Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People

You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:

1. ‘Religious’ people are always right

because

2. They know God thinks exactly as they do

from which it follows that

3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice

which, because of 1 and 2, means

4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible

with the result that often

5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.

This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.

For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.

During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,

Christ lovely in limbs not his.

That’s the kind of religious person I like.

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27 thoughts on “Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People”

  1. Oh how true. I’ve been away from media for a little bit as a very dear friend died unexpectedly. She was brought up in the Wee Frees, departed from there in exasperation, couldn’t cope with the ‘high up the candle’ liturgies of Anglo-Catholism or Catholism of lots of her friends, and found it hard to find a home for the very reasons you have so effectively described. But a better Christian it would be hard to find. Her family have no religious belief and she told me she wanted a Christian funeral whenever that was to be. As it’s lockdown and she will be buried near her mother in Scotland and the numbers must be few, I can’t attend, but I shall remember her example of living the Christian life from a distance.

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  2. Given the large number of cognitive biases or heuristics noted by psychologists (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases) it is surprising that even simple ideas can be communicated, never mind the complex subtleties of religious ideas. To me this suggests that kindness, willingness to give the benefit of the doubt and recognising that people are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve got are absolutely essential to any kind of mutual comprehension and understanding.

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  3. Spot on. I am becoming really disillusioned by, for example, bits of Catholic Twitter that seem to think “Judge not” and “Make peace” don’t apply to them, and contributors to Education debates who don’t think the professional standards hold any sway on social media. Benedict might couch it as “taciturnitas;” my mum would have said “ If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”

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    • I think Catholic Twitter is becoming seriously unCatholic in places, and I’m sure you are right about the unprofessionalism of some who think social media allows them to say anything anyhow. Your Mum was right!

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  4. Thank you for your thoughts. As a Quaker, may I tenderly offer the much loved words of Isaac Pennington:
    Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness, and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.

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  5. You know Sr.Catherine this must have been the Lord leading me to your words today. How true; kindness is my leader, it doesn’t hurt to be kind to others in fact it is liberating.

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  6. Yes!
    In April 1990 I returned to the Church of my baptism after studying Religion/Belief Systems as psychological, social, and cultural phenomena at university.

    But, never did I think back then Catholicism might go the same way as British Evangelicalism in the 1980s. Yet today, I’m having a sense of deja vu as a growing number of British Catholics seem to be mimicking American ‘Catholicism’, as British Evangelicals did American ‘Evangelicalism’ back then. (Inverted commas, used in the same sense.)

    In the 1980s with the growing ease and speed of overseas trade and communications, American ‘Evangelicalism’, had come to our shores through their ‘merch’ (books, videos, music, and evangelism tours) which was predominantly ‘Calvinist’, and many of these British ‘ecclesial communities’, which had absorbed its teachings and lifestyle (not least constant the splitting of congregations over matters of ‘doctrinal purity’ and so the rise of ‘house churches’), became like little ‘Southern State’ ghettos (if we stereotype them as white, middle class, exclusive, sensationalist, loud, brash, opinionated, etc., and generally ‘extroverted’).

    However, sadly, there now seems to be a form of highly aggressive, analytical, cerebral, ‘proof-text’ mindset infiltrating the English Catholic Church, driven by America, through the internet (and interestingly, many of these ‘celebrity’ Catholics leading this on these internet channels are ex-Calvinists).

    British Evangelicalism, changed from being about spreading the Gospel (people like John Stott, JI Packer, David Watson, being examples of authentic British Evangelicalism) to an aggressive form of proof-texting Apologetics, and now, in Catholicism, we seem to have a similar ‘proof-text’ mentality growing in Catholicism, with a tacit emphasis on discerning who’s a member of the ‘elect’, just as in Calvinism. That is, identifying who’s in, and who’s out, seems now to be a major theme, just as in the constant splitting of (‘Calvinist’) congregations in American Evangelicalism.

    In other words, it’s not the result of different doctrines, but of a ‘winnowing’ (schismatic/perfectionist) mindset all throughout American Christianity (like BRIGHTON through a stick of rock, based in the Puritanism (Calvinism) of its founding fathers) which seems to be setting the tone/agenda for Anglo-American Christianity, Protestant, and now Catholic.

