A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.


9 thoughts on “A Bad Day for Religion?”

  1. A bit off topic, but I’m struggling with this: I volunteer in a prison chaplaincy alongside two Immams. I like them very much, trust and respect them. My line manager, who is a Pentecostal minister, asserts that they can’t be ‘saved’ because, although they revere Jesus as a prophet, they don’t accept his divinity. I believe that the loving God loves them and I know tht they strive to lead good lives. I can’t believe that he rejects them. It’s the ‘us and them’ mentality that leads to wars. Surely those of us who believe in God and try to align ourselves with his purposes should be able to work side by side.

    • I think the Catholic view is more straightforward. If I try to outline it, I’d say something like this. We cannot know the mind of God, so we cannot assert that non-Christians cannot be judged worthy of sharing in the bliss of heaven. That would be to presume we are in a position to judge when clearly we aren’t. What we can and do assert is that the Church is necessary to salvation, i.e. the Church must exist as the means by which all may find salvation. No one would have access to salvation if the Church were not in the world because knowledge of Christ would not exist. So, the Church is necessary. But salvation is not limited to the boundaries of formal membership of the Church, because we cannot limit God. We cannot know whether God will demand explicit faith in Christ as both God and man of those who, like your Muslim friends, regard him as a purely human prophet or holy man. It depends on the knowledge they have and the decisions they make in the light of that knowledge. We could go into the technicalities of vincible and invincible ignorance here but I think the basic principle is clear: God judges, not us. But I think we should also remember that we will be examined about our own faith and how we lived it and whether we shared it with others.

  2. Todays challenge….and tomorrows…and the next days…and the next.
    Thank you for making sure that the manner in which we are living our faith is in our thinking as we begin again today to try by His Grace to carry our Lord into all the world and tumult of the peoples.
    Bless you

  3. Sadly, a bad day following many others. Religion (the perception of) seems to have gone beyond unfashionable/quaint/anachronistic and edges towards unacceptably “dangerous” in the eyes of many. Almost like belonging to a banned political party. I pray that all religions might be accepted as part of the human need for a spiritual life. All we can do apart from living out the faith we possess and hopefully showing others it is not to be feared but might actually be something they could be drawn to.

    • True. I find very worrying the way in which ‘unacceptable’ opinions are being edited out of our public discourse. People are being made to feel that they cannot express what they think because someone has already judged and condemned them. The Manchester Students’ Union’s covering-up of Kipling’s ‘If’ is simply the latest instance of the unhistorical thinking and intolerant views of some student bodies. It made the news this morning but one wonders what else is unacceptable now, where and by whom.

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