There’s Religion, And Then There’s Religion

Yesterday’s post sparked a number of comments about religion, pro and (mostly) con.

It is easy to look at the self-righteousness of the Christian warriors–the Mike Pences and Franklin Grahams of the world–and come to the conclusion that Christianity (and for that matter, all religion) is a poorly-veiled effort by self-righteous prigs to control and dominate others.

And yet….

We need to recognize that even those of us who are nonbelievers are nevertheless  products of specific religious cultures, and consider the ways in which our early socialization into those cultures have shaped the attitudes with which we approach issues of justice and human behavior. (Pardon the shameful plug, but I wrote a book–God and Country: America in Red and Blue– about the ways in which those unrecognized religious roots influence Americans’ positions on ostensibly secular policies from economics and criminal justice to the environment.)

Religion was initially a way to explain an inexplicable world–especially why some people prospered and others suffered. Different religious traditions approached these questions differently, and when humans invented science, some embraced the “new learning” and some rejected it.

That leads me to an utterly banal observation: some approaches to religious belief encourage people to live together amicably, and some do not. My own unoriginal rule of thumb is based entirely upon the behavior of purportedly religious folks. If your religion makes you more compassionate and kind, if it provides you with a helpful (but not unduly prescriptive) framework within which to approach moral dilemmas, it’s probably good.

If it turns you into a self-righteous moral scold, it probably isn’t.

I came across a far more eloquent version of my approach on Phil Gulley’s blog. Gulley, as many readers know, is a Quaker pastor and author from a small community near Indianapolis. The post in question was his response to a mean-spirited cartoon by Gary Varvel, who is a longtime cartoonist (and inexplicably, recently a columnist) for the Indianapolis Star. The cartoon, which portrayed Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser as a demanding publicity seeker, is reproduced on Gulley’s blog.

The Star evidently refused to print Gulley’s response, saying that the newspaper had already apologized for printing the cartoon. (A number of people canceled their subscriptions, citing it, and I can see why the paper might prefer not to call any further attention to it.) That’s a pity, though, because Gulley has captured the distinction between religious beliefs that prompt humility and self-examination and those that serve as a substitute for self-awareness and as a crutch for judgmentalism.

You really need to read the entire post, but here are the paragraphs that illustrate that distinction:

I’ve known Gary Varvel most of my life. We were raised in the same small town and have many friends in common. We embraced the Christian faith around the same time. I once believed as he still does. But his faith has taken him places I cannot go, embracing causes I cannot support. To be fair, he likely says the same thing about my faith. Gary has often said his faith informs everything he does. I believe him, which is why I reject his faith, or at least his version of Christianity, which always comes at the expense of others, be they women, or gays, or liberals, or any “others” whose demands for justice challenge its narrow and settled world.

I have never wanted anyone to lose his or her job. It has happened to me twice, and each time was painful and difficult. While I have never wanted anyone to be fired, I have often wished those who neglect the hard work of self-awareness and self-improvement would retire, or perhaps find another line of work that doesn’t involve shaping, or misshaping, public opinion. That is my wish for Gary, to retire and spend time learning the world his wife, daughter, and granddaughters inhabit, a world far different from his own.



  1. Sheila, you said, “We need to recognize that even those of us who are nonbelievers are nevertheless products of specific religious cultures, and consider the ways in which our early socialization into those cultures have shaped the attitudes with which we approach issues of justice and human behavior. ”
    I couldn’t agree more. I’m often startled when I stop to think about a certain feeling or response, and recognize it from my family’s Quaker background. My ‘formal’ teachings stopped when, as my mother put it, our Friend’s meeting house hired a temporary minister who appeared to her to be a Southern Baptist, and she didn’t think that, at age 6, I needed to be yelled at about fire and brimstone. Good news, Mom – what you and my grandmother taught in other ways and other places, actually ‘stuck’. I am far from perfect, but the frequency with which ‘simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality’ enter into my thought process would make my grandmother very happy.

