Religion worldwide is growing. 84% of the world is religious. Even in secular societies various forms of religion are thriving. But isn’t this harmful? Isn’t religion basically a toxic force for evil? Surprisingly you might get that idea from Jesus himself who spoke passionately against the corrupt religion of his day. He taught another way – a clearly non-religious way of approaching God.


A Religious World and a World of Religions

Our contemporary world is undeniably religious. According to a 2018 article in the British Newspaper The Guardian, 84% of people in the world identify with a religious faith. And the world is getting more religious as we speak. High birth rates and high conversion rates in the majority world mean that religious belief is growing at a daily rate of hundreds of thousands.

From a historical point of view, the world has always been religious. As far as we can tell, every society in history has had some form of religious belief in the supernatural world, belief in a God or gods.

The secularism of the modern Western world is an exception. This is virtually the only time in history when a society is led to believe that we are merely the product of material forces, there is no divine plan, no purpose and no life-after-death destiny. But even in the West, the Judaeo-Christian influence is still strong. We rely on this sacred tradition to inform our consciences on such matters as moral and social justice, dignity of human life, the value of the individual, and much more. Note: birth rate is low, but some religions are growing even in the West

Most people recognise that religion has been a force for good and a force for evil.

The “New Atheists” of our day, the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ (Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett & Sam Harris) have only one thing to say, “Religion is evil!” It’s all about hegemonic power and control. The ideas of religion, all religions, are toxic, harmful and must be eradicated.

Released in 1971, the song, Imagine became an iconic statement of the 1960’s revolution of freedom. Religion is perceived as the problem. It’s the cause of fear, conflict and division. John Lennon imagined an utopian world without religion.

Lennon and Lennox

Imagine by John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard 971to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon, got the symptoms right, but was he right about the cause?

Let me introduce to you another John. This time John Lennox, the Christian apologist, philosopher and mathematician. In his book, Gunning for God he wrote in response to Lennon’s Imagine:

“I am not John Lennon. I happen to be John Lennox, and I would like you to imagine a world with no atheism. No Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot, just to name the heads of the three officially atheistic states that were responsible for some of the worst mass crimes of the 20th Century. Just imagine a world with no Gulag, no Cultural Revolution, no Killing Fields, no removal of children from their parents because the parents were teaching them about their beliefs, no refusal of higher education to believers in God, no discrimination against believers in the workplace, no pillaging, destruction, and burning of places of worship. Would not that be a world worth imagining too?

(Gunning for God p 83).

The evil of totalitarian religion and ideology

It seems to me that any totalitarian belief, whether religious or non-religious, tends towards evil. These systems have a number of things in common:

  1. They all believe that their understanding of truth is absolute and must be accepted without question
  2. These systems are inexorably tied to power. Through domination or coercion, their beliefs are to be imposed on society. They are ready to use whatever means they can – political power, military force or ideological indoctrination. We see this crop up in many different forms The Christian crusades, the Jesuit inquisition, the Islamic Jihadists, Daesh or ISIS, Hitler’s concentration camps and Communist crimes against humanity
  3. These ideologies take the dangerous moral high ground. Because they are right, absolutely right, the end justifies the means. After all, so they believe, they are acting for the good of humanity.

Not all religion is bad

Research from the USA Heritage Foundation, shows that:

  1. Religious practice appears to have enormous potential for addressing our social problems
  2. Religious practice can improve:
    1. Health
    1. Learning
    1. Economic well-being
    1. Self-control
    1. Self-esteem
    1. Empathy

Jesus’ attitude to religion

While Jesus must described as a religious man, a man of faith, his attitude to the religious leaders and the corrupt institutional religious system of his day, is startling. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 23 and verses 1-36 records Jesus’ confrontation of the religious authorities:

They [the religious leaders] crush people with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra-long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honour in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Teacher’.

(verses 4-7)

Don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher’, for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.

(verse 8)

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

(verse 13)

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

(verse 15)

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

(verses 23-28)

Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

(verse 33)

Holy Bible, New Living Translation ®, copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

The context of Jesus’ condemnation of religious leaders is important.

Jesus was confronting the corrupt religious institutions of his day. This is not an anti-semitic interpretation of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is the most semitic of all the 4 Gospels. Matthew shows that the was himself Jewish and faithful to the Jewish laws and traditions of his day. He was against the corruption of the Jewish religion, not authentic faith and practice.

Jesus’ world view is entirely Jewish. He believed in the God of the Jewish Scriptures. He had a supernatural world view.

Jesus was fearless and outspoken. This is rooted in his own sense of authority and consciousness of his unique relationship with God. So unique that Christians feel justified in referring to him as “the son of God.”

I believe we are justified in applying what Jesus says to all corrupt religious institutions. At least in principle. Corrupt, merciless, inhumane, controlling and self-serving religious teaching and practice are wrong in any context.

But there is something even deeper than this to grasp about Jesus’ attitude to religion.

Jesus’ way versus the religious way

Religion as commonly understood and practiced is a way of qualifying yourself in the eyes of God. What you have to do to get God to accept you. Every religion I know teaches that except the religion of Jesus. This includes the corruption of the ‘Christian religion’ which teaches that our relationship with God is based on a quasi-legal interpretation of what God requires of us.

But Jesus’ way, is not the regular religious way. Jesus does not teach that we have to reach up to God, and do things to impress him so that he will accept us. Rather, he teaches that God has down in his own Person, the Person of Christ, becoming human, just like us, demonstrating who God is, and accomplishing on our behalf everything that God requires of us. Central to this, is giving his own life as a sacrifice for our sin. He teaches us that through trusting him alone, trusting what he has done for us, we can have a personal relationship with God. Through Christ we can know God as our ever-present, all-loving and totally affirming, heavenly Father.

Simply put – it’s not so much a matter of religion but having a personal and intimate relationship with God, through Jesus.


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