When religion makes people worse

Print More
This statue of Jesus crucified is included in a collection of the fragments from Reims Cathedral in France, on display at the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., on May 2, 2014. The museum holds the most diverse collection of artifacts around the world. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

This statue of Jesus crucified is included in a collection of the fragments from Reims Cathedral in France, on display at the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., on May 2, 2014. The museum holds the most diverse collection of artifacts around the world. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Religion can do a great job helping believers discern right from wrong. Religion can do a great job helping believers relate kindly and justly to other people. And religion can do a great job stiffening the will of believers when they face unjust suffering for their faith.

I was taught these things when I studied Christian ethics, and they continue to motivate me in my work as an ethics professor today.

But hard experience has me seeing the negation of these claims more than I did at the beginning of my journey.

Now I see that religion can sometimes do a very poor job helping believers discern right from wrong. Religion can do a very poor job helping believers relate kindly and justly to others. And religion can easily persuade people that the rejection they are receiving for their hurtful or ill-considered convictions is martyrdom for God’s Truth, leaving them even more entrenched in their destructive beliefs.

My two key teachers in the field of Christian ethics in the 1980s were the Baptist Glen Stassen of Southern Baptist Seminary and the Lutheran Larry Rasmussen of Union Seminary in New York. These men knew each other and shared many common scholarly interests that shaped me as well. These included the Nazi period in Germany, the extraordinary life of the scholar-pastor-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the challenge of overcoming racism, and the fight against the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

Both men modeled and taught me an essentially hopeful vision about the role that Christian convictions can play in making Christians more faithful and society better. They taught a faith that had learned very deeply the lessons of the Nazi period; that honored Dietrich Bonhoeffer for standing fast against Nazi seductions when so many of his fellow Christians surrendered their souls; that resisted America’s own racism; and that rejected the idea that more nukes would make the world safer.

My own dissertation focused on that small minority of Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. I sought to discover what kind of character, motivations, and faith shaped these people who risked their lives when their neighbors were standing by indifferently. I have spent much of my career attempting to teach what I have sometimes called a “rescuer Christianity,” as over against a “bystander Christianity.”

But now as a wizened old veteran of the fight, I struggle with discouragement sometimes. It is not just that many Christians fail to live up to the clear demands of Christian discipleship. It’s that we can’t even agree on what those demands are. We all say we believe in Jesus, but what we make of that belief is so irreconcilably different that I am not sure that we are in any meaningful way members of the same religious community.

I should have seen this more clearly all along. After all, could it really be said that a Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died resisting Hitler shared the same religion as the “Christian” men who murdered children in Hitler’s name? What was the religious commonality between white Christian KKK members and black Christians fighting for an end to segregation and lynching? And how much do pro-torture, Islamophobic Christians have in common with those who take the opposite path?

A faith that stands with the crucified ones of this world is very different from a faith that does the crucifying. The question becomes not whether you say you follow Jesus, but which Jesus you follow.

Worst of all has been my discovery in recent years of versions of Christianity that actually make people worse human beings than they might otherwise have been. Here churches, pastors, or individuals interpret Scripture or faith in such a way that they do harm they would not do if they were just good old-fashioned pagans. I never anticipated that I would think: “If we could just keep people out of (this version of) church, they would be better people.”

Christian leaders often puzzle over why Christianity in America is declining so badly. Here’s a reason: some highly visible versions of Christianity are so abhorrent that reasonably sensible people want nothing to do with Christianity or the people who practice it.

The same, of course, holds for abhorrent versions of other religions. But that’s their problem, and this one is mine.

  • Linds

    Amen!! I often shake my head trying to clear it in wondering what Jesus is being followed. Frustration certainly takes its toll!

