Bad Religion’s Alternative: No Religion or Good Religion?

As the book says, “a growing number of Americans are starving for an alternative to negative, closed-minded, judgmental, partisan, antiwomen, antiscience religion. Instead, they are searching for a positive, grace-filled, open-minded, gender-equal faith option.” Where are they finding this? Can they find this?

Martin Thielen, in his new book (quoted above), called The Answer to Bad Religion is not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers, sketches his approach to ministering to the Nones, and his approach is the mainline, liberal or progressive* approach to the Christian faith. James Emery White, in the Rise of the Nones, ministers to the same demographic with a traditional evangelical gospel reshaped toward a postmodern world.

What does Thielen see? This book begins with a telling story of Thielen’s own experience in a denominational taken over by fundamentalists, and he’s not afraid to say he saw a “heresy of spirit. Their arrogant, judgmental, mean-spirited, and intolerant positions were the exact opposite of the spirit of Jesus Christ” (xiv). His problem was not with the people in the pews but the national leaders. He is now United Methodist, a church of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” (xv). He has learned that the answer to bad religion is not the Nones but good religion.

So what is Bad Religion? What terms for you describe “bad” religion?

1. It engages in self-righteous judgment of others. A classic text here is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Why? judging is selective, destructive, often hypocritical, and violates the example of Jesus.

2. It expresses a chronic spirit of negativity. Some are known for what they are against. [By the way, in my years as a professor I’ve met plenty of profs who when I ask about a new book they’ve read they tell me what was wrong; I’ve met others, fewer in my experience, who tell me what they learned from that book.]

3. It breeds arrogance, intolerance, and absolutism. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. We do not know everything and God has not made known to us everything. Admitting that and living with that is central. He’s urging epistemic humility about a number of topics, but the core of his idea is humility not the specific topics.

4. It participates in partisan politics and excessive nationalism. Left or Right, we hear it all the time — How can one be a Christian and Democrat/Republican? Besides partisan politics from the pulpit is illegal, divisive in a church, diversionary from the central task, damaging to integrity and it politicizes God. We should, he says, respect the government, obey with limits the government, pray for leaders, pay taxes, critique policies and laws, and influence public policy.

5. It fosters nominal commitment to Christ and the church. He talks about church attendance, has an amazing letter from a congregant, and observes that the Rotary has higher expectations than most Christians have for church attendance. There’s more to discipleship than church attendance, of course. There are too many “inactive” Christians. Bad religion, or at least some bad theology, led to Darwin’s becoming an atheist; we see bad religion in corrupted priests, in Muslims who blow themselves up to establish power, in preachers who pray against presidents…

* The terms “liberal” and “progressive” have yet to be defined with rigor and they often overlap. My own thinking on the former is more about modernity/postmodernity and adjusting the historic faith to them, with an emphasis on the individualistic experience, while the latter is more emphatic on the social progressive/justice vision, though both are interested in both.

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