'Bad religion': a new book lights up both sides in culture wars

"NY Times" columnist Ross Douthat dares mention "heresy." And he spares neither Right nor Left.
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First United Methodist Church in Seattle

"NY Times" columnist Ross Douthat dares mention "heresy." And he spares neither Right nor Left.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is a bold book. In an era when “not judging” and “you have your way (truth) and I have mine” have become both articles of faith and the ruling orthodoxy, Douthat dares to make distinctions.

He calls some religion “bad religion,” which implies of course that there is also “good religion.”

For some it is a surprise, and matter of regret, that there is still, these days, any religion. For several generations now some intellectuals and social scientists in the West have believed that all religion would fade away before the onward march of “progess” and “enlightenment.” From Marx to Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), the theory has been that religion is an artifact of humanity’s frightened infancy soon to disappear altogether. Like it or not, this has not happened.

Something has, however, happened. A significant change has taken place — not the utter disappearance of religion, as some so devoutly hoped —  but rather the corruption of religion and, in particular, the West’s dominant religion, Christianity. We live now, according to Douthat, in the era of “bad religion": “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of various pseudo-Christianities in its place.”

This argument will not endear Douthat to either side in our polarized and culture-war riven society. He does not cast his lot with left or right, red or blue, liberal or conservative — the usual choices — but pretty much such says, “A curse on all your houses.” It’s not that one of these sides or poles is right while the other is wrong;  both, in Douthat’s analysis, have failed. Both are sponsoring their own particular forms of bad religion, that is, of heresy.

Not only does Douthat dare to make distinctions, he also employs such terms as “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” and does so in ways that are compelling as well as historically and theologically informed.

“What distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy,” writes Douthat, “is a commitment to mystery and paradox."

"Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable," he claims, “preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes our understanding.”

Thus, “orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil.” Given the opportunity through the centuries to resolve such tensions and eradicate such mystery, that is “to streamline Christianity, to rationalize it, [to] minimize the paradoxes and difficulties, to make it more consistent and less mysterious,” the stewards of orthodox faith have resisted, preferring the paradoxical and the mysterious.

The nature of heresy, however, is to resolve these tensions, to prefer either/or to both/and.  He writes, “The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.”

These distinctions and descriptions apply more broadly and throughout our society these days, where we flee complexity in favor of easy, but often foolish, simplicity. But then choosing sides is so much more entertaining than examining the limits of both sides as well as the perils of false dichotomies.

Douthat does call out both sides, taking on the heresies of contemporary liberal and conservative Christianity. In the former camp he surveys the cadre of scholars who march under the banner of “The Jesus Seminar,” a group that emerged in the 1980’s as the latest incarnation of “the quest for the historical Jesus.” They managed to capture the traditional Easter and Christmas-time covers of the newsmagazines with timely and sensational headlines of the “Did the Resurrection Really Happen?” variety. The upshot of their labors, Douthat concludes, is that, “the only Jesus who really matters in the one you invent for yourself” — hardly an impressive outcome for all the ballyhoo.

The other liberal heresy Douthat dissects is the way that Christianity and religion more broadly have been reduced to therapy. Here he takes on such figures as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Neal Donald Walsch and Eckhart Tolle as the apostles of “The God Within.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Douthat examines Glenn Beck’s paranoid versions of Christian messianism, in which American nationalism — of a certain type — trumps Christian faith while using the latter to give it a sacred glow. And in his chapter, “Pray and Grow Rich,” Douthat attends to the various apostles of the very good life, chiefly Joel Osteen, but also T. D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer.

His examination of the prosperity gospel illustrates his thesis that heresies are essentially reductionistic. “Like most heresies, it [the prosperity gospel] resolves one of orthodoxy’s tensions by emphasizing one part of Christian doctrine —  in this case, the idea that the things of this life are gifts from the Creator, rather than simply snares to be avoided, and that Christians are expected to participate in the world rather than withdraw from it. [But] then it effaces the harder teachings that traditionally balance it out,” such as Jesus’ saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven or his call to leave wealth and “follow me.” Heresy basically cleans up a messy faith, making it more workable (but less true!) The four heresies Douthat examines all seem in a way particularly American in their pursuit of religion that is more useful and less perplexing.

But the descent into bad religion has been, Douthat argues, costly. As in other respects in American culture, the extremes and factions thrive apace while a broad and stablizing center, and the institutions that have supported it, withers away. Early in his account Douthat profiles that center, particularly in its post-World War II incarnation when Christianity was “at once steeped in the faith’s oldest traditions and [also] confidently engaged with modern thought and politics.” It was a center embodied by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, W. H. Auden, Will Herberg, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King Jr. Douthat terms this, “The Lost World.”

Douthat is a young man, in his mid-30s. As the book’s jacket cover notes, he is the “youngest-ever op-ed columnist” of The New York Times. Some of the most caustic reviewers of Bad Religion make a point of stressing, condescendingly, Douthat’s age, conveying a “how-dare-he” tone in their reproaches.

But Douthat also speaks, in my experience, for the best and brightest of a younger generation. It is a generation weary of the culture war's slogans and divides, and hungry for a more deeply rooted faith and temperate public life. He urges Americans who have discarded Christian faith to look again at “your half-forgotten patrimony ... considering that Christianity might be an inheritance rather than a burden.” To that I add my own appreciative “second-the-motion.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.