Christianity: Use only as directed

In Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man, people suffer and die because of diluted penicillin purchased on the black market in postwar Vienna. American Christianity is suffering a similar fate, though our diluted faith is practiced in the open for all to see.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat raised the issue by pointing to the conundrum of Bible no-no’s flourishing in the Bible Belt. Social scientists affirm the positive connection between religion and several measures of personal and community wellbeing. “Yet at the same time,” said Douthat, “some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.”

So what’s the deal? “The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation,” according to Douthat, “not from affiliation or nominal belief.” That stinks for us because the truth is that while Americans are very religious, we are nowhere near as religious as we let on.

While nearly half of us say we attend church weekly, for instance, time-diary research by Philip Brenner of the University of Massachusetts show only about 20 percent of us actually do. Time-diary stats cited by Mark Chaves in American Religion: Contemporary Trends confirm the point. “[T]hose who exaggerate are regular church attendees,” according to Chaves, “just not as regular as they say they are.”

A poll by Barna and the American Bible Society paints a similar picture when it comes to scripture reading. More than half of us say the Bible should have more influence in society. More than three quarters of us worry about moral decline. And a third say that a lack of Bible reading as the main culprit. But most of us only read the Bible a few times a year if at all. Only 26 percent claim to read the Bible four or more times a week. And as with church attendance, the skeptical among us (e.g., me) wonder if time-diary studies would reveal an even lower number than reported.

This lag in attendance and Bible-reading is unsurprising. Despite the overwhelming number of Americans who profess to be Christian, only 12 percent of adults claim faith as their top priority. Family, health, leisure, success, career, and wealth all rank higher, according to Barna research. Furthermore, though more than three quarters of Christians claim spirituality is very important, fewer than one in five seriously invest in spiritual formation.

Then there is the question of belief itself. If the content of belief matters — and I can’t help but think it does — then we have to discount even further for the baffling, novel, and absurd things we actually profess. Responding to the claim that American adherence is down, Rodney Stark cites the large number of people who believe in angels as rebuttal. But have you paid any attention to the nonsense people actually believe about angels? Having written a book about the traditional view, I can say with some authority that Augustine and Doreen Virtue are from different planets. And then what about prosperity gospel silliness or end-times extremism? We may believe — sure, yes, stipulated — but we believe a lot of goofy stuff.

So back to Douthat’s argument. Religious attitudes about sex before marriage, abortion, etc., may still govern our actions, but our lax adherence twists the results. Take divorce. While marital sunderings are low among the ardent, “‘nominal’ conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month,” said Douthat, “have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious.”

Douthat highlighted other examples as well, but the upshot is the same: Religion may be helpful, but half-assed religion is not. And that is manifestly what seems to prevail in some quarters. It’s like the penicillin in The Third Man. Dosage matters, and if not used as directed, Christianity might just well cause more problems than it solves.

In other words, we have to really live the faith or it will rot in our hearts.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Dr_Spence

    Better just to move on. Religious beliefs are not rational. I’d rather live in a society that looked to reason not revelation.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m not sure that’s panned out too well. Explicitly nonreligious societies (e.g. communist Russia or China) haven’t been to gentle on the citizenry.

      • http://www.yorkshireleafletdistribution.co.uk/ james howard jones

        I notice you avoid mentioning Sweden, conveniently, or Finland.

        • Joel J. Miller

          It wasn’t convenient. It was forgetfulness. Clearly great places to live. Clearly not terribly religious. But that wasn’t Douthat’s or my argument. The point above is that Christianity when only partially practiced may be more troublesome than beneficial.

      • S Cruise

        Russia and China are not non-religious societies and never have been. Maybe you are confusing government – or the official stance of government – with belief & rationalism.

        Religion always causes more problems than it solves – even when used as directed.

        • Joel J. Miller

          How do you figure it always causes more problems? Have you spent any time in David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions? Rebuts that point pretty thoroughly.

          • S Cruise

            When used as directed, religion keeps people ignorant & holding unwarranted bias – especially towards people and contemporary issues that differ from religious ideals(divorce, birth-control, sex, homosexuality, education, health-care, non-belief, apostasy… religion always causes problems in these areas.)

            It would be nice to know what problems, when used as directed, that religion solves?

            • Joel J. Miller

              Well, start by reading Hart’s book. Then try Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason. That’ll give you a hint or two.

              • S Cruise

                So Hart’s book addresses why people can’t get divorced in Malta; why variants of Christianity deny access to medical care, birth-control & a decent education. You seriously think those issues, whose main obstacle is religion, are delusions? You’re having a laugh mate.

                • Joel J. Miller

                  Buddy, just read the books. You may think they’re nonsense, but what the heck? You lose two weeks of your life but gain more fodder to blast Christians. Should be fun.

                  • S Cruise

                    This is not about having fodder to throw at Christians. It’s about the comments you’ve made in your article & some of your replies to various comments.

