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The Times
  • Shayne Looper: Bad religion: The five telltale signs

  • Since New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” people have been talking about the state of religion in America.

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  • Since New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” people have been talking about the state of religion in America.
    Everywhere Douthat looks, he sees evidence of religion gone bad: prosperity peddlers, preachers of the gospel of Narcissus, the proliferation of therapeutic religion and more. He admits that America has always been a nation of heretics but argues that, until recently, there was an orthodox Christian center that was strong enough to hold.
    Douthat is one of many authors to treat the subject. Long before “Bad Religion” there was St. Paul’s “Letter to the Galatians” — that intense apostle’s most intense letter. His warm, familiar greeting is conspicuously absent. His tone is sometimes angry, sometimes anguished. In the heart of his letter, which we know as chapter 4, he identifies five telltale signs of bad religion.
    The first sign of bad religion
    It makes people servants of an ideology rather than servants of Christ. People who value their religious distinctives more than God (or can’t tell the difference between the two) are trapped in bad religion. Those distinctives differ from one tradition to another, but the problem exists in every tradition.
    The second sign
    Bad religion makes people unhappy. Paul asked his Galatian friends bluntly: “What has happened to all your joy?” They had been happy in the faith, but bad religion had bled them dry. Bad religion promises blessedness, but only after its demands are all met — and they never are.
    The third sign
    Bad religion delights in excluding others. Bad religion is an alienating force. “What they want,” Paul says of the purveyors of bad religion, “is to alienate you from us.” Instead of bringing people together under God, bad religion exalts its followers over their fellow man.
    This third sign is an audible one. If, when people assemble for a religious service, their leaders speak frequently (and sometimes gleefully) about the failures of others; and if, when believers gather casually, their conversations often includes derisive comments about other religious groups, there’s a pretty good chance they are caught up in bad religion.
    This third sign leads inevitably to a fourth.
    The fourth sign
    Bad religion uses an us/them rhetoric that instinctively regards “them” as the enemy. In the Bible, God’s enemy is our enemy. Bad religion turns that around and makes our enemy God’s. No one bothers to ask if we are on God’s side, since everyone already knows that God is on ours.
    The fifth sign
    It drains its adherents of compassion. Bad religion is inherently self-centered. It is about finding self-fulfillment rather than truth, being right rather than righteous and attaining success rather than extending grace. Such motivation leaves little room for compassion.
    Page 2 of 2 - The apostle Paul reminded his readers of the compassion that once characterized them. “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” Real love for God inspires practical love for people. Bad religion has the opposite effect. It whispers, “It’s their own fault,” and smugly walks away.
    St. James writes that good religion is, in part, “this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Bad religion does not look after people; it gets after them.
    There is one good thing about bad religion: It lacks staying power. Bad religion comes and goes; it does not come and stay. For that, at least, we can be thankful.
    Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at salooper@frontier.com.
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