A Double-Edged Sword

This blog tends to highlight the negative aspects of religion–or, more accurately, the negative aspects of the misuse of religion. Lest readers come to see me as an indiscriminate and cranky critic of all people of faith (granted, I am cranky), I have obtained permission to share a recent column by Phil Gulley, who leads a local Society of Friends. (I’m told that Quakers don’t use the term “pastor.”)

Phil is someone whose writing (and the wisdom that writing reflects) I have long admired.

Today, you get Gulley rather than Kennedy…


The Rise of Religion and Why I Fear It

My parents took me to church when I was two weeks old and thereafter every Sunday until I turned 14, which in my family was the age of religious emancipation. I stayed away for two years, then discovered the Quakers, where I have remained ever since. When I returned to the church as a teenager, my father was pleased, pointing out that religion was good for the country. I once thought the same, but now wonder, in light of the rise of Christian nationalism, whether America continues to be well-served by religion, and more specifically the strain of evangelical Christianity so prevalent these days.

There is something inherently dangerous when a fervent subgroup in any country believes themselves ordained by God to tell the rest of us how to think and live. Thank you, but no. I’ll take my chances with freedom, democracy, reason, and the rule of law, all of which have been the targets of religion. Today, we are witnessing firsthand the tyranny of abusive religion when pregnant women, whose very lives are imperiled, are forced to travel far afield for the medical care they need. If America has never had a Taliban, it most certainly does now. If you doubt that, just ask Kate Cox of Texas if she has been well served by religion when Texas hospitals were prohibited from helping her after she experienced a reproductive medical emergency. When religious extremists are placed in charge, misogyny, ignorance, and tyranny are sure to follow.

When I was a child, my friends and I would play a game we called, “If you had to live anywhere but the United States, where would it be?” The game never lasted long, since we all said we’d rather be dead than live anywhere but here. I don’t feel that way anymore. Religious extremism, aided and abetted by the Republican Party since the days of Reagan, has dimmed my affection. Christian reactionaries had no sooner acquired power, than they used it to diminish ours. According to the CATO Institute, the United States ranks 23rd on the human freedom index. The embrace of totalitarianism is fueled in no small part by fanatical Christians determined to make the rest of us bow the head and bend the knee. Today, the five leading nations in freedom are Switzerland, New Zealand, Estonia, Denmark, and Ireland. What do those countries have in common? They are all post-religious nations, where Christianity has a diminishing role. Even Ireland, once ruled and roiled by religion, is experiencing an uptick of secularism, especially among the young. We can only conclude that as a country grows less religious, its liberties expand.

Isn’t it ironic that nations are better served when religions are on the wane? Wherever religion has gained the power to govern, progress and freedom have slowed to a halt. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Religions can just as easily champion justice, equality, and progress. Why so many don’t bears testimony to the religionist’s love of power and privilege. I remain in religion to speak the truth about its excesses, to challenge its tendency to dominate, to elevate the good and noble in it, to remove the dross from its gold. Don’t give me that old-time religion. Give me the hundred years after it, when the superstitions of regressive religion have been finally and totally defeated, and only the good remains.


To which this atheist says, AMEN.


  1. Something that bothers me is the lack of noise from those religions that are not fundamentalist, including my own Episcopal Church. The leaders of those religions should develop a statement of principles, regarding the separation of church and state. If I recall correctly, Jesus was very much for it and frankly, those who seek to change it by putting God’s name on the currency are more akin to the Pharisees than to the Christ they purport to follow.

  2. I wonder, as Peggy does, why other religions do not call out the Jesus pretenders. If I believed in him, I’d have to think he would be flippin’ tables right and left over people acting in “his” name.

  3. Thank you Sheila for sharing Phil’s wisdom with us and thank you Phil for speaking truth from the pulpit.

  4. Of course, those who conceived of and wrote the words down on paper that guide our government knew of the dangers of mixing or confusing government and religion. They prohibited that mixing. Religious leaders, knowing the power that mixing with the government would give them, have been at work ever since second-guessing the country’s founders.

    Staffing the Supreme Court has empowered and emboldened those religious leaders.

    Today was perfectly predictable.

  5. Peggy, IRS rules for 501c organizations say they can’t support political agendas. There is a different classification for political organizations. Scrupulous organizations follow the rules. The unchristian groups don’t. Need I say more?

  6. Another good reason to edit history….those drown ‘em cause they’re witches Puritans. But the orange idiot and most of his flying monkeys don’t read anyway……or think independently if they do.

