What’s so bad about (the word) religion?

What’s so bad about (the word) religion? January 16, 2012

I’ve only been blogging for a few short months, and I’ve already reached a new low—responding directly to a YouTube video. What has the world come to? The video I’m referring to is the “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus” clip that, as of Sunday evening, had already picked up 11.7 million viewers in a short amount of time. Since I’m a sociologist of religion, at times, I have something invested in the continued use of the term “religion.” It certainly sounds more academically acceptable than sociology of Jesus-lovers, not to mention that the term is not faith-specific.

While others have done an ample job of criticizing it where called for, here are a few tamer sociological observations about the content and claims in the video. You don’t tune in here for theological debate (although they are fun) so I won’t go there. After I watched it once, I thought the anti-Catholicism in the production was barely veiled. But since I’m all for debate, and I think far too little is had, I appreciated this fellow’s bringing it. But after watching it a second time, I suspected he has little clue about Catholicism, and isn’t actually subtly attempting to criticize it. It sounds like he’s wrestling with his former life as someone who looked good on the outside, but was inwardly wasting away. And so he turned his pen and camera—and he’s good at it—against that experience and the people in his former life that didn’t seem to call his bluff.

And in the end, I could be totally wrong. But my wife claims that I’m pretty good at psychological reads on people, so that must count for something. Given her stamp of approval, here are five observations:

1. It’s clear that such videos—in an online age that picks up very quickly on particular content—are making their way to diverse sorts of Christians, and in so doing highlighting how little genuine familiarity there is between Christian traditions. There is a huge difference between tolerance of Christian distinctions—we’re getting really, really good at that—and understanding of Christian distinctions. When we swam the Tiber, it created very little wake in our wider social circle, shockingly little compared to if it had been 1977, but that didn’t mean that people had a clue about what it actually meant. This video reflects, I suspect, honest ignorance—the best kind—on the creator’s part about other Christian traditions which wouldn’t receive some of its messages so kindly. But honest ignorance, while honest, is still ignorance. But why should he care? The video as it is has generated nearly 12 million views. If he had been nicer and more sensitive to religious distinctions, it would have probably languished. I suspect the take-home message here is that popular YouTube videos are those that are blunt, overreach, and run roughshod over significant distinctions.

2. It’s rhetorically too simple to suggest that churches don’t feed the poor. That’s just bad data. But then, YouTube videos aren’t peer-reviewed before publication, are they. I suspect whether any particular congregation does varies according to their location (rural vs. urban vs. suburban), size, and average SES. If no one ever calls about a food pantry, you’re less likely to set one up.

3. Why is “organized religion” typically framed as a bad idea? There can be no faith of one. By definition, we’re supposed to meet together for worship, to organize. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the apostles and early church figures organized groups, congregations, collectives of worshippers. Upon further review, I think he’s criticizing the term “religion,” for whatever reason. It sounds old, and apparently people under 30 dislike old things. Wait till you’re another 10 years older, buddy, and you too will hang onto the old…just because.

4. Actually, the subtle critique of our parent’s generation of faith is quite common. The hippest and most popular evangelical congregations are, of course, those whose ministers are well under 50, and often under 40, and whose average congregant age is in the late 20s and early 30s. (Who counts members anymore? Heck, what does membership even mean?) Since Protestantism in general is subject to more forms of segregation than Catholicism, due to (1) the far wider proliferation of Protestant congregations, and to (2) the quite different (and slower) manner in which new Catholic congregations are started, this can serve as a breeding ground for inter-generational religious resentment. Nothing new there, I suspect. Is your church’s music old-fashioned? Then find another one. In our increasingly post-denomination era, that is how it is.