  • nazani

    “Religion can do a great job helping believers discern right from wrong. ”
    I totally disagree. Religion adds impractical conditions based on attempting to please a supernatural being to ethical decisions, leading to bad outcomes, from mere inconvenience to deadly tragedy. There will always be situations where there is no easy choice, but choosing to reject our natural morality, scientific evidence and what is best for the individual, the community, and the planet in favor of a taboo dictated 2,000 years ago is silly. The wide range of people who wrote the books of the Bible weren’t any smarter or kinder than we are, and they certainly didn’t have the information we do.

  • Billysees

    This amazing article discusses and reveals that Christianity ‘in practice’ is a mixed bag. But why?

    I guess that’s why we need to always pray —

    …thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on this earth as it is in a place called heaven…

    We don’t do a good job of making that happen on our own. Fortunately, we do have a small glimpse of what it’s like —

    The Kingdom of God is not in “word” (isn’t that scripture verse?), but “power” (isn’t that the divine presence of God’s Spirit working in all of us especially those that believe?)……..it’s not food and drink but “righteousness” (isn’t that simply doing good works and deeds?) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”….1 Cor 4:20 plus Rom 14:17

    And then couple that with this good one —

    Seek the Kingdom of God ‘above all else’, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock, for it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom………Luke 12:31,32

  • Dave Miller

    Bravo!! Well said, Prof. Gushee! The distinction you’ve made between “rescuer Christians” and “bystander Christians” cuts like a knife. I get it, and of course I think of myself as one of the former.

    Here is my only caveat: as soon as we make distinctions like this (and see ourselves on this side of the line, rather than that), we run the risk of self-righteousness and judgmentalism…two sins Jesus came down hardest on. Good to keep in mind Augustine’s advice: Never fight evil as if it is something that arose entirely outside yourself.

    Which is precisely why we human beings cannot possibly save ourselves. We need to be saved from the outside.

  • Sabelotodo2

    I’m surprised and disappointed at such a scholarly generic rant that lacks enough specificity to carry any weight with me. We’re well aware of the abuses of the Nazi era, and those lessons should never be lost to us. Nothing close to that has happened since then (Anti-abortionists would argue differently!).

    Gushee fails to name even one culprit beyond a genric broadside at racism, which lacks even the usual reminder that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated time of the whole week!.

  • Dave

    Indeed, it seems easy to say “which Jesus do you follow?” When confronting this topic Jesus himself said he would tell many who claim him “Depart from me, I never knew you.” (Mt. 7:21-23)

    The differences seem to flow from divergent hermeneutics about how we understand Scripture, which I believe is where all Christians claim to see the Jesus they follow. Until we agree on that, there will be many false claims that we follow foolishly and that produce diverse ethics.

  • Tom

    A simple but profound and disturbing statement. Thank you, professor.

  • Katie

    Oh, so true! I work with young adults who are leaving the Church in droves because of the abhorrent behavior of many who claim to follow Christ. Breaks my heart daily.

  • Everett

    “Christian leaders often puzzle over why Christianity in America is declining so badly. Here’s a reason: some highly visible versions of Christianity are so abhorrent that reasonably sensible people want nothing to do with Christianity or the people who practice it” ,

    Here’s a clue, it is God’s decree. God is sovereign in all things, not the least of which those whom he calls out of spiritual death and into life. Were it not for God’s election and His means of calling the elect, being the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit to apply it, there would absolutely be no one who believed in Jesus Christ, much less place their personal trust in Him. Is there a difference between abhorrence and a stumbling block in which most “sensible people” feel about the gospel anyway?

  • ben in oakland

    Religion touts unconditional love and moral behavior, or so goes its press releases.

    The reality is that, like so many drugs, it makes be people exactly how they have always been, except even more so. Good, kind, decent, compassionate people usually become more so. I have met a good many Christians, and I know that this is so. But it makes venal, immoral, unkind bigoted people also more just like themselves already.

    witness Kim Davis, Bristol Palin, Robert Bentley, Ted Haggard, Lonnie Latham, the duck family, Torquemada, and a never-ending list of professional holy holies. Still sluts, family values hypocrites, self-hating homosexuals, cruel and avaricious. All are sure htat god has forgiven them their transgressions. Why not?

