Good Religion / Bad Religion

I was at a party the other night chatting pleasantly with a young girl who was leaving for Africa to be a missionary. I kept my reservations about so-called mission-work to myself so as not to start a religious debate. Then she asked, “Who do you think Jesus was?”

Not that it was really a question she was wondering, to her the matter was quite settled. What she was really asking was, What side are you on?

I’ve been at this crossroads many times. One answer sets you down a path of mutual affirmation; all other answers make you opponents — challengers in an arena of worldviews.

I had similar experiences in Salt Lake City but there everything hinged on whether I thought Joseph Smith was a “true prophet of God.”

Once in Boston three people approached me and flipped frantically through their bible pointing out passages that contained the word “mother.” They told me that I must acknowledge that God was the mother if I was to be saved.

I see now that people don’t consciously decide to act this way, they’re taught to. They learn to draw these lines and to put people on either side — those with them, those against them.

They learn it through experience, because people in positions of power have stood them on that line again and again and made them choose; maybe their parents, friends, or whole community.

Choose what? Not just to believe in one more opinion among countless opinions; not to believe in useful ideas or ones that make much sense — what they are really choosing is to be accepted or rejected; to have access to love and friendship or to be cut off from it in favor of pity or scorn.

Essentially it’s brainwashing, however traditional and familiar it may be.[1] And it gives religion a bad name. Which is too bad because I like religion. At least, when religion is understood as our common pursuit of truth and meaning, and not a social ultimatum.

[1] brainwash
verb [ trans.]
make (someone) adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure
(from the New Oxford American Dictionary)