I spent a great deal of the last few weeks dedicated to peeling back the insidious onion of a New Zealand Megachurch, as well as the anti-vax sentiment spreading around New Zealand.
Of course there are links between the two: Peter Mortlock’s Instagram shows him to be the Tucker Carlson of New Zealand, and the pushback against vaccinations in New Zealand come from the same place Mortlock uses to control his congregation: Fear.
Fear is an undercurrent of all this stuff: including serving up easy solutions like ‘Heaven’ to avoid ‘Hell’ — and to avoid the fear of Covid. It’s just this endless cycle of manipulation and I truly hate it.
But of course it’s wrong to tar all Christianity — and indeed, all religion — with the the same brush. So: I wanted to do something that is sort of terrible form in journalism.
I wanted to look at the incredibly complex topic of religion by doing a thing that I deplore newsrooms doing: Getting two people at opposite ends of the spectrum to comment on the topic at hand.
The worst example of this is when newsrooms cover something like global warming by giving equal airtime to a scientist, and a climate change denier. One of those people is backed by a massive chunk of science, the other is a rogue voice denying reality.
It’s the same with doctors talking about vaccination: It’s irresponsible to cover a topic like “Should You Get Vaccinated” by talking to a pro-vax doctor and an anti-vax doctor. It might seem like balance, but it’s really not. One of those is not like the other, and not just because they have differing opinions. This infographic on Stuff sums it up well: While a few rogue doctors yell loudly about the vaccine being poison, 6,535 say “Get vaccinated please”. I’d argue both voices don’t deserve the same amount of attention.
If you make a documentary about dinosaurs, you wouldn’t need to provide balance to the topic of “dinosaurs” by including a man (yes, it would be a man) who denied dinosaurs ever existed. A documentary about the Holocaust should not include someone who denies the holocaust happened in aid of “balance”. That last example sounds so deluded, but it’s 2021 so it’s actually totally normal:
But today I am throwing aside my rules, because I asked two people with opposing views to talk about religion.
One of then is my Tickled collaborator Dylan Reeve. Here he is with me as we pretend to tickle Stephen Fry. Still amazes me this ever happened.
Dylan was unfortunate enough to grow up on Waiheke Island and I’d generally describe him as an atheist, and maybe an agnostic when drunk. He thinks the world would be better off without religion. He argues that religion is bad.
Dylan penned his thoughts, and then I sent them to a Christian. Not Peter Mortlock, I mean an authentic Christian: Reverend Frank Ritchie.
“Take this, Ritchie!” I mumbled under by breath as I clicked ‘Send.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly he wasn’t instantly converted to a Ricky Gervais level of militant atheism, but instead argued for why he though we shouldn’t throw religion in the ocean just yet. He argued religion is good.
So, here it is: The Death Match of the Ages. The Battle Royal of Theology. The Squid Game for our Souls.
Actually, it’s quite polite but I wanted you to read on, so had to do the hard sell. Much aroha, I’ll let these two take it away.
Religion is Bad*
*or at least neutral.
by Dylan Reeve
I will start this with a simple acknowledgement: I don’t understand religion.
I mean, I know quite a lot about the teachings, claims and practices of many religions, but I don’t understand religion on a personal level. I have never been religious. As long as I can remember knowing about the idea of religion I have found it unsatisfying on an intellectual level, and have never felt a deeper need for it.
One of my earliest memories of anything religious was arguing, at age 5 or 6, with a very religious friend that I wasn’t worried about going to hell for not believing in god, because I also didn’t believe in hell. I was homeschooled at the time, and a not-insignificant number of other homeschooled kids in my area were being homeschooled because of their religion.
So with that context I want to express an idea that’s been rattling around my head for the last 5-10 years. It’s not one I usually express widely because, frankly, I don’t really want to argue about it. But I’ll lay it out here as best I can.
I don’t think religion is good. I think it’s bad, or at best neutral.
I used to generally think that religion - in the broadest sense - was generally somewhere between neutral and good on a very generalised societal sort of level.
