Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Give Up Bad Religion for Lent (and beyond)

Warning, this is about religion.
Warning, this is not about a specific religion.
Oh, and I am trying to convert you.

I write this as one that has not blogged in many a day, and even longer if I ignore my satirical and music posts. So, what could bring me back?

Would you believe Lent? Would you believe Grammy nominated artist Frank Ocean? How about a friend and former pastor that came out of the closet as an atheist? Well, if you add the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh to the mix you will realize it takes a lot to get me back in the game.

While I am not sure if I will continue this writing endeavor here or move it to another blog (Patheos, give me a call), I am going to attempt over the coming days/ weeks/ months to write about my experiments with something I am calling Good Religion. What is it? Well, it is the opposite of what many of us practice… bad religion. It is the what the movement I have been part of for 15 years, led by names like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Diana Butler Bass and the good folks at the Wild Goose Fest, has been trying to journey into. As I have journeyed in and out of traditional Christian faith, agnosticism and emerging Christianity during the past decade plus, I have come to realize that many of those that have embraced Emerging Christianity, found a new belief system, left Christianity all together or embraced atheism have all been on the same journey out of Bad Religion.

There are many good folks out there documenting Bad Religion, folks like Matthew Paul Turner, Zach Hunt and Stephanie Drury. Each is doing yeoman’s work documenting the type of behavior that leads people of religion, and Christianity in particular by holding a light to the darkness of some parts of Evangelicalism and fundamentalism. However, to say that these groups have the market on bad religion is preposterous. There are very bad forms of mainline and progressive Christianity. There are bad forms of Islam (easily documented), Scientology, Hinduism, Judaism and yes, even Buddhism. This post and this blog over the next few months is not going to be another documentation of such.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that Bad Religion (no matter what tribe it is in) is killing us. It is what millions of people have left behind, including a huge swath of my friends. It is what I have been fighting since I was an eleven year old being told my baptism from the year before wasn't good enough because it was in a different Christian tradition and therefore I had to be re-baptized to join a Southern Baptist Church. It is what I tried to steer people clear of as a youth minister, pastor and church planter. Sadly, as I was trying to steer them to good religion, it was still part of an oppressive system and only technically better. This bad religion is what my friend who is now an atheist is fighting against, now on the outside looking back at the harm it did to him and his family.

And it is the religion I thought of when listening to Frank Ocean’s album a few days ago. I am a fan of Ocean’s music, even if I think his previous album was better than “Channel Orange.” That album, nominated for many Grammys, had a leadoff single called “Bad Religion,” a profoundly sad song by a gay man realizing that it’s a “bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.” He is not talking about another man, but about God who, according to his understanding of Christianity, cannot love him. Now some would say this is not true, but one cannot ignore his experience in the church, the church of Bad Religion.

So, as Lent begins, I am asking those that read this to spend this 40 days leaving behind Bad Religion, even if they are not part of organized religion at all. Most of us would say that we don’t embrace bad religion. We are smart. We are emerging. We are open-minded. We live in grace. We practice the opposite of bad religion. We practice good religion. Why else would we be reading this?

But, during the Lenten season (or whenever you want), I ask you to give up bad religion, or give up your notion of religion. In the past, during lent I have given up alcohol, chocolate, caffeine and cokes. I have even given up reading the Bible, the Bible itself, church and Christianity during lent, spending the time in the desert, trying to understand what I leaned upon and what I needed. But, at this time, I am evaluating my own beliefs, practices and understandings of the world around me during this time. Even though I am a fairly progressive person with an open mind and a view of religion that would scare the heck out of those that grew up with me (and not willing to share exactly what I believe, lest anyone write what I am saying off), I need to evaluate it in light of its impact on me, others and the world around me.

