On Religion as a Force for Good in the World

The Munk debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens just finished, and I feel the need to weigh in.  For those who are unaware, the debate was about the statement that “religion is a force for good in the world.”  Saying yes was Tony Blair, former British PM and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seeks dialogue between the world’s major religions.  On the “no” side was renowned atheist and current cancer patient Christopher Hitchens, author of the book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Some initial comments, and then I’ll get into my own position on this.

First, Christopher Hitchens has cancer.  It’s great that he agreed to participate in this debate in spite of this, but I think the amount of time spent on it at the beginning did him a disservice.  While we appreciate the man, we’re here to evaluate his arguments, not his health, and he really does not require any excuse for doing a poor job – indeed, he was much more professional, both in his attitude and the quality of his arguments, than I had anticipated.  Tony Blair, on the other hand, was introduced as the man who has done the most for good in the world in the past few decades; who can live up to that?  Unfortunately, Blair’s Faith Foundation is a pluralistic foundation, and essentially requires him to reduce his concept of religion to the “essence of all religions” – a phrase he repeated probably more than a dozen times – which amounts to loving and serving God through doing good in the world.  There was some tallying of charity and atrocities in the name of religion during the first half, with Blair finally (and repeatedly) making the point that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on atrocity and atheists do it too; and with Hitchens finally getting around to the obvious point that many of the wrongs he kept pointing out are not the result of misinterpretation of scriptures but of belief in them (which is arguable, but he argued it with convincing zeal).  Both sides told stories of their own humanitarian work, both claiming that people were motivated either by religion (Blair) or the simple human desire to do good (Hitchens), with someone from the audience finally pointing out (in the form of a question) that they were both talking roughly about exactly the same thing.

Overall, I was disappointed.  Not with Hitchens; he was surprisingly well-mannered at most points, and for the most part gave credit where it was due – though when asked what he felt Blair’s most convincing argument was, he didn’t offer much at all.  Blair was a disappointment mostly because of his definition of religion: it was very vague, and almost indistinguishable from humanism inspired by a sense of the transcendent, which was something that Hitchens himself would obviously grant as important.  In the end, his one and only argument was “religion inspires some people to do good in the world, and we ought to encourage that even though it may inspire others to bad things.”  At the very least, that’s how it came across (with the help of Hitchens, who steered the whole debate).

The faults of arguing that religion is a force for good in the world seems too obvious to me, and I’m shocked that nobody picked up on it at the debate: religion itself is not a force at all, whether for good or evil.  Religion itself is a human understanding of and response to God, and like all human endeavours it is both flawed and insufficient, and often inconsistent to boot.  Religion can be used for good or evil, just like a knife or NATO or economics.  For every example Hitchens gave of atrocities and conflicts caused or supported by religion, Blair gave an example of religion being a primary force in bringing resolution to that same conflict.  The reason is not that religion is somehow good or evil, but that people are good or evil, at any given moment.

Religion is something invented by human beings, and it can be used for whatever purpose we put it to.  Jesus Christ did not invent Christianity; he revealed God to us, and we set up a system to venerate him and propagate his message – but that message itself is not religion.  Neither Blair nor Hitchens brought up the actual content of the Christian message, at least in part because they were supposed to debate religion in general but also quite likely because it’s easy to dismiss claims that Jesus himself gave a message of subjugating people or starting wars or performing atrocities.  It is not Christ who causes atrocities, but human beings; the fact that we are sometimes armed with disturbing notions of Christ and his teaching says nothing about Christ himself.  Hitchens did point out that the atrocities of the Bible are in large part in the Old Testament, and he lamented the fact that we elected to keep it as a part of our scriptures; Blair countered by saying that events of the distant past seem strange to us, and are not easily understood by people today.  Both acknowledged that the OT seems to demand atrocities of people; Blair offered no explanation, and Hitchens likely insists that there is none necessary, that the OT and religion itself is barbaric.  But in either case, to put the praise or blame for the actions of human beings on a system and understanding that human beings created is actually the reverse of what they were both trying to say: Blair insists that religion inspires us to do good things, and Hitchens insists that it requires us to do bad, both resting those arguments on a system that we created and continue to control to whatever good or evil purposes are within us.

There are real forces acting in the world today, for good and for evil.  For evil, there are powers and principalities in the heavenly realms, social and cultural forces that affect our every decision, and sin within us that turns us to evil.  For all of these things, religion is a tool to encourage evil.  They use it to discourage the good things such as reason, truth, humility, charity, etc. – all things that Hitchens claims religion does away with.  Blair is hard put upon to counter that claim, because religion itself is in the hands of these forces, a system in a fallen world of fallen systems.

On the other hand, God himself is a force for good, and religion attempts to describe him.  Religion is good when it describes God’s goodness in a way that inspires us to also be good or do good, namely, participating in what God is doing in the world.  When religion is bad, it fails to describe God at all.  When it fails to perform this purpose, we could actually say that it ceases to be religion, and the claim that religion is bad evaporates.  Illegitimate religion needs its own term, I suppose, but in a pluralistic society (such as the one Blair represents with his Faith Foundation) it would amount to the same thing, with everyone claiming that everyone else’s religion is actually this illegitimate religion.  So, in a way, Blair was doomed from the start: his insistence on relating to a set of core values that are supposed to represent every religion leaves him no room to define illegitimate religion except by the terms of humanism, which is Hitchens’ field.  Thus religion, like humanism, must be a force for good or evil itself rather than simply pointing to what God is doing, because we become unable to point to God himself and maintain a pluralist notion of religion’s good “essence”.

