Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 2 of 3
OUR RELIGION PROBLEM
To state the problem in its broadest strokes, it is this: First, we assume that God is good—so good, in fact, that He is often considered the source of all morality. (Atheists are constantly being asked, “If you don’t believe in God, why behave well at all?”) It would follow from this, second, that people who are more than usually religious—more concerned about their spiritual life, more conscious of the moral implications of their actions—people who follow this God would be better people that most of us would like to emulate. Religion, in short, should be appealing; more compellingly good than any other human endeavor. What we find instead, however, is that devoutly religious people who go to church, who memorize their scriptures, who give themselves over to their faith, are, in fact, some of the most ignorant, retrograde, hateful, tribalist, arrogant pricks on the planet. In fact, if there isn’t some religious person making an ass of himself in the news right now, just wait a few days. It never fucking ends.
Of course, this isn’t true of most religious people most of the time. Let me be clear on that. But the disconnect is nevertheless quite jarring, and I’ve certainly learned to cringe when I hear “Christian” anything, even if it’s technically unfair. What accounts for this constant P.R. disaster? The conservative religious person’s response to this is usually “those people burning Harry Potter [or whatever] don’t represent the real religion”—it’s flawed old humanity peeking through the white robes, and just because some people are flawed doesn’t mean the whole program should be trashed. The liberal religious person’s approach is often to say, “There is great wisdom in all religion, but you have to cut through the unfortunate cultural or historical accretions [by which they usually mean, stop being conservative] to get to the pure diamond of soul” or what have you. In either case, religion is good, and mistakes don’t count. And of course, the “hard” atheist answer to this is that religion is, ipso facto, a terrible thing that we’re all better off without. The baby was never worth bathing anyway.
But I used to be a devout evangelical Christian, and a student of world religions, and I know how good it feels and its power to do good. I have a different idea: I think that, while all religions (at least in theory) begin with the aim of promoting great ideals, in practice some religions are worse than others—they have more bad ideas, or less compassion, or thinner wisdom. I further suspect that bad religions take perfectly good people—people who want to be good; who want to give back to humanity and make the world better—and turn them into dicks. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. Hell, it happened to me. The flaws might not be an accident; they might be an unavoidable part of an unfortunate system.
What this means is that bad religion is a threat—often subtly—not only to the culture it’s a part of (try to get contraception and you never know if the local druggist won’t refuse your order and report you to the Kirkstadt), but it’s a threat to its own practitioners. It actually takes good people and, in large or small ways, breeds their ignorance, limits their love and curtails their dignity, and does so with every good intention in the world. Very bad religions do this all the time. Most religions do it rather less often.
But—and this is the key to my argument—religions do this more often than religious people themselves are aware of. The devout are too close to their own beliefs, they’re determined to make it work, and so they’re ill-equipped to notice when the system has slipped a cog or two. And since most atheists writing these days seem unwilling to tease out the good from the bad in religion, it is left to me, a non-religious fan of religion, an outsider to every tradition, to describe, as carefully and as fairly as I can, what should be nipped and tucked. And what should be cauterized. That is the aim of this book.
The bad news is that I have an enormous target. I think the worst collection of bad ideas in America can be found in Christianity’s most vigorous and energetic expression: evangelicalism. This is ironic, because evangelical Christianity is also, in many ways, Christianity at its most appealing, its most contemporary, its most fun. No other counterculture has created such a diverse alternative music, alternative literature, and so many creative and innovative ways to reach people. But it’s like a beautiful meal containing a mild poison: until the poison is removed, the meal will never be truly healthy for anyone, even if you’ve eaten for years and have built up a tolerance.
There’s worse news: the result of this vibrancy is that evangelical Christianity’s influence has spread immensely. (In the next chapter, I will argue that evangelical Christianity has essentially gained ownership of the generic “Christian” label.) It has popularized to the point that many of its unfortunate ideas have been adopted by the culture at large. Even unchurched people often hold ideas similar to evangelicals on topics like hell, homosexuality, the end of the world or the holiness of God. As a result, my critique does not touch evangelicals alone. Almost every major American religious tradition—including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and old-school Catholics—hold beliefs that are consistent with what I will call the “evangelical core,” and which pose the same dangers to its adherents and those who interact with them. Many other religions—especially Islam—hold these as well.  [Footnote 1: If I’m going to be honest, my reading suggests that the worst religious ideas in the world are actually to be found in Islam. But since I don’t speak Arabic, so I can’t read the Qu’ran, and since Muslims are only about 4 percent of the U.S. population, evangelical Christianity is definitely Spiritual Challenge Number One in this country. So for my purposes, as an American English speaker, evangelicalism is more worth taking aim at.]
The good news is that I believe evangelicalism can be saved. I’m sympathetic with evangelicalism’s aims, I admire its ideals, and I think I can prove that most of its worst behaviors are rooted in various misreadings of the Bible. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this, so I’ll warn you right now that the Bible doesn’t know jack about science. But on the whole there are usually valid alternative readings for the evangelical to take that are consistent with the Bible and consistent with decency, compassion, and growth, in ways that mainstream evangelical beliefs sometimes aren’t.
But this is all theory. Let me give you a taste of what it looks like in practice. This is the story of how I first experienced this for myself.