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Is Religion An “Extra”?

December 19, 2016


One of the great heresies of our modern age is the belief that religion is an insignificant “extra.” On this view, the significance of one’s choice to be “religious” is reduced to the same level of importance as little Jimmy’s choice to go with chocolate or vanilla ice cream. We might be tempted to call it the “whatever floats your boat” heresy.

The spiritual life is, to those who adopt this attitude marred with indifference, a private affair and nothing more.

Now certainly religion—and Christianity specifically—undoubtedly has a subjective component, an interior dimension to it. In fact (like all relationships) religion properly understood begins as an interior action (a virtue, in fact) and overflows into the exterior or public dimension of life—it is faith and reason working through love. But it is precisely this “overflow” effect that makes religion important and more than a private affair. Religion has proven its power to shape people, countries, cultures, and civilizations. Should not something so powerful matter to everyone in every time?

My argument here is not that everyone should be religious. My argument is that everyone should take religion seriously; and by that I mean that everyone should think about religion seriously.

A person’s beliefs, though left unstated, are often demonstrated practically through outward actions. Put another way, what one believes interiorly will “work itself out” exteriorly. If you love God and believe He is calling you to feed the poor and clothe the naked, your actions will become the outward expression of that belief and your actions will embody mercy. But the same goes for those who believe that God is calling them to “kill the infidels”; if they really believe that, well, then they will be predisposed to live that monstrous belief out.

The plain principle is, again, that inward beliefs—religious or not—lead to an outward expression of them.  Thus it should take no real effort to establish the fact that a person’s beliefs matter from both a private and public perspective. Private beliefs can have public consequences, good and bad.

So from a general point of view (one that even an unreligious person should be able to concede) religion matters because it forms and furnishes a person’s interior life and propels them to live a certain way. Indeed this view that religion matters is affirmed by the New Atheists’ campaigning against the “spread” of religion. Their overall assessment of religion may be riddled with distorted facts, logical monstrosities, and unfair blanket statements, but their affirmation of religion’s relevance to humanity is bang on.

But what the New Atheists and their followers largely refuse to acknowledge is the expansive good that has been propagated by the countless millions down through history who have been motivated primarily by their religion. One only needs to read Butler’s Lives of the Saints, read works by historians like Christopher Dawson and Hilaire Belloc, or simply pay attention to the charitable activities of one’s local St. Vincent de Paul and Knights of Columbus groups to see that our civilization and society would be at an immeasurable loss without religious beliefs as a prime mover.

We are rational beings, we humans. We act intentionally; that is, we act with a purpose or end in mind. Something has to form the basis for our day-to-day decisions and indeed, for many, it is religion. C.S Lewis expressed the broad-spectrum effect of religion in forming one’s experience of reality when he wrote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

If religion can have a strong influence on a person’s choices then religion matters (and clearly it does). And if Christianity is the most prominent religion on earth (which it is) then Christianity matters. And if Catholicism is the largest and most historically and biblically tenable form of religion in all of Christendom (which it is) then Catholicism matters.

Sure, religion may serve as a sort of spiritual “opium” of the people as Marx suggested but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. My best guess as to why religion (especially Catholicism) has become largely irrelevant to many people in our age is because it is too intimidating. It demands its members to look outside of their fallible selves for truth about themselves and the world they live in. Our age repels from such authority. Our age, for instance, has shackled us and taken away our freedom to call a man a man; instead we must consult the man and find out what gender he identifies with. Such worship of subjectivism has lead to nothing short of absurdity. Secular societies of the past may have asked, “What is truth?” But our society largely skips that question and responds with another: “Who cares?”

Of course our relativistic age is allergic to organized religion; for no one wants to be told how or what to worship, how to live, nor how to die. Chesterton famously said that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, but rather, it has been found difficult and left untried. He couldn’t have been more right.

As Aleksander Solzenitsyn observed, the modern societal chaos we find ourselves swimming upstream against is blackened by a crisis of courage. Indeed it takes tremendous courage to follow the path of the true and good, to follow the arguments wherever they may lead as Socrates advocated; and it takes courage to think about religion seriously—especially Christianity. For all too often it may be that The Indifferent know deep, deep down exactly what they will find if they step outside of their daily technology-induced intoxication of mind and soberly entertain the reasons to believe. They will find Truth—the great nuisance and indestructible enemy of the dictatorship of relativism.