The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

What Do You Mean “We”, Religious Man?

Via Peacebang and Preemptive Karma, I came across Jeff Jackoby’s op-ed entitled “Why We Need Religion”, and the first thing that came to mind when i read the title — to borrow a line from an old joke — was “What you mean ‘We’?”. Because, it seems to me anyway, that Jacoby just asked and answered precisely the wrong question. Instead of asking “Do we need religion?” perhaps it would be more effective to ask “Does everyone need religion?”

There’s a pretty good argument for answering that one in the negative if you take the recent popularity of atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as evidence. But just two paragraphs in, it’s hard to take Jacoby seriously when he employs the convenient fallacy that atheism is suddenly “in vogue.”

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It isn’t exactly news that many people find religion odious, but what is being called the New Atheism has lately become a booming industry. A profusion of books, articles, and lectures extols secularism and derides faith in God as pernicious and absurd. Such antipathy to religion was once relegated to the edges of polite society. Today it shows up front and center.

A California congressman is cheered for announcing that he is an atheist. A New York Times Magazine cover story — “Why Do We Believe?” — considers “evolutionary adaptation” and “neurological accident” as explanations for religious belief, but not the possibility that God may actually exist. A forthcoming book by Christopher Hitchens, a noted journalist, is titled “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Yet you rarely have to look far to be reminded of the indispensability of God and religion.

“A booming industry”? A handfull of atheists sell a few books and it’s a “booming industry”? (OK. Dawkin’s book is still on the New York Times bestseller list, after 29 weeks, and Harris’ book spent a good deal of time there. I’ve been over this before, but a the fact that 90% of Americans claim to believe in God does not indicate that people are rushing headlong into atheism. But the are buying Dawins’ and Harris’ books.

And, sure, you see atheists more often on television than you used to, but only when they make news because they’re harassed or discriminated against. And then they get ripped apart by pundit and media personalities with no equal time unless enough of them raise hell.

One congressman “comes out” as an atheist, and immediately gets attacked by senior citizens.

“We have long recognized that all of this hot air about ‘separation of church and state’ has been a veiled effort to intimidate and silence religious voices in public policy matters.

“If the liberal House leadership refuses to recognize lawmakers who want to affirm their belief in God, then we suggest they add it to the end of floor speeches on other matters.

“Congressman Stark’s statement is a very sad benchmark for America. It could be the moment which defines the decline of our country or it could be the spark which marks an important day. That would be the day that religious Americans stood-up to the liberal bullies who are so determined to use the power of government to silence prayer and every other religious expression of free speech.

And one of the usual suspects.

“It is unfortunate in a society that is going down the path of godlessness and making right wrong and wrong right, that we continue down this path by celebrating one member of Congress who denies that God exists altogether,” Concerned Women for America Director of Legislative Relations Mike Mears told Cybercast News Service.

“The founding fathers … founded this country on godly principles,” Mears said. “Fifty-one of the 56 signers [of the Declaration of Independence] had a Christian worldview and [Stark] wants to change that and celebrate – basically – godlessness.”

That makes 0.2% of House members declared atheists., and 0.18% of the total Congress. Of course there are six religiously unaffiliated membesr of the House, but that would only potentially raise the percentage of unbelievers in Congress to about 1.4%. And Stark is the first member of Congress to “come out” as an atheist in the entire history of the country. Yet Jacoby is nostalgic for the days when atheists “knew their place” and stayed in the closet.

Do I need to a line from point A to point B, or can you manage the trip yourself?

But where it gets really is when you get to Jacoby’s backhanded concession that even “unbelievers” can be good people.

Can ardent secularists, firm in their belief that there is no God to whom we must answer and no morality except that which human beings devise, be good and loving people? Sure they can. And yet when acts of charity and goodness are most needed, it isn’t generally groups of New Atheists who are seen answering the call. Who is more likely to care for paupers dying in the streets of Calcutta? Secular humanist associations? Or Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, who take God’s word — “Therefore love the stranger” — as a binding obligation? When Boston’s police need moral and trustworthy intermediaries, do they find them in an organization that campaigns against religion? Or in the Black Ministerial Alliance?