  2. My faith has taught me the discipline of discernment. Suspend judgement until you know the whole story. I will speaking at a conference here at Lake George in New York about discovery >> discernment >> development >> direction. Headlines on fire prompt judgement as if we know the whole story. It is emotional. It seems we want to rush to certainty about what is right and wrong. In the moment, uncertainty prevails and the powerful would rather it remain that way. The whole story may never be known.

  3. Prof. Kennedy, I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the Constitutional issue that I think is at the core: how we handle it when someone believes that their free exercise gives them not only the right but also the responsibility to establish (or to interfere with the free exercise and freedom-from of others).

    If someone believes that their belief system requires them to bear witness in public, that might seem to be innocuous, but it can also create a chilling or hostile environment when a bunch of like-minded believers testify enthusiastically together, leaving others feeling that it is not okay to disagree (and are condescending or oppositional when gently confronted). Easiest example would be ceremonial deism at town meetings.

    If someone believes that their belief system requires them to spread the good word, that becomes highly problematic when they think that also requires them to, say, use the levers of power to impose their beliefs on the public school curriculum.

    If someone believes that their belief system requires them to save the souls of others, then what happens when they use secular power to encode their beliefs into laws that reward certain behaviors… or punish others.

    If someone believes that their belief system requires them to ensure the dominion of that belief system, then what happens when they use secular power to establish laws that encode those beliefs more generally and actively restrict the choices other people can make.

    (Frame of reference: I’m a pretty observant member of a religious minority. The right wing extremist version of my own religion is just as embarrassingly intolerant and obnoxious as the right wing Christian, and I cannot say that I am even remotely proud of some of the crap they pull when they think they have control over the levers of power. And I am using “belief system” to refer not just to Christianity and not just to formal organized religion, because I don’t think you can really draw a line around religion that doesn’t also include structured belief systems that think of themselves as in opposition to religions entirely (some radical atheists are just as nasty as anyone whose radical beliefs have some kind of deity involved).

  4. i usually piss the masses off with my insight,darwin wins. all the way.. seems too many minds are at work,believing a book,once wrote,gave all a new insight to a world,with the answer to every problem,by past history.keep praying,it will come…reality check,seems the world has waken up again,and find hypocracy is the rule of law. maybe some studies in higher ed,has made it a must read,as the theology gets warped,into some or,many other studies. if man can not see the issue,he damn sure can fantasize about them. i was baptized a full fledge catholic,a aunt for a nun, devout followers,it was a good study of how religion pushes its agenda,and has ones mind controled,for the good. well if trump,pense,the congress and other orgs,pacs,and church wants to talk god,their obviously using it as a scam for votes,as its following gleefully cheat,steal,kill,and dismember our country,in the name of god,how fitting…

  5. “Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

    ― Émile Zola

    Of all of mans inventions, God was certainly the worst.

  6. What is the point of religion?


    Many folks will point to teaching morals, but the Golden Rule was taught by Jesus. He taught no dogma.

    He taught about loving one another, therefore, any judgment or condemnation from Christ followers drops them into the non-believer HUMAN status of EGO.

    Very few people today understand enlightenment which is breaking away of one’s own EGO which is part of every human’s psyche. Trump is a great example of a human who is 100% controlled by his EGO.

    For years, he called NAFTA a fraud or disaster, but after only minor revisions, he calls the deal a really really wonderful trade deal.

    Self-awareness he has none. ALL EGO.

    As long as humans are ruled by their EGO which keeps us “separate from others”, religion provides no purpose. If anything, they just use the tools to find fault in others.

    Unless they break through the separateness stage into the interconnected stage, they’ll struggle with religion’s message. This explains the thousands of different versions of Christianity we have today. If you don’t like this brand, go down the street until you find one that fits your EGO.

