The author, Dr. Amir Azarvan, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville, Georgia. He is the author of the book, Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience
A Facebook friend once posted an image—one of many asinine anti-religious memes that he shared—of a scientist about to peer into his microscope. The caption read something along the lines of, “Science: Working hard to cure diseases since God isn’t going to do a damn thing about it.” Memes like this betray ignorance not only of religion, but also of the kind of logic on which sound science depends. To test a theory correctly, the scientist must ensure that there’s test validity; that is, he must ensure that his test accurately measures what it’s intended to measure. By the same exact logic, if one wishes to “measure” a religion’s validity, he must first “operationalize” it correctly. That is, he must understand what a religion actually teaches before he sets out to evaluate the teaching.1 Today’s more militant atheists—i.e., “new atheists”—fail to do this at nearly every turn. In what follows, I dive more deeply into the subject of the error we often commit when judging a religion. Although my focus is naturally on the Christian faith, most of what I say is applicable to other religious traditions.
How Not to Judge Religion
Christianity is a belief system. Among other things, belief systems (religious and secular) differ with respect to the number of incentives there are to claim adherence to them. In America, there are several incentives to claim adherence to Christianity. There’s a social incentive (e.g., if you hold political power, you have an incentive to appeal to society’s prevailing beliefs in order to legitimate your rule); there’s a familial incentive (one often “inherits” his parents’ beliefs, wishing to please them by claiming adherence to these beliefs, sincerely or otherwise); and of course there’s a “veridical incentive” (there’s a satisfaction that comes from claiming adherence to something that you genuinely believe to be true).
Contrast this with, say, Satanism. The Satanist adheres to his belief system in spite of the social pressure to renounce it. He’s also less likely to have “inherited” his belief system from his parents. Therefore, if the veridical incentive is the norm among Satanists, then you’re more likely to find a sincere Satanist than you are a sincere Christian, but this implies nothing about the truth of the latter’s belief system. Instead, it simply reflects Christianity’s greater “incentive diversity”.
In a sense, we can say that Christianity’s popularity is a weakness, as it attracts a lot of people for reasons that have nothing to do with a sincere belief that Christianity is true. As with all popular belief systems, then, hypocrisy is to be expected. As I’ve explained, however, the fault lies not with the belief system, itself.
Aside from this, no faith tradition (to my knowledge) teaches that religious membership, in itself, has an automatic and identical effect on every believer’s conduct. So, no religion can reasonably be judged simply by what people do in its name. Joining a fitness club does not, in itself, make one fit. Religion is somewhat like a fitness club. Judging it because some of its members behave badly is like judging Planet Fitness - of which I’m a member, although I haven’t gone there in over a year - because I remain out of shape.2
Let’s remember that Judas was what we would today call a “Christian” (of course, believers will be quick and correct to point out that he ultimately revealed himself to be a rather poor disciple). But rarely, if ever, does the skeptic think of citing Judas’s greed as a line of evidence in his case against Christianity. Yet, for some reason, the ongoing presence of Judases (always made possible by the abuse of our free will) is supposed to be a stumbling block to the Christian’s faith. Even if only .1% of the roughly 167 million self-described Christians in this country were only nominal believers who behaved badly, this would leave us with 167,000 lousy people. This means that there are over 450 exceptions to the rule every day, and these Judases are more likely to make the news precisely because they are exceptional. (A Christian volunteering with a charity is to be expected. But a nominal Christian who embezzles funds from the charity? Now that makes for a good story!) The problem is that, if we aren’t careful, we might commit the fallacy of hasty generation. The so-called New Atheists absolutely adore this fallacy. In short, traitors date back to the time of Christ himself, and I urge my Christian readers not to ever fall for these pathetic attempts to undermine their faith.
A Case for “Organized Religion”
“I hate religion, but love Jesus.”—Jeffrey Bethke, Christian author
The term “organized religion” has a negative connotation. However, it points to a very positive quality that’s often overlooked: it organizes people; it brings them together, satisfying the human need for community. And while dogmatic unity is normally a requirement for membership, this fact doesn’t distinguish organized religions from other communities. How effectively can socialists work as a group towards abolishing capitalism if they’re not united in the belief that capitalism should be abolished? Likewise, how can a religious community travel the same spiritual path if they don’t agree that this path will lead them to their destination?
I conclude by urging my Christian readers not to fear the word “religion”. After all, the term simply refers to “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” Do you hold such a belief? If so, guess what? You’re religious. Neither should you fear the word “institutionalized”, which means nothing more than “established in practice or custom.” An institutionalized religion, therefore, refers to the belief in a God that is shared with others across time. Do you call yourself a “Christian”? Is your belief in Christ worth sharing with others (cf. Mark 13:10)? Is this belief worth preserving over time (cf. 1 Cor 11:2)? If your answer to all three questions is yes, then you’re a Christian who believes in institutionalized religion. And that’s okay.