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In bad faith

Paul Vallely

A real mess your religion is making of all this, an atheist friend said acerbically to me the other day. I did not riposte that it was not my religion exactly - we were talking about Iraq and the UnIslamic State1 - because I know that he expects me, as a believer in God, to be an apologist for faith in general. Instead I contented myself with replying that there is bad religion and there is good religion.

But how do you tell the difference, I wondered afterwards. More to the point, how do you convince someone his religion (and it's usually a him, I'm afraid) is bad when he thinks it's not only good but revealed and unquestionable?

The truth is that revelation is always questionable, or at least the way we interpret it is open to question. Most reasonable people will agree with this, triumphalists and fundamentalists excepted, just as most would agree with the former president of Israel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, when he called for a United Religions Charter, rather like the UN Charter which would 'state on behalf of all faiths that slitting people's throats or carrying out mass slaughters, as we have seen in the past weeks, has nothing to do with religion'. Peres went to the Vatican recently to propose the idea to Pope Francis and ask him if he would chair the new body.

The world, Peres said, was faced with 'a completely new kind of war'. In the past, he said, the majority of major conflicts were motivated by the idea of nationhood. 'Today, instead, wars are sparked above all with the excuse of religion,' he said. 'Today we are faced with hundreds, possibly thousands, of terrorist movements that aim to kill in the name of God… What is needed is an unquestionable moral authority that says in a strong voice: "No, God does not want this and does not permit it".' Pope Francis should chair this new UN of Religions because 'he is perhaps the only leader who is truly respected' universally.

Catholics, said my parish priest the Sunday afterwards, should take care with that. The Pope may be so regarded but the Catholic Church is not, even if it does have the truth, he warned. Aargh. The truth. Pilate had the right question about that. And not just about what the truth was, but whose? Most Muslims would rebut the truths of the UnIslamic State. Jews for Peace would have something to say about the lack of proportion in the Israeli military response in Gaza. Not many Christians would support the Baptist preacher in California who prays daily, in the name of Jesus,for God to kill President Obama. And indeed there are many Anglicans who see the attitude to gays within the mild-mannered Church of England as contrary to the values of the gospel.

So what is the attraction of this furious religion? In a world of conflict and uncertainty levels of anxiety tend to rise. That causes many people to retreat into their base identities, and seek the protection of religious tribalism and presumptuous certainty. But truth can never be the criterion by which to judge this, since adherents of bad religion are usually more confident of their embrace of verity. Indeed the theologian Peter Vardy once suggested that one of the three hallmarks of bad religion is an authority that opposes independent thought and encourages unquestioning obedience. (His other two were fundamentalist readings of sacred texts and the fear of science and philosophy.)

Some responded by accusing Vardy of advocating a good religion indistinguishable from secular humanism. Yet there is clearly more to it than that. True, good religion creates moral codes, inspires high art and music, deepens empathy, builds relationships, strengthens communities, and encourages care and compassion. But it also encourages people to think for themselves. It challenges clichés and received wisdoms, and urges individuals to think again, much as Cromwell did when he urged the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650: 'I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken'. Above all, good religion imparts a sense of transcendence that teaches holiness and humility, prompting us to lament loss, seek forgiveness, give thanks and express wonder. Good religion does not denounce what it is against; it proclaims what it is for. It puts means before ends and agape before eschatology.

Jesus understood that. Confronted by teachers of the law who were locked in their commandments and in their prescriptions he exposed the way they had made people 'slaves to many small laws of the many small things they must do,' to quote Pope Francis, speaking not long after he had been lauded by Shimon Peres. Jesus said No to the arrogant, judgmental and legalistic bad religion of his day and offered instead a good religion of humility, grace, mercy, compassion and justice.

What that means, the Pope went on, was that the church has to change. The new wine of the gospel requires new wineskins and we should 'put aside perishable structures: we don't need them'. The battle between good religion and bad religion appears just now to be in a vital new stage. But what is clear is that the answer to bad religion is not, as my atheist friend implied, no religion. The answer to bad religion is good religion.

1 As the Islamic Monthly would have us describe ISIS: