Up until the early twentieth century being ‘religious’ was considered to be a really good thing. In order for someone to be considered moral and decent they had to be religious. But once we got to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, that idea radically shifted. The mainstream intellectuals of the time thought that we were out growing religion. Science was replacing religion as a better alternative in explaining the world we live. Voltaire the French Enlightenment thinker famously said, “Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense.”
Secular humanists found religion backwards and not useful. Thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche savagely attacked religion. Their thinking and arguments, in one way or another, has influenced anti-religious arguments permeated in the 20th and the 21st century. The criticisms about religion that you hear today originated from these three individuals.
For example, Freud argued that people use God and religion as a way to justify their bad behavior–if they paid a penance then they can justify their bad behavior without feeling bad for themselves and continue to live unchanged. It’s psychological self-justification where people do not want to change their lives. Rather, they want to justified their lives and their behavior. It creates either self-righteousness or an anxiety of having to mask ourselves. Marx on the other hand said people use religion to try and sociologically justify themselves. Marx famously said that religion is a means or an “opiate” that kept the poor down and help while keeping their oppressors in power. If the elites have the ‘truth’, then they would use that as a means to oppress groups or people they felt superior to.
Then Friedrich Nietzsche came along. Nietzsche took it all one step further. Not only did he criticized religion, but he argued anyone who was making any sort of truth claim was a religion. He founded what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion which questioned everyone’s truth claims. Essentially, Nietzsche viewed all truth claims as a power trip–a way of trying to control people. For example, when someone would say, “we want to live for justice, lets overthrow the people in power to be for the people!” But Nietzsche would respond, “wait a minute, are you really motivated for justice? Or do you want all the power for yourself?” Nietzsche argues that any truth claim is a dogma that individuals use to exploit other people. He says that religion is the worst kind of power trip. Nietzsche would say that a religious person claiming to have the ‘truth’ is just trying to gain power over another group.
Pretty powerful stuff. So maybe you’re expecting me to resist these critiques about religion (since if you read my blog you know I am a Christian).
No not at all actually. There is a caveat but the modern critique of religion is right.
Religion is incredibly self-justifying. If you ever met your stereotypical religious person you”ll notice they are incredibly harsh, judgmental, ignorant, or self-righteous. Everyone is wrong and they have the truth. They crush people who believe differently than they do. It was hard before Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche to see how incredibly self-justifying religion was. I do not know how people do not see how poisonous religion is now. I can’t tell you throughout my own personal experiences in the church how poisonous religion can be. They use Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible, to crush and spiritually oppress people. Because after all, they’re right and everyone else is wrong.
You may be surprised then to learn that Jesus himself savagely, repeatedly, and unrelentingly critiqued religion and the religious leaders at the time. Jesus literally goes off on the religious elite for an entire chapter in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 23). He tells parable after parable explaining how backward religious people during his time were. Not only did Jesus savagely critiqued religious people, but he took his message a step further. Jesus‘ message says every human thought or religious idea of how we connect God has been wrong.
This is consistent with history. When Christianity first arose in the world nobody called it a religion. Even the Romans called Christianity the anti-religion. Pliny the Younger, a ancient roman lawyer and author, points this out when writing letters to the Emperor Trajan (Pliny, Epistle 10.96). For two hundred years, the Romans thought Christians were atheists. When the Christian Polycrap was being martyred, the angry Roman crowds shout out “away with the atheists!” (see the text Martyrdom of Polycarp.
The reason why is because what Christians were saying about God was so radically different than what any religion has claimed in history. Jesus is the most anti-religious founder of any religion. There is no one that even comes close to saying something as radical as what Christianity claims. Yet, how do we make the distinction between religion and Christianity? My whole argument goes like this: we need to listen to the modern critique of religion, see where it falls short, and see how Jesus radically redefines how we approach and relate to God.
So Why and How Does the Modern Critique of Religion Fall Apart?
In the beginning of this post, I articulated the modern critique of religion and why I think we should listen to it. But as I said before, there is a caveat. While I agree with Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche about their critiques, I would also make the counterargument that their arguments about religion work against each other (I get this information from Merold Westphal’s book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism). The modern of critique of religion is useful because it points out the hypocrisy that is so painfully obvious with religion. But it gets us stuck. People are beginning to realize this since they see the critiques of religion critiques themselves.
