Religion Doesn’t Have to Be Toxic

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.

20 Comments

  1. If they didn’t have evangelicalism, American culture provides any number of ethnonationalist fantasies, from hero worship of “The Founding Fathers” to the book-waving of the Constitution as uncritical and illiterate as their unread Bibles, from American exceptionalism to the strange and rather quite loopy take of capitalism as an ethos rather than a system of commerce. All of these we are as loathe to confront as religion, largely because most Americans believe in them somewhere deep, even when they say they don’t.

    In the end a nation founded by religious zealots via genocide and slavery and only separated from its Colonial forebears because they resented paying taxes has a really hard time weeding out the deep-seated belief if their own inherent righteousness for some reason. Fancy that.

    The religious aspect is the easy part. God doesn’t exist, so easy enough to move on and focus on human rights. More difficult to do so when the wingnuts claim the Constitution as their right to own people as property, or that the Founding Fathers intended a white ethnostate, or the 2nd Amendment reserves them the right to shoot people on sight, or capitalism means taxation is theft, as all those things actually exist and are all embedded in our culture. Much much more difficult to confront.

  2. Nicely done, Chris. Although not a “church-goer”, I have always respected those who found such solace in their faith. Unapologetically telling the hard truth used to work. I don’t think it does anymore, and that’s scary.

    Before 2019 rings out, I want to thank you, Chris, for all the time and effort you commit to informing your Political Orphan flock. Thanks, too, to all those who share their comments. I appreciate each and every one of you.

    Merry Christmas and hopefully, a very Happy New Year.

  3. In re: the idea that Evangelical Christians have to believe the unbelievable, here is a counterpoint that explains how you can “observe the tradition” without being captive to literalism.

    From Kar-Ben Publishing, a library for Jewish children–
    https://www.karben.com/A-Place-for-Elijah-_p_866.html

    As Sarah’s family prepares for Passover, Sarah makes sure to save a chair at the table for the prophet Elijah who is said to visit every seder. But when the electricity goes out in the buildings across the street and the neighbors start arriving at Sarah’s apartment, her parents invite each visitor to join the seder. Sarah adds another place setting for Elijah, and then another, but soon the table is full with people from her neighborhood and there are no more chairs to spare! How can Sarah honor the Passover tradition of saving a place for Elijah?

    ” . . . the arrival of the final guest, a young African-American newsie whose name is revealed to be Elijah, suggests that honoring the spirit of a tradition is just as valuable as following it to the letter.” — Publisher’s Weekly

  4. This doesn’t counter anything you said here Chris, but does add a little flavor: Remember that Trump’s biggest supporters during the primary were “non-church-attending evangelicals”. Think about the meaning of that for a minute. You point out that their religion has become an identity. It’s almost entirely a self-declared identity without much resembling a religion. Their church is Twitter. Their belief is resentment (more specifically ressentiment).

  5. “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.”

    A Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale and these kooks are using it as a game plan. Hopefully, it won’t come to fruition unlike Idiocracy which appears to be prophetic.

  6. Fantastic article.

    By the way, my deeply right-wing brother ignored religion until he looked around and saw that being religious was part of the right wing ideology. Now he’s a fervent believer. He also LOVES to let me k ow how much he loves God.

    By the way, you need to include conservative Catholicism with the evangelicals. Same animal, just different stripes

    1. Good point about your brother!

      It really is all about identity and wanting to belong. As much as the GOP hates “identity politics” they have become the masters of it.

      To be a good right winger you have to (ranked based on my perception)
      – want to own and/or trigger the libs
      – be against immigrants
      – love guns (that one at least is clear)
      – love god (whatever that means)
      – be against abortion

      I know some (initially) reasonable people that had issues with abortion (which I personally can understand since I really struggle with this one too to define the right ethical balance). But then in order “to belong” and to have a “home”, they over time adopt all the other points and now they will regurgitate any of the Trumpian talking points no matter what they believed themselves 5 years ago.

      Best example: Being conservative now means being “pro russia” … because once Tucker Carlson and Trump are pro russia and you still want to belong to that group, that is now required …

      At of course it happens on the liberal side as well. I’m sure lots of people don’t know what they think about climate change, but because it is now part of “being liberal” they adopt it. The only good thing, while the herd mentality is the same, at least science and reason are more aligned with the democrats.

    2. You’re absolutely correct about right-wing Catholics (I see “RW Catholic” a fair amount if I search about escaping evangelicalism).

      Chris mentions this in his old blog in the article about evangelicals shifting stance on abortion and the formation of the “Moral” Majority. I’m mobile or I would include the link.

  7. Excellent article Chris!

    I grew up in Europe. I grew up with Christianity, but focused only on the principles of Jesus’ teachings (didn’t attend any church) which as you put it focused more on compassion, social justice, humility and empathy. The thing that repulsed my parents from the Church was to believe that all you have to do is believe that Jesus took away your sins and you are “good to go to heaven”, no matter who you are as a person and how you lived your life. Instead they asked us to try to live our lives with the desire to be the best person you can be.

    When I came to Houston, I quickly realized the hostility towards religion from people in their 20ies like me at the time. But after just a few months of being here, I realized that I absolutely understood why and that I would probably feel the same way if I had grown up here. After all, the people that post bible verses on Facebook here, in their next post glorify a guy like Trump, love “owning the libs”, and post pictures with their guns saying “we can’t wait for you to come take our guns”, etc … it is the most hypocritical display of Christianity I have ever seen and I cannot understand how these people can reconcile their own behavior with anything that Jesus taught or even something as basic as the Ten Commandments …

    Long story short, I 100 % agree with you that the natural (and very reasonable/understandable) reaction to the White Evangelical movement is that young people will abandon religion all together. After all, there are no prominent examples of “good religion” anywhere prominently to be seen … And many young people I know I would consider better “Christians” based on how they live their lives with compassion and ambitions to make the world better, compared to those that label themselves a Christian but act not at all like it.

    And while I in no way am a fan of Marianne Williamson, if I was stuck with the only choices being her or somebody like Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr, you know I would choose her any time.

    1. EJ

      There are some excellent examples of “good religion” right now in the US. The most prominent religious leader I can think is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, an unquestioned hero for the modern age. Jewish groups like Bending The Arc and Never Again Is Now have done great work on the streets.

      Given the enormous amounts of hate poured upon them, the continued dignity and resistance of the American Islamic community can also be described as heroic.

      In terms of Christians, there are many churches which have sheltered the undocumented, which have blockaded ICE and police facilities, and which have helped people cross the border safely. While congregations of every denomination have done good work, we should probably recognise the Quakers in particular. They have a long tradition of superb morality and modern Quakers have not let this tradition lapse.

      All in all, in the darkness of our current age, some people’s faith is an inspiring light even for those of us without any.

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