But more and more I’ve come to think that, overall, religion isn’t a positive thing for our society or culture at this time. Sometimes it’s a neutral thing, but more often than not it’s a negative.
At this point I’m fairly sure if I were talking to a religious person they would be about to interrupt me, and I suspect that if you are reading this as a religious person you are probably thinking the same thing - “I am a good person! I do good!”
And I’ll assume this is absolutely true. I know many religious people who are indisputably amazing human beings. There are many religious groups that do incredible and meaningful work in our society.
I am not talking about you, personally. On an individual level I’m sure religion can be incredibly helpful and good.
It is these facts that add up to me being willing to extend my assessment of religion to be as generous as “neutral” - in that these individualised good things and good people may go part way to balancing out the overall negative impact of religion.
Note, above, that I also said this is my opinion of religion “at this time” - because the matter of the impact of religion in the past is even more complex, messy and marred in extremes. A lot of the good things we enjoy in our modern lives can be attributed to the influence of various religions, but obviously almost all of the horrors of our collective past can also be laid at the feet of religion.
I think my prior assessment of the contemporary impact of religion was based on what I believe to be the common secular wisdom about the matter. That religious teachings provide a useful framework for individual behavior and interaction, and that religious organisations deliver meaningful positive impacts for their communities and society at large.
In this framing we tend to ignore all but the most overtly negative impact of some specific religious people and groups, and then we weigh them against the assumed overall good and discount them as either outliers or just a small price to pay.
But more recently I’ve come to consider the general impact of (most? all?) religion as negative, and, instead, looked at the overtly positive as the outlier.
At its most simplistic, religion creates clear and strongly defined in-group and out-group thinking and behaviour.
And this isn’t just among the religious - atheists and the agnostic are a part of this too - as an atheist I find myself making judgments about people when I learn they are religious. Negative judgments - like “I really like that person, but why do they believe that fairytale?”
Similarly many religious people make the same types of judgments about the areligious. A 2019 Gallup survey found that 40% of US voters wouldn’t vote for an atheist for President.
But perhaps the worst aspect of religion’s influence on our culture is its role as a barrier or cloak. It is something impenetrable that people hide their prejudice, judgment and hate behind. You don’t need to consider the consequences or implications of your various -isms if you can simply claim you’re just saying what your god told you.
You can tell others how they should act and think because you’re trying to help them fall in line with what your religious book says they should do. Individuals can take these beliefs into their jobs in business, and even government, and then use them to make decisions.
They can demand that corporations and civil administrations do things that are in line with these teachings; that they exclude some people, or include others, because that’s what their religion demands.
This fear of other groups and adherence to personally-subscribed teachings causes dramatic hypocrisy and demonises those ‘others’. For example, hundreds of bills were introduced to US legislatures to outlaw “Sharia” largely by groups who would be more than happy to enact (more of) their own Christian teachings as law.
But all that is very generalised harm. There is also real clear specific harm at play as we push further into the twenty-first century, where politics seems to be becoming more polarised and religion is being even more directly engaged in that polarisation.
Opposition to the science of climate change has been widely connected to fundamental and evangelical Christianity. And it’s easy to argue that the scepticism of climate science, specifically, created inroads with those groups for a broader distrust of science.
Now, faced with a global pandemic, we’ve seen religious groups refuse to follow guidelines, some religious leaders promote conspiracy theories, others refusing to take a stand on vaccines, and some even very explicitly denouncing Covid vaccines:
The examples I cite are mostly Christian, but that’s just because they are the most prominent in the places I’m more connected to. They are nothing special really.
Islam and Judaism are squarely at the center of some of the most complex and long-running geopolitical conflicts in modern history. Religion, or more specifically the very pointed suppression of it, is at the forefront of human-rights abuses in China. Centuries-old religious divides are still the cause of violence, discrimination and military conflict in South Asia.
In all those places there are countless examples of religion being used to justify harmful practices, manipulate populations, and to promote specific agendas.
And I’m not even touching on the way religions are created or exploited to directly harm and defraud their members, or governments.
Or how religious ideas are used as a foundational basis to manipulate people on a personal and group basis to create cults and enable abuse.
