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When there is no religion, the religion that exists in the vacuum—ideology—is the very worst sort of religion…

Women's March longeneckerAfter observing yet another protest march the other day I became interested in how similar to religion ideologies are. The ideology could be left wing or right wing, North, South, East or West wing. It matters not. What matters is that when there is no religion, the ideology becomes the religion.

Of course at any particular march there may be religious believers participating. They may have seen participation as part of their greater religious duty. If that is so, then they would have placed the protest in its proper priority. Whether they are Buddhist or Baptist, Mormon or Muslim, Catholic or Quaker, their marching for civil rights or their support of blue lives or black lives or banning pipelines or poverty or abortion or abuse—all these worthy causes would be subordinate to the higher calling and worthier cause of their religion.

But for those who have no religion (and in our American society there are an increasing number) it is frightening to see how the ideology becomes their religion. Not only does it become their religion, but the sort of religion it becomes is the very worst sort of religion.

To be sure, there are good religions and bad religions, and by this I do not mean that being Baptist is better than Buddhist or being Methodist is better than Mormon. The veracity and virtue of various religions can certainly be compared and contrasted, and I do not doubt that one religion is superior to them all, but I’m referring here to a different way of judging a religion—any religion.

Put simply, religion should open people up, not close people down. Religion should help us examine our lives, our history, our beliefs, and our behaviors. Religion should empower self-criticism, broaden the mind, open the heart, and enlighten the soul. Religion should be an adventure into the unknown, a search meaning and a mechanism for the maturation of the human soul. Religion should be a trampoline not an easy chair. Religion should bring us to the threshold of the transcendent. It should help us to retain the wide-eyed wonder of childhood while we seek to attain the wise and tender wonder of old age. Religion should be a casting off—a launch into the deep.

Bad religion, on the other hand, does exactly the opposite. Bad religion is used as a tool to close down discussion. It demands an orthodoxy that is irrational, obedient and unthinking. Bad religion not only imposes a set of beliefs and behaviors on people—it gathers the orthodox believers into a fortress of faith. When that begins, the truly sick psychology of religion kicks in. Irrationality takes over. Because questioning of the dogmas is not allowed, the faithful in their fortress strengthen their faith by fortifying their espirit de corps. They strengthen their little group first with enthusiasm and zeal, and when that is exhausted, with the most effective way of boosting team spirit—finding an enemy from outside and attacking. Sick religions always need an enemy.

This bad religious behavior is increasingly obvious in the godless society in which we live. Secularists on both the right wing and left wing can fall into the trap of bad religions. A political dogmatism prevails. Deviation from the politically-correct ideology is not permitted. Furthermore, every aspect of the ideology must be adhered to, as in a sick religion, every doctrine must have equally infallible value. Those who are enslaved by a sick religious ideology will always seek to enslave others. A sign of this is that to criticize the sick religion will immediately bring the charge that you are one of the enemy.

Anyone who imagines that there can be a world without religion, therefore is terribly naive, for mankind is innately religious. We all want something greater to live and fight for. The problem is when there is no religion the religion that exists in the vacuum is the very worst sort of religion, and that is the religion that does not realize it is a religion

A person whose Christianity is unhealthy in the way I have described may, sooner or later, take to heart the gospel warnings against self-righteousness and Pharisaism. On the other hand, the secularist whose ideology has become a sick religion will never be able to criticize his sick religion because he does not think he has a religion. A self-righteous person will never be able to acknowledge his self-righteousness if the only thing he believes in is himself.

The terrifying thing about the sick religion I am describing is that it always ends in violence. Because it is fueled by fear and rage, it must end in destruction. Sometimes, of course, the violence is literal. The unhealthy ideologies march out to war against the enemy. They stage violent protests. They lash out with murderous intent. More often, however, the violence is psychological, emotional, and spiritual. They swear, they rage, they curse the enemy. Then they condemn, vilify, exclude and marginalize the outsider and unbeliever.

What is the solution to such a societal sickness? The answer is simple, but not easy.

If the problem is sick religion, the answer is healthy religion. Each one who is a believer must live the life of faith as an open-hearted search for all that is beautiful, good, and true. Our minds must roam about fearless and hungry and supple, living the fullness of life with strength, generosity, and joy. The few with true faith must live that faith with increasing amazement and power.

Then when others see that kind of transcendent humanity they will stop and say, “Where did you get that? I want some.”

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16 replies to this post
  1. Religions should be judged on their outcomes. I would argue that Christianity has given Mankind Western Civilization, while Islam has given the world what is the Middle East. Secular Progressivism on the other hand is too early to tell. China and the old U.S.S.R. might give us glimpse though.

    • Religions should not be judged by their outcomes, but by the truth or falsity of their creed- ours ends on the cross and by that standard it is very unappealing. True Christianity is in full conformity with the nature of reality in all its theological, philosophical and scientific truth. Outcomes based assessment is the colossal mistake our terrible public schools make.

  2. I concur with the authors view of the ideology becoming a religion, creating havoc. The prime issue in this is that the ideology so embraced always remains alterable to the extent of the holder’s comfort and fancy, whereas religion is a definitive manual which is unalterable as per the whims of subjective freedom. Here lies he friction and the ideology without religion becomes cancerous in nature that knows nothing as universal but as relative.

