Is religion just a crutch for emotionally weak people, creating more
problems than it solves?
Many people today think
religion is "pre-scientific," bound to the past, and practiced only
by the superstitious and ignorant. In their view, we'd be better off
without it. John Lennon expressed this sentiment in his song
"Imagine" when he wrote, "Imagine there's no heaven, and no religion
viewpoint has a lot of appeal to people who don't want their
personal moral choices "restricted" by tradition or creed. It
appeals to young people who want to "kick over the traces," and to
older people who long to suppress the ache of a guilty conscience.
Regardless of its appeal, it doesn't hold up under examination.
Religion is basic to human experience. It is such a basic aspect of
our experience that we can't get rid of it. Other creatures may live
without religion, but people can't. We are religious to the core.
Why are people so
incorrigibly religious? Perhaps the main reason is our consciousness
of the inevitability of death.
No matter how we try to
suppress it, we all know that we are living on borrowed time, making
decisions that define us forever. With maturity and age this
awareness becomes even more intense and more troubling. Death is
approaching; time is limited; the ways we invest our lives express
our values and our source of meaning.
gives us our basic set of values and our source of meaning. Living
consciously in the shadow of death, we express our religion
involuntarily by the way we live.1 Animals
live entirely in the moment, aware only of present time. But human
consciousness, which is created in God's image, constantly scans
past and future, searching for patterns of meaning that link the
isolated experiences of our lives. Humans can be immersed in the
present only for a limited time, like a diver who submerges to see
the wonders of a coral reef but inevitably comes back up for air.
Meaning is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe, the
water we drink, and the food we eat. 2
The longing for
ultimate meaning has a dark side, as does the longing for greater
knowledge. Both religion and science have been misused. People have
done terrible things in both their longing for meaning and
knowledge. Evil people exploit our longing for meaning and knowledge
to promote their agendas. The life-denying effects of false religion
are confirmed by Scripture:
regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their
self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh
treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining
sensual indulgence ( Colossians
considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on
his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is
this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to
keep oneself from being polluted by the world ( James
But it would be as
unreasonable to condemn religion because it is sometimes misused, as
it would be unreasonable to condemn science because it is often
twisted to evil purposes.
The issue isn't
whether we are religious, because we all are. It is disingenuous to
claim that one can live without religion, or that true religion is
responsible for evil done by false religion. The crucial issue is
whether our basic values are true or false, whether our reason for
living brings life or death, whether or not it is aligned with the
purposes of the Creator. 3
1 . The term religion
comes from a Latin word that refers to "the bond between man and the
gods." Worship is uniquely human. For ancient people, the "gods"
referred to deities personifying aspects of their experience. But
the "gods" also had a symbolic reference -- a reference to the
transcendent powers that unify human experience and give it meaning.
2 . The fact that we
are hungry for meaning and concerned with establishing a link
between our past and our future doesn't imply that it is good to be
anxious about the future. Jesus Himself spoke of the importance of
living fully in the moment. But He didn't speak of doing so in the
context of living like an animal. In fact, He stressed that animal
existence couldn't be our goal. As people, we don't live on bread
alone, "but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew
4:4). He showed His disciples their potential for enjoying the
present because of faith in the Father's goodness -- i.e. because of
3. A final comment to a
brilliant popular musician: Doing away with the possibility of final
punishment for evil and reward for good -- the possibility of
ultimate justice -- would never make the world a better place. If
convinced of "no hell below" and "only sky" above, people would be
even less compassionate, more desperate for immediate satisfaction,
and less willing to endure personal hardship for the sake of others.
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