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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Religion as fun, religion as narcotic, religion as stimulant

Way back in my graduate school days I thought of religion as fun. Why do people do religion, I asked? Beause it is fun. It is enjoyable. It enriches one's day. Without it life is dull and drab and colorless.

I still think that is true. It is fun to sing with other people (if we have good singing leadership). It is fun to work with others to make the world better in some way. It is fun to hear the stories of "saints"--people who lived heroic lives.

Fun comforts me.

Does it comfort me too much?

Karl Marx attacked religion because it comforted people too much. "Pie in the sky when you die" he said. Religion masks the pain of life in the name of some illusory future bliss. Forget religion. Be a man. (Perhaps Marx was not a male chauvinist, but I bet he was.) Get up and do something about oppression. Fight it. Don't wait for redemption. Make it happen.

Then there was Sigmund Freud, with a similar criticism. Religion makes you go back to the womb. It infantalizes you. Face reality. It's a cold and heartless life. Be a man. Quit drugging yourself with thoughts of bliss.

These days the criticism is in the opposite direction. Religion fires people up too much. It motivates ISIS fanatics to go around beheading people. It gives motivation to sociopaths who kill in the name of God. It tells people that being gay is a curse of God, and for a society to acknowledge that gayness is destructive. The world would be much better off if religion were wiped off the face of the earth.

I must admit that I am tempted to think this way when I reflect on how politicians in our country have to pay attention to religious fundamentalists. It used to be godless Communism that was the enemy; now it is godless liberalism or Muslim fanaticism. The real man stands up and fights for virtue and holiness.

I keep using the term "man." Maybe the real problem lies in some deep-rooted human tendencies, like male chauvinism and the easy resort to violence to solve any problem.

That brings me to forgiveness. Why was the idea of forgiveness so central to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus? Why is the "forgiveness of sins" listed as part of the Apostles Creed? Why do we pray "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world"? Why do the words of consecration in the Mass, traditionally the most sacred part of the Mass, mention forgiveness? "This is the chalice of my blood, . . . which was poured out . . . for the forgiveness of sins."

Forget about original sin. That term sets us off on a line of thought that too easily gets co-opted by the politics of religious sectarianism. There is plenty of sin to go around without worrying about where it came from, and about membership in what group will take care of it. We are bathed in sin. Male chauvinism, our tendency toward violence, our limitless desire for possessions and for the symbols of possession (like stock options). The old list gave us seven "deadly sins."

Let's look at that list.

Pride. I have questions about this one. Psychology has taught us that many people suffer from a lack of self-confidence, which could be interpreted as a lack of pride. The term calls to mind obedience, which has functioned as a tool of oppression in too much of our Christian history. So I find it questionable to refer to pride as a deadly sin.

Covetousness or avarice. Now here we are onto something. The great myth of the Invisible Hand has freed us from the vice of avarice. It makes avarice into a virtue. That leads to the games that impoverish much of the human race. I can go into the Philippines and drive people off the land so that I can dig there for copper, leaving the place an environmental disaster. But as long as my actions benefit my bottom line, all is well. I am virtuous.

Lust. The internet has not helped us. We can look for sexual pleasure at any hour of the day or night, and in the process lower our productivity (lust competing with avarice) and poison the sexual dimension of our family lives.

Anger. Now it is true that the emotion of anger is not evil in itself. What is evil is the behavior that the emotion can lead to. Too many of us have problems with "anger control." Once we let anger control us, we can mess up the rest of our lives, for example by landing us in prison.

Gluttony. Need I say more?

Envy. This is the gasoline that drives avarice and anger. We see what our neighbor has and we cannot live with the situation.

Sloth. Maybe this isn't our problem. But maybe we drive ourselves so relentlessly because we secretly fear that we will relapse into eternal rest if we let up for just one minute. We certainly project our own insecurities about our laziness onto the "less fortunate" in our midst. Those people are just lazy. They don't want to work. We understand that line of thinking all too well. So we kill our ability to enjoy life in order that we not be like those other sinners.


Religion does comfort us but it also challenges us. It is fun, but it also tempers our fun with the awareness that we can and do mess up, and therefore we are in constant need of forgiveness. For some reason God has created us as unfinished creatures. We stumble and blunder as we learn to grow in love.

But God does call us to grow in love. God does call us to to be involved with each other passionately, respectfully, vulnerably, and faithfully.

I think that call allows us to enjoy life without lapsing into either passivity or fanaticism.