If This is Religion, Why Bother?

If This is Religion, Why Bother? March 31, 2011

Following a link from A Practical Heretic, I came across a rather bizarre portrait of religion at New Scientist.  Kate Douglas appears to be working her way through a series titled “Starting Over” where she imagines how you would redesign certain institutions and conventions if you weren’t limited by prior practice.  She’s looked at timekeeping, toilets, and voting, and this week she turned her attention to religion.

By the end of the article, she’s designed a faith that Alex Knapp described as “a Unitarian Universalist church with livelier services.”  It seems like a pretty disappointing pick to me, so it’s worth taking a look at how she judged the worth of religion:

Today’s religions come in four flavours, according to Harvey Whitehouse, also at Oxford. First, the “sacred party”, such as incense burning, bell ringing and celestial choral music in Catholicism. Second, “therapy”: for example, the practices of healing and casting out devils among some evangelical Christians. Third, “mystical quest”, such as the Buddhist quest for nirvana. And finally, “school”: detailed study of the Koran in Islam or reading the Torah in Judaism.

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Those are the four most useful facets of religion?  Well, now I’m really not worried about missing out.  How can you list attributes of religion without talking about it as a truth-telling thing, as Chesterton put it?  Why not talk about instilling practical wisdom?

None of the categories (which Bloch describes in a little more detail on his blog) are linked to the proper disposition of one’s life.  His scholars are focuses on unified, memorized creeds, not philosophic inquiry, and the more free-form questing of his mystics is so otherworldly as to abandon relevance.  Everything he and Douglas list is not dependent in any way on the existence of a force or being outside the material world.  Communities, rituals, reflection, and scholarship all exist comfortably outside of any faith tradition.  If these were the strengths of religion, atheism would be an easy sell.

I think of religion as a system of epistemology and ethics.  The communal and ritual aspects are good insofar as they aid the project of truth seeking and character formation.  Although I believe religious systems to be flawed, I give them full credit for this goal, rather than just a jolly Rotary club type atmosphere.  I’d be curious whether commenters agree that Kate Douglas has overlooked the heart of religion, and what you think is essential for a religion to be a religion.

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  • Yes, I absolutely do think she has overlooked the heart of religion. I'll only speak for Catholicism – Christianity.It's easy to look at Catholicism as bells and whistles, but at the heart of it is Christ. A lot of people don't look beneath the signs, to the reasons. They want the outward symbols to reflect the inner piety, when really, it is the other way around. We the believers help carry on the Mass, with the help of God's grace. God doesn't need us, but he loves us, so he gave us the Mass, the sacraments, the Bible, the revealed reason, the intellect to dig further, the faith to believe. Oversimplifying religion is fruitless. It is not so one-dimensional.If you want therapy, that's not want Church is for. But if you want a clean conscience and guidance to the path of righteousness, then confession is a good stop. God already knows our sins, but when we admit them and repent of them, he forgives us. And boy, does that feel good.There is mysticism in the Church, with its mysteries of faith (like we proclaim at every Mass, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again"), mysteries of miracles, mysteries of the saints, mysteries even, of how grace works in one's life, and how God reveals himself to each person, and works within that person's life.School should be important to religion- to inherently understand your faith, you must be able to study it, discuss it, think about it, and be able to defend it. The Catholic Church has an incredible intellectual heritage.Not mentioned, though, is the difference between Christianity and other world religions: a personal relationship with our Savior. When Jesus revealed himself to the Samaritan woman at the well, the first time he revealed himself as the Christ and Savior, he made an impression on her because he knew all that she had done and all she was doing. The woman was living with a man who was not her husband; she was at the well around dinner time, so as to avoid people. And there, there was a man, who talked to her kindly, even though he was a Jew and she a Samaritan. She went into the village, and proclaimed that everyone come meet the man who knew her so intimately, a man she had never met before. She became the first evangelist for Christ. Later, the people who met Jesus too told the woman that they took her word for it, but, after meeting him, they too were convinced.Christianity isn't just a theory or a movement or a set of ethical codes. It is meeting Jesus, our God, intimately, and because we meet him, and get to know him, and then love him, we are changed for the better. We aspire to be with God, not wallow in our fallibleness.We don't need to start over and make a new religion. God revealed his plan for us, starting in the OT, where he needed to use great signs and miracles because he was not personally revealed yet. Then Jesus came, and the word became flesh. This is the important part: God lived here, on earth, with us humans. People could touch him, talk to him, see him, and listen to him. He died a cruel and unwarranted death on the cross, which he did to redeem us and our sins. When a crime is committed, justice must occur. When sin happens, it must be forgiven. Jesus came to forgive our sins. Now, through apostolic success, his Church continues. Tripping and falling, miserably failing and gloriously upholding the Gospel at the same time. Through our witness, people can come to know Christ. Christ invites us to know him, and does not force. We have to go to him, seek his way. That is the essential point to religion.