Let me give you an example. If you recall earlier in the post, Freud said that people create God and use religion as a means of psychological self-justification. But the problem with this argument is that the same could be said for people who do not believe in God. One could easily arrive to the premise God does not exist because they’re trying to justify their own behavior.
For example, Aldous Huxley an English writer and philosopher was very honest about this when he left Christianity. When he went to the university as a young philosophy student he just started to have sex. He preferred atheism over Christianity to justify his lifestyle choices:
I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. … For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was …liberation from … a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…. There was one admirably simple method in our political and erotic revolt: We could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons (Ends and Means, pp. 270-273).
One could easily make the claim in this case that individuals like Huxley reached these claims as a way of psychological self-justification. One could say, like Freud did, that believers use belief in God to justify their behavior. However, if that is the case, then it would also be equally true that individuals who disbelieve in God could have arrived to their conclusions as a means of self-justification. It’s a double edge sword, it cuts both ways. Mikhail Bakunin said it best, “I reverse the phrase of Voltaire, and say that if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”
Marx’s sociological critiques of religion also have the same problem. The whole basis of Marxism, which Nietzsche and his pupils pointed out, is that it’s one huge power trip. Marx said essentially we want to live for justice, lets overthrow the people in power to be for the people!” But Nietzsche would respond, “wait a minute, are you really motivated for justice? Or do you want all the power for yourself?” In this case, history proved Nietzsche right. It’s very difficult to argue against when the Bolsheviks took over Russia. The communists claimed to be fighting for the Proletariat but all they did was replaced another dictatorship for another. They took power and trample those who disagreed with them.
What about Nietzsche? He argues that all truth claims and anyone with any answers on what is the ultimate truth is on a power trip. It’s a way to acquire power. In other words, all truth claims is dogmatic and a religion–a way of getting mine group under your thumb. However, their is no greater power trip than saying any truth claim is a power trip but mine. If there is no such thing as truth as Nietzsche says, it’s all merely interpretation, then why should your truth claim be privilege over others?
I remember reading an article a while back about a woman totally dedicated to the hermeneutics of suspicion. She was an anthropologist working in Africa. While over there, she witnessed the women in that culture were being subjected to female genital mutilation and sexual slavery. She wrote about her dedication to the idea that all truth claims are a power trip and no one should be able to impose their truth claims onto other people. But she shockingly wrote “what I am witnessing in Africa is evil.” When she went to the government to see how she could help the women, the government refused. They simply replied, “you are just imposing your western individualistic views onto us. You see it as sexual slavery. That’s not the way we see it.” She was frustrated because she knew their claim, that all truth claims is a power trip, was ironically, the biggest power trip of all! Then she came to the realization that the claim that everything is relative is a religion. People use relativism to seem so humble and tolerant because they think all truth claims are the same. But they become just a self-righteous when they come across someone who disagrees with them. Relativism is dogmatic, it’s incredibly self-justifying, and it’s a way to exclude people.
You see, we want to see religious people as someone like the warden from the movie Shawshank Redemption. Someone who uses their religion as a justification to exploit the prisoners, murder, and steal because he feels superior to them. But the truth of the matter is, we are all religious. We look down at people who do not believe the same as we do. That applies even to the individual(s) who claim to not be dogmatic over anything. But aren’t those individuals who are trying so hard in not being dogmatic are actually dogmatic about not being dogmatic?
The modern critique of religion gets us stuck. Because we are starting to realize the premise, there is no God, ultimately leads us to a conclusion that what is happening to those women in African isn’t wrong. If the premise is leading us to a conclusion we know is not true, then you have to change your premise. Jack Miles wrote in a New York Times article in 2008 about this. He describes “that we have lost our faith in unfaith. We lost our belief in disbelief. We are just being as dogmatic and self-righteous as a religious person but we hate religion.” What is the answer then?
