By Derek Olsen
Just the other day on NPR I heard a report that alternately amused and annoyed me. The spot reported on two studies by social scientists. The first was a psychologist who determined that children who believed that an invisible—supernatural—being was in the room with them cheated on an impossible task the same low amount as when an actual, visible, person was with them. The second was an explanation for the growth of the human trait of cooperation. It posited that humans used the idea of a supernatural omniscient being with a set law code as a means for social control that avoided problems of authority and retributive revenge. That is, in early human societies, a leader could say that he wasn’t making up rules and imposing them and be liable for retribution, instead he was simply enforcing the rules already laid down from above. The point of the report seemed pretty clear to me: it attempted to demonstrate that human religion began as simple—and simplistic—means of social control. The unspoken but seemly logical conclusion was that since humanity had moved past the need for such primitive controls, it was time for us to move beyond religion as well.
Schleiermacher named so well the “cultured despisers of religion” in the title of his book from 1799. Despite the passage of two hundred some years, they are still with us and—to their bewilderment—so is religion…
And that’s precisely what amused me so about the report—the complete bewilderment present. Oh, they were careful and no one made any clearly disparaging remarks, but the impression that I received was that both the scientists and the reporter were completely baffled concerning how apparently reasonable people could still believe this religion stuff. How could we account for it? Why would people have ever dreamed it up? Perhaps if its origins could be exposed as primitivistic, then modern people would realize the childishness of the whole endeavor and give it up for good. The report seemed to be grasping for some straws that it could use to topple the ancient edifice. Alas, the straws remained ineffective, at least to my ears.
What annoyed me about the report were the assumptions made about religious belief and, subsequently, about religiously-motivated behavior. One statement in particular sticks with me even now. It made reference to the fact that, even now, millions of people around the world are motivated by religion to not do certain things. This statement is true. Yet when I heard it, I felt a flush of irritation and frustration. Why, I wondered, is the emphasis on what religion makes people not do? Why is religion always portrayed as a negative force—either that it has negative effects or that it acts by preventing people from doing certain things?
What about the positive aspects of religion? As I sit at the computer and type this, my internet radio station is cycling through works of Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd and others. None of this aural beauty would exist if it were not for religion. The hospital at which my nephew was recently born would never have existed but for the order or nuns who founded and first staffed it—indeed, would modern healthcare as we know it even exist without the religious hospitalling orders who tended the sick and pilgrims? When I at my most cynical consider joining the cultured despisers myself, I consider those who have been transformed by the fire of love through purely religious means who have then shared that love with the world. Religion—true religion—is far more than a series of “thou shalt nots,” yet this is what seems to stand front and center in the caricatures of the cultured despisers.
Where have we failed?
Because, in truth, it is we who have failed. It’s our job to make the work of the cultured despisers all that more difficult. It’s our job to provide concrete, embodied examples of how religion, faith, spirituality—anything and everything that transcends a materialistic empiricism—make this world a better place, and humanity the richer for them. Are there things done in the name of religion that we don’t approve of and don’t agree with? Of course. Are there times when we join the cultured despisers in their bewilderment at the actions of those who call themselves religious? Most certainly. But rather than throwing up our hands, we need to throw ourselves into the fray keeping always before us the cornerstones of our revealed religion: faith, hope and love.
How we act matters. How we embody our faith in the world matters. I’d try and frame it in a neat little epigram but someone beat me to it: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.