder that not even his closest friends were all buying it.
Why was the author of Matthew forced to include this acknowledgment of Jesus’ disciples’ doubts? Because it was common knowledge among his audience that many of Jesus’ disciples disregarded the more fantastic claims about his birth and resurrection. The more grounded faith of Jesus’ early followers comes down to us in The Book of James, preserving Jesus’ preoccupation with compassion and social justice. That practical vision of the Christian life apparently persisted for centuries. Early church writers described these Jewish followers of Jesus as the hated Ebionities and Nazarenes, who denied most of the fantastic beliefs of the Greek Christians.
Belief in a set of impossible assertions is not necessary to build a healthy, meaningful faith. It isn’t even necessary for healthy Christianity. The more one develops the mental habits necessary to deny objective reality, the more vulnerable one becomes to exploitation.
When Religion Becomes an Identity
Good religion produces humility and empathy. Bad religion insulates us from conscience, delivering an external justification for inhumane acts. An otherwise sensible, healthy religious faith can turn rancid as its members begin to define themselves as an “us,” in contrast to those outside the faith who are “them.” How did enthusiastic religious believers support Hitler and Mussolini? How do they support Trump? They do it by identifying fellow members as the sacred us and everyone else as a sub-human threat to their values.
If it sometimes seems like our white evangelical Christians have a lot in common with Jihadists, it’s because both share an apocalyptic vision of a religion fighting for survival against evil infidels. Those evangelicals who will blather endlessly about their love for babies in the context of the abortion debate won’t blink an eye at little brown babies being torn from their mothers at the border. Once a faith becomes an identity, it neutralizes compassion. There is no atrocity being carried out by Islamists that American evangelicals wouldn’t visit on you to preserve their power.
Though belief in the unreal may be the more irritating trait of broken religion, it’s the use of religion as an identity that’s the most dangerous. Buddhism is steeped in non-violence. Almost all of our modern practice of non-violent resistance has roots in Buddhist thought. That didn’t stop Buddhist monks like Wirathu from stirring up a genocidal slaughter of minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
This mental framework of identity fuels modern Muslim Jihadists. It’s been noted with some confusion that many of Islamist terrorists don’t appear very religious at all. Their religious practices are bizarre and unorthodox. Many come from secular backgrounds displaying little awareness of their supposed religious traditions. For them Islam is an identity. They are fighting a race war, with religion brought along for decoration. The parallels to America’s white evangelicals and their attachment to white nationalism, should serve as a warning.
A Leader Beyond Accountability
Jim Jones began his career as a backwoods Pentecostal preacher in Indiana. He finished his long, winding journey as the unquestioned leader of his flock of dedicated believers. When he told them to drink poisoned Kool Aid, they willingly and knowingly killed themselves and their children. From cult suicides to child-raping youth pastors, when a religious leader is granted unquestionable authority, anything can happen.
Mainstream organized religion has mechanisms to hold revered figures accountable for extreme behavior. Those mechanisms often fail, or are disabled, as we saw in the case of child-abuse by Catholic priests. But even when they are compromised, they provide some constraint. The Pope claims to be infallible, but he can only take that power so far (anymore). He no longer wields any official government authority outside his palace. Followers may respect his claim to infallibility in the abstract, but they regularly disregard his will with impunity.
It is rare for a religious leader, beyond the reach of accountability, to also be a head of state. Even in Iran religious authority is tempered through a complex matrix of competing interests. As white evangelicals in the US begin to treat Donald Trump as their dark Messiah, the “enemy of their enemies” sent to salvage white nationalism, we’re living under a regime that combines all three elements of toxic religion.
During the ’16 campaign Trump joked that he could murder someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and his followers wouldn’t care. Turns out it was less a joke than a threat. White evangelicalism has always been defined by patently unreal beliefs. For most of its existence it has also been inextricably tied to a white racial identity. However, it has always lacked a singular leadership. Now, America’s white evangelicals have found their Fuhrer, finally blending all three of the most toxic perversions of religious faith.