In fact, this is how I think we should evaluate. I am not going to give you a formula. I am not going to complicate this, even though it is terribly complex. I am merely going to ask all of us to evaluate our religion in simple ways:
  1. Does it make us better human beings, or as a friend says (more human humans)? We may need to ask others to evaluate this (and please do), but it matters. I remember sitting in a Sunday School class at my parents’ church years ago. It was filled with a bunch of angry, scared 60-somethings, made bitter by life and scared of the world around them by talk radio. I remember thinking, if this is what I have to look forward to, I want out… NOW. Whatever I believe, does it move me forward towards love, acceptance, friendship, hospitality, etc?
  2. Does it make those we are in regular contact with better humans? I was once asked if my friend Brian McLaren was a real Christian, based upon some of his perceived writings. I told the person, Brian makes me a better human being. He makes me want to be more like Jesus. To me, that was all that mattered. I need to practice something that gives hope/ freedom, but never the possibility of oppression. No matter your religious views, or lack of views, does your system make those around you better, more complete humans? Again, you may need to ask your friends and family.
  3. Speaking of oppression, does it oppress anyone, whether its adherents (like Scientology has been accused, as well as forms of Christianity that have hurt women), its innocents (like a number of Christian groups) or those outside its walls (like many churches have done to those outside their faith or groups they shun)?
  4. Does it make the world around you a better place? I believe spirituality and religion should make us better and the world better. Does your system make the world better, or curse the world that isn't perfect? I know plenty of angry progressives and Buddhists that embrace a dark religion of hatred (of those closed minded fundamentalists), that never make the world better. They just complain about the world in which they live. As the sociologist Dallas Willard says, “in a pluralistic world, a religion will be judged by how it treats its non-adherents.” Does your system welcome, love, embrace, and care for the other (even when the other is closed minded)?
Over the coming weeks or months, I will try to unpack some of this, along with some other ideas regarding what makes religion good or bad (and I will try to convert all of us to the notion of good religion). I will be discussing some of my other thoughts on a different way of expressing religion, one that takes on the ideas of Thich Nhat Hanh’s engaged Buddhism, which I believe can be translated well into Christianity  or any other belief system (a religion beyond belief, but not against belief).  I will think about Bad Religion and the potential for Good Religion (something I have been obsessed with for a long time) and I hope a few of you will journey with me and discuss.

For now, I leave you with a song.


Anonymous said...

Rick, I enjoyed reading this and I'm interested to read what comes next. I'm a big fan of "The Miracle of Mindfulness," so if Thich Nhat Hanh is an influence on the next installment I expect that I'll like it. - Kerry

Unknown said...

Rick, I like what you have posted for a number of reasons. I'd love to talk to you more about it and think that unless the church reclaims the contemplative dimension, it will continue to drive people away. J

Chris said...

Hey Rick,

At this point I'm skeptical of all religious claims (and non-religious as well), so I'm looking forward to how you define religion and what you propose. I'm also looking forward to a book by JL Schellenberg on evolutionary religion and what his proposal is since he thinks religion may have gotten stuck and we could be at the cusp of it progressing again.

I also have a couple of thoughts. What ethical theory would you use to define "good" or "bad" for a religion? Doesn't each religion necessarily infer that it is "good" since its own ethical theory is used to justify itself? Basically, someone claiming that their religion is good seems to be a circular claim if the ethical theory used to justify its "goodness" is foundational. Maybe "good" has the wrong connotation for me. I wonder if it would be helpful to talk about religion in other terms, like healthy or unhealthy.



Anonymous said...

i like the idea of giving up bad religion and very much like the four questions and the emphasis they bring at the bottom - that is something we should all be called towards - something about Love God, Love people and all the rest is commentary i believe...

DJ Word said...


You may like where I am going. I would love to hear more about your journey. I am a fan of Nanh, but haven't read that book.

What did you like about it? We can take this offline, if you want.


DJ Word said...

not sure why I misspelled Hanh, probably thinking of Indian food.

DJ Word said...


That would be a good conversation. I think the contemplative tradition is important to Christianity moving forward as a tradition. I also think your man, Rohr is the key because much of what he is talking about is not traditional Christian spirituality. He is talking specifically about zen practices and beliefs without naming them as such.

I know some people that love him that would probably dismiss him if he came fully out of the closet on this issue.

I do think it is bigger than contemplative Christianity, but that is an important piece.

DJ Word said...


I would be interested in more discussion on this topic. Last time we talked (I was in NYC for a conference) you were much deeper in Evangelicalism. I would love to find out more about your journey (it is something I am wanting to hear about from journeyers).

My ethical theory is pretty simple here. It is purely utilitarian and based upon the effect the belief system/ practices have on the individual, the surrounding community, the world, etc.

I am intentionally trying to keep this simple because I think most of these discussions are high level and ignore that most people have these questions. I want to take some higher end philosophy and theological conversations people have and distill them into a set of ideas and practices normal people frustrated with religion can use.

I can understand why you bristle at the word. In fact, I admit it is less nuanced that I usually am, but I want to be stark to help people evaluate. Does that make sense?

Flannery O'Conner says she makes broad strokes because people can't see.

I am interested in your thoughts on all religious claims. I don't know the writer you speak of, but I think I would like it. I am heavily influenced by Robert Wright of Princeton. His book, The Evolution of God was very important to my way of thinking. He is a former Southern Baptist and now agnostic, but a fan of religion. He believes that religion has been on an evolutionary journey just like humanity.

DJ Word said...


Definitely. I am going to journey outside the confines of Christianity on this because I want people to think about their own belief systems, not just the traditional ones.

I hope I don't get too far in the weeds.

Christian said...

I like the idea of religion as part of human evolution. I read the book you mentioned and found it compelling. I'm always fascinated by the technical side of narrative and meaning making (neurobiology) and the idea that we are agent seeking brains, but I think your ecological and sociological elements are worth exploring.