                    How can I take anything you say seriously when you make claims that Russia & China are explicitly non-religious societies. It’s complete nonsense.

                    And then you point me to a book because you think the statement: “Religion always causes more problems than it solves – even when used as directed.” is delusional?

                    Please, show me how wrong I am. List the problems religion solves vs the problems it causes.

    • ruis2002

      I prefer to live in a society that looks to common courtesy, civility and tolerance, but I’m sure all the INTJs flouting their doctorates would really struggle in a society like that.

      • Joel J. Miller

        What part of the Sermon on the Mount sounds discourteous, uncivil, or intolerant? Christians can be all of those things, but so can atheists. There’s nothing inherently Christian about being a jerk.

  • Kevin Perry

    “In other words, we have to really live the faith or it will rot in our hearts.”

    Bingo, Joel! Great article; God bless Metropolitan Savas for sharing it for his friends to see!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Yes, exactly.

  • http://www.yorkshireleafletdistribution.co.uk/ james howard jones

    I am 72 years old and have never suffered “religion”. How strange, then, that I am happy, ethical, moral. Can that really be possible without religion? You bet it can. There are no gods or devils, no angels or demons, no ghosts or ghoulies. Grow up and get over it. Religions have proved more of a hindrance to humanity’s progress than a help. My collective noun for “Men of God”, of whatever faith, is “An Unnecessary” – they need you, you don’t need them at all, ever.

    • Joel J. Miller

      See the comment about D.B. Hart above.

    • S Cruise

      Totally agree. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been told, or seen propaganda by the religious claiming or inferring you can’t be happy, ethical or moral without religion or god belief. It’s a nonsense! A tool devised by the religious to try to dehumanise any opposition – and to keep the gullible from straying. Just another problem caused by religion.

      • Joel J. Miller

        Traditionally Christians never suggested any such thing anyway. Read, for instance, Basil the Great on Greek literature. Goodness is not exclusive to Christians and the majority of Christians have never thought so.

        • S Cruise

          I don’t entirely agree with you mate. The theology of Paul, for instance, portrays those who differ as inventors of evil, haters of god, foolish, faithless subhuman beings who deserve no right to live. And then you have the blessed sheep on the right-hand of god while the goats(the faithless, etc) are on the left – cursed into eternal fire. No mate. The traditional Christian view divides mankind into two distinct groups: god fearing followers of Jesus(good) vs anyone who differs(evil).

          I’ve no doubt some “traditional” Christians recognised goodness is not exclusive to Christianity; and I’ve no doubt most nominal or token “Christians” didn’t believe those views(probably because they don’t take religion seriously)

          • Joel J. Miller

            Read Paul closer. He quotes pagan poets in several places in the Scripture. He did not condemn people outside the Christian community; he did, of course, try to bring as many people into that community as possible.

            Bringing up the final judgement is important. Note adjective final, and also note the judge. The Christian’s job in the meantime by the terms of his own faith is to love everyone, even his enemies. And who did Jesus associate with? The sinners, not the religious.

            What baffles me is your concern about divisiveness. Didn’t you start out “Religion always causes more problems than it solves”? That sounds divisive to me. Ditto this: “religion keeps people ignorant & holding unwarranted bias.”

            I would challenge you on the notion that division is negative anyway. What if, as Orthodox Christians believe, the division at the end is driven by human free will? God turns away no one. If a person chooses to be apart from God, what’s it to you?

            • S Cruise

              It’s irrelevant that he quotes pagan poets in scripture. What Paul did was place Christians on a pedestal – all that’s good. Everyone else is viewed as evil and inhuman. And you are correct, he did try to bring in as many people to the community as possible – and his simple black & white view of good(Christian) & evil(not Christian) was used to keep them there. The NT is brimming with that sort of mentality.

              It’s no wonder Christians, throughout the ages, have been extremely intolerant and divisive when the NT makes what’s not Christian the enemy. Your claim that “Traditionally Christians never suggested any such thing anyway” doesn’t wash; the NT and history full of examples showing otherwise.

              “What baffles me is your concern about divisiveness. Didn’t you start out “Religion always causes more problems than it solves”?”

              Because that’s a fact. It doesn’t mean all religious people are bad and it doesn’t mean all religious people practice or follow religion in the same way or to the same extreme. Overall, however, religion always causes more problems than it solves. It up to the religious to recognise that – not excuse it – and change for the better.

              “religion keeps people ignorant & holding unwarranted bias.”

              And it does. As I’ve pointed out with the example above. It creates an us and them mentality with its primitive notion of good vs evil. When religion is taught that way, and it is in many places around the world, it causes problems: it encourages ignorance and unwarranted bias.

              “What if, as Orthodox Christians believe, the division at the end is driven by human free will? God turns away no one.”

              And this is another problem with Christianity – and it’s one of the reasons I disagree with your article. Christianity isn’t a uniform religion; it vastly differs in the way it is practised, and Christians vastly differ in their beliefs – not just because most, in Europe at least, have been influenced by secular values & ethics – but because of the numerous ways they understand scripture.