As I’ve said before and as Becky at Preemptive Karma points out, atheists have been effectively kept in the closet by the hostility they’re met with when they do come out, like the Smalkowski family, or the family in this video.

That’s also why a lot of people are quietly agnostic.

The problem is that it’s still considered “rude” to speak critically of religious beliefs, institutions, or persons. But it’s still OK for people like Romney to make statements like the one above, and pretty much get a pass from the media and the general public. Meanwhile, the rest of us are wondering how far is too far? It’s probably going to far for me to say that this scripture or that sacred book is no more factual than, say, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and has even less to do with the real world. Can I say that a particular religious belief has no basis in reality, is destructive of human life and human happiness, and has no business being a basis for public policy? Is that going too far?

Who knows? That’s why so many quietly agnostic people remain quiet, rather than risk offense and having all hell (pun intended) break loose on them.

Becky also links to an essay which further undermines Jacoby’s already unsubstantiated claim.

But back to my original point. Jacoby is asking the wrong questions. Rather than asking “Do we need religion?” it might provoke a more thoughtful discussion to ask “Does everyone need religion?” Theories about whether humans are hardwired for religion notwithstanding, the clear answer to this question is no, not everyone needs religion. Some people get along without it very well, and most of the trouble they run in to comes from people who insist that everyone does need religion.

That gets to the second unasked and unanswered question. Does everyone need the same religion? The answer is different depending on whom you ask. For religions that claim exclusive ownership of truth, as well as right and wrong, and declare conversion and evangelism as key duties of their followers, the answer is yes. Everyone must be converted.

But why? I keep going back to something I referenced earlier, that Pema Chodron wrote on religion and the need for certainty.

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

You don’t have to look much further than David Kuo’s answer to why the VA Tech shootings happened for an example.

What strikes me as staggering in this discussion is what hasn’t been discussed – what the great British theologian N.T. Wright calls, “the satan.” In his books, Wright describes the figure this way: it “was seen by Jews as the quasi-personal source of evil standing behind both human wickedness and large-scale injustice, and sometimes operating through semi-independent ‘demons.'” Every Christian movement for 2000 years of history has acknowledged the presence of this force. Jesus himself repeatedly warned his followers about him. Exorcisms were common practice for Jesus and were apparently important enough for Mother Teresa, who had one performed on her in the later years of her life.

Yet here, now, to mention satan is to be greeted with sniggers and rolled eyes. What a pedestrian understanding of humanity, I am told. How… religious, some have said to me. Why?

As we look around our world – at 22,000 children a day who die of starvation, of scores of millions of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, at the exultation of evil and violence in film (Grindhouse anyone?), at loneliness and fear and anxiety and terror – is it somehow implausible to suggest that the satan is having a field day?

And what of Cho Seung Hui? Is it not possible that the best explanation for this sort of evil is the satan or one of the evil forces that respond to him? It is not possible to hold even a moderately orthodox view of the Bible, of Jesus, and of God and not acknowledge the power of the evil one. Yet where is the serious discussion now about that force’s power in Cho’s life?

Or you can take the more literal response I cited on Wednesday from “Scarborough Country”

Well, I don’t blame God for it, Joe. This is what we have to understand. There is–there is evil in this world. There is a devil who’s called the god of this age, who wants to seek and destroy your life and my life and every life. And when a tragedy like this comes, I think it’s time for us to remember how short life is, and we need to be prepared to stand before a holy God. There is a God in heaven who cares for us, and we are going to have to stand before him.

David Book’s response to the shootings is behind the Times Select firewall, but the DMI Blog peeked over the top and posted this:

Brooks insists we shouldn’t stop studying brain chemistry. We just need an explanation that “puts individual choice and moral responsibility closer to the center.” But he’s arguing against a straw man. There are few, if any, voices out there who would absolve Cho of moral responsibility for his actions. The moral argument is so obvious — it is so clearly, evidently, blatantly wrong to murder 32 innocent people — that it almost goes without saying.

