Second Sunday After the Epiphany
A few years ago my wife and I went to the Moxie to see the film Religulous?, which features comedian and social commentator Bill Maher, best known as the host of HBO’s political show Real Time with Bill Maher.
As an influential public figure, Maher makes no bones about it: he views religion as one of the most — if not the most — destructive element in society today, and Religulous was one of his attempts to point out what he views as the absurdity of religious belief. The title comes from linking the two words religion and ridiculous, a combination that implies our world would be much better off with much less religion.
It’s not an uncommon argument. From viral YouTube videos to books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great, religion has been castigated as the opiate of the masses and the crutch humanity would do well to get rid of. Religion = Ridiculous.
There are, of course, several valid points made by Maher and others. Religion hardly has its hands clean. It has been responsible for perpetuating great violence on others, from so-called holy wars to inquisitions to the subjugation of those who don’t conform or belong to the most powerful class or gender or race or orientation. What’s more — and we especially see this in the churches today — people all too often don’t take the time to critically analyze religious beliefs they are told they are supposed to hold. They believe whatever the pastor or church tells them to believe, even when such beliefs are potentially unhealthy or dangerous, not to mention in-credible, all of which further perpetuate religion’s dangerous inclinations toward violence.
But if only it was so easy to rid ourselves of religion (I have tried!). If only it was so easy to debase the value of religion. If only it was so easy to forget religion, to write it off, to view it as an artifact of the past. If only it was so easy.
But it’s not so easy, it’s not so easy at all. Either for Bill Maher, or for myself, or for any of us for that matter. Because somewhere along the way, unless we are dead (figuratively or literally), somewhere along the way, our hearts – believers and atheists alike – beat for another world, a different world, a better world, to be born. Our hearts are restless.
For all of the problems with religion, for all of its checkered past, there is a reason that we still dream with Martin Luther King Jr., atheists and believers alike. There is a reason we still march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., atheists and believers alike. For the dream of another world to come – a world in which justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream – the dream of another world to come transcends all of our categories of religious belief (or unbelief).
For there is a claim visited upon our lives for a better world to be born that will not leave us alone, atheist and believer alike.
There is a claim visited upon our lives that will not give us peace until there is peace, atheist and believer alike.
There is a stirring in our hearts that relentlessly pursues us, that hounds us, that makes our hearts restless, atheist and believer alike.
This is why Bill Maher’s film Religulous, for all of its criticisms of religion, is actually a deeply religious film: for it is hungry for another world to be born – a world that is more fair, more just, more right – and it asks us to join in its creation.
This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” for all of its criticisms of religion, is actually a deeply religious song:
Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will live as one
This is why we can even imagine a cultured despiser of religion like Karl Marx operating from, dare I say it, a religious heart. While Marx, as one scholar describes, “viewed himself a cold-hearted scientist who was dispassionately exposing the futility of religious illusion in the name of revolutionary historical progress,” can we not say that he still yet “had a bit of the wild-eyed Jewish prophet about him”? While working with what he and others viewed as cold economic laws, the “science” of political economy, all without God of course, could we not say that he was also doing all of this work because he longed for a better world to be born, even as he was debunking religion? As John Caputo writes, “Marx was praying and weeping for an age in which the rich stop feeding off the poor and making their fortunes on the bent backs of the most defenseless people in our society.” Is this not in line with what the Hebrew prophets who longed for justice for the poor did, what Martin Luther King did, what Desmond Tutu did?
This is why the distinction between believers and atheists is a little more unstable than most people think, and why language about the death of religion is ultimately misleading. To speak of the death of religion in any final sense, Caputo has said, would be to speak of the death of desire, the death of love, the death of affirmation, the death of what we hope for with a hope against hope and a desire beyond desire, of what we can’t express with our words yet what we long for with all our hearts. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…
When we relegate religion only to the affirmation or negation of certain (superstitious sounding) belief systems, not only do we trivialize the claim that has been visited upon our lives, but, perhaps more troubling, we neglect to honor the part of our lives that leaves us hoping and sighing and dreaming and weeping for our world to be different, for our lives to be different, for transformation to occur, for a new world to be born, for us to be born, again — atheist and believer alike. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…
Now it doesn’t matter if we refer to such longings or hopes as religious or not. The point is that as soon as we close off this part of ourselves then a very significant part of us dies. I have a dream, Dr. King said, and so do we…
When Philip and the early disciples were confronted by Jesus all those years ago, a claim was visited upon their lives, and they knew that unless they wanted to spend the rest of their lives regretting it they had better drop everything and follow. When a claim is visited upon our lives for another world to be born, for a different world to be born, may we have the courage and the wisdom to respond as well, whether we consider ourselves religious or not, whether we believe in God or not, lest we spend the rest of our lives regretting it. May we have the courage to dream.