    Religion touts unconditional love while slowly feeding a deep and ugly narcissism. God is what you use to justify what cannot be justified by any other means.
    while slowly feeding deep and ugly narcissism.

  • Wes Mordine

    The key is in verse 21 “those who do the will of my Father who is in Heaven”.

    The Christ most of Christianity follow isn’t this Christ who speaks of his Father as superior to him.

    That confusion is central to most Christian religions and thus, Jesus tells them to ‘depart from him’.

  • Everett

    Do you think that people attending church services in Soweto should import some White South Africans into their chapel to “round out” the color mix? Or do you think that Sunday services in Compton at the Full Gospel AME church should import white church goers from Simi Valley? Most Churches within communities that are truly diverse within several miles of each other are probably as diverse as their communities.

  • David

    I find religion to be very frustrating. Today I listened to the author and proponent of religious liberty bills in Georgia describe how such a bill has to be passed because people of faith are having their rights violated daily in Georgia and it is only going to get worse. Really? Could it have anything to do with the fact you are padding your credentials in planning a run for governor?

    In my Bible study class, my peers moan that the press makes Christians out to be buffoons. I wish for once I felt that I could say, “well many of us are”.

    My wife and I take yoga classes to improve our balance and core strength. We have never been asked to join an Eastern cult religion, however when students in public schools practice yoga and mindfulness, parents scramble to find a reporter to complain about their children being converted to Buddhism. No wonder people with any sense are leaving the church.

  • Ben in oakland

    “And religion can easily persuade people that the rejection they are receiving for their hurtful or ill-considered convictions is martyrdom for God’s Truth, leaving them even more entrenched in their destructive beliefs.”

    One of the best sentences you have ever written, Dr. Gushee.

    Here you have described the totality of “Christian persecution” in this country, which is nothing more than disagreement, blowback for being unkind and mean, and legal penalties for claiming you are above the law that governs all of us, that your religious feelings are special whereas those of other people are bending over for Satan.

    We have laws at every level of government forbidding discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Conservative Christians have been trying to get around these laws for decades, in their vendettas against gay people, “immoral”women, and anyone else they don’t like. These so called religious freedom bills are no different.

  • Pingback: If you’re following Jesus: | Dating Jesus()

  • Debbo

    I disagree with you, nazani. Religion “can” do a great job of teaching widely accepted moral behavior. The fact that sometimes it does not, includes the fact that sometimes it does.

    The problem is your absolutism. It really is possible for almost any religion to teach right from wrong and it happens on a fairly regular basis. Quakerism, the Society of Friends, is a good example. Dietrich Bonhoffer, mentioned in this article, gave his life in a great moral cause, the end of Naziism and the Holocaust. In addition, there are real, immoral and terrible people who claim to be Lutherans.

    “Both” is the truest answer about religions teaching morality. As is usual with American media, the bad actors get so much attention, they seem like the only ones.

  • Debbo

    Agree, Dr. Gushee and Ben. Bingo!

  • Jim

    There seems to be a universal instinct for justice, compassion, mercy and fairness. It is not unique among Christians, although some Christians may practice those virtues expecting a reward from God or punishment from God if they don’t. The mystery is why we see so much evil in the world, such as ISIS now and the Holocaust.

  • shawnie5

    ISIS and the Holocaust don’t even begin to describe the “evil in the world”. There have been 5,000 millenia of recorded history, and record shows anything but a universal instinct for compassion or mercy. Some interest in justice, but it for the most part it has not been the kind of justice we have come to understand and value here in the west.

  • G Key

    “…some highly visible versions of Christianity are so abhorrent that reasonably sensible people want nothing to do with Christianity or the people who practice it. The same, of course, holds for abhorrent versions of other religions.”

    And the same holds for dismissive, abusive, antagonistic non-religious people as well.

    Should Armageddon occur, I don’t think it will be between Christians & non-Christians, or between these-believers & those-believers, or even between believers & nonbelievers.