  7. Query – Are fundamentalist Christians interested in the religion of Jesus or the one about him?

  8. Thank you Sheila, Phil’s perspective is refreshing. St. Reagan did the country no favor with his embrace of Falwell, and gang. Gang? Yes, the Xian Nationalists act just like a gang diffused throughout the county. I guess that if one believes in the mythology, and ignore the hypocrisy of the Puritans, and their ilk, one can believe that what one thinks is god’s will is paramount. Well, in that case, live it in your private life, don’t take your all to human interpretation and lay it on the country.

  9. This column simplistically conflates religion with bad behavior. “Religious” people who are that way because it grounds them with moral/ethical principles to guide them like “love thy neighbor” and “repair the world” are the solution, not the problem. The extreme secular vision of “I guide myself by whatever I think is right and want to do” is at least as big a problem in our world as those who are using “religion” to do evil.

  10. Lester, I am with you 100% on this. The best people I have known in my 80 years have all been raised with religious morals that dictate their behavior. Slowly however, they grew to see the hypocrisy in those very religions when the materialism and power hunger of this age took over.
    Yet these good souls, now called nones, atheists, and free thinkers kept to their moral/ethical principles and continued to “love their neighbor” and ” repair the world”.
    I don’t know where the current young generation is getting its foundational morals and principles, but if is in the pews of evangelical churches and /or the internet we are in for a world of trouble.

  11. Peggy, like you I am troubled by the lack of commitment from Mainline Church leaders who have stood mute when faced with the grossly bigoted presentation of the Christian message by fundamentalists. Mainline leaders should be promoting the biblical messages of peace, tolerance, forbearance, and love of neighbor in reply to White Nationalist xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and violence toward those who think and live differently than them. The Mainline message needn´t be political; all that is needed is for them to shape their massaging around a thoughtful and clear presentation of the Gospel. But they do not seem to have a message.

    Could it be that the prosperity gospel and the homogenous growth principle, two core ideas driving the church growth movement, have become so intertwined with mainline attempts to fill pews and fill collection plates that the Mainline cannot call out the White Nationalists without first calling out themselves?

  12. For those Christians thirsting for guidelines regarding their faith, I suggest tuning back in to Matthew 5, the Beatitudes. It’s all there. All you have to do is walk the walk of your lord and savior. Easy call, right.

    How will evangelical Christian Republicans reconcile those guidelines with the hateful, spiteful, mean-spiritedness of their “representatives”?

  13. Why is it so hard for some ardent Christians to self-answer the question “What would Jesus do/say/think”? Or maybe they just don’t hear it anymore?

  14. We must separate religion from spirituality. In Christianity, pursuing a spiritually-centered life should be foremost, and religion (religious practices and institutions) should foster that pursuit. Unfortunately, too often, religious practices take over and dampen the spiritual life. For this reason, it is important that religious practices and religious institutions are in a state of constant renewal.

    Jesus likened this to wine and wineskins: “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17).

    We need more prophets in the church today. Those who will speak out against the hypocrisy and lack of love that is so prevalent. There a few. May their voices grow louder.

    Note to Vernon: I suggest Luke instead. Matthew is more spiritually oriented (different audience). Luke is more practical.

  15. … and then there’s getting dragged into a war for Zionism. It’s not all about Christian nationalism. The big three, the Abrahamic male beliefs are major contributors to the global demise of civility.

  16. I always notice that people I know of all ages who identify as atheist, agnostic, none, free-thinker, etc. frequently act more like Jesus than those who like to call themselves “Christians” every chance they get.

    Those “Christians'” public displays of piety ring hallow when they refuse to help a person who is pregnant get the reproductive health care that is necessary to save their own life or that of their baby. Those “Christians'” public displays of piety ring hallow when the parents of yet another trans child has just taken their own life because of the endless bullying in school. Those “Christians'” public displays of piety also ring hallow when migrants who are people of color are deported back to the unlivable conditions in the countries from which they came.

    It reminds me of the quote widely attributed to the late Mahatma Ghandi: “I like your Christ, but your Christians scare me.”

  17. Some folks still believe the often disproved idea that the only path to morality is through religion. That is most unfortunate because it allows them to think of the “nones” as flawed and inferior. Characteristics such as compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty and generosity are the true hallmarks of morality. I know people who exhibit those characteristics. Some profess a certain faith while others do not. Some of the worst scoundrels I’ve ever met were prideful churchgoers.

  18. Galatians starting at chapter 5 verse 14:
    “For the entire Law has been fulfilled* in one commandment, namely: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, though, you keep on biting and devouring one another, look out that you do not get annihilated by one another.

