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Good Religion, Bad Religion

November 30, 2010

That GuyI don’t want to be “that guy,” today. You know “that guy” from many settings. When class is almost over and the teacher asks, “Are there any questions?” instead of waiting until class is dismissed to ask the question in private, “that guy” asks the teacher a long and involved question, that the teacher is then obliged to answer before letting anyone out of the class.

But “that guy” is usually worse. He wants to catch the teacher up. He wants to have a zinger moment. He wants to have that moment where he says, “Gotcha!”, gives a wide troll grin, and causes everyone to groan.

“That guy” can be a-religious too. And here’s the kind of things an atheist or a-religious “guy” might say:

All religion is bad, because faith itself is bad.

All religion is bad, because it requires the surrender of independent thought and creates sheeple.


OK, so I don’t want to be “that guy,” but after reading By Common Consent’s post on Bad Religion, I have to wonder…what is bad religion?

The reason I worry about reaching into “that guy” status is because it seems to me that although I have no conceptual problem with thinking about a “good religion,” I have to recognize that what would be considered essential for “good religion” for others would probably often strike me as terrible, and the things that I might recognize as good religion might seem ineffectual to others. Getting outside of myself, it seems like any nonbeliever could have grievances with religion to the extent that “good religion” becomes oxymoronic.

For example, Matthew Chapman comments at BCC:

Good religion tells us how we ought to behave.
Bad religion justifies us behaving as we like.

Good religion tells us we have special moral obligations in relation to God.
Bad religion tells us we have special moral privileges (ie exceptions) in relation to God.

Bad religion identifies the “other” in humankind.
Good religion tells us there is no “other”.

To an extent, this seems reasonable. However, the devil is all in the details. Look at that first one.

“Good religion tells us how we ought to behave.” Kinda like Mormonism tells us that we ought make sure never to have extramarital sexual relations, which means no homosexual relations at all. Certainly don’t try to get around this by legalizing gay marriage!

“Bad religion justifies us behaving as we like.” Like those wishy-washy liberal Christian (or other) denominations that have caved in, supporting the legitimacy of gay relationships!

I understand it depends on who you ask. But then we get into this game where we just start agreeing with people whose views already represent our own. (For example, if I say that every conservative, traditional religion is “bad” and the ones that support gay relationships are “good,” then what have I really accomplished?) Another commenter to the thread aptly captured the problematic sentiment: Bad religion is anything I don’t like. At some level, a “good” religion SHOULD challenge the behaviors and sentiments of an individual and cause them to struggle about it…but this very quality — depending on where it is directed — will cause people to identify a religion as bad.

Thomas Parkin wrote in comment:

Whatever tends to be good tends to enable and encourage us to expand the borders of our soul – the totality of everything we are – until we reach our full potential. Whatever tends to be bad tends to disable and discourage us from expanding the totality of our being, until we are little or nothing, at all.

Good and bad religion follow.

Again, such language sounds good. But when people have very different ideas about what the expansion of the borders of the soul looks like (or what time scale it operates), we have problems. What is our full potential? It depends on what I am. If I am a child of God (TM), then my potential is proprietary, something revealed not to me but to some guy in some church (whether it be Mormon or otherwise). But if not, then the totality of my being may be something completely different.


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  1. “how we ought to behave” -> how I think you ought to behave
    “special moral obligations” -> like suicide bombing
    “full potential” -> make babies and pay tithing

    I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could even write those things and think that they serve even remotely well as a definition. The question must have been, “in light of the fact that the LDS ideal is the ultimate one true representation of good religion, what do you think differentiates our good religion from bad religion?”

    The real underlying question is: how can you stand to read BCC?

  2. Carson, I thought to ask my parents the same thing over Thanksgiving break with their tabloids.

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