Or how the ideas implanted by religion often form the basis for belief in harmful conspiracy theories.
But, of course, religions often do a lot of international charitable work. But so do secular groups. Religious groups often provide community support and outreach to those in poverty or the unhomed. But so do secular groups, and so should governments.
There is only one thing that I think I’d generally consider a genuine positive for religion: It helps some individuals find purpose, meaning and peace in life. And that’s probably the thing that pushes it most toward “neutral” in my assessment. But it’s also something that secular philosophy does for a lot of people.
Ultimately I boil it down to a single question: If I could snap my fingers and religion would cease to exist, would the world be better off, worse off, or the same.
These days I’m fairly sure my answer is, ‘better off’.
Religion is Good*
*and definitely better than neutral.
by Frank Ritchie
Firstly, thank you to David for his graciousness in inviting me to write this. Reading the recent article here by Dylan Reeve where he concluded that the world would be better off without religion, it’s appropriate to begin with an apology.
Because of my own experiences of growing up around organised religion I am acutely aware of the best and worst of it. Here I will be talking from my faith, which is Christian, but I’m also aware of both the the sublimely good and the destructive elements of other major religions.
My own childhood carries too many stories of seeing and experiencing the worst. When I explain my story to people, I realise it doesn’t make sense that I would now be a minister. Also, as someone fascinated by history, while I can track the beauty of Christianity through the ages, I am also very aware of the horror committed by far too many who have claimed it. Not just the horror, there’s also the subtle abuse that has occurred for many.
So if your journey is one where hearing about religion now triggers memories and hurts, I am sorry. I am sorry for anything you have suffered at the hands of religious communities and/or individuals that have claimed religion. I cannot heal those hurts, though I wish I could, but with my hat on as a Christian minister (an imperfect one), I can, with sadness, say that I am deeply sorry. There is no excuse. You have my understanding if you choose not to read my thoughts here.
I read Dylan’s article and found myself nodding to a lot of it. Though some of my conclusions may be different, I can’t sweep aside the things he has pointed out. The trail of destruction wrought by many within organised religion both historically and presently is high. I consider myself to be a fairly reasonable voice, but have found myself doing battle with others in my wider faith community regularly since I began life as a Christian in the public sphere in the early 2000s. The Trump era and 2020/21 in particular, have been tiring as the influence of US Christian fundamentalism has shown how far it reaches. I found myself feeling mentally low for the first months of this year because of it. I was tired.
In offering much agreement with Dylan, I recognise that I could easily end up being relegated to the category of ‘outlier’ in relation to organised religion, so allow me to reluctantly place myself squarely in the frame of it, warts and all, with something that sounds nuts to many modern people not familiar with Christianity.
I’ll be straight up: I’m one of those anomalies of the modern western world who believes that a Jewish rabbi called Jesus walked around in first century Israel/Palestine. But more than that, I concur with the 2000 year old tradition that says he was somehow the perfect unity of human and God — that which animates the universe rushing towards us as one of us — that his teachings revolutionised the thinking of his time, that he was crucified, died, and yes, that he rose again and ascended into “heaven” — heaven being a word used with a whole lot of imagery to denote a reality that extends beyond what we know with our five senses. For that reason, I believe the Divine carries human scars. This leads to a profound discussion about how we relate to the suffering of one another.
Some, understandably, view what I hold to be true as akin to believing in fairytales. It also leads to a load of other questions especially as to where I relate to other world-views and the freedom of my own thinking. This isn’t the place to unpack the reasons why and the answers to all the questions I know I would be asked, suffice to say, I get why some see it as crazy.
But even holding to that basic, foundational belief of the Christian faith why would someone so aware of the horror, who carries the frustrations about how religion is used for horrific purposes not only stay connected to the organised institutions of religion, but operate as a very public part of it?
I’m fully and completely compelled by Jesus and that foundational understanding of who he was/is, so whether I was part of the organised expression of the traditional understanding of Jesus or not, it would inform my life. Adhering to a religious tradition has also tapped me into some of the richest thinking available, covering thousands of years. In that tradition I have explored the deepest questions of human existence from a vast array of thinkers. Because of being able to explore that deep well, I’ve also grown in appreciation for the wisdom and beauty in other religions as they express things in a way that I can relate to.
