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Faith: Toxic or Life-Serving?

Sunday, 30 August 2015  | Brian Harris

A visit to the website of the UK based National Secular Society is a sobering experience.[1] Reflecting the growing ‘evangelistic’ atheism of our time, one of its more popular services is the issue of certificates of de-baptism. In spite of a £3 fee, apparently around 100,000 were issued in the first 5 years, with the issue rate increasing sharply. The promo line goes “Liberate yourself from the Original Mumbo-Jumbo that liberated you from the Original Sin you never had.” Other campaigns have been to sponsor the “There’s probably no God” London bus campaign, and to express outrage at the state sponsorship of chaplains, as well as at the political influence of faith in society.

It’s not an isolated group. Bolstered by the writings of, amongst others, Dawkins and Hitchens,[2] there is a groundswell of support for the mantra proclaiming that faith is both toxic and abusive, and that the sooner the world is declared a God-free zone, the better.

Everything within me wants to protest at the allegations. They are undoubtedly one-sided, reflecting the same narrow intolerance expressed by the religious fundamentalists they oppose. When I hear them lament that exposing children to religious instruction is a form of child abuse, my instinct is to sarcastically retort that if they consider this to be child abuse, they must have led pretty sheltered lives. But I know that this will not do. Beneath the overstated accusations lie some disturbing realities.

Before plunging into the unsettling, there is a glowing story that both can and should be told. Christians can claim credit for many of the positive social advances made in the last 2000 years. While multiple social factors are invariably at work in societal evolution, it is not fair to explore the abolition of slavery, the protection of the rights of women and children, the development of the welfare state or the shift in focus from retributive to restorative justice, without repeatedly referring to the Christian faith that motivated and inspired most of those who championed these causes. And they represent a small selection of an impressive array of humanitarian achievements.[3]

It would, however, be simplistic to assume the argument could be closed by referring to some of the more satisfying outcomes resulting from the interface between the Christ story and human history. [4] There is also a shadow side. There have been many times in the history of the church when it has been supportive of a right wing agenda, which on occasion has revealed itself in racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, ecological and economic exploitation, cultural insensitivity and more beside.[5]

Even if not actively supporting exploitation, faith can easily wear unattractive masks.[6]  

There is faith as escapism. While it is perhaps understandable that African American slaves longed for the day when the sweet chariot would swing low to carry them home, it is more difficult to understand why those whose lives are saturated with material abundance are sometimes so heavenly minded that they are of little use to those on the fringes of life, indeed those who are specially dear to the heart of God.

Then there is faith as the status quo. This mask bears no resemblance to what’s required to be an authentic Christ follower, but nonetheless for many people things are good provided they’ve been around for more than 20 years. Nostalgia, rather than a commitment to a daring faith agenda, is the driver. Onlookers fail to find it inspiring.

There is also faith as smugness and self-righteousness. While most have renounced the wagging finger, the image of Christians as people who see themselves as morally superior to lesser mortals and who ‘tut-tut’ at the folly of those who don’t share their faith, persists.

This alerts us to an important truth. Faith can spark life’s loftiest journeys but paradoxically, can also accompany and bolster its most misguided and tragic detours.

Because of the potentially abusive nature of faith it is important to highlight some of the warning signs that it is at risk of proving toxic. While an exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this essay, danger signals include an insistence on unquestioning faith, or faith as compulsion instead of faith as invitation, or where there is legalism without love, or any form of faith that aims for power and control and attempts to justify the unjustifiable in the name of God.

So if you’re up to it, why not pay an unsettling visit to the website of the National Secular Society? Be outraged by what you read, but let the little kernel of truth at the site disturb you. And as more of us let that disquiet grow, perhaps we can birth a future where the Christian faith again accompanies life’s noblest journeys.


Dr Brian Harris is the Principal of Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Australia.

[1] www.secularism.org.uk

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

[3] For a fuller, though very accessible account, see Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001). Another very simple, but thought-provoking introduction to the topic is found in Dave Andrews, People of Compassion (Blackburn, VIC: TEAR Australia, 2008).

[4] While it can be argued that we should distinguish between the Christ story and the history of the churches founded as a result of that story, in practice this is difficult to do. It is however true that the Christ story could (and probably should) serve as the filter to determine the faithfulness or otherwise of the churches formed to their mandate to serve as Christ’s body on earth.

[5] So, for example, Jim Wallis, speaking of the mixed legacy of Evangelicalism, laments, “Evangelicals in this century have a history of going along with the culture on the big issues and taking their stand on the smaller issues. That has been one of the serious problems of evangelical religion. Today, many evangelicals no longer just acquiesce to the culture on the larger economic and political issues, but actively promote the culture’s worst values on these matters.” Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (Herts: Lion, 1981), 25.

[6] The following three paragraphs are a slightly modified form of part of a brief newspaper article I wrote in 2007. Brian Harris, "When Faith Is the Problem," The Advocate, April 2007.

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