Brooks’ column, and my dispute with it, gets at the heart of a willful and recurrent distortion by the conservative Right. It goes far beyond neurochemistry. Simply put, explaining something is not the same as excusing it. Trying to understand why a violent act occurred does not mean the perpetrator is absolved of moral responsibility.

It just means that our attempt to understand doesn’t end with the casting of moral blame. If we allow ourselves to get beyond just saying that Cho Seung-Hui did an evil thing, we can begin to explore things like our nation’s easy access to guns, the lack of comprehensive mental health services for people who need them, or a pervasive American culture that urges men to act violently in order to prove their masculinity (see the excellent column by Bob Herbert that ran next to Brooks today in the Times). These are things that we, as a society, can do something about, hopefully preventing or mitigating future tragedies. Recognizing these “wider forces” and discussing them is not at odds with recognizing individual moral culpability.

Like I said then, some of us need the easy certainty of explanations that “put ground under our feet” by absolving us of any responsibility, any need to examine ourselves or to change.

I said after 9/11 that for our own good we should reach further than simple, blanket analyses like “evil.” It’s not that I don’t believe in evil. It’s just that seems like too easy a response to me; one that provides an easy certainty that absolves us of any responsibility in shaping our society and our world. It’s that I don’t believe it’s born in a vacuum. It’s something that we create in ourselves and in others through our words, actions, beliefs, and even our thoughts.

The harder work is looking into ourselves and rooting out what’s in us that leads to awful events like the one we witnessed this week. That requires stepping out of the easy certainty of simply believing “the devil did it” or “the devil made him do it.”

…There may not be a policy that can make things like this never happen again, but if we do the hard work of reaching beyond simple “evil” as an answer, we may find it in ourselves to prevent the next tragedy from happening. But it will require taking an honest look at our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs in terms of how they impact others and ourselves. And then, if we want to make a difference, if we want to prevent the next tragedy from happening, we will have to change whatever in our words, actions, thoughts and beliefs needs to change in order to bring about the change we want to see in the world. (That’s a much longer way of saying what Ghandi said.)

The devil did it. Evil people did it. So, it has nothing to do with us. We don’t need to change.

At the end of his column, Jacoby give us this whopper.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule; of course not everyone who believes in God is good; of course dreadful things have been done in the name of all religions. But a world without God would be an evil place indeed.

The implication is that the world would be a much more evil place without “God.” Of course, if the rest of the package goes with him, then that means Satan, etc., can hit the door too.

And if there’s still evil in the a world without religion, God, or Satan, how will we explain it then? It may be that the evil in the world is not and never was born in a vacuum, but has its origins in our actions, words, thoughts and beliefs; in what we see, what we choose not to see — at the starving children, those made orphans by HIV/AIDS, and the violence in our society that Kuo mentions in his post — and what we choose to do or choose not to do about it.

Take away those explanations, and their certainty, and — as Dale McGowan said In the article Becky referenced, and as Chodron spells out in her writing — “We are all we have.”

Again, I’ll suggest atheists should be better at living out certain values than Christians. We should be up to our elbows in charitable work, for example, since no one knows better than we do that WE ARE ALL WE HAVE. There is no safety net, no universal justice, no Great Caretaker, no afterlife reward. We have the full responsibility to create a just world and care for the less fortunate because there’s no one else to do so.

That, I think, may be one reason some people need religion, reflected in the ways they use it and the public policy that results from it, that ends up with religious conservatives standing up in a late session of Congress, just before Christmas, to vote for cuts in a bill to help poor families heat their homes. By the same token, another group of Christians stood outside the Capitol to protest that same vote. Both groups cited religion as the basis for their priorities and actions.

So perhaps the question isn’t “Do we need religion?”, but rather “What do some people need religion for? What do they intend to do with it?”


  1. Amen. Not believing in an afterlife just makes this life that much more precious, and makes us feel even more painfully aware of the tragic loss of life.

  2. Oh my gosh, that was like one horrible run-on sentence. I got so bored with your tired old drivle, that I didn’t come anyway near finishing it. Can’t you people come up with anything original to say…?

