Way back in 1859, Charles Darwin startled the world by publishing his famous (many would say infamous) book, On the Origin of Species, which laid out his theory of evolution. You may know that at the end of his life, Charles Darwin was an atheist. However, that was not always the case. Darwin was raised in the Anglican Church and even considered becoming a clergyman. So, what caused him to renounce Christianity? Many people believe Darwin lost his faith because of his belief in evolution. But that’s incorrect. To the end of his life, Darwin insisted that evolution was completely compatible with Christian faith. Neither science nor evolution caused Darwin to reject Christianity. Instead, bad religion caused Darwin to become an atheist.
When his beloved daughter died at the age of ten, Darwin blamed God. Eventually he quit believing in God altogether. He simply could not believe in a God that killed off ten-year-old children. I don’t blame him. I don’t believe in that kind of God either. Bad theology undermined Darwin’s faith, including the doctrine that all Jews were destined for a devil’s hell. In the end it wasn’t science but bad religion that caused Darwin’s atheism.
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of bad religion out there, and it still causes people to lose their faith. For example, think of all those young Muslim men and women who blow themselves up, along with dozens of innocent people—all in the name of God. But bad religion is not limited to Islam. Think about all those Roman Catholic priests who molested children and all the bishops who covered it up. There’s plenty of bad religion in Protestant churches as well. I recently heard about a Baptist preacher from California who prays daily, in the name of Jesus, for God to kill President Obama. Sadly, I could go on and on.
Bad religion abounds, including closed-minded religion, arrogant religion, intolerant religion, and judgmental religion. You can add to that list religion that tells women they are inferior to men and religion that says science is the enemy of faith. When I think of all the bad religion out there, especially in the Christian faith, I can relate to Bono’s statement, “Christians are hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it.”
So what is the proper response to bad religion? Some argue that the answer to bad religion is no religion. A growing number of “new atheists” argue that since religion can be toxic, we need to get rid of faith altogether. But that’s a weak argument. For one thing, you are not going to get rid of religion. People are hard wired to have faith. And if you did get rid of religion, the world would be terribly impoverished. Think of all the good things religion gives us. Religion provides meaning, purpose and hope for billions of believers. It builds significant relationships and faith communities. It gives people a sense of transcendence. It motivates people to care for others. It promotes responsible ethics and high ideals. It inspires music, art, and beauty. Almost every major charitable organization in the world is faith based. A world without religion would be a bankrupt, impoverished world. So the answer to bad religion is NOT no religion. Instead, the answer to bad religion is good religion.
Jesus understood that. In the face of the arrogant, judgmental and legalistic religion of his day, Jesus offered a healthy alternative of humility, grace, mercy, compassion and justice. Promoting that kind of religion is what mainline and moderate churches are all about. We are not perfect by any stretch. But we try to offer healthy faith to the world. We promote a religion of grace, not judgment. A religion of love, not hatred. A religion of open-mindedness, not intolerance. A religion of compassion, not legalism. A religion of humility, not arrogance.
Several years ago a young family visited my congregation. After attending for several months they scheduled an appointment with me to discuss baptism and membership. I asked them, “What attracted you to our congregation?” They said, “The sign.” I said, “What sign?” They said, “The sign out front that says, ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.’ We thought all churches were narrow-minded and judgmental. So when we saw your sign we decided to visit. When we discovered that the church inside lived up to the sign outside, we wanted to become members.”
That same kind of story has played out in our church hundreds of times in recent years, resulting in significant growth. Even in my small, Bible-belt community, people are hungry for a viable alternative to religious-right fundamentalism. Today, more than ever before, people are receptive to vibrant, centrist, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life-giving, moderate/mainline faith. Let’s show them what good religion is.
Martin Thielen has served as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tenn. for the last ten years. His preaching and worship Web site, including sermons and series, is www.GettingReadyforSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.