Bad Religion

Dylan Hewlett

Dogmatic thinking needs to be eradicated

Ethan Cabel
News Assignment Editor

When I met with Steve Swan to discuss writing for The Uniter, we sat staring out the large windows at a downtown Second Cup largely perplexed, attempting to whittle down what, exactly, we wished to say about religion - a subject that consistently captivates people, but also consistently bores them.

Our conversation went smoothly enough. We discussed my Catholic upbringing, his non-religious background and what drove us in two wildly different directions in regards to faith, specifically the Christian faith.

But what struck me was our mutual disdain for violence and our desire to escape the ideological prejudices that so often fuel and give expression to such discord.

Hence, we figured out that while Swan’s answer to bad religion was a more authentic Christianity, my answer was much different.

I respect Swan’s Christianity because it exemplifies the variegated complexity inherent in many spiritual traditions, rather than the brutish thinking at the heart of history’s many roaming gangs - from the Irish Republican Army to the Crusaders of the Medieval Catholic Church and Al Qaeda - who claim to have God on their side.

I believe that religion has been, and will continue to be, an integral part of society. It isn’t going anywhere. And at times, like in the case of the “good news” Christianity that Swan advocates or even the social gospel that gave rise to J.S. Woodsworth and the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), it can be a valuable part of society.

But at the heart of virtually all religions there rests a dogmatism that almost inevitably leads to the type of conflict seen throughout the modern world, and throughout human history.

It is the opposition to that dogmatic thinking, rather than opposition to religion itself, that requires constant vigilance. And that vigilant skepticism will lead to a better world. 

For years before his death, the great atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens would repeat a variation of Ronald Reagan’s mantra, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” by invoking American founding father - and main inspiration for the first amendment, ensuring a constitutional separation of Church and State in America - Thomas Jefferson.

Near the end of many television interviews, Hitchens would proudly and patriotically intone in his nasally English drawl, “Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall,” referring to the wall separating church and state.

For Hitchens, many of the world’s greatest problems were attributable to faith-based governance, from Iran to the Islamic monarchy that grips Saudi Arabia.

But the scourge of violence that strips human beings of their fundamental rights and freedoms doesn’t just reside in traditionally religious - or theocratic - states, and Hitchens conceded this point.

Great evil can also be perpetrated by expressly secular governments or secular societies, so long as those societies possess the ideological dogmatism (and corresponding barbarism) necessary to justify atrocity.

Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao Tse Tung’s China and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea were all expressly secular states. All of them committed unspeakable atrocities - and in the case of China and North Korea, continue to do so - not in the name of religion, but because of a dogmatism similar to much religious thinking.

It is difficult at times to comprehend the kitschy North Korean state propaganda so often mocked by our mainstream media exists because of - and is reinforced by - an Orwellian state surveillance system meant to prosecute and stomp out dissenters in the most inhuman ways possible.

All in the name of a dogmatic secular socialism that conceives state founder Kim Il Sung as the “eternal president” and his Juche philosophy of self-reliance as de facto gospel. This same dogmatism keeps North Korea in a state of perpetual economic dependence, mass starvation and political self-delusion.

This self-destructive dogmatism is inseparable from the radical Catholicism and political terrorism that prompted the IRA to claim hundreds of Irish civilian casualties in a paramilitary campaign from 1969 to 1997. The aim, of course, was an Irish republic separate from the United Kingdom and grounded in Irish Catholicism. 

And are these ideas so much different from a misguided sense of superiority that your faith constitutes the only true path to salvation? Or that there is only one God and that all faiths claiming otherwise are inherently false?

It is crucially important that this single-minded view of the world is eroded through a vigilant skepticism and moral code that corresponds with a democratically achieved rule of law. That skepticism can be practiced by secularists like me, and intelligent religious people like Swan alike.

But a purer faith, if it connotes a more virulent dogmatism, is not the answer.

Ethan Cabel is the news assignment editor at The Uniter and a politics student at the University of Winnipeg.

A more authentic Christian faith can save us

Steve Swan

I’d never want to defend religion in general. Religion closes minds, dehumanizes populations, promotes condemnation of others and even inspires genocide.

From a privileged 21st century standpoint, religion in general hasn’t been kind to the human race. And the answer to bad religion, many think, must be no religion.

I spent my first 23 years as an atheist because of bad religion. Then I became a Christian and I’m now a pastor at an independent congregation, The King’s Fellowship, near Osborne Village. 

No one was more surprised than I was.

I believe that religion in general is a destructive force in the world. When I look at the world, I see the same bad religion that everybody else does. 

The difference is that now I believe the answer to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion.

What, then, is the best alternative to bad religion? And what is good religion?

Every reasonable person wants less violence and more respect in this world. 

The Hindu, the Humanist and the Muslim are all my friends as long as they wish to live in peace. Many believers of all faiths, not just Christianity, live peaceably and promote the good of all. For every murderous zealot there may be 100,000 religious people who accept and respect their neighbours.

But even peaceable religions, which constitute the vast majority, can be merely a milder form of bad religion.

Religions set ideals, make rules, declare what is true and moral, and give good advice about life. Good advice, when followed, can inspire great pride in those who think they have followed well. 

But, conversely, it can inspire guilt when one falls short. 

A more peaceful religion, even one with good ethical standards, can still be bad religion. It can create unrest in the heart even if it keeps civil unrest to a minimum.

Of course, Christians are not immune to this kind of subtler bad religion. Commonly, Jesus is thought of as an example, but if that’s all he is, then he sure is a tough act to follow. 

In short, most religions operate on moral or spiritual achievement. But true Christianity is different. 

What changed me from an atheist to a Christian was realizing that authentic Christianity was neither violent bad religion nor seemingly benevolent good advice. Instead, it is good news; good news about a possible relationship with God through no accomplishment of our own. 

An authentic, pure Christianity is both good religion and good news because it doesn’t promote violence or inspire superiority or keep you in constant guilt.

Instead, it humbles all of us by telling us that, no matter our efforts, we cannot achieve the good standard God wants. It invites us to accept what Jesus does for us (and in our place) rather than what we can do on our own. 

At 23, I realized I couldn’t even live up to my own standards, let alone God’s. I didn’t need advice on how to live but rather some good news that Jesus is not just an example but a rescuer. 

He rescues from the hold that wrong ways of living have on us, and also from trusting in our own perceived goodness. He rescues from both pride and guilt. 

Maybe most importantly, he rescues from bad religion.

Steve Swan is a Christian pastor for an independent congregation, The King’s Fellowship, located at 190 Osborne St. North. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife and family.

Published in Volume 67, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 23, 2013)

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