    I don’t think any of this is Christianity just like I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many Unitarian pastors also practice Buddhism. 😉

  7. The current evangelicals ruling our country espouse the belief to rely only on their version of faith; they are masquerading as Christians, asking their supporters to ignore facts and believe only their word. Faith is so much simpler; it requires no thoughtful effort or physical exertion, just sit back and let Trump do your thinking and planning for you…or Pence or Franklin Graham…or Gary Varvel. And let your faith allow Betsy DeVos to make all decisions regarding what your children should be taught in her version of “God’s Kingdom”. They banter the name and the word of God around then enact a law to support their word; if God backed the law it must be right. Personally; I doubt God would be a Republican if he/she were to appear at the polls.

    Long ago I left all organized religions due to racism, bigotry on all levels, demands for more and more money; personally screwed over by my attorney who was a church deacon, and barely escaping rape by the Sunday School supervisor of another organized religion. The crimes of the Catholic Archdiocese around the world are coming to light, at least there briefly were. Neighborhood Outreach, the term for all religions giving help to those in need in their surrounding areas is all but gone and we continue to financially support them by paying their property taxes and sending public education tax dollars in the form of voucher students. But…have faith they know what they are doing, just support them so their aims will get done. Their aims are all the almighty dollar and major organized religions are now corporations.

    If thinking is a scientific element and we believe we have evolved from the Salem witch trials; we must place faith in ourselves to make intelligent decisions while maintaining our own faith, trust, belief, spirituality and acceptance of others…in whatever form it takes for us. Are we going to believe the evangelicals or our lying eyes? What I have seen since 2016 leaves me with no doubt that the Republican party is not a party of any actual religion but is built on and supported by the church of “What’s Happenin’ Now”.

    VOTE BLUE! Currently we need their numbers; we can sort out and strengthen weaknesses only if our candidates are elected…it is a numbers game and we are behind at this time.

  8. Thank you. I’d lost touch with Phillip Gulley. While I and saddened by the harm organized religion has done I can’t ignore the remaking pockets of good.

  9. Ms. Kennedy: “If your religion makes you more compassionate and kind, if it provides you with a helpful (but not unduly prescriptive) framework within which to approach moral dilemmas, it’s probably good.”

    This is Tony Blair’s argument in his debate with Chris Hitchens. To which Hitchens responds

    “Everybody knows that much. But we don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral persuasion of Socrates and our own abilities, we don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong.”

    A false premise will more than likely lead to a wrong conclusion and wrong acts. And in the overwhelming sweep of history it has done just that.

    If in fact, we could name only one thing to remove from culture for civilazation’s improvement, religion would surely be it.

  10. Thank you Sheila for still another extremely thought provoking piece. As a Christian myself, my views parallel Phil Gulley’s and I sometimes marvel at why I feel and think the way I do when so many others have clearly gone off the rails and apparently pride themselves on doing so. Blending politics and religion is a monstrously bad idea anyway but for preachers and ministers to preach such utter crap from pulpits across the country, particularly here in Indiana, is just flat wrong. To me it boils down to one basic concept. If God is love then how can we do otherwise?

    I am appalled at both Gary Varvel’s artwork and his quasi-editorials and also that The Indianapolis Star apparently lacks enough actual columnists where he ends up doing double duty as a result. Add to that, the actions and comments by Mike Pence and all those supposedly Christian gentleman that gathered together with him in private to sign a bill that was deliberately meant to discriminate against certain Hoosiers that ended up making this state look like a pariah in the eyes of this Nation.

    Some of these people are so hell bent on packing the Supreme Court so that they can overturn Roe vs. Wade that they do so at the expense of genuine Christian ethics and any semblance of good sense where they’re embrace people and the extremely conservative ideological stances that they have that is ultimately contrary to the basic and core values that this country was founded upon, let alone what we are supposed to act like as Christians. They are so off the deep end by the junk theology and their own personal biases that they have succumbed to as well that when they step through those pearly gates, or expect to, they may be in for a very rude awakening. Those that have led them so far astray may never see those pearly gates since they may be headed somewhere else.