Jesus’ Radical Message and the Gospel:
Jesus Christ is the most anti-religious person. He is the most anti-religious founder of any religion that you can ever find. Everything Marx says is in the prophets of Amos and Isaiah. They rebuke people for using God as a means to oppress the poor. Marx says religious people use their position to sociologically oppress people. So did Jesus. Jesus says to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:14; “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” When John the Baptist sends a messenger to Jesus to ask him, “are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” Jesus’ reply is astonishing:
“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.
Nietzsche says religion is used to oppress and exclude people. Jesus says the same thing as Nietzsche does:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.”
The moralistic religions say it’s the strong, powerful, and most moral that gets God favor. But Jesus says it’s the poor and those who are poor in spirit. It’s the ones who admit they have nothing that are worthy of the Gospel. That’s the great irony of the gospel. As Tim Keller beautifully puts it, “you have to realize you’re unworthy of the gospel in order to be worthy of it.” You have to be poor in spirit in order to be accepted by God.
Religion is never used in a positive way in the Bible except for one place in the Epistle of James where it says, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (1:27). James is probably saying this ironically because Jesus consistently says that religious people use religion to exclude people.
After all, religious people believe they are saved by their works. Therefore, they’re not serving God but controlling God. Religion masks our sins and with self-righteousness. Religion constantly seeks to exclude people. Through our virtues and good works, we try and make ourselves feel superior to others. It makes us believe we are righteous when we really aren’t. It’s an absolute distortion of reality. It’s an opiate of the masses.
Although religion may be opiate for the masses the gospel is the smelling salt for the masses. Freud says we use religion as a self-justification to buy off God. But everywhere in the Bible it essentially says, God can buy you but you can never buy God. You cannot justify yourself before God. God operates under the principle of grace for this reason–He gives everything to you so owe him everything. Tim Keller a Presbyterian minister recalls the significance of this in his book Prodigal God. He is discusses a conversation he had with a woman who thought unmerited salvation is scary:
“I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works — then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace — at God’s infinite cost — then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
When Jesus encounters people who think they can buy off God by their good moral behavior, great church attendance, wealth, money, success, he absolutely cuts them down. The young rich ruler asks Jesus in Matthew 19 what good thing shall he do so that he may have eternal life. Jesus replies, you must obey all the commandments. The young ruler replied “I do all these things what else must I do?” Jesus then said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” You must be perfect in order to justified yourself. But no one can accomplish this. Romans 3:23 says we have all fallen short of the glory of God. There is no difference between the priest and the prostitute. When the young ruler heard what Jesus said to him, he went away sad for he couldn’t justify himself. If the standards are so impossible to fulfill, how is it that we can be justified before God?
You don’t need to do the great deed because the great deed was already done for you. This is the amazing news of the gospel: “that even though we were sinners,” even though we have fallen short, “Christ still died for us.” Jesus does not require us to do some “great thing” because he has already done the great thing for us. He literally endured both physical and spiritual hell at the cross so that we could be saved.
You may be sitting there saying, “But Brendan, I can’t believe in a God who people use to abuse others.” You would be correct. Christianity is the only one that claims that God came to earth to be abuse. Jesus was trampled by the strong and became totally weak. He took the crown of thorns and the blood dripped down his face while bestowing you with the crown of life. He was stripped naked, beaten, and pierced for our transgression so that we could be clothed in his royal robes and be made clean. While nails were pierced in his hands and feet, he prayed “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.” It’s the great exchange. The heart of the gospel is that God became weak so that he can have a relationship with you. So you could be saved. You need to be melted and moved by what it cost to bring you home. Once you realize the infinite price Jesus paid, you can’t buy God off. You gladly owe him everything and live a self-sacrificial life for others.
When I think about that, it humbles me immensely. Therefore, I cannot say my identity or who I am is built on my moral record or my performance. Rather, it’s built on God’s love for me in Christ. My good works, according to the prophet of Isaiah, is nothing more than filthy rags (or the hebrew it basically is comparing our good works to menstrual blood, pretty gross right?). I can’t look down on others for believing different from me because I am only what I am by the grace of God. Jesus Christ didn’t die so you could be right or have a religious belief. Jesus came and died so you can have a relationship with him.
So my dear religious friend I implore you, lose your religion. Embrace the grace of God and let it humble you. Come back home to Jesus.