Bad Religion (Not the Punk Rock Band)
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It seems bad religion is all over the place these days. Maybe it always has been. In fact, I know it has been for a long time. The problem is that today, in the third decade of the 21st century, there is really no agreed on criteria for deciding what makes religion bad.
Or, perhaps it is truer to say the agreed on criteria are dwindling and changing. Many people now consider anything mainstream bad, including mainstream religion, and much that used to be considered bad good.
In brief, my point is that today the tendency is to say of most religions “That’s different” rather than “That’s bad.”
So what used to be considered bad religion? Most Americans, fifty to a hundred years ago, would have considered any religion bad that focused on individual mastery-over, unless it was individual mastery over the self for the good of others.
Religion that focused much on gaining supernatural power over others was considered bad. Religion that followed leaders who claimed to possess supernatural powers over others was considered bad. Religion was supposed to be ethical, concerned with the common good, promoting the overall well being of others, even those outside the religion.
Any religion that was secretive about itself was considered bad. Any religion that engaged in dangerous behaviors (e.g., snake handling) was considered bad. Any religion that promoted hate was considered bad. Any religion that had corrupt leaders was considered bad. Any religion that harbored abusers and protected them was considered bad. Any religion that denied reality was considered bad. Any religion that…. I could go on and on.
Good religion founded hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, food pantries, “soup kitchens,” food give-aways, and charities of all kinds. Good religion promoted public policies that promoted the well-being of everyone but especially the disadvantaged. Good religion included religion of the disadvantaged. Good religion was ethical religion, religion that eschewed hate, religion that was open to dialogue with those outside itself, religion that sought to make the world a more humane place for all people.
Now, almost all religions were mixed with good and bad. But good people looked for religions that included those virtues of goodness along with worship of God, fellowship among its members, and the practices of its sacraments.
Alongside good religion, however, everyone knew there were religions that were bad because they were not concerned with ethics, were secretive, were corrupt, were abusive, were concerned mainly with power-over, with mastery, with self, or were engaged in dangerous, harmful behaviors.
These were called “cults” by almost everyone. Many of them had some good in them, but they were primarily bad. Many good people got caught up in them. Religion experts warned people about them primarily insofar as they lacked any sense of ethics or flouted ethical norms.
Today, in the third decade of the 21st century, religions without goodness—as described above—, bad religion, flourishes, just as does bad politics. And all too often, they are linked in some way.
Now I will say something very controversial and wait for the fur to fly. In my humble but informed opinion (I have a Ph.D in Religious Studies), a religion can be true but bad anyway. And a religion can be false but good anyway.
For example, as a committed Christian, I consider (opinion) the Bahai World Faith a good religion even though I disagree with its basic theology; I think it is mostly false. I once asked a class of mostly very conservative Christian students whether they would rather have a sibling or close friend become a Satanist of a Bahai. (We had studied both in the class.) Almost all of them said “Satanist.” I was blown away. I asked them why and some of them offered an explanation that a Satanist is more likely to become disillusioned with his or her religion and open to conversion than a Bahai. I think otherwise. The Bahai World Faith is one of the most ethical of all religions in the world. But, as a Christian, I still consider it mostly false in its metaphysical, doctrinal beliefs about, for example, prophets.
Still, I would rather a friend or sibling became a Bahai than belong to a truly bad religion, even if its doctrines are true. Of course, I would prefer that a friend or loved one (or anyone, for that matter), find a religious community that is both good and true. Are there any? I think so, but these days finding one takes some effort.