    That is, it seems to me, for the past 40 years, Christianity in Britain seems to have been following America more than Christ.

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  7. Thank you for your wise words….. again!
    It was someone living out the Gospel who brought me back to Catholicism. I find it hard sometimes to deal with the elitism and subsequent judgemental attitudes found there – yet there they are in the Gospels, with Jesus giving the only loving response there can be!

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  8. I feel blessed. I feel so removed from all this, maybe because I have been a Catholic on the margins for a long time.
    Reflecting a bit on what you wrote, I’m reminded of something someone told me once: where love is, God is… So if someone cannot express love for all, or at least the wish to love all — which I find impossible –, the writer or speaker cannot be Catholic, Christian, and probably any other religion.
    But I am sorry you have to bear the brunt of unhappy people’s toxicity… You’re such a blessing yourself, for all xoxo

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    • Thank you, Claire. You are always very kind. Personally, I don’t often feel particularly upset by what I’ve described though I do sometimes have to make an effort to hold my tongue or restrain my pen because I want to say, ‘God is bigger than that!’ or, if the person speaking isn’t a Christian but making a pitch for something else (such as that Christianity is rubbish — we should worship science instead), I can feel a bit guilty because I haven’t the time or energy to marshall a proper argument. Everything looks different when life is no longer inexhaustible. One day, I trust it will all come clear. Hope so!

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  9. I read this post this morning and found myself in (at times uncomfortable) agreement. The question it left we with was, why? Are ‘religious’ people drawn to faith communities or created by them?

    If it’s the former then perhaps we can be glad, if frustrated, that our communities make space for difficult, quirky and downright odd people. But I’m actually more interested in the latter option – that our formation may contribute.

    There seems to be a need to couple commitment and certainty in an unhelpful way which implies growth in one leads inevitably to hardening of the other, blocking the path to listening and change. Linked to that is the difficulty that we often encounter as religious people with cognitive dissonance. We seem to be poorly equipped to deal with a world which confronts us with counter examples to our predefined view of things. The reaction then is entrenchment, hostility and demonisation.

    It feels like we need a different kind of formation. I don’t know much at all about Benedictine spirituality but it would seem to have much to offer as a potential antidote to this kind of religiousness?

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    • You won’t be surprised to learn that I think the Rule of St Benedict is a very good way of approaching the Gospel with its constant reminders of our own fallibility, the need to be merciful and its emphasis on the importance of the group as well as the individual. I think sometimes the drive to be unyielding towards others, the kind of certainty that I think you may be talking about, stems from personal ‘need’ rather than formation. Read the Gospels or the Catechism of the Catholic Church and it’s difficult to find anything that would justify the harshness some adopt towards others. However, my point was not just about Catholics or any other Christians but about a tendency. I have known atheists who were just as dismissive of others as the most conservative or most liberal Catholic.

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      • I’m hesitating to comment twice, I hope it’s permissible, but following this discussion it seems to me that there are so many parallels with people (like me) who are very involved with politics. I think most are drawn to activism (either in church or in politics) with a desire to make the world a better place, but it does lead to extremism – both right and left – and the polarisation of ideas, and of necessity, the requirement to keep to the agreed party line. I can’t count the times I’ve been told ‘you can’t say that, it’s not what the church teaches’ or ‘you can’t say that on the doorstep, it’s not in the manifesto’. Do you think it’s possible that both religion and politics have a tendency to attract a certain personality type – those who crave certainty and find nuance and disagreement profoundly uncomfortable?

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        • You are welcome to comment as often as you like! I like to encourage discussion and debate. Personally, I think both conventional religion and politics attract people who want to make the world a better place and are therefore emotionally as well as intellectually engaged with their ideals. I suspect it is the emotional identification with the ideal that causes most difficulties and leads to the kind of situations and behaviours you describe, but I’m no expert.

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    • I agree Caroline: yes! A different kind of formation, and I’d welcome your thoughts on the following:

      I’m an adult catechist, and one of the things a small group of us have just started pondering is that it seems catechesis (‘teaching doctrine and morals’) is often seen as (all there is to/substitues for) formation, like apologetics often seems to be mistaken as being ‘evangelisation’ (together with the five traits, above!). In a sense, quite ‘masculine’. But, it seems to us, it should be the foundational principles of growing in discipleship and how to sustain a trajectory in the direction of their ongoing maturity (theosis/deification).

