When there is no religion, the religion that exists in the vacuum—ideology—is the very worst sort of religion…
After observing yet another protest march the other day I became interested in how similar to religion ideologies are. The ideology could be left wing or right wing, North, South, East or West wing. It matters not. What matters is that when there is no religion, the ideology becomes the religion.
Of course at any particular march there may be religious believers participating. They may have seen participation as part of their greater religious duty. If that is so, then they would have placed the protest in its proper priority. Whether they are Buddhist or Baptist, Mormon or Muslim, Catholic or Quaker, their marching for civil rights or their support of blue lives or black lives or banning pipelines or poverty or abortion or abuse—all these worthy causes would be subordinate to the higher calling and worthier cause of their religion.
But for those who have no religion (and in our American society there are an increasing number) it is frightening to see how the ideology becomes their religion. Not only does it become their religion, but the sort of religion it becomes is the very worst sort of religion.
To be sure, there are good religions and bad religions, and by this I do not mean that being Baptist is better than Buddhist or being Methodist is better than Mormon. The veracity and virtue of various religions can certainly be compared and contrasted, and I do not doubt that one religion is superior to them all, but I’m referring here to a different way of judging a religion—any religion.
Put simply, religion should open people up, not close people down. Religion should help us examine our lives, our history, our beliefs, and our behaviors. Religion should empower self-criticism, broaden the mind, open the heart, and enlighten the soul. Religion should be an adventure into the unknown, a search meaning and a mechanism for the maturation of the human soul. Religion should be a trampoline not an easy chair. Religion should bring us to the threshold of the transcendent. It should help us to retain the wide-eyed wonder of childhood while we seek to attain the wise and tender wonder of old age. Religion should be a casting off—a launch into the deep.
Bad religion, on the other hand, does exactly the opposite. Bad religion is used as a tool to close down discussion. It demands an orthodoxy that is irrational, obedient and unthinking. Bad religion not only imposes a set of beliefs and behaviors on people—it gathers the orthodox believers into a fortress of faith. When that begins, the truly sick psychology of religion kicks in. Irrationality takes over. Because questioning of the dogmas is not allowed, the faithful in their fortress strengthen their faith by fortifying their espirit de corps. They strengthen their little group first with enthusiasm and zeal, and when that is exhausted, with the most effective way of boosting team spirit—finding an enemy from outside and attacking. Sick religions always need an enemy.
This bad religious behavior is increasingly obvious in the godless society in which we live. Secularists on both the right wing and left wing can fall into the trap of bad religions. A political dogmatism prevails. Deviation from the politically-correct ideology is not permitted. Furthermore, every aspect of the ideology must be adhered to, as in a sick religion, every doctrine must have equally infallible value. Those who are enslaved by a sick religious ideology will always seek to enslave others. A sign of this is that to criticize the sick religion will immediately bring the charge that you are one of the enemy.
Anyone who imagines that there can be a world without religion, therefore is terribly naive, for mankind is innately religious. We all want something greater to live and fight for. The problem is when there is no religion the religion that exists in the vacuum is the very worst sort of religion, and that is the religion that does not realize it is a religion
A person whose Christianity is unhealthy in the way I have described may, sooner or later, take to heart the gospel warnings against self-righteousness and Pharisaism. On the other hand, the secularist whose ideology has become a sick religion will never be able to criticize his sick religion because he does not think he has a religion. A self-righteous person will never be able to acknowledge his self-righteousness if the only thing he believes in is himself.
The terrifying thing about the sick religion I am describing is that it always ends in violence. Because it is fueled by fear and rage, it must end in destruction. Sometimes, of course, the violence is literal. The unhealthy ideologies march out to war against the enemy. They stage violent protests. They lash out with murderous intent. More often, however, the violence is psychological, emotional, and spiritual. They swear, they rage, they curse the enemy. Then they condemn, vilify, exclude and marginalize the outsider and unbeliever.
What is the solution to such a societal sickness? The answer is simple, but not easy.
If the problem is sick religion, the answer is healthy religion. Each one who is a believer must live the life of faith as an open-hearted search for all that is beautiful, good, and true. Our minds must roam about fearless and hungry and supple, living the fullness of life with strength, generosity, and joy. The few with true faith must live that faith with increasing amazement and power.
Then when others see that kind of transcendent humanity they will stop and say, “Where did you get that? I want some.”
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