As the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” by Jefferson Bethke, approaches 18 million views, I will add my response into the clutter. I’ve seen pro-life responses. I’ve seen Catholic exceptionalism responses. I’ve seen atheist and non-Christian responses that agree but then have their own conclusions. I am not interested in getting into theological debate, or in driving wedges between people. I want to make a simple point. It’s the same point I often make to friends who say they’re spiritual but not religious. And to some atheist friends right after they’ve explained why they don’t believe in God.
It is this: What you are calling religion is not what I call religion, and it is not the definition of religion. The God you blame or are angry at or don’t believe in is not my God. You’re experience is real, without a doubt. And I honor that. You are speaking from hurt. Your encounters with religion, as given to you by parents and authority figures, were messed up. And there’s no question that Jesus devoted a lot of attention to denouncing those types of religious behavior and expression. But the religion that hurt you or disappointed you is not all organized religion.
What we call a religion is made up of three things: belief that there’s something more than this material world; a set of ethics and moral guidance; and rites and shared rituals. Different organized religions put emphasis on one or another of the three, but each is a mixture of them all. Ritual without the spiritual dimension is bereft and can be dangerous. Law without the spiritual dimension is at best difficult to maintain, at times punitive and harsh, and can be offensively hypocritical. What you’re railing against is an experience of organized religion that was empty ritual and harsh hypocritical law. So you’re not criticizing religion; you’re criticizing an expression of religion that doesn’t live up to the definition. I’ve had encounters with religious expressions like that. But I also know beautiful, amazing expressions of religion that are overflowing with love.
While a religion in the broad sense is that combination of spirituality, ritual and law, a religion on the ground is made up of people — fallible, silly, broken people. This is slightly tricky ground, I admit. I’m saying that a group of people who come together to worship God collectively is a divinely inspired thing, and at the same time a jumble of flawed humans who can individually do profoundly stupid stuff.
If individuals do hypocritical or hateful things in the name of a religion, that doesn’t make the religion hypocritical or hateful. Even if the institutional expression of the religion, a church bureaucracy, does profoundly stupid things, that’s still people doing them. We can debate over how much or how little hierarchy a religion should have, but it’s always made up of people. And it is not when leaders are imperfect but when they lack the humility to remember they’re flawed humans that much of the trouble comes.
One more point — an obvious one that some of those who’ve responded have already brought up: it’s easy to mention the wars and division and oppression that have occurred in the name of religion. But if you’re going to try to blame all that stuff on religion, then you also need to acknowledge all the charity, and the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement, and the billions of acts of kindness and compassion inspired by religion.
So, of course there’s lots wrong with organized religions. But there’s lots right too. People like to have black and white answers, embrace some things unquestioningly and denounce others blindly. But that’s not the world. The world is a messy place. And that’s part of what’s so awesome about it. I celebrate your obviously passionate faith. And I agree with many of your complaints. But I choose to focus what energy I have on building up what’s beautiful in love.