    I think it will be between the Respecters of others & their beliefs, and the Trespassers who traipse across others’ personal boundaries, trample what others hold dear, and claim rights to other people’s spiritual/existential property.

  • yoh

    Religion actually does little to nothing about morality. Religious notions of morality concern following rules and directives of an arbitrary nature from unquestioned authority.

    Religious authority only has a limited tolerance for philosophical discussion and questions as long as the answers reach a predetermined point and do not violate arbitrary tenets of the faith.. You can ask whatever you want as long as the answer is …

    Instead of weighing in moral choices, one merely follows a rule or leader. Rather than saying, something is right because it has some great moral value, one simply claims God says so, therefore you should follow it.

    People will use religious precepts to justify any position they please. Unfortunately given the arbitrary and unquestioned nature of its authority you find people like Bonhoffer are more of a “bug” than a feature. Reactionary, oppressive belief is the more common aspect of it.

  • yoh

    So following unquestioned, arbitrary authority is done instead of moral thinking. rather than weigh in one’s actions according to how they impact others, you simply follow a rule without reflection. With no regard to how it may help or harm others. This is exactly the kind of thinking which gets people to claim some kind of self perceived moral grounds to what are generally repugnant harmful behavior.

  • Everett

    I think that you have a fundamental misunderstanding why people are indulging in exactly what their depraved hearts desire, and of a sovereign God who has elected to call some out of spiritual death to life. For that matter neither does Dr. Gushee.

  • James

    Irrelevant. Without a transcendent moral good all ethics is arbitrary. If arbitrary then the best you have is some form of social contract or a shell game equivalent to paper money. It’s worth something only because we all agree it is. Sure, if you want to live in the system you have to go along but there is not an inherent value. With a transcendent moral good then whatever that goodness reveals as being good must be by definition. The most we can do is argue over what that revelation is. “kindness” to a “human” “person” is not a self-evident standard but relies on arguing for the “goodness” of some action defined as “kind” and the value of both a “human” and a “person”. Empathy will not do as all is does is inform a person about the emotional state of another, it doesn’t make a demand outside of system that dictates a particular emphatic response is of moral oughtness. For instance, pigs have feelings and I still eat bacon. Without a higher goodness to give pigs…

  • jimfromcanada

    It seems to me that societies choose their own ethics and that many Biblical narratives simply were developed to justify what the leaders of Israel(for example) decided to do.
    The impulse for the common good may come from our common wonder at the universe and our existence. Whatever society we are a part of changes over time. Our understanding about how the universe works, how society works and what our part in human society is constantly challenged The cognitive dissonance that is a part of those challenges create the cracks that “let in the light” or the sense of the divine, and a new “eternal” order emerges. Evil, our inadvertent mistakes as well as our deliberate self centred choices will always be a part of human existence dealt with by society when the results become obvious. Religion is the vehicle of much human reflection and valuation, and as one religion becomes banal another one will take its place. Even the religion of religionlessness will be supplanted.

  • Dave

    Ben, so the only motives you see in “Christians,” or those you disagree with, are meanness, unkindness, and a desire to discriminate? Careful, or your sentiments may put you in the same category of those you abhor.

  • yoh

    People invoke God when they want their view to be accepted without reflection or discussion. They want to rely on the arbitrary authority religion grants. It allows one to avoid responsibility for their views and attempt to garner social acceptance.

    Religious types are no less depraved or moral when they invoke tenets of faith to justify their actions. It is,merely a tool to avoid discussion and claim authority.

    The implication that nonbelievers are somehow depraved because they do not follow the same arbitrary rules and unquestioned authority as a believer is merely childish avoidance of discussion. To claim moral superiority without actually having a discussion about morality.

    Following religious dictates is not morality. Never has been. The author holds back from the logical conclusion of the discussion. That religious belief is entirely immaterial to morality.

