We need more religion but we don’t need its zeal

Are the 76% of Q&A viewers who believe we would be better off without religion right?

“Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology.”

This damning indictment of religion, surprisingly enough, is not to be found in the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, or that of his compatriots Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.

Rather, it prefaces Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate in which he skewers both the Church as well as its most hard-heated critics – the New Atheists.

For the Marxist, literary theorist and professor isn’t a believer in God, but neither is he an atheist of the ‘New’ variety: one who declares the incompatibility of reason and faith (Dawkins) or that “religion poisons everything” (Hitchens).

Rather, Eagleton has mastered the art of holding two apparently conflicting views simultaneously: that while religion has sometimes been a cause for oppression and violence, this sorry aspect of the Christian story doesn’t automatically rule out something beautiful and true at its heart.

And if Eagleton can see this, why can’t the New Atheists? Or, for that matter, any of the 76 per cent of Q&A audience members who voted that religion didn’t make the world a better place?

Though Eagleton says critics of religion are right to attack Christianity’s at times poor track record, he complains that they shirk their obligation to confront the case for religion “at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

Such an approach also disregards the many beautiful deeds of Christians acting against injustice. These range from the large and impressive – William Wilberforce’s lifelong fight to abolish slavery, the Huguenot Protestant villagers who risked their lives to shelter Jews during WWII – to humble and hidden acts of charity by faithful believers that history has never footnoted.

Before fobbing off God, then, Eagleton says critics should examine religion at its best. In fact, this is what the Reason for Faith Festival, in Melbourne this week, intends to do, following the Global Atheists’ Convention over the weekend, that chronicled the glaring failures of religion.

When speaking of religion’s ‘best’, Eagleton looks no further than Jesus: not only “a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful,” but a true revolutionary on the side of the poor and dispossessed, who “spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.”

While Eagleton doesn’t buy that walking on water business, he regards Jesus’ counsel to ‘the scum of the earth’ (the Apostle Paul’s term for the persecuted followers of Jesus) to forgive their enemies, turn the other cheek, and go the extra distance for love as something noble and praiseworthy.

Remarkably, Eagleton retains his high admiration for the Biblical portrait of Jesus while slamming institutional Christianity for failing to live up to the life of its founder and for getting in bed with the rich and powerful.

Channelling Jesus, who also raged against the religious machine of his day, he fumes against a “brand of piety… horrified by the sight of a female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequality between rich and poor,” and that “laments the death of a foetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion.”

Admittedly, Eagleton is a bit rough on America’s faithful, lumping together those who march for war with those who peacefully protest against it on the basis of their Christian convictions. But he’s right to point out the inconsistency of Christians who fuss over the speck in their neighbour’s eye when it comes to morality, but ignore the log in their own—especially where money is concerned.

And if that’s the case, then perhaps what’s needed is not less, but rather more religion – not increased religious zeal, but a deeper commitment to the faith. Or so argues Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School, who regards any gross violation of justice in the name of Christianity as both a perversion and betrayal of the faith.

“The more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith,” Volf writes, “and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be.”

In other words, the more Christianity can cling to the life and works of Jesus, the less likely it will be held captive to economic concerns, cultural prejudices, or flag-waving displays of national might and pomp.

And if Christianity can recover its anti-establishment credentials then maybe more people will come to appreciate its beauty and profundity. For while many in the ancient world disdained the service and acts of charity that characterised the early faith, it was by these means that Christianity was able, by non-violent means, to overwhelm an empire.

Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

This article originally appeared at The Punch.