    16 But I say, Keep walking by spirit and you will carry out no fleshly desire at all. 17 For the flesh is against the spirit in its desire, and the spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you do not do the very things you want to do. 18 Furthermore, if you are being led by spirit, you are not under law.

    19 Now the works of the flesh are plainly seen, and they are sexual immorality,* uncleanness, brazen conduct,* 20 idolatry, spiritism,* hostility, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, sects, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties,* and things like these. I am forewarning you about these things, the same way I already warned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

    22 On the other hand, the fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,* kindness, goodness, faith, 23 mildness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Moreover, those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed to the stake the flesh together with its passions and desires.

    25 If we are living by spirit, let us also go on walking orderly by spirit. 26 Let us not become egotistical, stirring up competition with one another, envying one another.”

  19. Forgiveness of wrongs against self and others is an eternal effort. There is a spiritual (breath) aspect that’s elusive to know in all the cascading interactions throughout time and space. Being raised in an authoritarian, dogmatic religion that continued to generate more life, more work demands without allowing choice in anything was devastating to my life growing up. After killing that (under 21) I stepped into democracy and have worked hard and continued to search for truth.
    I found studying religion scientifically to be helpful, all cultures over all times have formed them. Joe Campbell a mythologist and former Catholic has a body of work that’s rational, understandable and freeing.
    Campbell said “there’s no conflict between science and mysticism, but there is a conflict between science of 2,000 bc and the science of 2,000 ad.
    Just don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  20. I really do not understand why some people, even very educated and highly intelligent people, think religions are somehow the storehouse of values and ethics! THEY ARE NOT!!! There is an ancient history LONG BEFORE any of the major religions were formed/created that prove that ethics/values have ALWAYS been a part of civilization. Naturally, they are no more perfect or “profound” than what religions since then have come up with. All to say that value and ethics are always evolving in history.

    It is up to each generation to decide what is fundamentally “true” or right within social arrangements and relationships. Last time I checked, religions are not real good (understatement if ever) at CHANGING with the times or evolving for the sake of the world. If you doubt me, merely read the horrific NR-rated passages of the Hebrew, Christian Bible or the Koran. You do not have to read far. Case closed.

    I say all of this as a retired Lutheran (ALC, then evolved to ELCA) ordained minister. I know first hand the thrown rocks (mostly analogous), stares and stern lectures a minister can get from “good life long Christians” in the pews (and church councils) when I preached soon and often on the dark side of religion and Christianity specifically. I preached vehemently against Falwell’s presence in Ronnie Reagan’s election in 80 and 84. Ironically, I was told, “You are NOT to preach about politics from the pulpit!!!” How dare you!!!” Even though I, literally, posted newspaper images on the church bulletin board showing GOP Senators, et al, preaching in evangelical stadiums!!! Pot and kettle never occurred to these people!!!

    I learned EARLY that preaching “prophetically” for justice (aka in solidarity with the poor and oppressed AGAINST the state polity and religion that EXECUTED Jesus, then and now!!!!) is a VERY short career path!!! I was totally blind sided by the real evangelical threads that live at the core of so-called “liberal churches.” I am evidence of that.

    This fellow’s essay is SPOT ON!!! Watch out for those who quote scriptures to “prove their points” for even Hitler, a Catholic and former acolyte, KNEW his bible and quoted it often (especially the Gospel of John and Paul’s letters) to “make his points!”

  21. Does anyone remember the National Council of Churches? It was a group of churches that supported Civil Rights legislation. It was chaired by an Indiana man named J. Irwin Miller. They were pretty effective in raising support for equal rights among their parishioners. If we speak of the rights of the people, which are more threatened today than at time in history, can we agree that rights should not be considered “political”? Remember that 501 Cs have many variations.

  22. “Religions can just as easily champion justice, equality, and progress.”
    There are many that do, especially through social ministries that provide shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens and food banks for the hungry, gathering places for social services. However, they also believe in the separation of church and state, a bulwark of our democracy, so they don’t scream from the pulpit as the evangelicals do. I happen to belong to such a church here in NYC, and run a hot meal and socialization program for seniors and homeless. We have also been involved with get out the vote programs. And there are churches like ours all over this city. Unfortunately we don’t shout, so we don’t have the media covering what we do. We aren’t controversial, which is all media seems to be interested in. IMHO evangelicals are not Christians. The words Christ speaks in the New Testament, the acts He performs, are diametrically opposed to everything espoused by evangelicals.

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