  3. Damn good essay! Loved the way you tied a lot of ideas together.

  4. This is some passionate and clear-voiced writing. I think you strike at the heart of several dilemmas, including the “Great Spy in the Sky” version of Christianity sold at many Christian outlets.

    However, it doesn’t take much research to show a few problems.

    1) It is scandalous for the atheist/humanist mindset to be forced to recognize that the VAST majority of benevolent work in the world is driven by Christian money and effort. I applaud your recognition of it here.

    2) You do well to point out that within Ethical Humanism, there is a call for men and women to dive whole-heartedly into benevolent work. Yet, as point 1 embarrasingly points out, it just isn’t happening. The call is being ignored.

    3) What if God is passionately dedicated to driving out evil in this world (not by destroying this world… by purifying it), to preserving everything good in this world(not by taking it out of this world… by protecting it), AND loves people too much to take everything out of their hands? What if He were doing those things RIGHT now, and was offering men and women the choice to get in on it?


  5. Great post as always, T. People on all sides of this conversation need to wise up to just how little book sales translate into anything meaningful — it’s especially offensive that deeply-held convictions are chalked up to a “vogue” or fad. I may disagree with Dawkins pretty vehemently (though not all atheists, of course), but turning him into a fad is a cheap way of addressing his prominence.

    I have to admit, too, that I’m frustrated by seeing other Christians argue that the world needs religion generally. That’s not really the claim of Christianity. Christianity has a very particular story to tell, and even though I’m not a Christian triumphalist and I’m committed to pluralism, that’s not a story that is interchangeable with other religious stories. The “people need religion” angle, usually advanced by conservative Christians, don’t seem to distinguish Christianity from Scientology or Roman paganism. Religion, in that argument, is just a healthy part of an ideological diet — that’s a rather asinine way of presenting alternatives to non-religious modes of living.


    #1 — It’s not clear to me that that’s true — do you have any citations to back up that rather bold assertion? I’m suspicious for a number of reasons (not least of which being that Christians are emphatically not meant to go around tooting our own horns about our benevolent work), especially since I suspect that these days Muslims probably spend more per capita on benevolent works than Christians, and make up a substantial portion of the world’s population. That’s just a guess, but an educated one.

    Numbers for benevolent giving are always suspect, too, because they don’t take into account volunteer labor (which is significant, hard to quantify, and something that American Christians are a bit worse at than others in the world) and they do take into account things like pastors’ salaries and building upkeep that should not be strictly classed as benevolent giving or good works.

    I also don’t buy the idea that atheists are “scandalized” by admitting the good work Christians do. In my experience, much of the tendentiousness between atheists/agnostics/humanists/other non-theists and Christians is created by the Christian side.

    #2 — That’s just total nonsense. I know many non-theists who engage in significant benevolent work. Furthermore, the call to do such works is issued week in and week out in Christian churches and ignored by many in the pews. People are people — by and large, we’re selfish and sinful. We should remove the log from our own eyes before going around telling humanists about the specks in their own eyes.

  6. It is scandalous for the atheist/humanist mindset to be forced to recognize that the VAST majority of benevolent work in the world is driven by Christian money and effort. I applaud your recognition of it here.

    That’s just not true. There are plenty of secular charities, but they don’t bill themselves explicitly as nonreligious any more than they bill themselves as non-communist. Oxfam is entirely secular. The Red Cross is basically secular, despite the name. Bill Gates is nonreligious. Warren Buffett is agnostic.

  7. Terrance: Your essay reminded me of a public debate, the video for which I stumbled across sometime in the last few weeks, which had three atheists (Richard Dawkins among them) and three theists. The question to them all, “Do we need religion?”

    After the dust settled, the audience effectively voted down the measure, demonstrating a feeble victory of sorts for atheism I suppose, but the debate was interesting to watch, regardless the outcome, and touched on a few of the points you bring out above.

    Of course, I’m kicking myself about this moment, considering that I somehow managed to lose the URL to the debate. Maybe you’ve already seen it, or some wiser visitor than I can conjure it up for your edutainment.

    Good essay, regardless!