      ‘It’ (Christ) must be presented to inspire and be able to bring flourishing to those with little academic background or interest, as much as the graduate in Theology. That is, discover one is loved by God through his mystical body (‘divine filiation’), and ongoing participation in his family as a result.

      In other words, we see many of the problems in parishes – and therefore its failure in engagement with the outside – seeming to stem from unaddressed spiritual and emotional immaturity. Sadly, in our experience, many priests seem the least mature in their parish, especially when they insist they have all the answers, like a teenager (because they learnt them in seminary)!

      We are also wondering how much of this might be influenced by the majority of secular priests being ‘formed’ in a seminary – a predominantly cerebral environment – and so tend to merely pass on their own model as the only one, as they know little else (‘deformation professionnelle’)? (i.e., try to make a parish function like a seminary, not a parish).

      I spend as much time as I can listening carefully to lapsed Catholics, and most of the reasons can probably be summed up as getting sick of the infantilisation and childish squabbling, and feeling like you’re back at primary school the moment you enter the premises.

      So, as a result, we have just started working on developing what we’re calling “Integrated Formation”, mainly owing to trying to address the fall-off after reception, but also the ‘isolationist’ nature of catechesis (you sit in a classroom and listen/discuss), which tends to appeal only to a certain character (those most likely to enjoy discussing ideas and arguing!). We also think the argument we often hear – ‘They only became Catholics to get their children into the school’ – is actually an indictment, and rationalisation, of the failure of the ‘catechesis’ (‘school’/’seminary’) model.

      Our embryonic integrated approach is thinking about balancing body, mind, and soul as the extremes we see in the church at the moment seem to emphasise one at the expense of the others (‘Trads’: ‘mind/gnostic’, ‘Charismatics’: ‘spirit/immanence’, and ‘Social Justice’: ‘body/pelagian’). But we’re also looking at the idea formation of neophytes should be more like an ‘apprenticeship’ model than a ‘school’ one: a systematic/immersive, rather than analytical/intellectual experience, where anything about living as a Catholic is not left to chance (i.e., their sponsor has a key role to play, not a token gesture).

      So, we’re currently thinking through ways they might be helped to integrate their faith with the mundane, and to discern where their gifts and strengths could be used during their initial formation, rather than ‘abandoned’ after Easter Day and leaving it up to ‘luck’.

      That is, by the end of the process of coming into full communion, it seems to us they should be involved in a matrix of supportive relationships/meaningful activities, not least a strong emphasis on regular mentoring with a mature Christian.

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      • I’m going to answer this tentatively because I’m not a Catholic and I have limited experience of helping with the formation of others. So my response is really how do I want to be formed, or would want to be formed if I was starting over. On that I have more confidence.

        My main priority is to learn how to pray. I’ve heard a lot about prayer in church but have had relatively little concrete, practical help in developing a prayer life. I’ve had to work that out for myself.

        Secondly I want to learn a how to engage with Scripture in a way which emphasises its reading of me, rather than the other way round and helps me avoid the tendency to read in my preconceptions.

        I also want the context to be one of trusting in the grace of God in my life rather than unnecessary, anxious midwifery on the part of the church. Coupled with that is a serious approach to baptismal life which allows steps of commitment to happen in their own time, rather than to some preset timetable.

        Ideally I’d like this process to take place in a community walking in the same direction, so more apprenticeship than schooling.

        I do appreciate the need for doctrine, process and ethical formation, but I’d rather they flowed out rather than led.

        As I said this is a personal viewpoint, informed by learning the faith rather than teaching it.

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        • Thank you so much! That is very balanced and helpful, especially from outside the Catholic Church.
          All your ‘intuitions’ resonate: how we think it should be. Not least the idea of ‘flowing out’ rather than ‘led’.

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        • Brilliantly said. Thank you. Everyone I know feels their prayer is inadequate, clergy included…. Great place to start. An understanding of our belovedness would be important too, but I too ama non Catholic

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