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 too.”
This anti-religious 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.
Our religion 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:
Such 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 2:23).
If anyone 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 1:26-27).
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 religion.
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.
Dan Vander Lugt