Any one of these poisonous religious habits can wreak havoc. When a faith, especially a prominent one, embraces all three at once, you’re lucky to avoid mass violence. And when that faith’s leader is also the political leader of a country, there may be no path back to stability without a wholesale purge of those religious figures. That’s where we find ourselves today with white evangelicals and their white nationalist Messiah.
Getting Rid of Religion Won’t Help
Under the looming threat of toxic religion, it might seem that the solution is to reject religious faith entirely. What happens when you eradicate religion? It’s a trick question, because it appears that we can’t. We seemed to be wired for faith. Fighting to eradicate religion merely pushes that instinct into awkward, distorted expressions.
Our greatest evolutionary leap was our ability to conjure a vision of the future from nothing, to see things that did not exist. That intellectual power created everything that distinguishes us from our ape cousins. It also gifted us with a relentless angst. Our capacity to see ourselves from the outside showed us an unresolvable paradox. We are precious and unique. We are also tiny and impossibly insignificant, finite creatures in an infinite world.
Absent some language, some framework within which to wrestle with this unresolvable contradiction, it becomes a font of madness. Healthy religion produces humility and compassion. It grants us a context in which to appreciate our incomprehensible smallness without diminishing our beauty or sense of meaning.
Whatever rubric, be it god-rich or utterly godless, which imbues us with the capacity to understand our place in the world can be properly regarded as a religion, and a good one. Those steeped in a Euro-American cultural context struggle to see religion separate from a belief in God, or a church. Religion is whatever collection of beliefs, ideas or practices that allow us to see ourselves in a context larger than our measurable existence. Nationalism often takes on this religious role. Almost any allegiance can fill this void. Absent competition from some form of religious belief, some of those allegiances can be as potentially dangerous as any conventional religion.
Communists believed that religion was the opiate of the masses and punished any expression of faith. By the time of their deaths, both Stalin and Mao were gods. Their disciples would commit any atrocity, without hesitation, in service to their gods’ divine will. Statues of Communist leaders were worshipped in rites as laden with religious meaning as those practiced by our ancient pagan ancestors. Today you can still visit the temple where Mao’s holy remains are worshipped.
In its finest expression, faith gives us our capacity to cooperate with one another. Every form of human trust is built on a form of faith. We reinforce that faith through rituals. In small human bands, we could build trust through simple acts of reciprocity. Those rites evolved into more formal ceremonies that remind us of our mortality and transcendence, a shared human identity. Faith grants us the power to work together toward objectives we cannot see or understand, and perhaps never will in a lifetime. Through this capacity for trust and faith, we can cooperate in projects far larger than our own individual consciousness.
Religion is a powerful and dangerous instinct. We can use it to construct monuments or horrors.
Can humans live without religion? Gods are an outgrowth of something inside us. A well-cultivated religious faith is like a healthy immune system, blocking the random virus from sweeping through the body, wreaking havoc. Bad religion might take the form of snake-dancing or vaccine denial. Stripped of a religious framework, human beings are exposed to the neurotic nightmare of godlike narcissism, in which our instinct for faith is turned inward upon ourselves. There is no creature so lonely as a god.
The humans with whom we share this planet right now are in large part creatures of faith. We are not machines. We are not calculators. With all our potential for reason and science, we still need religion the way we need art, as an essential expression of what it means to be human.
Finding a Healthier Religious Balance
Right now, here in the US, we desperately need to develop forms of religious expression less toxic than the white evangelicalism that dominates our politics. That should perhaps begin with a forceful confrontation of toxic practices. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to limit the power of bad religion is to unapologetically tell the truth. We’re in the habit of granting a certain deference to religious beliefs, no matter how damaging or sick. That’s a habit we should shed.
Perhaps humans can one day evolve beyond the need for religion, but that version of ourselves lies beyond the horizon. In the near term, we’ll find a way to sustain healthier religious institutions, or we’ll get wave after wave of ever more poisonous faiths.