Monday, October 15, 2007

Religion: Is it Worth It?

In a world often described as “Post-Christian”, it strikes me that Christianity is in need of a good defense these days. “Post-Christian” references the fact that the Christian religion no longer shapes the dominant culture in the way that it did from Constantine through feudalism, from the Enlightenment through American discovery and settlement. It seems to imply, as well, that the Christian church is not only less relevant in shaping lives and cultures, but it is deservedly less so. Christianity, either through action or silence has condoned slavery, protected pedophiles, and killed millions through inquisitions and holy wars, among other various crimes. Consequently, in this Post-Christian age, religion, churches, order, and even structure need to explain themselves more than in the past, because their very existence has come to be seen by many as more of a problem than a solution, a reason to dread the future rather than a reason to be hopeful.

Notice please that I did not ask if morality or virtue were “worth it.” I asked if religion was worth it. Isn’t this the perennial question of the atheist? Or because true self-described atheists are harder to find, isn’t this the question of the secular relativist, the person who distrusts authority and belief systems to the point where they can be equally followed or ignored? Even an atheist, or an anarchist would almost certainly agree that virtue is not a bad thing, that it is quite a worthy goal. But it is the institution of religion that has caused so many problems, that has paraded in the light of perfection while sweeping its own sins under the rug. Indeed, even Martin Luther could be accused of a similar critique, as he blamed the Romanists of engaging in demonic activity while assuming the role of Forgiver-in-Chief.

So the question of the value of religion is truly nothing new. The Peace of Westphalia, the truce that ended the Thirty Years War, was not the result of Lutherans and Catholics working out their differences peacefully, much less convincing one another. Instead, it was the result of this question: Is religion worth it? Are petty differences over church polity worth the lives of our children, the degradation of our land, the sin of committing murder? And since that introduction to the secular state, which I would argue can be traced to 1648, that question hasn’t fully gone away. Now, the question may begin to extend beyond Christianity, which, as it turns out, isn’t the only religion that commits abominable acts. Indeed, with the rise of Islamic extremism coupled with the power of a nuclear state, the question posed above may be more relevant now than ever. It we consider the worst-case scenario, a religion-driven Iran with a nuclear weapon aimed at Israel, or any state for that matter, wouldn’t the alternative of no religion be better? Shouldn’t we, as many secularists would either vocally argue, or passively support, just abandon religion because nothing much good comes from it?

It is here, at this crux of history, that I will try to say yes, religion is worth it. And I hope that my generation of self-serving secularists in particular hears it. I don’t know that the question is “Where has religion gotten us, and where is it leading us?” as much as, “Where would we be without it?” The atheist state has been tried, and it makes the worst Christian theocracy look pretty good. The abysmal failure of Communism and the utter lack of regard for human life on a scale as massive as Nazism demonstrate the inevitable ending place of discarding religion and the virtues they defend. While religion, especially the Christian religion, failed to effectively confront or defeat either of those forces of evil by itself, it was, I would argue, an understanding of morality bred from and promoted through religion that gave anyone a point of reference for defeating such evil. In other words, if one is not convinced of the rightness of their cause, then why bother sacrificing for it? Clearly, the sacrifices and successes made in WWII and the Cold War stem from a place of morality, which is simply impossible without religion.

What makes religion and the virtues they tend to promote so hard to appreciate is that its work, if done correctly, often goes unnoticed. By its very nature, it demands humility. While it is easy to criticize what doesn’t work in society, and to ascribe blame to the dominant cultural shaper (Christianity in America, for example), we can be pretty sure that the situation would be far worse without the moral compass to begin with. A 13-year-old confirmation student recently expressed frustration that his friends at school accused Christians of being hypocrites. I told him to embrace the label, that it’s better to be a hypocrite standing for virtue and failing rather than standing for nothing.

Of course, I am a Christian apologist, and I deeply lament the sins of my own religion and the sins of others. But I also hold out the hope that we are, as a religion, progressing to a healthier way of being. The assumption is never that religion leads to utopia, but that it teaches us how to live together in harmony, how to struggle together. Certainly Christianity promotes loving our neighbor, valuing private property, among other civil virtues. And while there are very real dangers proposed by “religious” leaders on the global stage, I shudder to think of a world devoid of religion altogether. Got that, Gen X?

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