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Does religion sell us short?

Carl Sagan, the great astronomer and author, once said that religion “assumes that people are children and need a boogeyman so they’ll behave.” He believed that religion sells people short and diminishes their ability to solve their own problems.

There is truth in that. I find myself strongly in agreement with him.

I grew up in the church. I wanted to be a professional baseball player or a broadcast journalist but I ended up being a Christian minister instead. A lot of it was because my parents instilled in me the notion that service to God was the highest calling available. They were deeply religious and it was difficult to ever get away from the idea that nothing much mattered except a life of devotion to the church.

I spent 22 years in active ministry—preaching, teaching, writing, studying, digging into the Bible for answers to life, wrestling with the very conservative beliefs of my denomination, questioning hell and sin and judgment, reading the classical theologians, trying desperately to understand suffering in the world and where the heck God really was in all of that.

I do not believe people are born into sin. What a horrible, cruel thing to teach people. You come into this world with all of the beauty and gifts of life and the first thing you’re told by the church is you’re evil, that you have a sinful nature, and that you are doomed to burn in hell forever. Your only hope is salvation in Christ, baptism, the Sacraments, Confession, Communion, following every word of a human Bible as though it is some perfect magical book.

None of that ever made any sense to me. I tried like crazy at first to believe it, to make it a part of my religious experience, to live by it, and to get others to believe it too. But after a few years on the battle field that is church, and seeing the very real struggles of the people in my congregations in spite of their faith, I finally gave up. I was a sort of closet humanist for years trying to fit Christianity into that. Surprisingly it worked in many ways. I found a comfort and strength in the theology and philosophy of ministry I pieced together. It was not orthodox but it was mine and I could live by it with integrity.

I didn’t try to fool people. I spoke openly of my spiritual frustrations, my ongoing argument with established religion, with denominational politics, with narrow-mindedness, with the holier-than-thou thing that church too often creates, and with a whole lot that was in the Bible. Some people stayed furious with me. Some were tolerant. And some totally identified and wanted to know more of what I meant by what I said from the pulpit or in small group discussions.

Why do we need a severe, temperamental God who will punish us in some way—give us cancer or take away a child or ruin our business or burn us in hell—if we don’t follow his way? Are we really that terrible as human beings?

I am convinced all of that is totally man-made and it has damaged most of the great religions of history, not to mention the terror and suffering it has caused sincere believers over the years.

If we have to believe in and follow a God of threatening judgment and punishment in order to be religious or Christian then I agree with Carl Sagan: that seems to make us unruly children in need of endless correction. It does sell us short and implies that without God we are not capable of living good and responsible lives.

Religion, and for me, Christianity, since that is what I know most about, should help its followers experience life that feels good, that is worthwhile, that has value and is involved in making the world better. We should not be motivated to good living out of shame, guilt, or fear.

Faith should encourage people to understand and develop the goodness they are born with. Not doom them with the idea that they are worthless and wicked and need God in them in order to be of any use to themselves or others.

I see God cheering us on from the outside, affirming the gifts we already possess, and guiding us to make use of who we are always becoming.

The Greeks had this idea of “magna anima” or the “great soul.” It’s where the word “magnanimous” comes from—benevolent, kind-hearted, unselfish, and loving. That is what religion ought to guide us into. Not feelings of inadequacy, personal disgrace, and humiliation.

We are all imperfect, yes. But we are all born worthy of receiving and giving love, worthy of belonging, and worthy of helpfulness to others. These are original instincts and gifts. And to believe in them can be a very real and legitimate religious impulse worth following.

© 2012 Timothy Moody

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