All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.