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Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Value of Religion

Jay over at 4and20blackbirds made an interesting comment the other day in dismissing both religion in general and Christianity in particular. Quoting from John Derbyshire he describes the effect of religion on a community:

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference.

I suspect many would share his sentiment - all religions seem pretty much the same, as do all people whether they have religion or not (eg. the divorce rate is pretty much the same for Christians as non-Christians). So religion is a wash, right?

Not so fast.

On the one hand, I agree with part of his assessment - religion can be used to build yourself up (look how great I am because I keep all the commandments, tithe on my mint and dill; look how lousy you are because you don't). We see this all the time, and it's one of the reasons we can't stand self-righteous, self-centered people (and lest we only heap blame on the evangelical fundamentalists here, I'd like to suggest that agnostics / atheists can be just as guilty in this regard).

But it doesn't follow that religion is to blame for this behavior. It's the people who do it who are liable, for co-opting a faith and trying to use it to their own advantage. Jesus was fully aware that some would try to do this, and he reserved some of his harshest criticism for them - he called them hypocrites, twice the sons of hell as those who were just blatantly bad. But he didn't write off faith, simply because some people would twist it.

And that brings me to a second thing about this comment, which I disagree with altogether - it's an assumption, really, one that says "The basic purpose of religion (and the criteria by which it should be evaluated) is to make people better." In other words, the primary function of religion is simply to provide an ethic, to tell people what to do, how to live. It's very man-centric. And I would challenge that strongly.

Other religions may indeed be primarily interested in ethics; the Jesus of Christianity most decidely is not. Jesus does not come offering people a way of life - he comes claiming to be the life. Jesus sees himself in a markedly different way than any other religious leader - he claims to be the thing people need, he claims to be the only way, he claims that it is necessary for him to die in order that others might live.

Any time someone claims that all religions are the same, what it really tells you is that they aren't particularly interested in any religion, or else they are interested in every religion to whatever extent they can use it to justify a lifestyle they have already chosen. That's not fair to Allah, to Budda, or to Jesus.

At the end of the day, Christianity is not merely about us (about what we're supposed to do in order to get to heaven) - no, Christianity is decidely about him, Christ the God-Man, the one who has risen from the dead and is worthy of all honor and worship. At the end of the day, Christianity - the real, biblical, New Testament kind of Christianity - is very focused on calling people everywhere to repent, to believe, and to worship. Ethics, while important, is always secondary to that.

If religion is really about worship - worshipping the one true God, in Spirit and truth, as HE sees fit - then faith becomes vitally important (and the difference between religions becomes crucial). At the end of the day, Derbyshire's quote doesn't say as much about religion (whether its true or false), as it does about the unbeliever - he is really interested only in himself. I wonder if he'd be willing to admit it?

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