When, a few months ago, Beliefnet picked up one of our articles, it appeared bisected by an ad for one of their regular writer’s “fight for an inclusive church” and advocacy of “a new Christianity for a new world.” I had just been reading an article on how religious Americans still are (by an author who disapproved), and it occurred to me that the skeptical religious writers—the New Christianity For A etc. crowd—depend upon this.
When they have finished explaining how little of traditional Christianity can actually be believed, they offer in its stead the only thing they can offer: some fairly abstract platitudes expressed in generally religious terms. “God wants you to live life to the max” just about covers it. Without a God who tells us things we wouldn’t know otherwise, this is all they can say. They cannot say much else, because their God is too generic, or perhaps too much like a mirror.
It is not the sort of faith the truly secular person will find very attractive, because it is not substantially different from the messages he gets from many other people. He hears it in one form from the psychobabblers, in another from the yuppie materialists, in another from the political activists. He may listen to the skeptical writers if he prefers the religious mode to the others, but I can’t imagine there are too many people like this. Not enough, anyway, to sell all the books the skeptics sell.
I am rather sure that so many people buy the skeptics’ books because the great religiousness of America creates a market for religion of their sort, a big gray zone between the white of belief and the black of secularism. Tens of millions of people grew up to some extent religious, even if they only actually went to church at Easter and Christmas, and many remain marked forever by the feeling that they ought to be religious. They feel the need or the desire for religion in their lives, but they also feel that traditional religion is much too demanding and intrusive.
Along comes a skeptic, who with the authority of a bishop, priest, or divinity school professor (one of the gang who run the show), gives them a religion without the demands and intrusions. He offers them a relation with the divine (the Guy who really runs the show) and all the consolations thereof, not least the idea that the world and their lives have a purpose and meaning, and that at the end of the day, and at the end of their lives, Someone is on their side.
He gives them a reason to go to church every Sunday, to say prayers and receive sacraments and proclaim creeds, to order their lives in a new and better way, to join a local community with all the benefits pertaining thereunto, all without the burden of subscribing to anything demeaning or of giving up their independence. He tells them that the prayers and sacraments and creeds are all symbolic, and may be enjoyed for what they are.
If I am right about this, and I am pretty sure I am, the skeptics’ “new Christianity” depends for its share of the market on the fact that the old Christianity still controls so much of the market that it creates a demand for knock-offs. Years ago buyers started wanting shirts with the makers’ logos on them, and right away lots of companies started putting out cheap shirts with their own logos, designed to look like the expensive brands’. The shirts were not nearly as well made, but they were a lot cheaper. The skeptics’ religion is the cheap one, but no one would buy it were there not a more expensive one setting the standards and creating the demand.
Actually, this may be too generous a metaphor. Given how little of real use most skeptics have to say, and how silly is much of their attack on Christianity, a better metaphor may be the fake Rolex watches sold by con artists out of the backs of trucks. To the ignorant buyer, the fake looks just like the expensive watches he’s seen in the ads, and he is happy to get it so cheaply, even though he knows—as it’s being sold out of the back of a truck by a man constantly glancing up and down the street—that it’s stolen. It’s only when the watch breaks down that he finds out it’s a fake.
I find the skeptics’ sort of religion boring and pointless, but I can see how attractive it must be to people who truly want to know God, but not on his terms. Many of them may be more genuinely religious than I am. I can think of some who are, and who are also more genuinely charitable than I am. I hope and pray that their religion and their charity mark a trajectory that will lead them out of the gutted Christianity presented in the skeptics’ books and into the Faith, and that it is not (to switch metaphors) an inoculation that makes them immune to the real thing.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Knockoff Religion” first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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