  3. The ultimate of many of these movements is a utopia on earth, a complete flourishing of mankind. If in 500 years from now that goal is reached how does the secularist know what that looks like? What kind of universal “man” or system will guarantee that flourishing? How do they know what steps to take if they do not really know what flourishing looks like. We know having all of our desires here on earth met does not satisfy and does not bring peace or total happiness. There is a yearning in the heart that is restless which no ideology can satisfy. If it did we would have found it by now. There is something or more accurately Someone beyond.

  4. It is not very bold to suggest that religions be judged based on their secular consequences, be they governmental consequences or psychological consequences or social consequences. Consequentialism is everywhere, though it is, of course, just another ideology. Fr. Longenecker should know better than to go down this road. Telling children tales about Santa Claus or the Bogeyman may encourage children to behave more nicely to one another — does that justify telling them lies? If a religion based on lies had all the wonderful social and psychological consequences that Fr. Longenecker wants, would that make it a good religion? Having expressed his priorities in this way, how could Fr. Longenecker respond to unbelievers who say that stories of God and the devil are precisely stories of Santa Claus and the Bogeyman scaled up for adults? No; give me my Caritas in Veritate.

    • “Fr. Longenecker should know better than to go down this road.”

      He didn’t. He was pointing out that the mix of hubris, self-righteousness and intolerance of true authority cannot help but have bad consequences, in precisely the same way as denying the reality of gravity can result in falling to your death. To deny the Truth is to lapse into error.

      Consequentialism determines the good of a thing based on the consequences of choosing a thing as judged by human desires. What Father was doing was the opposite: of pointing out that truth does not care what you believe or whether or not the Truth pleases you. It has perfect, absolute and total authority, whether you believe it or not.

      This is a subtle point, but the difference is between placing human desires as the ultimate authority, versus placing God as the ultimate authority. The flaw in ideologies that eliminate God in favor of human desire is that humans didn’t create reality, and what they desire or fear does not change or control reality. To a certain extent, the validity of a belief system can be determined by the fruits of having faith in it, but we must always remember that the fruits are not the same as “the result pleases me.”

      • “The veracity and virtue of various religions can certainly be compared and contrasted, and I do not doubt that one religion is superior to them all, but I’m referring here to a different way of judging a religion—any religion.

        Put simply, religion should open people up, not close people down….”

        Sorry, but his method of “judging a religion” in terms of whether or not it “opens people up”, among other things, appears to be neither more nor less than consequentialism.

        • I should clarify that I do not think Fr. Longenecker actually embraces consequentialism; I have read too much of his other writings to believe that. However, in this article he falls into consequentialist language.

  5. I didn’t say the results of a religion were the only way of judging it. In fact I said “The veracity and virtue of various religions can certainly be compared and contrasted, and I do not doubt that one religion is superior to them all, but I’m referring here to a different way of judging a religion—any religion.” The implication is that the truth claims (veracity) are the primary method of judging a religion, but that religions can also be compared and contrasted by results.

  6. This essay is so beautiful and profound, haunting and yet hopeful – I plan to print it out and savor and share it. Far and wide. With strangers, even.

    I have been in such a profound funk after seeing snippets of the March for Women (a.k.a. the race for greates victimhood), reading the competing voices of those who attended yet felt the most marginalized by their experiences, attending a superbowl party and marveling at the tragedy that is television and pop culture, and feeling lost in the madness that seems to be the ever more dramatic, alarmist, and chaotic newscycle.

    Yet I know that my faith requires me to be at peace deep in my soul. To set my gaze first upon Christ, looking back at me. And to rest deeply in the Sacraments and The Word and the wisdom of our church.

    I also feel compelled to love these women and men who seem so sad, angry, and determined to divide our society into tiny cell blocks of “why my life matters more than yours and theirs and you cannot possibly understand it from your intersectionalized hegemonic binary privileged repressed regressive misogynistic point of view”.

    Each fails to recognize the dignity of every human life. And so misses out on reveling in the dignity that he or she naturally carries. Each one is a beautiful, nonreplicable, called into being person!

    This new counter-culture IS a strange religion. Thank you for giving it a name. And helping me to frame it.

    Now I know what to pray for. And what I can do to be a peaceful, positive, healthy, loving Catholic witness.

    God bless your work!

  7. The monks at the Tibetan monastery I spent time in in Nepal, along with other western inquirers, said, “Don’t become Buddhists. Look to the faith of your fathers. The truth is there.”

  8. A nice piece.

    Regarding the propensity of agnostics/atheists/secularists to draw a distinction between themselves and followers of traditional religions, I look at it a bit differently. They seem to believe that religions are just some collection of theology, beliefs in the supernatural, holy texts, ceremonies and moral precepts. Of course, all those things are part of most traditional religions, but I would argue that if you dig a bit deeper, all religions are about one thing–and indeed they make this claim themselves. At their core, all religions are–and profess to be–explanations of reality; the reality of the true nature of man, God and the universe, and the relationship between them.

    Now, people who don’t follow traditional religions may not THINK they have any religion, but they certainly operate under some belief of the nature of reality. And many, many important things will flow logically from that belief, both for the individual and for societies and civilizations. Or as Chesterton said: “But there are some people, nevertheless–and I am one of them–who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.”

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