If I’m honest though, when I began owning the faith as my own, I didn’t commit to church life because I loved Christianity and organised religion — in fact, I harboured a lot of anger towards it — I committed because I understood that living as if that Jesus story was true, meant doing it with other people even if I didn’t like them or agree with them. There’s growth to be had and love to be learned when we’re placed in relationships that involve some friction.
Dylan concluded his recent thoughts with the idea that the world would be better off without religion. That conclusion is very understandable. I entirely sympathise, but in my humble opinion, it’s a moot point because it’s not possible.
Organised religion is the outworking of some fundamental human instincts. It’s why a majority of the world does and has adhered to some form of organised religion in various ways. The global population is currently about 7.7 billion. 2.3 billion consider themselves Christian, 1.9 billion are Muslim, 1.1 billion consider themselves nonreligious (incidentally a large chunk of those consider themselves theistic but not religious), 1.1 billion are Hindu, and then there’s a litany of smaller religious groups.
We are — by nature — religious, and by nature we organise ourselves together into like-minded communities. As a student of religion I see it playing out in places that aren’t traditionally recognised as religious in how we often understand that term. It’s there in political movements, causes that rally around social issues, and the impulse is even on display within some sporting communities — football hooligans are a prime example.
As a species we are adept at committing to something bigger than ourselves, drawing together with those committed to the same thing, creating mechanisms for determining who is in and who is out, setting up our measures of ‘righteousness’, and demonising those who don’t fit our measures. We’re great at fully justifying our determination of good and evil along with the condemnation and ridicule towards those who fit the latter.
The Catholic theologian, Ronald Rolheiser (one of my favourites) points out in his book, Sacred Fire, that communities often form around a shared thing that people are against. Immature communities create scapegoats — the ‘other’ — and don’t move beyond that as their primary mode of formation. It’s easy to spot that in traditional religion, but it’s visible everywhere. We find it easier tp collectively condemn the ‘other’ rather than addressing and growing with the differences within our own community.
Without naming specifics, history and present reality reveals this to be true – a glance at social media will confirm it. I could step away from what many call ‘religion’ and I’d still encounter those things I struggle with, and I would still want to challenge those impulses. And here’s the kicker – inside the faith I hold to be true, I have the mechanisms to challenge what goes on inside it that I find to be abhorrent, and it’s those mechanisms that enable me to confront that stuff.
Can and do secular groups engage in charity? Yes! May that continue to grow! There’s plenty of amazing compassionate, moral, and justice orientated work that goes on with absolutely no connection to traditional, organised religion. One does not have to believe in God to be a moral being — we are all moral beings.
There are some issues where the traditionally religious community have shamefully dragged their feet on things they should have been at the forefront of. Environmentalism is a good example (Farrier’s note: this reminds me of First Reformed — a film everyone should watch it’s so, so great) but I would argue that the charitable sector in Aotearoa and abroad is largely held up by the overwhelming work of people who are attached to organised religion.
They, including many you may not like, give untold amounts of money and voluntary time to worthy causes. The charitable sector in Aotearoa would most likely collapse if ‘religious’ people vacated the scene, and I really don’t think secular groups could fill the void that would be left. It’s because of nuggets that sit within the DNA of the various religious communities. Here in Aotearoa, it’s predominantly Christian.
When I was growing up, it was the Salvation Army that was on our doorstep to provide food parcels when my mentally ill solo mother struggled to feed myself and my sister. They also provided presents at Christmas from time to time. It was a largely Samoan church that we attended for a while that most taught me about what deep community could look like when I was a child.
At the time, government provided a benefit (reduced by Ruth Richardson) that also helped feed, clothe, and educate us. So we can say that yes, governments can and should be in that space, but governments often come out looking terrible too. If secular groups could fill the void if traditional religion vacated the charitable sector, plenty of horrid things would still occur because — humans.
