|Religion is how this guy knows that|
you're wrong. Why do you think he's
so happy? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
I hate religion. I would almost rather (though not quite) be called agnostic than religious, based solely on the connotations those two terms carry. Agnosticism, flawed as it may be, at least leaves room for exploration and skepticism about matters of faith.
Dictionary.com (my first stop when wrestling with theological questions, of course) defines "religion," in part, as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe…usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."
"A moral code governing the conduct of human affairs" — that part stands out to me like a giant red flag. Religion means rules. It often means conformity, despite what your own intellect tells you. It can mean reducing incredibly complex issues to mindless, black-and-white dichotomies. It sometimes means that questions, doubts, and dialogue are discouraged. Occasionally, it means that other human beings are patronized or even ostracized simply because they don't have the same views we do. It gives license for one group to feign moral righteousness over another.
Don't get me wrong — I'm not saying that religion needs to be a term that causes us to recoil. I'm saying that we've made it that way. I'm saying that it's become a mechanism by which we can conveniently place God into a box and thus rationalize our own folly. There's a great quote that beautifully paints this reality (I don't know who said it, but I want to be clear that it wasn't me): "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when he hates or judges all the same people you do."
That, in a nutshell, is what religion has become.
Religion is what Rick Santorum uses to justify his charge that Barack Obama espouses a "phony ideology" that isn't "based on the Bible," or what Franklin Graham uses to conclude that he isn't sure whether the president is Christian or Muslim. Presumably, both consider Obama's faith "phony" in some way because it differs from their own. Translation: We're right; he's wrong. So are you, if you support him.
Religion is what the Catholic Church uses to wage a culture war (as it's so skilled at doing) over the HHS mandate that health insurance plans, including those offered by faith-based institutions, cover birth control. Of course, we hear no similar protests from bishops that their insurance policies must cover treatment for chain-smokers, alcoholics, or others who engage in self-destructive behaviors. Contraception is a far more seductive platform from which to claim moral superiority in the name of "religious freedom."
|And this guy? "Yeah, I'm religious. Wait — |
no, I'm not. Yes, I am. No, I'm not. Wait — who's
asking?" (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Religion is what allows people, groups, and institutions to issue edicts, even when such proclamations clearly reveal the hypocrisy of the individual or organization from which they originated. Sadly, that's because religion often becomes a strategy for concealing or minimizing one's own shortcomings by projecting them onto others.
Most of all, in an ironic sense, religion undermines the concept of faith itself — that is, the belief in something for which we have no proof. In its ugliest form, religion can reduce faith in a mysterious God to a series of norms, conventions, and rituals that are about as intellectually challenging as the speed limit on the highway. When faith becomes so simple, so concrete, is it really faith at all anymore? Or is it mere routine?
Which brings me back to my earlier reference to agnosticism. If I'm not comfortable with its overall premise, I at least respect one of its key tenets: that's there's a difference between belief and knowledge, where the two are separated by our ability (or inability) to observe and prove certain phenomena. Religion often blurs that line. It takes the deepest, most challenging questions about faith and attempts to oversimplify them into a series of absolutes that we can understand and are willing to accept. This precludes spiritual growth, and it understates the vastness of the universe and how little we actually know of it.
Call me contemplative. Call me agnostic if you must. But, please, don't call me religious.