  • Roz

    I like your insights, Leah. I'm surprised that she missed the focus (as I understand it) of the real Unitarian Universalists, as well as a large number of Christian churches that have diluted (my interpretation) their focus on the pursuit of Christ. That is the "Social Benevolence" thrust. Take the Beatitudes ("blessed are the poor"), add social justice concerns for the politically oppressed, and take action with a group so you can experience being virtuous in a setting of community.The categories she chose illustrate something I find interesting; religion seems to be an area where (1) our preconceptions and assumptions are powerfully influential, and (2) those assumptions are often invisible to the one who holds them. No wonder religion conversations can get so heated. We ourselves don't always know everything that we're taking for granted.

  • "I think of religion as a system of epistemology and ethics"As you know, this makes you and most of the readers of this blog unusual. It's also quite different from Julie, who writes: "at the heart of it is Christ." That sounds much, much "righter" to me than "a system of epistemology and ethics." Your description ultimately commits the same error as Douglas's; it reduces religion to its functions. Religion certainly is a way of knowing for many people, just as it certainly is a source of community and ceremony (which we do need). Yet I think Julie's line suggests that these functions are not themselves the point but rather derive from a greater principle. She seems to be describing Christianity a broad way of living and being through and with Christ (not just knowing or practicing) that believers can and do see as a unified whole.

  • This will likely become a post-topic at a future date, but personally I see the primary function of religion to be one of meaning — to provide story and structure to a life that, objectively speaking, has none.

  • Failed Catholic


  • Properly agnostic

    I know a lot of people who have turned to religion because they're looking for answers. If you can't answer your questions, God can go a long way to help. But looking for an answer doesn't necessarily mean it's there.

  • @Dylan: I'm not sure whether we disagree or whether I spoke imprecisely. I'm not thinking of epistemology/ethics as a list of precepts that I obey or discover, but as a process or maybe and orientation. I don't think I'm as far off from Julie's relational model as my word choice implies. I don't have all that embodied through a Person I can have a relationship, which is that much harder for me. To use a semi-secular analogy, I've always like the relationship that Nita and Kit have with their manuals as windows into magic in the Young Wizards series.So the gist is, I do think of ethics/epistemology as a way of living and being, unless we're still defining that differently.

  • Okay, that makes sense. I read "system of epistemology and (particularly) ethics" as "way of knowing truths and (particularly) knowing moral truths. Now that you've clarified what you mean, that makes more sense.

  • @Julie:"God doesn't need us…"I must ask, then, why did he create us in the first place?"…if you want a clean conscience and guidance to the path of righteousness, then confession is a good stop."Indeed, but it is surely just as effective (if not more so) to confess directly to the people we have wronged, or even to a good friend, than to a faceless priest behind a curtain. Another example of a practice that can proceed perfectly well in the absence of the supernatural."…he forgives us. And boy, does that feel good."And it feels just as good when the person we have wronged (and who therefore is the only one with any real authority to forgive us), forgives us. "Christianity isn't just a theory or a movement or a set of ethical codes. It is meeting Jesus, our God, intimately, and because we meet him, and get to know him, and then love him, we are changed for the better. We aspire to be with God, not wallow in our fallibleness."Christians may love the person who Jesus seemed to be, and they may like talking to this person as if he were present in their minds. But the claimed personal relationship with Jesus fails any test of the presence of an independent mind with independent thoughts. Instead, whatever ideas Christians claim Jesus imparts to them are never separable from thoughts they may easily have produced on their own."We don't need to start over and make a new religion."On that we agree!

  • Hi Keith!God created us because he loves us. He created us out of and for love.You should absolutely apologize to people you have wronged, but when you sin, you not only hurt other people, but God. Like any parent, God knows when we've wronged him, but he expects us to own up to it and apologize to him. We confess to a priest, who acts as "another Christ" through apostolic succession. Also, Jesus said, when two or three are gathered in my name, so I am there too. Confession is not just a faceless priest and the person confessing- God is there too! And God definitely has the authority to forgive, because he's God.Your last statement is definitely speculation. I don't think you really have any perspective to comment on another person's relationship to Jesus. In terms of independent minds with independent thoughts, every person is influenced by other people. It is folly to think anyone produces all original thoughts on their own. You the thinker may digest something different than the person also listening next to you, but that doesn't mean the person next to you isn't thinking for themselves because they accept what they hear and you do not. As for encountering Jesus, I do. Not just in my mind, but in body. Catholics encounter him in the blessed sacrament, be it in consuming the Eucharist or at adoration. We love him for who he is- a living, viable God, who works in and within out lives- and are talking to a person who is present. Sure, we believe he is there through the grace of faith, but just as loving another person can prompt a change of heart, faith moves the heart and mind in oftentimes unseen and totally awesome ways.Ha! Excellent! I am glad we can agree on something. 🙂