My life is full of compassionate people, and their stories — countless people who never hit the headlines, are connected to organised religion, and whose faith fuels their selfless, quiet, giving approach to the world. They’re people regularly sitting in religious services and being shaped by it.
Not to mention the many quiet faith leaders who give of themselves day in and day out, never make it to the news (because hidden compassion isn’t as newsworthy as loudmouths), and quietly pass away eventually, having given of their lives to many with no expectation of anything in return. Sadly, because these people do not attract attention, it’s not their way of being that dominates the way others from outside, see religion. It’s the salacious stuff that dominates headlines and imaginations.
Those people do what they do because it’s what our faith should lead to. It’s the way that anyone who takes the life and teachings of Jesus seriously should live. It’s the thing that enables me to challenge the abuse.
I know there’s much in the Bible that’s hard to grapple with, but if Jesus is the center of Christianity then there’s much there to challenge the human impulses that outwork themselves poorly both inside and outside traditional religion. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ That one right there is probably the height of the challenge. Consider that in light of political disagreements and the drive to build walls between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’re great at finding many justifications to ignore that challenge.
The crazy story about Jesus being God in some way also leads to other writings challenging us about what love looks like — if the Divine is willing to go to those extremes out of love, then we should be willing to do the same for others.
With their understanding of Jesus, leaders of the early Church saw the community as family that transcended blood ties, as well as social, ethnic, and gender divisions – a family where all were equal before God. It was revolutionary in their context. The writings of the New Testament in the Bible show a community who often didn’t ‘get it’ because they were so steeped in other ways understanding everything. They often leaned towards an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach. What they were being called to was something that broke the divisions down. Where people were different from them, they were challenged to treat the ‘other’ with love, compassion, and grace.
I don’t say any of this to sweep under the carpet the stuff that has been used to entrench division, or the parts of the Bible that are a genuine struggle. I’m simply drawing attention to what keeps me going.
Sadly, the inclination towards ‘us and them’ is so strong within humanity that rather than breaking it down, the Christian faith has too often been warped into another tool to build the divisions. Yet I cannot escape the understanding of Jesus at the heart of the whole thing, and nor can I escape what it calls myself and others to. I will continue to be challenged by it – growing and learning with it — and I will continue to use it to challenge others who claim the same faith.
I don’t expect people of other world-views to come with me, but my hope is that just as countless people before me have been, so I also can be a force for good in the world and that maybe, in some small way, I’ll help others towards that as well.
What I believe to be true about God, the world, you and I, isn’t something I wish to force upon anybody. Nobody has to think and believe as I do, and nobody has to live as I do. The human inclination to want to get others to see the world as we do, to the point where we too often try and force it, is something I see as destructive.
Rather, it is my hope that just as I view all others in my life as a gift that I often learn from, my aim is to put my life on the table for others as a gift. So this is who I am – I am a person of faith; a public figure within the landscape of organised religion in Aotearoa – so just as all others are a gift in my world, hopefully there is something of me that is a gift for all others. I’m encouraged by many peers in my sphere who approach it all in a similar manner to me.
David here again. It’s funny, that line “isn’t something I wish to force upon anybody” reminded me of that eternal battle a non-religious person has with a religious person: Is it a blessing they don’t lecture you — or is it an insult?
If they lecture you — it’s annoying, but it means they want to save your soul. If they don’t lecture you endlessly at every waking moment — maybe they don’t care that you’re going to hell!
I think this point was raised by Penn Jillette, who argued once that he never got mad at people trying to convert him as it meant they cared about him (or his soul, at least). On that point, most high-profile atheists become insufferable (see: Gervais; Dawkins), but somehow Penn has not. I’m a big fan.
Many thanks to Dylan and Frank. I’m curious where you stand on this: on your own belief, and you how communicate those beliefs to others. And, I guess, how you respond to others’ beliefs being pushed on you. I feel like when anyone pushes something on me — be it a religion or atheism — I respond in the same way to being lectured about a new TV show to watch: I absolutely refuse to watch it. Don’t you fucking tell me what to do!