    That evangelists and ministers having national followings have cozied up to Donald Trump, which is inexplicable enough given all of his personal peccadilloes, to push for goals that are meant to hurt other human beings because of their beliefs is way more than appalling. To me personally they are akin to the Pharisees that put Jesus the Christ to death so that they could preserve their own grip on the people of Jerusalem. The parallels seem to be more and more striking and when this country really needs people of faith to stand up for their fellow man and their fellow Americans along with their welfare, they do the opposite which is way beyond being shocking. It is heresy pure and simple with them being led so far astray that they don’t see the error in their thinking or their theology reinforce them every Sunday or maybe Wednesday as well what they’re hearing being preached.

    I keyed this with voice activated software so I hope that I caught its errors as well as my own .

  11. It’s not religion so much as it is its practitioners. If we didn’t have religion to rally around, we’d surely find something else over which to fight our wars and stoke our arguments.


  12. Regarding that unfunny, ugly Gary Varvel cartoon; what good did the disclaimer after-the-fact accomplish? Why was in printed; then Star editors decided it was inappropriate…can’t unring that bell…as the saying goes. Just as Kavanaugh cannot unring all of those clanging bells still in the minds of those of us who watched the actual Senate Judiciary Committee “hearing” and his non-answers and disclaimers with no proof provided – there is that old bugaboo “faith”; never mind proof, just have faith he told the truth. The same with the Senate questioning session of Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh as we watched his non-answers by listing his academic and sports record histories and crying (tearless) to seek pity.

    Rachel Mitchell, the “nonpartisan” questioner (an Arizona Republican) displayed partisan attitude questioning then released a memo saying Dr. Ford did not provide enough evidence to bring charges against Kavanaugh. Did she not know that was not the reason for the public display of Republican control of this totally inappropriate SCOTUS appointment? Just put your faith in Kavanaugh’s Catholic upbringing and his words as gospel.


  13. I think this serves to illustrate just how ‘touchy’ any of us is at this time, we don’t live in quiet times by any means or stretch of the imagination. Press a social button and see. Again, religion comes into the matter; my theory has been for some time that religion will be the end of our species.

  14. John Neal, thank you for that quote from Chris Hitchens. It dispels all of the arguments for religion I have ever endured.

    I would add that my own reasoning says that religious belief creates in the mind of the believer a kind of delusional thinking. It is the kind of delusional thinking that fosters the ideas of “God speaks to me”, and “God told me to do…” It is a delusion of grandeur kind of thing where the a person believes that they are so special, their ideas are the only ones, their ways the only ways in which to live. It separates and marginalizes even as it moralizes, and when confronted it claims martyrdom. It feeds the needy egos of its followers to make them believe they are special when in fact they are just human like everyone else.

  15. Jack,

    I am NOT one of those you piss off. Your comments sing to me.

    There are many books like “Jesus Rode a Donkey”, “Sins of Scripture” and “Sex, Swords & Scripture” that attempt to clarify the duality and hypocrisy of true belief. These are books written by Biblical scholars. What they attempt to show is that the Bible is a METAPHOR and a sort of ancient guide book, not an absolute directive from God.

    But, as others have stated here, power is the thing with the tribal human. Religion ALWAYS morphed into a power struggle beginning with the earliest shamans to today’s televangelists and their ilk.

    BTW, science began with the invention of tools and weapons. Pondering the “unknown” came later when we had enough time on our hands to do so. Idle minds…, etc.

  16. I think Gandhi said it best. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  17. My belief is that two things are part of every human.

    Faith and sex.

    Faith is what we choose to assume about important things that don’t lend themselves to the scientific method and therefore cannot be known with certainty. We all have it, but like with sex, diversity thy name is human.

    It seems likely that in the end a few people will prove to be more prescient than others in their assumptions.

    Considering all of that, it seems to me that among reasonable people, most talk about either sex or faith is pointless. I shouldn’t be concerned with your sex or faith life, and you not with mine. They are personal and should not be public because yours are yours and mine are mine. There’s no reason to or basis for us to agree or disagree.

