VIEW VIDEO I had plans this this past Monday to pull weeds in our flowerbeds, but it was too hot, so I watched a YouTube video instead. To be honest, it doesn’t have to be all that hot to keep me from pulling weeds. The YouTube clip was a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath about God and religion. Hitchens, a British-American, was a prolific author and intellectual, and identified himself as an anti-theist. He believed religion was false, harmful, and authoritarian. Not that it could be false, harmful, and authoritarian, but that it invariably, inevitably was. Alister McGrath, a native of Ireland, is a theologian, intellectual, and scientist. Both Hitchens and McGrath were educated at Oxford University in England. Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in 2011, and the debate I viewed occurred in 2007 at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
If you’ve ever watched two brilliant people debate, you know it’s common to side with whoever is speaking. You find yourself leaning their way. Hitchens was the first to speak and, sure enough, I caught myself nodding in agreement as he warned about the danger of religion and belief systems. When he finished, I said out loud to Joan, “I think I might be an atheist.” This, of course, is an awkward predicament for a pastor, so I was somewhat relieved when McGrath spoke with such brilliance and clarity, that when he finished speaking, I told Joan I was back to being a Christian.
I hate to disillusion you, but almost every thoughtful pastor I’ve ever known struggles with belief, which can only mean that those we pastor also struggle, or maybe have stopped struggling and now simply don’t care. My friend Jim, who pastored for nearly 25 years, now identifies himself as an apatheist. He simply doesn’t care whether God exists. But I still care, because I think what we believe about God has a direct correlation with our treatment of others. If the God we believe in is a monster, we tend to treat people monstrously. If we believe in a benevolent God, we tend to be benevolent ourselves. So I care whether God exists, or perhaps more accurately, I care what kind of God people believe in.
Of course, our beliefs about God form the basis of our religion. It’s how every religion has ever started—someone somewhere had a particular idea about God, shared that idea with others, and before you know it there were fish fries and nominating committees, though I’m sure George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, didn’t realize that when he said, “I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness…” If you’re going to form a religion, that’s a pretty good organizing principle. It acknowledges the reality of evil, while affirming the triumph of good. It helped make up for Fox being somewhat self-righteous and slow to forgive people he felt had wronged him, an all-too common trait among those religious people who occasionally mistake themselves for God.
Back to our debaters, Hitchens and McGrath. While I suspect Hitchens would have made a more interesting dining companion, I often enjoy talking with atheists, I felt myself drawn to McGrath, whose spirit I found to be gentle, thoughtful, and open. He readily conceded the dark side of religion and acknowledged the truth of many of Hitchen’s concerns, while still asserting that religion had a useful role in the world, a sentiment with which I agree. So we live in this tension between the risks of religion and its rewards.
For example, this past March, when the Roman Catholic Church said it would not bless same-sex marriages, no matter how stable or positive the couples’ relationships were, I thought to myself, “How deceitful. For centuries, Roman Catholics turned a blind eye toward the sexual abuse of children by its leaders, only to now hold itself out as a moral authority on human sexuality.” The hypocrisy of that infuriates me and a part of me wishes the Roman Catholic had never been created. But then I think of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan writer, whose words have proven immensely helpful to millions of people. I think of Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, who helped found the Catholic Worker Movement, lifting countless people out of poverty and despair. I think of the Catholic nuns I knew as a child who shepherded my faith, who supported and encouraged me, and treated me with great dignity. If I wish the Roman Catholic Church had never been, I am simultaneously wishing the community that helped create my spiritual heroes had never existed. So we live in this tension.
By virtue of gathering in this room each Sunday morning, we have decided to affirm the value of a religious life. But our affirmation should never be given thoughtlessly. I was in CVS some time ago and a man I knew from my Catholic childhood accosted me. I had written an article condemning the Catholic church’s sexual abuse of children and its systematic failure to do the right thing time and again. This man said to me. “You should be ashamed for spreading lies. These abuses never happened.” Well, what do you say to that? I told him the only thing I knew to say, that his unthinking devotion to religion had distorted his morality and he had lost his way.
If religion demands we turn a blind eye to evil, if God requires our silence and compliance in the presence of wickedness, then atheism is a true act of integrity. I remain a person of faith because I believe the opposite is true—that faith demands the confrontation of evil, that a belief in God requires our full resistance to moral rot.
Lest we comfort ourselves by thinking we Friends are exempt from such dangers, I’ll remind you that in our Faith and Practice, the right of gay people to marry the person they love is neither permitted or protected because many Friends in our yearly meeting have decided that maintaining the religious structure of our yearly meeting is more important than human dignity, equality, and justice. So we live in this tension too, don’t we, Friends?
In the weeks ahead, I invite us to carefully consider not only the rewards of religious life, but also its risks. For when one is asked to give their hearts to a cause, we owe them full disclosure, a complete and honest telling of religion’s virtues, but also its faults, trusting that in the crucible of full knowledge, a more beautiful faith might be forged.