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“And No Religion Too…”

Like most of the rest of the world, I spent part of yesterday watching the closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics (yes, I realize that I was critical of these kinds of spectacles in a post I wrote a few weeks ago. I also admitted that I was a hypocrite, right?). Last night’s ceremony was, as expected, a spectacle for the ages.

One of the scenes at the closing ceremony involved John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” playing whilst innocent little children with “Imagine” plastered across their pure white T-shirts sang along peacefully and multiculturally and Olympically (can I turn “Olympic” into an adverb? I think I just did!). The song concluded with a giant version of John Lennon’s face appearing in the middle of the stage. It was a carefully crafted moment meant to induce all kinds of goosebumps and goodwill and to point to the Olympic ideals of unity and peace and all the nations of the world coming together in harmony.

“Imagine” is a great song. I like it. But the lyrics—particularly the ones having to do with religion—have always left me scratching my head. “Imagine no religion” has, to me, seemed to be short for “imagine a world with none of the behaviours and ideas that I don’t like and which I attribute to/associate with religion.” But what are we approving of when we smile and nod appreciatively to big screens and little kids on a global stage exhorting us to “imagine” these things? “Imagine there’s no heaven…” Really? Imagine there is no consummation of what is good and true and beautiful in this world? Imagine there is no judgment of what is false and destructive and hateful? Imagine there is no prospect of the spectre of death losing its force (René Breuel has an excellent reflection on this theme here)? Can one not live both for today and for the future? Is living only for the moment really the best and most hopeful way forward?

And then there’s the famous “and no religion too” line. Of course, this sounds very open-minded and progressive and tolerant, but do we actually know what we mean when we say this? The truth is, I don’t want to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think any of us would, if we actually stopped to think about it. To whatever extent is possible to speak of “religion” as a monolithic entity, it is far too enmeshed in the historical development of human thought and culture to just conveniently extract it when we’ve decided that we don’t like (parts of) it anymore. Religion has a deep and intrinsic historical connection to some of our most cherished institutions (universities, hospitals, legal systems) and values (the worth of the individual, freedom of conscience, the possibility of redemption) that cannot just be selectively severed whenever and however it pleases us to do so.

Well, actually, I suppose it can. People do it every day. John Lennon did it in his song which, as many have pointed out, actually draws upon deeply biblical themes of justice, peace, and equality. But I wonder how long our culture can live off of the unacknowledged and unappreciated religious capital of the past. A generation? Three? Five? At what point does the memory grow too dim? At what point do the narratives we have substituted for “religion” to give us meaning and hope prove unable to bear the weight of our hopes, values, and expectations?

Yet beyond the question of the historical connection between “religion” and the ways in which we think and hope today, I cannot imagine a world without religion on an existential level either. Specifically, I cannot imagine a world without Jesus (I can’t speak to other religious traditions because I am not a part of them, and my way of being in the world has not been shaped by them). I cannot imagine a world without the Crucified One as the centre around which so much of my thinking and behaving orbits. I cannot imagine a world without this reference point, without these maddening and liberating stories of death to self, love for others, and radical generosity, without this wild Messiah who baffles and irritates me, who inspires and strengthens me, who holds forth a vision of hope without which I would be, quite literally, lost.

There are days when I would love to ignore Jesus—days when I wish he would go away and stop haunting my every step, my every thought and inclination. God knows I have tried (whatever John Lennon’s experience might have been, it wasn’t “easy,” no matter how vigorously I applied myself to the task!). But my efforts can never be sustained for long. It is exhausting trying to outrun the hound of heaven. I cannot imagine a world—my world—without Jesus, and I don’t think that I (or the world) would be better if I tried.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Personally, the “imagining” I did was to imagine the display of unity among many nations as it could be at the end of the age, among the redeemed children of God from all tribes and nations, gathered together at the throne of God.
    Overall I felt the presentation was “decadent”. Although many of the athletes were probably believers, nothing in that program gave glory to God. At least nothing I saw. I missed some parts of it.

    August 13, 2012
    • It was certainly a decadent ceremony. In general, I have a difficult time with the lavish sums of money that are spent on sports and entertainment in a world where such gross material inequalities persist.

      I’m a bit of a hypocrite—on the one hand, I will join in with the moaning and whining about Canada’s mediocre showing at the London Games, but on the other hand, do I really want our government to devote the enormous sums of money to sports that it requires to produce an Olympic medalist? This money could clearly be better spent elsewhere—especially during difficult economic times.

      In my more rational moments, I can come to no other conclusion than that it is truly obscene the amount of money that we as a society spend to keep ourselves entertained and inspired.

      August 14, 2012
  2. Jenna #

    Cool thoughts Ryan. I think that religion is at the core of every human, a need to find truth, hope, and something larger and better than ourselves and our world.

    August 13, 2012
    • Yes, I agree, Jenna. I think that these impulses are in all of us, regardless of our official stances on “religion.”

      August 14, 2012
    • Tyler #

      ” religion is at the core of every human, a need to find truth, hope, and something larger and better than ourselves and our world”

      What makes religion synonymous with the rest?