5. About the dude’s outrageous claim that people “tell single moms that God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce.” That, if true on a wide scale, would be horrifying. Anecdotes shouldn’t count here as data, but they do in reality because people are story-followers. While Catholic doctrine doesn’t permit Christian remarriage, that’s not at all saying “God doesn’t love divorcees.” Here again, upon further review, I suspect the guy is not talking about Catholics, but about some experiences among his evangelical past wherein the status of being divorced is stigmatized (not the status of being remarried). I’ll admit I’m ambivalent about it. This raises the sensitive subject of congregations as social control and social support mechanisms. On the one hand, we moderns love the idea of social support—a little help from our friends. Support is nice, it’s positive, it’s helpful. It’s support, after all. And churches are good at it. But social control is an understated, disliked, please-don’t-make-me-have-to-do-it, yet extremely important function of congregations. Think about it: we want people to do lots of mundane yet important things: to worship together, to feed the hungry, to love your spouse (if you have one), to not beat your kids, to not have sex with the babysitter, to not leave your wife for said babysitter, to not do something stupid at work and get yourself fired, to not drive like a maniac, to not smoke, etc., etc. All congregations have ideas about the relative importance of these things, sometimes derived directly from doctrines (like in Catholicism, where stuff is written down and where some sins are worse than others), and sometimes more indirectly derived and/or unevenly emphasized. But in all of it we agree that we do want to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24). Think about that word: spur. And think of a spur. No, not that kind of spur. That kind. Spurring, however, is two-way: we support good acts and seek to curb bad ones. And yes, that implies some degree of judgment–or shall we say, evaluation–of what “bad” looks like, based on some clear (or unclear) set of standards that is (or isn’t) written down, backed up (or not) by some authority structure. Whew.

The bottom line is that social control is a reality about  congregational life, and it’s a good one. If it weren’t for that, heaven knows what I would have done by now. Here again, I don’t think the dude in the video is actually, honestly suggesting all support and no control. Over all of these things put on love—I think that’s what he’s saying, and that’s a biblical idea (Col 3:14).

So, after initially being annoyed, I think it’s worth thanking the kid—and anyone younger than me merits that title—for a moving video that forced me to think harder about my own faith claims than I do on a typical day.


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  • Lis McGovern

    …and here I thought he was referring to the Presbyterian church. 😉

    Personally, I don’t take his words literally as much as the intent to focus a distinction between the haves and the have nots (whether wealth, class, status, high moral ground, etc.) in light of the true mission/actions of Jesus. As well, I find his artistic articulations (or “rap”) to be a judgment against American Christianity, particularly the evangelical and republican marriage, one that he seems to find as horribly ignorant to the true call of Jesus, in light of it’s strong judgement upon the lazy, oh, I mean “poor.”

    For me, as a master of divinity, I find his rap refreshing. I think it is, unfortunately, only words. But these words of this sort-of street prophet are essential to Christian life. As long as we believe in Jesus we cannot deny his harsh words to those who looked the part of godliness but their hearts were far from service! Whatever the case, those of us who heard will be accountable to head the warning: Live a true life of service… not just an organized one that is easily seen and rewarded by so many while the hurting live in your self-righteous shadows. …And by “you”, I mean “me.”

  • You know, I don’t think most Protestants even pick up on the thought that this is against the Catholic Church…but I’ve got another friend who is also Catholic and she immediately understood it in the same light as you.

    Here’s an interesting link, which contains a letter exchange between this young man and Kevin DeYoung. I thought it was good – he comes across as humble and also….older, now:


  • J. Raymond Kelley

    While this is not intended to refute or criticize negatively the comment provided in response to the anecdotal assertion that God does not love people who have divorced, it is easy to understand why some people arrive at that conclusion given the way that many evangelical churches reject from ministry individuals who have been divorced or who have married someone who has been divorced, regardless of how long ago the event occurred in the person’s life. While individuals are often welcomed with open arms into the ministry having served sentences for heinous criminal acts on the basis of the change in their lives that meeting the risen Messiah can accomplish, it seems far more difficult – it only seems like it’s impossible – for those having a divorce touching their lives who have experienced this rejection (especially when one has become convicted in one’s soul of such a calling). Anecdotal stories may not be sufficient to justify such a claim, but hear enough of them from credible sources and one can understand how the sentiment becomes the bad generalization (as any lawyer knows, one case with bad facts can create a precedent establishing bad law).