  • Ben in oakland

    No, Dave, they are not the only motives I see. But they are the majority of the motives of the majority of the people that are so publicly opposed to gay people having full right of participation in society, where our lives, loves, families, careers, faith, freedom, children and assets are considered every bit as important as those of say, the slutty daughter of a politician who is on her second illegitimate baby, but still has time to lecture other people about purity. Or of the fornicating, adulterous thrice married former republican congressman who can end his current marriage and still get married as often and badly as he wishes.

    I’ve talked to a number of Christians who believe my marriage is wrong, but they have no issue with my marriage beyond that. They are certainly not trying to ban it by claiming that their religious beliefs give them dominion over my life in civil law. Or, let’s move on to those poor persecuted Christians who are just too holy to…

  • Ben in oakland

    Provide services to people they despise, and too self righteous to be polite kind and considerate. These martyrbaters have no problem working for demon worshipping Hindus, divorced people, or atheists. But their delicate consciences are just so distressed by thought that they have to make the same cake that they make for–gasp!!!– heterosexuals that they must pretend that they are participating in the wedding in order to justify their ill treatment of others and lack of business sense.

    What I have found consistently, dave, is that they are willing to demonstrate bigotry, whether of hate, despite, or a wholly imaginary superiority. I’ve had people tell me how much they love me, right before they tell me I am sick, perverted, and a danger to society, and that I need to get right with God. It’s not love, it’s narcissism.

    Show me more than just a few principled Christians, and not people justifying social prejudices as sincere religious belief.

  • Free at last!

    Bingo! One of a hundred reasons why I eventually deconverted after spending 25+ years as a devout conservative evangelical. EvangelIcalism, as a ideology, makes big promises for individual & societal change if you just drink the koolaid. The more I studied history and observed results from contemporary US evangelical political engagement, the more it became clear that the deleterious side effects of any purported remedy from the “Great Physician” far outweighed the benefits.

    At the end of the day, we have story about a genocidial deity who will save us from all the terrible things he’ll do to us if we just have the right beliefs about his prerequisite brutal human sacrifice of his son. Not a good role model for ethical behavior. I mean, I am far from perfect or omnipotent yet my kids don’t a savior from me.

    Our God of choice should act at least as moral as the average human parent.

  • KKM

    I think a big reason Christianity is declining is because instead of being taught that the Bible is the word and the only word, we now have discovered many other writings that were banned from the Bible. Those who chose to educate themselves can see that the Bible ISN’T the word of God, just the words of men. We now also know more about ancient history and that the church was just a political entity. The more educated and enlightened we become, the less we need to believe in the “man in the sky” controlling everything. Logic is taking over religion.

    We can now see how corrupt the church is and are easily sickened by it. Jesus’ message of giving up all belongings and taking care of the poor is totally ignored. Many now worship in monster churches with thousands of others, all while pumping money into the minister and church’s pockets. False prophets.

    So many Christians don’t follow the golden rule and that turns off a lot of people also.

  • Billysees

    “And religion can easily persuade people that the rejection they are receiving for their hurtful or ill-considered convictions is martyrdom for God’s Truth, leaving them even more entrenched in their destructive beliefs.”

    I missed reading that until Ben mentioned it and rightly praised it. But how can you stop that from happening? One way is to always keep a watchful eye on anything religions do that common-sense and love-sense tells you is dumb or down right wrong then expose it. Maybe better choices will follow.

  • Ben in oakland

    “Without a transcendent moral good all ethics is arbitrary.”

    Your entire argument is an attempt to appeal to an authority that cannot be argued with, except that you really don’t believe this yourself. your choice of which transcendent moral good is entirely arbitrary. 2/3 of the world thinks your God is a quaint story, and no more a source for transcendent moral good than appeals to the Easter bunny. If you were born into radical Islam, you’d think that flying airplanes into buildings is transcendent moral good. If you were born 300 years ago, you’d think the same thing about burning witches.

    If by ethics, you means rules for proper living, things like empathy and social evolution are more than sufficient to account for morality.religion, anybody’s religion, certainly does not. The golden rule is a good basis for a lot of morality, and it was promulgated 500 years before Jesus by Kong Fu-Tzu.