      August 16, 2012
      • I don’t think religion is synonymous with the others as much as it is an overarching way of describing and locating these kinds of pursuits. I know the term is a contested one, and that many people would not agree with this definition, but, for me, any worldview that involves the pursuit of truth, an understanding of the nature and meaning of the world, a commitment to hope, and a determination to orient one’s behaviour accordingly, is religious.

        Of course, the word has been degraded significantly over time, not least by those claiming to be “religious” who behave in shameful (or just stupid) ways. Perhaps the term is irredeemable. I don’t know. But for me, it points to the fact that all of us are, at various points in our lives and with varying degrees of intensity and commitment, engaged in ultimate questions, and all of us live according to how we answer these questions, even if only implicitly.

        August 17, 2012
  3. Ken #

    What is religion in your estimation? Was Jesus, or Paul, the founder of a religion? Was Moses?

    At the university, religion is often seen as a research category that is not possible to define. “Religion” is seen as an idea with a history of less than a couple of hundred years, a history with western enlightenment cultural baggage. Where I studied, religion was a subcategory placed under the category: history. One could study history, and thus religion by one of two ways only: as a Marxist, or as a deconstructionist. The choice was left to the student. Neither was considered a route to truth about something called “religion” or even “history,” but merely a contemporary research wagon on which to ride.

    August 14, 2012
    • I realize that the definition of “religion” is a hotly contested one, but for the purposes of this post, a pretty wide range of options would work. I am happy with most sociological/psychological definitions of “religion” (e.g., those set forth by Durkheim, James, etc). Anything that gestures toward some kind of an orienting story by which people live that governs and guides their beliefs and behaviour, and which provides meaning and purpose.

      I highly doubt that Moses or Jesus or Paul would have considered themselves a founder of a “religion” as we understand and study the term today.

      August 15, 2012
  4. Ken #

    The sociological and psychological definitions are atheistic definitions. At the university, they were called “reductionist” definitions. They reduce “religion” to something else, e.g., the internalized voice of one’s culture or society, or superstition, or psychological fear, or a quest for meaning.

    My impression has been that you were not happy with these definitions.

    At the university where I studied, these definitions were held under suspicion. The university’s aim was to find nonreductionist ways to frame research into subjects to which the term religion had been applied historically. They sought them not for the sake of tolerance, but for the sake of compatibility with the idea of evolution by natural selection and for the sake of expanding the boundaries of their research.

    August 15, 2012
    • I don’t think the sociological/psychological definitions are inherently atheistic. As always, everything depends on the convictions and assumptions of the interpreter.

      In my experience at university, there were plenty of reductionistic definitions thrown around, but it seemed to me (and many others) that there was no a priori impossibility of meaning and truth being bound up with the voices of culture, society, superstition existential anxieties, or whatever. It seems to me, as part of a faith tradition that makes a pretty big deal about God interacting with real people in real times and real places, that this would be expected.

      August 15, 2012
    • Ken #

      If they are not atheistic in your interpretation, are they agnostic or theistic?

      August 15, 2012
      • If I had to pick, I suppose it would be agnostic.

        August 15, 2012
    • Ken #

      I guess I, like so many others at the university, have thought of them as atheistic because they deny what you affirm that is at the heart of theism – “God interacting with real people in real times and real places.” I guess whether one sees them as agnostic or atheistic depends in part, at least, on how one uses the terms in sentences.

      My own understanding of “religion” is like that of Eliade. He is not agnostic, but yet he straddles the fence between faith and naturalism like I do. He writes of religion, non-reductively. He does not write of theism, and yet his writing allows it to enter in, welcomes it.

      August 16, 2012
      • I would simply say that, in my view, once those at the university (or anywhere else) move from doing the work of history, sociology, psychology, etc, to the place of denying or affirming the existence of God, they have moved from description to prescription—from observation to interpretation.

        (I realize this is a bit simplistic—the categories aren’t quite that clean, for there is always interpretation at work in observing and describing.)

        August 17, 2012
  5. On a somewhat related note, I came across an interesting article on reductionism in today’s New York Times. One quote, in particular, caught my attention, and captures some of my views around the problems of reductionism:

    But make no mistake, reductionism comes at a very steep price: it asks you to hammer your own life flat. If you believe that love, freedom, reason and human purpose have no distinctive nature of their own, you’ll have to regard many of your own pursuits as phantasms and view yourself as a “deluded animal.”

    Everything you feel that you’re choosing because you affirm it as good — your career, your marriage, reading The New York Times today, or even espousing reductionism — you’ll have to regard intellectually as just an effect of moving and material causes. You’ll have to abandon trust in your own experience for the sake of trust in the metaphysical principle of reductionism.

    That’s what I’d call a bad bargain.

    August 17, 2012
  6. Ken #

    Interesting. The university where I studied was not religious like the one where the author of the NYT opinion teaches, but the aim was to avoid reductionism in religious studies. The aim was an attempt to understand peoples or cultures on their terms, rather than reducing their ways to something that made more sense through a western, enlightenment filter.