In short, true religion describes what God is doing and invites participation in that.  In that sense, religion is not a force in the world at all, but points to the true force, God, who himself inspires us to do good.  Hitchens wins, not because the atrocities committed in the name of God outweigh the good done in his name, but because secularism and pluralism set the terms of a debate that in the end had almost nothing to do with God.  Post debate, the tally stands at 32% pro (believing that religion is a force for good in the world) and 68% con (pre-debate was 22% pro, 57% con, and 21% undecided); but given the terms of the debate, I’d say the whole thing misses the mark.  Without pointing to God, religion not only is not necessarily a force for good in the world, but it isn’t really much of anything at all.

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6 thoughts on “On Religion as a Force for Good in the World

  1. Unfortunately, Blair’s Faith Foundation is a pluralistic foundation, and essentially requires him to reduce his concept of religion to the “essence of all religions” – a phrase he repeated probably more than a dozen times – which amounts to loving and serving God through doing good in the world.

    That’s too bad. This is the underlying problem of what the modern world considers “pluralism”–namely, recognizing that all religions are ultimately the same. Of course, this is false. All religions are not the same and to recognize this is true pluralism.

    What would a Buddhist have to say about the notion of “serving God” for instance?

    Jesus Christ did not invent Christianity; he revealed God to us, and we set up a system to venerate him and propagate his message – but that message itself is not religion.

    Interesting point. What does this say about the church? What is your ecclesiology, Jeff?

    • The Church is the community of people who believe in the Gospel, which is the message that Christ preached and lived, which itself points to reality, which is the universe formed by Christ on the foundation of Christ and reconciled to God by the work of Christ.

      Obviously my Ecclesiology is more complex than just that, and I’m still formulating it (you’re the first person to ever ask me this question); but suffice it to say that I have no illusions regarding the authority of my own position as a theologian, much less as a churchman. I know the tinyest scrap of who God is, and even this little bit compels me to do what he does, and part of what he does is create and build up community. While this community is the current earthly incarnation of Christ, it’s a hybrid creature with a divine origin and destination and a fallen body that’s slowly but continually getting back up, and even then fighting for every step against forces that divide us. Beyond being like Jesus, and this leading to us as a community actually embodying Jesus, I don’t really know what else to say; but it appears, as ever, that human beings tend to get in the way of what God is doing as much as we participate in it.

  2. I’ll have to disagree with your statment that religion is entirely invented by humanity, and also that is no force at all.
    Britannica defines religion as:
    “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine. Religion is commonly regarded as consisting of a person’s relation to God or to gods or spirits. Worship is probably the most basic element of religion, but moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions are generally also constituent elements of the religious life as practiced by believers and worshipers and as commanded by religious sages and scriptures.”
    According to that definition (and most others), I’d say in virtually every respect Biblical faith is religion. It seems virtually every Evangelical church nowadays teaches that faith in Christ and religion as complete opposites as they presume religion is man’s effort to reach God (whereas salvation is God reaching man…we all know where this goes).

    However, one book that still strikes me from school is “Engaging With God”, particularly the author’s (Peterson) point that worship is:
    “an enagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible”. Since reading that book, I have a hard time sitting through teaching and salvation calls where virtually every time faith and religion are presented as mutally exclusive. Sure the Bible clearly stands against man-made religion…but religion in general? As believers, we are apart of The New Covenant which is a pretty religious notion to begin with along with everything it entails (the Church, ordinances such as baptism and communion, commandments such as to love, belief, repentenc, submittion, worship and so on). If faith in Christ is just “Jesus and me” than why is the Bible so long?

    I’m often tempted to label myself a religious fundamentalist as I identify with what those words truly mean (but will wisely not for obvious reasons). I just think there’s a lot throwing the baby out with the bathwater currently in terms of approaching religion.

    So going back to the debate, I wish Blair would’ve presented religion as the means in which God wants humanity to relate to him (or even “it” if going the pluralist route). Since God is love, then the actions he commands from his followers should be a force for good in the world. It would probably be easier to argue from a Christian “religious” perspective as you could talk about the fall of humanity and a host of other core beliefs which relate to this topic. Regardless, Blair would’ve been better off placing a higher emphasis on the good in this world being God’s work with humanity as co-labourers (hey, a bonus political party shout-out), rather than emphasizing humanity as the primary agents of good who happen to have a little more motivation because some transcendant belief.

    I fully agree with:
    “Religion is good when it describes God’s goodness in a way that inspires us to also be good or do good, namely, participating in what God is doing in the world. When religion is bad, it fails to describe God at all.” I would go on to say, in the same vein as Peterson, religion is participating in what God is doing in the world.

  3. great blog. it is a rare thing to find a measured and articulate blogger on the subject of religion. i, unfortunately, find supporters from the ranks of a rather simple minded and frothing at the mouth brand of atheist, and find your blog a breath of fresh air in the wilderness.

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