              Your title “Christianity: use as directed” isn’t well thought. Christianity according to who? Would that be the Christianity according to the religious right; the Christianity according to the evangelicals in Uganda bent on doing the Lords work by destroying those “evil, ungodly, inhuman” homosexuals, or the Christianity according to the tamed CofE. I think you get the picture.

  • ruis2002

    “‘nominal’ conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month,” — Was this pattern of attendance true for them before they divorced? or after? It seems to me that many people stop attending the church they attended with their ex-spouse, if only to avoid conflict, gossip, uncomfortable questions from acquaintances unfamiliar with their situation, etc. Also, there are still a LOT of churches out there that provide little or no support for divorced singles. I haven’t read the book, but the review seems to imply that conservative protestants who attend church less often are more likely to divorce as a result. I assert that possibly it is the divorce itself which makes them less likely to attend church. Cart before horse.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Plenty of people are happily married and prefer mimosas to the eucharist. I don’t think your argument has much merit. Certainly some have been alienated from their church by a divorce. But there are also certainly churches nearby that are more welcoming. The question has more to do with seeing church as an add-on to your life. If the mod doesn’t fit any longer (mimosas are good after all), then forget about it.

      • Mark B

        The bigger — and real — problem is “Plenty of people are happily …” ignorant of the crucial differences between the “eucharist” and communion. They cannot, or will not, discern the difference between right and wrong, truth and error … or at least, if they do discern/know, they lack the willingness to do something about it. [Usually because they get vilified for doing so!]

        In other words, the real problem is blurring the lines/lack of discerning the lines between truth and falsehood. It is hard enough to live according to the truth — humanly speaking — but how much more difficult if we don’t know or care what the truth is, and what the false teachers are?

        • Joel J. Miller

          What would that difference be?

  • Marty McKeever

    Point very well made, and taken. Although I am saddened to see even Douthat misconstrued the divorce question.

    Here’s the problem In a nutshell, and it’s easy to fall for and far too common a trick: Since divorce rates are calculated as a static per population number, it does no good to compare the “rate” of divorce in group X to the rate in group Y without considering the /marriage/ rate of both groups as well. If no one in group Y ever marries, the divorce rate will be zero.

    Do protestants (nominal or otherwise) marry more often than secular couples? Absolutely we do — which explains why the divorce rate is so much higher in Mississippi than it is in Massachusetts, where they hardly bother to marry anymore at all.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Interesting. Thanks for clarifying that.

  • WTxInsomiac

    As a Christian, I read the article as a picture of what’s wrong with the church, (and the “churched”). It’s as simple as “deeds, not words”. A huge majority of Americans (70+ percent) are still self-described Christians, and about 90% believe in a god of their choice. The church excelled in the past at helping the less fortunate in their own membership, and in their own communities. If old Mrs. Smith needed her house painted or her sidewalk fixed, you gathered at her house and took care of business. More importantly, if anyone was down on their luck, the church folks chipped in to get them back on their feet. These actions start at Wednesday or Sunday services, and when members gather in each others homes for bible study or a barbeque. If church attendance is way down, what you have is a bunch of people talking the talk, but not walking in their faith. I can tell you what I see from volunteering at local non-profits that serve the poorest in my community. The poor still need the church, even though their basic needs are taken care of by government. There are more people than ever that need clothing, furniture, heaters & air conditioners, diapers, formula, and especially food. One church-affiliated non-profit agency will serve serve 50-80 families most days. The food pantry is stocked daily. People can come in & pick up a bag or groceries, (enough for a family of 4 for a week, including meat), a mattress & box springs, or coats in the winter. They can get work boots or suit for a job interview. And unless they ask for prayer, they may never realize where it all comes from. I would hope their spiritual needs are being met as well as their physical ones, but it’s not a prerequisite for receiving help. The volunteers are young college students, retired folks, and everything in between. They’re making a difference in my town of 100,000 residents, and that’s just one group. There are several. But there is always more to be done.

    So in addition to the 48 million Americans on SNAP, and the rest of the trillion dollars a year (national & states) that we spend on social welfare programs, there is a need for people of faith and their deeds. I know of one church that feeds 200+ homeless people a hot meal twice a week, under a bridge in a large Texas city. But it’s never enough. What we need is more of these self-described Christians to get off the couch and out of the pews and into the streets. They need to live their faith. I don’t give a damn what some non-believer thinks of me or my faith. That’s on them. What I do care about is my neighbors, and my neighborhood is the world. I can’t help that entitled Millineals are leaving the church. I can’t do much about some butt-achy Christians that don’t want to bake a cake for some butt-achy gay couple that won’t simply find someone else to bake it for them. If Christians are truly worried about the culture, they need to get active in their faith, and I’m not talking about supporting conservative politics from behind a computer screen. Half-assed religion, indeed.

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