Good Religion/Bad Religion December 6, 2015
It’s 39 years ago that I finally decided I wanted to a Unitarian minister. It was something I had been toying with for several years, but I had always managed to find an excuse not to do it. But I spent 1976 doing what seems almost an obligatory rite of passage for young Australians, I travelled the world. I did it solo, first to New Zealand, then the Pacific islands, then all over North America and Mexico, and finally to Europe. I had lots of time to think – about life in general and my own in particular, and I knew that as much as I had loved my previous four years as a jackaroo in the |Outback, I was probably not going to spend the rest of my life doing unspeakable things to sheep, particularly if they were other people’s sheep. Especially during my travels around North America, whenever a Sunday came around I would look for a church, UU if possible but if not, whatever looked the friendliest. I had two motives. The first was I was genuinely in search for meaning. The second was, it was nearly always a guaranteed way to be invited back to someone’s house for lunch, maybe even be given a tour of the local area.
Anyway, it was in Montreal on a Monday morning in October 1976 that I finally surrendered and decided I would become a Unitarian minister. There was no loud voice from the sky, no road to Damascus experience, it really was a surrender to the inevitable. I once heard that becoming a minister was a bit like throwing up. You could try to ignore it, you could put it off for a while, but sooner or later, if you really had to do it, you would. That’s how it was for me. When I arrived in the UK I made contact with British Unitarians, and before I knew it I was a student at Oxford, studying for the ministry, and my fate was sealed.
I tell this tale to illustrate that although I was raised in a Unitarian congregation, and it has always been a central part of my self-identity, I have been a professional UU, as it were, for almost four decades. I have spent the bulk of my career in the religion business. It would be reasonable for you to conclude, therefore, that I am pro religion. And you would be right. I think religion is a good thing. I know it has been a good thing in my life; I see it being a good thing in other people’s lives; I believe that the world would be a better place if more people were living genuinely religious lives.
And yet, and yet. There are times when I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed by religion. There are times when I want to disown having anything to do with religion. When I see some of the abuses, some of the distortions, some of the violence, some of the hate, done in the name of religion, I recoil. The history of religion is not always pretty. And religion has been getting a particularly bad press lately.
There are those, the militant atheists in the vanguard, who look at the often ugly history of religion and who therefore denounce all religion as, at best, the fanciful nonsense of the simple-minded or, at worst, the deliberate instrument of human wickedness. But to denounce all religion because of its acknowledged and very regrettable abuses is, I suggest, as misguided as it is misinformed, for at least two reasons. First, religion might be a handy hook on which to hang things, but it usually is not the real cause of its perceived transgressions. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, was certainly between Protestants and Catholics, but I assure you they were not fighting each other because of their disagreements about the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Eucharist. The war in Bosnia in the early 1990s pitted Christians against Muslims (the Christians were the brutal aggressors, let us remind ourselves) but the war was essentially about political tribalism. The second reason is that the history of non-religion is not much better. Science continues to invent weapons of terrible destruction. Do we condemn all science? How many millions were slaughtered under Stalin’s militantly atheist regime of terror? Was Maoist China a beacon of civilised enlightenment? Do we condemn all government? This past week I saw the excellent movie, Spotlight, which tells the story of the Catholic church’s cover-up of the sexual abuses of its priests in Boston. A telling indictment, to be sure, but the world of corporate capitalism has frequently been guilty of its own egregious cover-ups. To condemn all religion because of its excesses makes no more sense than to condemn all government or all science or all business because of their excesses.
The demagogues of the land, so unattractively to the forefront during this pre-Presidential season, are falling over themselves and each other in their invective against Islam, demonising it as a religion of hate and violence, totally oblivious to the bitter irony that their invective, spewed in the full ugliness of their Christian self-righteousness, is as hateful and violent as the very thing they are condemning. You would think they might be just a tad shy of displaying their total ignorance of Islam so publicly. Islam is not in itself a hateful or violent religion, though some hateful and violent things are done by a few in its name. Christianity is not in itself a hateful or violent religion, though some hateful and violent things are done by a few in its name. Buddhism is not a hateful or violent religion, though some hateful and violent things are done by a few in its name. It is not religion itself which is hateful or violent (though I did recently re-read the book of Genesis. You want to know about violence done in God’s name? Start right there with Genesis), but hateful and violent things are done in religion’s name.
It seems to me that there are profound differences between good religion and bad religion, differences which are more universalisable – a new word I just invented – than the unreflective bigotry of a simplistic “My religion good, your religion bad”. It is too easy to make artificial distinctions based on nothing more than one’s own particular allegiances, to demonise anyone who marches to the beat of a drum different from our own.
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said “Stop, don’t do it.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
“Well, there’s so much to live for.”