    I think that Polt, in his article, mischaracterizes what he opposes. The writers he seems to oppose would not describe what they do in the terms he uses. Mischaracterizing what he opposes makes his writing sound like a rant, rather than an argument. He tries to make the materialist way sound absurd. It is not.

    Eliade’s work is compatible with a view that natural selection (in Polt’s words, “just an effect of moving and material causes) accounts for the origin of species, and yet Eliade in no way trivializes religion or human experience. I only use Eliade as an example. I have known many scholars like him in that respect. Of course, the university has its jerks too.

    In his article, Polt appears to advance a claim that humans are different from all other life. I have noticed that this is a common objection to Darwin’s work, even in our day. It was the source of the greatest resistance to his work in his day too. It was simply disgusting to many people to think that we have a common ancestor with apes, and for that matter, with many other creatures. (It was this that was so controversial, not the divergence from Genesis.) Most Christians I have known imagine that we humans are different in some way. They say that God intervened to make it so. Of course, if that is the case, Darwin’s whole argument fails.

    August 17, 2012
    • I don’t read it as a “rant” or as a mischaracterization. I read it as a fairly measured piece that asks some good questions.

      I don’t doubt that many who espouse a reductionist worldview would not agree with the way he puts things. I wouldn’t expect them to. But, in my view, they would still be faced with the issue Polt highlights: do the values and pursuits we cherish (including the inclination toward reductionism which, to be consistent, must also be explained in reductionist terms) have any merit or value on their own, or are they just one more random product of matter in motion? And, if so, why privilege them over any other product of matter in motion? Further, as I’ve alluded to above, what reason have we to think that once we have explained things in material terms we have exhausted all levels of explanation? I think these are important questions to ask.

      Re: humans being different from other life. I agree, Polt does seem to assume this is the case. I would agree with him. I know you don’t share this view, but I suspect we’ve covered that ground in past conversations.

      August 17, 2012
    • Ken #

      The questions have been answered. (Not by me, of course, but by many modern writers and scholars.) The questions are loaded.

      In case I have not been clear, I don’t defend the reductive approaches to religion offered mostly in the nineteenth century. Today’s religion scholars don’t defend them either (although certainly some who don’t get it may yet persist in that way.) We can still admire the work of Durkheim and Freud, for example, without copying their reductions.

      Nor do I defend the kind of materialism that Polt dislikes. I don’t think it exists in any important way in today’s intellectual milieu. I think he is fighting a phantom. Much of evangelicalism and conservative theology fights this phantom. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they fight a real enemy, but they do not understand the enemy and they do not look it in the eye. I agree that the threat is real. I just don’t agree with the understanding of it.

      I remember a conversation I had with an evangelical who supposed in the context of our meeting that I was one too. Referring to people whose theology is liberal and with whom I associated, she said, “they don’t believe like we do.” She was cautioning me for my sake, not to condemn the others. She sought no quarrel. That was one of those moments when I saw something for the first time – an evangelical reality. Those with whom I associated thought she was evil and stupid. But she was, of course, not. She was just aware in a way that few of us are.

      August 17, 2012
      • The questions have been answered. (Not by me, of course, but by many modern writers and scholars.) The questions are loaded.

        Ok, what are the answers? How are the questions loaded?

        I don’t claim to have read everything relevant on these matters, but I’ve read a decent amount and I have yet to come across consistent and satisfactory answers to these questions from a strictly materialist perspective.

        Re: fighting phantoms, not understanding “the enemy,” etc, I don’t quite know how to respond. It’s possible that the kind of materialism Polt is referring to doesn’t exist in certain intellectual milieus. I certainly came across it quite regularly in my university experience (I didn’t attend a “religious” university either), but perhaps things are different in the USA. I have also encountered it with some regularity in my post-university days. I don’t see this view as “an enemy” but I don’t think that my engagement with this view is entirely an exercise in misunderstanding either.

        August 18, 2012
  7. Ken #

    The questions presume guilt and idiocy.

    August 18, 2012
    • How?

      August 18, 2012
    • Michael #


      Perhaps the problem is not with Ryan’s questions, but with your methodology – you seem to lack the Principle of Charity. As described at :

      “The Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive from before subjecting the view to evaluation.
      While suspending our own beliefs, we seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas.
      We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful.
      Emphasis is placed on seeking to understand rather than on seeking contradictions or difficulties.
      We seek to understand the ideas in their most persuasive form and actively attempt to resolve contradictions. If more than one view is presented, we choose the one that appears the most cogent.”

      August 18, 2012
    • Ken #

      Ryan, I think it is better for me to say no more on this. I have provoked your friend.

      The Sabbath is upon us.

      August 18, 2012
      • Regardless of what you make of Mike’s comment (I don’t know Mike, incidentally), I would still be interested in hearing how my questions “presume guilt and idiocy” once you have finished observing the Sabbath.

        August 19, 2012

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