Every so often I’ll be in conversations with people, and the topic of religion will come up. And though I find the issue to be of great importance and most worthy of discussion, I know better than to speak about it with just anyone. Sadly, most people are neither interested in a discussion nor are they sufficiently prepared to have one; most are interested and equipped with rhetoric for an emotional lecture to rant about their misgivings about religion. An oddity is that most of these people haven’t come to their conclusions through any careful thought or examination, but are merely expressing things that have stricken a nerve with them, things commonly floating around within their circle of friends and influence. In the interest of maintaining a more polite and less confrontation tone against religious believers, some will often resort to a reserved, hands-off brand of tolerance – ‘believe whatever you wish but keep in mind that while a little bit of religion may be a good thing, you should not take it too seriously.’
Typically, under the guise of this sort of tolerance is a reserved contempt for religion and some measure of anger towards those who would espouse religious beliefs. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to squelch discussions about God, nor would anyone have any good reason to worry about people getting too “serious” about religion. Many people see those who insist that God exists and are serious about their convictions, as religious fanatics. I suppose many may front a desperate resistance to avoid becoming “religious” themselves. One wonders what fanaticism has to do with any of it. After all, if something is true, it is true regardless of the level of seriousness of those who believe in its truth. If insistence that what is true is true is fanaticism, then should we not all be fanatical about reality? Why not dig in, get serious, and engage in friendly and respectful dialogue to come to a better understanding of the world?
Many things are great in moderation. But some things are either-or propositions. With this topic as well as many others, there is no good reason to pretend that a gray middle is somehow relevant. If God does not exist and it’s clear as day, then why pretend that religion is significant at all? Why even give it a soft nod and claim that ‘a little bit of religion is a good thing?’
To be fair, there was once a time at which I would have probably agreed with these sentiments. But admittedly, these were the very times at which I was hopelessly ignorant of what I was espousing by saying such things. Things change. People grow and sometimes ask themselves essential questions. If God does exist, then should we not be serious about knowing Him? The first question is not how serious ought we be in matters of God, but whether it is true that God exists or not. How serious we ought to be about God will need to wait until we come to a reasonably sound conclusion about whether He exists or not. Sadly, for most people, the truth of the thing is irrelevant. They care less and less about truth and increasingly more about protecting their comforts and beliefs at all cost.
The first thing we must do is to clarify what we mean by ‘religion.’ There are many religions. Many religions of the ancient past included terrifying things, such as sacrificing children in a fire as an offering to the god, Molech. Should we take those creeds in moderation? No! We should wholesale reject those creeds, not merely because of how egregious that may seem in our time, but because there is little to warrant the belief in Molech.
Since there are such vast differences between the claims of various religions, the first order of business should be to consider more specifically about what we mean by ‘religion’ and ‘moderation.’ It’s immediately clear that even a little bit of religion in its broadest sense (one that would include Molech) is not necessarily even a ‘good thing’ let alone one that should be taken in moderation. It’s dangerous and should be avoided. My main interest here is not in comparing religions per se; the thing that I want to bring into consideration is how reality ought to impact our beliefs about how seriously we should take religion. And in so doing, we should first examine religious claims. For one to suggest that others ought not to be serious about their religion without having at least examined the specific religious claims they may be espousing is silly.
People ought to do a bit more than just sit back and tell people how serious they should take their religion. They should examine. And to examine a claim requires asking good questions. Let’s look at some questions that should help us navigate this issue.
Is the belief true? The answer to this question is of utmost importance because it is not just what we can personally get from passively embracing such claims, which may or may not be ultimately true, but whether or not what we believe is representative of reality, and is not merely a means to personal comfort. Assuming or pretending that reality is a certain way and that way is not represented by people who take religion seriously is deeply flawed.
Does God exist? If one answers, ‘no,’ then the question of whether or not a little bit of religion is a good thing is completely irrelevant because it ends up being merely a way to deceive oneself into accepting an artificial form of reality in order to make oneself feel a certain way. The same thing may be accomplished by taking certain hallucinogenic drugs to alter your perception. If there is no God then religion is a waste of time even if we give it room enough for moderation.
If one believes in a generic God, one must entertain the various known religions. Inevitably, one would have to answer this question – has God revealed himself to mankind? If the answer is a “no,” then the person is some form of a deist, pantheist, or has embraced a wide range of other beliefs that encompass a non-revelatory, likely self-contradictory, impersonal kind of deity. However, on this view also, there is little rhyme or reason to think that a little bit of religion is a good thing simply because whatever deity or force is responsible for reality is not interested in interacting with it in any significant manner.
On the other hand, if one believes that God has indeed revealed himself to humankind, the next question that needs to be asked is this: since the various religions of the world make mutually exclusive claims about the nature of reality and the specific manner of God’s revelation to humankind, which particular human religion has the most accurate view of reality and the most reliable evidence for God’s revelation?
