On my drive home yesterday, I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio (The Current, actually) when an ad came on for a church called Jacob’s Well. It annoyed me, not because they don’t have a right to buy air time, but because it was so stupid. Their advertising pitch was something like “Less religion, more God”, which is a fairly common trope in the blinkered religious community. They like to deny that they’re a religion — they’re about a “personal relationship with god” or some such tripe. Remember Bill O’Reilly claiming that you didn’t need to believe in Jesus to celebrate Easter, or that Christianity was a philosophy, not a religion? Yeah, religion has such a bad reputation that even its most fervent believers don’t want to be tarred with the label.
Anyway, it was a good message to hear, because I was tired and I find that getting pissed off is a good way to keep awake, and I was also thinking about it. And I realized that from my perspective they have it completely backwards, making their church even less attractive to me. I have fewer objections to the religion thing than I do to the god thing.
Part of the objection these people have to “religion” is the doctrinal component, and the ritual component. But I can sympathize with those, even if I have no personal interest in them: some people like having concrete rules to live by, and some people are completely enthralled with ritual and pageantry and display. And that’s OK! People are pattern-seeking animals, some more so than others, and that part of religion where people get together in communities and do repetitive things together, like church or dancing or football, seem like very human behaviors. I don’t think an atheist goal should be discouraging such activities…although secularizing them or making them consciously traditional (rather than pretending they’re rational) would be a good idea.
But also note that irony of the Jacob’s Well site. Look it over: it is plainly such a very narrow view of faith, demanding an uncritical belief in the divinity of Jesus, that it’s silly for them to be arguing that it exemplifies less religion. It’s glaringly religious. Exchanging the church organ for a band with electric guitars is a shift in superficial form, not substance. A clown wearing different makeup is still a clown.
The “god” part is the bad part. This church is claiming to have a deeper understanding of an ineffable, uncommunicative, invisible super-being. That is nonsense. I am far more dismissive of people who say they understand the desires of a supernatural creature than I do those who say they find comfort going to church every Sunday morning.
That’s the part I explicitly and adamantly oppose, where a priest claims to have supernatural knowledge of a divine being, who always turns out to be a mostly conventional version of the cosmic boogeyman of the culture’s religious tradition. They’re lying. They’re making optimistic stuff up about their beliefs, or worse, making up horrible crap (like Hell) to terrify their congregations into obedience.
I suppose, though, that the slogan “Less religion, less god” isn’t quite as effective at drawing in a generous moneyed audience. That’s one of the problems atheism faces.