    Both Pope Pence and Stormy Daniels are examples of humans who are in similar businesses trying to profit from their assumptions. Of course Agent Orange more aligns with Stormy than Mike.

    No thanks.

  18. Theresa,

    I am always shocked when people want to give religion a pass, something so unsubstantiated and so pernicious. In fact, the whole concept of “evil” springs from its vernacular, and that is where it belongs.


  19. I agree that the compulsion to control others is the root problem! The think is, ANY belief system, including science, atheism, and left-wing systems like Marxism, (as well as religions) can still be reduced to mechanisms for promoting this compulsion that human beings are prone to. Religion is not the problem, per se. Absolutizing ideas and beliefs and turning them into mechanisms for controlling others is, wherever they come from.

  20. Concerning the Indianapolis Star:
    I can always, I say again -Always depend on the Indianapolis Star to slant their “reporting” in favor of Crony-Capitalism, and Corporatism. Corporations uber alles, should be the Star’s motto, or they simply ignore any story to the contrary of the Corporations. The talentless Gary Varvel tells you all you need to know about The Indianapolis Star and it’s ludicrously low standards for Journalism.

    I cancelled my subscription to The Star back in 2014, when they published a story on the front page that went into the inside of the paper on exorcism.

    I have encountered these people who constantly have to “witness”. Many years ago at the place I worked some individual insisted on ending her phone messages, with God Bless you and Keep You. Customers complained. HR told her to stick to good bye.

    It is astounding to me that in this day and age of enormous advances in Science, that some people feel a need to cling to some bronze age – iron age myths of supernatural intervention. They swear they have God’s personal message to deliver, and hell fire is the punishment.

  21. Theresa @ 9:11, I agree with your post. The arrogance of religion, comes down to My Way or the Highway (actually some form of Hell). All these meaningless rituals, kneeling, groveling, and praying to thin air, to make the flock feel they are special and elevated over others.

    Our human past is riddled with examples of when words fail to persuade, the sword follows.

  22. Monotonous @ 10:54, Yes to your comments. Taking it further, when people come to believe that they control the actions of their god (say three Our Fathers and two Hail Marys and your sins are forgiven, give this amount of money to your church and you will get this or that, blow yourself up and you get seventy seven virgins) then those people have lost touch with reality. It is delusional thinking. It is irrational. It spills into all other decisions the believer makes and ends up with that all time favorite excuse for when things go badly, “It is just God’s will”. The need to control yet escape responsibility is the bases of this kind of belief.

  23. Monotonous @ 10:40; I agree with your views about the Indianapolis Star, do more than my share of complaining. I am 81, deaf and disabled so my human contacts are limited; cable TV provides MSNBC and CNN as well as entertainment but…the Indianapolis Star publishes TV Week, local and cable listings correct sometimes 51%. Their listings give me an idea of what to look forward to or avoid; at 81, many of my friends are dying off so the daily obituaries are informative, 2 weeks ago I lost 3 old friends in one week. I jump start my body with 2 cups of black coffee each morning and jump start my brain working the daily crossword puzzle. It is overpriced, lacks much in the way of local, national or international news but…it’s the only daily publication in this mid-20th Century, right-wing city. But, the next subscription price increase will be the end of my tolerance.


  24. I’m fond of the idea that if your religion doesn’t make you a better person, it’s probably a bad religion.

  25. Carol Frances Johnson

    You are on target. Any belief system that avows hate and attempts to force others into adopting their beliefs and/or controlling them–including that of atheists–is evil. The converse, IMO, is also true.

  26. Couple quotes from Ghandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
    “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.’”

  27. couple quotes from Ghandhi:
    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
    “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.’”

  28. Thanks, Nancy Papas!

    Thanks, Bill Bailey, who led me to Nancy Papas, Sheila Kennedy, and Philip Gulley!

  29. Religion has moved from Christian message to accumulating money and political power. To enforce their beliefs on everyone else.
    I see religion as a threat to our democracy

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