“Like what?” he demanded.
“Are you religious?” I asked.
He said, “Yes”.
I said, “Me, too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Baptist,” he replied.
“That’s amazing,” I said, “So am I. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Extraordinary! Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said, “So am I. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
He said “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off the bridge.
Yes, the story of the Christian Church, particularly from the Reformation on, has been a story of division and schism, often over the most trivial of theological, liturgical, ecclesiological or interpersonal disagreements. Have you ever marvelled that all except one denomination are named either after their founder – Luther, Swedenborg, Calvin – or because of a form of church governance – Episcopalian, Congregational – or because of a style or feature of their – Baptist, Methodist, Quaker. The one denomination with a theological name is us – Unitarian Universalists – and we are the only ones not gathered around our common theology!
I want to suggest there are some identifiable characteristics which differentiate between good religion and bad religion. Those characteristics have nothing at all to do with which religious tradition they identify with. They are not about being Christian or not, being Muslim or not, being humanist or not. They transcend all such artificial demarcations.
I offer you five such characteristics. I’m happy to wait a few minutes if you want to get out a pen and paper so that you can write them down. This list is not necessarily exhaustive. Perhaps you will think of others that you would like to add to the list.
The first characteristic of good religion is that your religion is meant to be about how you live your life, not how you demand that others must live theirs. You may legitimately express why abortion is against your religious beliefs, for example, but in that case, don’t have one. You may legitimately express why homosexuality is against your religious beliefs, for another example, but in that case, don’t do it. It has become decriminalised. As far as I am aware, it has not been made compulsory. Most especially, men, do not tell women what they must do with their bodies, how they must contort and deny themselves so that they do not threaten your fear of losing your longstanding patriarchal power and privileges. Good religion is how you develop an intelligent and thoughtful set of beliefs and morals and practices that you then apply to your life, not that you try to impose on others.
The second characteristic of good religion, not unrelated to the first, is that is has a strong dose of humility. Let’s face it, folks, when it comes to religious belief, none of us really knows what we are talking about. Is there a God? Who knows! It is not a question for objective verification but personal conviction. What kind of God might it be, if there be one? Who knows! Not me. I know what attributes and qualities I would want a deity to have to warrant my devotion, but I’m not sure God can be designed by my own method of mix-and-match. What happens after we die, and why is there life on this obscure little planet anyway? Good questions. I wish I knew. Actually, I’m kinda glad not to know. I want to dwell in a world infused with mystery and wonder, not just of hard fact. So, given we know so little, would not a little humility in our proclamations be as wise as welcome?
The third characteristic is that good religion should lead you to peace, not war; to forgiveness, not lingering resentment; to generosity of heart and spirit, not to meanness, cruelty or spite. If ever you find yourself using your religion to justify an act of violence against another, your religion is bad religion. Spurn the pulpit peddlers of enmity, whose posturing piety would lead a crusade against difference; whose stocks-in-trade are fear, greed and mistrust, who base their own power on the denial of power to others.
The fourth characteristic? Good religion is a life of action, not passivity. Good religion finds its fruit in the street as much as in the sanctuary, the marketplace as much as in the mosque, the humdrum as much as in the hermitage. Good religion is how you live, not what you profess. It is whom you embrace as your neighbour in the largeness of your heart and the generosity of your actions and the consideration of your words. Good religion is about living this life for its own sake, not the anticipation of a possible next life. Perhaps there is a life after this. Perhaps there isn’t. Whatever you might believe about that, use it to be actively kind in this life.
And the fifth thing about good religion? Do please have a sense of humour about it. Let’s face it, as smart as we think we are, as sophisticated and informed and evolved, we are also, every single one of us, just a little bit ridiculous as well. Take life seriously, by all means, but laugh at yourself as well. As Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Man, we are the glory, jest and riddle of the world. Enjoy the joke. Good religion is not po-faced, dour, severe. Good religion knows the joy of life, for all its sufferings and pain. Good religion takes time to admire the sunset, to linger with a loved one in a moment of tenderness, to rejoice in the miracle of being alive. Here. Now. With others.
So, they are my five defining characteristics of good religion.
It is about how you live, not how you demand others must live.
It is humble, it recognises its human limitations of knowledge, insight and experience.
It leads to a life of peace, not violence; love, not hate; inclusiveness, not division.
It leads to a life in which the sacred and the secular are intimately interfused.
It can laugh at itself, it rejoices in the gift of life.
If a religious person has those five characteristics, I care not one fig what name they go by, what festivals they observe, what scriptures they read or in what building they worship. I care not one fig about the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the language the speak or the country they call home. I want to call them my brother and my sister, because I want to be part of that universal family of faith.