Religions make mutually exclusive claims and therefore cannot all be true. At the same time, it’s evident that cultures are divided over specific religious beliefs through their particular traditions. But there is one thing that should be extremely unsettling – reality does not conform to the norms and methods of enculturation of each specific culture. Reality just is. Reality does not conform to the whims of the beings within. The beings themselves must conform to it. Whether or not people embrace it, or how well the social structures are constructed within each culture to instill these truths from one generation to another is wholly independent of whether or not those beliefs are ultimately true.
If a particular view of the world is true, the implications must be considered. If one considers Christianity, it’s obvious that one must consider the Bible; what it has to say is that on which Christianity is based. What it has to say about how we are to live, and exactly how seriously we need to take “religion,” is to be respected more so than what we independently think about how we are to live our lives. If the Bible is the word of God, then its direction for how we are to spend our time, and how seriously we are to take our beliefs are of greater importance than merely what we on our own think of it all. This fact is largely why Christians who truly believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God, see it important to go to church on Sundays, to pray and not merely as a means of getting ‘stuff,’ but as a form of communion with God. They see it important to live moral lives, not merely because our acts are aligned with socially acceptable norms or because of a commonly shared moral sense. Christianity means an acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. What kind of moderation would allow for someone to give one’s allegiance to the Creator of the Universe, and the lover of one’s soul without taking those commitments seriously? These few words from the great C.S. Lewis sum up the gravity of the belief:
“One of the greatest difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true, but because it is good. And in the discussion, they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True-or False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland—or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus you will be able to undermine…their belief that a certain amount of ‘religion’ is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (emphasis added) – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 1945, pg. 101
Now, back to the truth claims. Ultimately, the most important claim of the Bible is that Jesus is God incarnate and that the only way to heaven is through Him,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:5-7
God does have a plan for our lives, and He does outline the things important for us to do, and not surprisingly, the sentiment to ‘take religion in moderation’ is nowhere to be found in this list, nor is it ever implied. To clarify, by showing moderation to be a faulty approach to Christianity, I don’t intend to argue that we must be in a church praying all day long, this is not what is meant by taking it “seriously”. Being serious about one’s belief implies that one lives out those beliefs and though it may be a difficult thing to do for many, God gives believers a new heart and that heart will find its own way.
What many who don’t care about religion at all really mean by ‘moderation’ is something along the lines of ‘practice whatever belief system, just don’t impose your beliefs on me.’ There are also those who may be spiritual but not religious; what these people may mean by ‘moderation’ is something along the lines of ‘don’t get too serious about doctrine and don’t spend too much time on religious activities.’ But what if merely going to church every Easter and Christmas and possibly praying to God when we either want things or are in trouble is not really Christianity at all and does not conform to reality? Well then, something needs to change. Moderation on this view is a curse and it will lead those who assume that they are headed to heaven to slowly and gradually move away from God. As C.S. Lewis best put it,
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters
So why would people want to ‘take religion in moderation?’ If they’re like me, perhaps fear of the unknowns? Before I took things seriously and embraced Christianity, I wanted to live my life and spend my time as I saw fit. I was not aware of, therefore was not concerned with the possibility that there were beliefs that I must embrace in order to live in accordance with what God would want for my life. It was a casual belief that required nothing of me, and I wanted to keep it that way. Every turn at which I was confronted with these important questions, I dodged them, postponed thinking about them, and it made me feel comfortable to keep God at an arm’s length. I was an agnostic in the truest sense, but I would not have classified myself that way at the time. It made me comfortable to believe in a very vague notion of a God, a God who did not want anything from me; it helped me keep my autonomy. I did not want the sovereignty of God. I did not want a King. I wanted a genie I could pull out when I needed something. I wanted God not as my ruler or advisor, but as someone for whom I could be an advisor. Years removed I’ve come to realize how foolish that was. Having taken that journey has given me the perspective needed to see the flaws in this manner of thinking.
Long hours of study, thought and reflection have made me realize one very important truth – people think themselves good enough for heaven (to earn eternal life), but none can earn heaven on their own merits. Heaven is a gift attained with humility by the acceptance of Jesus’ free unearned gift of salvation through His grace. By pride, and a vain conceit of their own merits and strength, this is the ruin of billions, who will ultimately reap an eternal misery by fancying themselves temporarily ‘good’ and ‘happy,’ possibly conjecturing a false view of Christianity in their own pursuits at avoiding a God who wants not merely our few temporal deeds nor merely our moral conduct, but our entire heart.
Who among us would be so conceited as to think that we know better how best to spend ‘our’ time than the One who gave us that time? All of reality is His time. To think our time too valuable to ‘waste’ it on ‘religion’ is to forget that our time is a free gift that no one has earned, given to us by God, not to waste it merely in pursuit of what we think to be of value, but to seek Him and His will. We owe Him that much! If there is fear of giving up your time and your heart, fear not – God will take it, forgive your wrongs, heal it, cleanse it and give it back to you all shiny and new. In time the new you and the old you will part ways, and in your quiet moments of reflection, the new you will be glad you walked away.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.