    Mammy Yokum: good is better than evil because it’s nicer.

  • James

    By ethics I mean the imposition on an individual of an ought or ought not. “Proper” is a relative term. I can ignore empathy as it’s just an emotional response. All it does it make me feel bad, it doesn’t mean I can’t “change the channel” so to speak. Social evolution just describes an “is” not prescribes an “ought”. It doesn’t provide a solid basis to tell another person what they ought or ought not to do nor give any point in trying to determine between two moralities. Each evolved system may as well be just as good as another, unless there is an absolute goal for that evolution? Survival? Is my “oughtness” just whatever allows me to survive and thrive the best? I suppose that can be sufficient as long as what I consider “thrive” and “best” works for you in any given setting.

    Religious disagreement is not the point. All religious in the world today could be wrong! The point is needing something outside of humanity to judge human standards and give an external…

  • G Key

    Beautiful wisdom, Billysees, and beautifully said.
    It holds true across the entire spectrum of spiritual-existential beliefs.

  • Dave Miller

    “But how can you stop that from happening? One way is…”

    And another way is to bear in mind St. Augustine’s advice: Never fight evil as if it were something that arose entirely outside of yourself.

  • Pingback: 07 April 2016 Religion News and Atheist Commentary | Evangelically Atheist()

  • Billysees

    And even another way is to…overcome evil with good…..Romans 12:21

  • Vivian Lewin

    Desmond Tutu spoke in Montreal in the late 70s/early 80s and I remember him saying, quietly, that if we have any question about which side to take in any controversy, take the side of those with less power. Of course there are different sorts of power and sometimes more than one side. But it’s a good litmus test.

  • Reid E. Pagliaccio

    Hey, Prof–Very righteous observations. The Founder, Himself, however, said that the world hated Him first and that’s why you believers will be hated, too. Exegeez that!

  • When any religious group makes you less compassionate to people outside the group as a result of your participation in the group, that’s what we call a sect.

    When any religious group makes the people who care most about you worry about your well-being because of your participation in the group, that’s what we call a cult.

  • M W Huenemann

    There is a huge disparity between “religion” and true Christianity. Christ did not offer a better life or salvation based on “impractical conditions.” He taught and modeled free forgiveness and unconditional love, which (unfortunately) few who claim the title “Christian” take seriously enough to place ahead of their natural self-centered and prideful worldview. I’m afraid your statement that authors of the Bible (which would include Solomon) were no smarter than we are is beyond presumptuous. The wisdom of the Bible is not excelled by any other writings and has changed millions for the better.

  • Shawnie5

    Both of those were said about the earliest Christians. Heck, even Jesus’ own family “worried about” Him. None of that is a measuring stick for anything.

  • Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (4/8) - Everyday Theology()

  • Deborah

    You had me up until your words “Islamophibic Christians” followed shortly shortly thereafter by “crucified ones.” I am getting visions in my head of ISIS crucifying the innocent in their genocide against Christians in the name of Islam. The tone of the article just became discordant to me as a result.
    Sure, there are shallow miscarcicatures of Christianity in the West. Your timing, however, is like that of Loretta Lynch in the aftermath of San Bernadino, offering lectures and threats on “prosecuting Islamophobia” instead of conviction about prosecuting the terrorists while the nation was in mourning. The brave Christians who stood against Hitler knew the times in which they lived and were unafraid to call evil for what it was. We would be wise to do the same.

  • Teresa

    Yesterday there was a wonderful gathering of Christians in Los Angeles. There were over 100,000 people at the Azuza Now conference to unite the people of God and to mend past wrongs. Christians were united over what they agree in….Jesus is Lord and Savior. God met them there and there was an outpouring of love. You should check it out…God does not see us as our various denominations of Christians which we call ourselves, He sees us as His children if we have truly chosen to call Jesus Lord and Savior.