After a spate of atheist-authored books decrying religion, along comes the contrarian An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than Without It.  Atheist author Bruce Sheiman reminds us of what many sociologists of religion have been proving for some years: that religion helps people live happier and healthier lives by giving them meaning and purpose; and it benefits society enormously, by establishing food closets and hospitals and rescue missions and what not. As the subtitle says, all told, humanity is better off as a result of religion.

The question, though, is whether Christianity will be better off as a result of this well-meaning book.

Christianity is indeed a religion, and a pretty good religion at that, apparently—over 2 billion people identify with it in one way or another. Still, as a religion, Christianity is very much a human enterprise. Like all religions, it tries to understand the human situation transcendentally, but as a religion, it remains a social phenomenon we can study.

The principles that have helped American evangelicals, for example, become a successful social institution are no religious secret, available only to the initiated. Our leaders look to business gurus to discover how to manage large organizations like megachurches. Our small group leaders look to psychology to discover principles that will help groups become more intimate. Our Christian educators employ the latest secular pedagogies to inform their teaching. Our worship leaders make use of large group dynamics to determine how to use music and prayer to move people into a worshipful mood and send them forth uplifted. Our pastors study persuasion and rhetoric to make their sermons pop.

Look at any successful, growing church in which people and communities are changed, and you'll find that it uses principles common to any well-managed group or organization. Such wisdom is the product of God's common grace, and is available to McDonalds, the YMCA, the homeless shelter, and the political action committee. Such techniques help people feel they've found a place to belong, supply them with a sense of meaning and purpose, help them develop and grow as individuals, and enable them to serve the larger community. What's not to like?

Some critics of "organized religion" decry this reality, as if real religious groups can live an inch off the ground, can survive and thrive without employing this collective social wisdom. But if you're going to form and manage a group for any reason or cause, you've got to use such techniques.

Article continues below

So, Christianity, like all religions, is a good thing, and a human thing.

* * *

Unfortunately for fans of religion, the Christian gospel is not primarily interested in religion. To be sure, the New Testament talks about religion. It discourages sexual license and other forms of immorality. It encourages patience, kindness, and other virtues. It tells believers how to worship aright. There is nothing unusual in all this—all religions have similar admonitions. In this respect, the New Testament is realistic. It doesn't pretend that the common rules of morality and social concern don't apply to the church. It understands that groups of people, even if you call them churches, have to behave themselves if they're going to get anything done!

But this sort of thing, religion, does not stand at the heart of the New Testament message. The gospel isn't primarily about helping individuals to live the life they've always wanted; it tells people to die to their yearning for self-fulfillment. It is not about helping people feel good about themselves, but telling them that they are dying. It's not about improving people, but killing the old self and creating them anew. It's not about helping people make space for spirituality in their busy lives, but about a God who would obliterate all our private space. The gospel is not about getting people to cooperate with God in making the world a better place—to give it a fresh coat of paint, to remodel it; instead it announces God's plan to raze the present world order and build something utterly new.

In short, religion is about making adjustments, making the best of things, inviting God to play a part in our lives and community, and the pursuit of spirituality! The gospel says our lives and our world are catastrophes, beyond tinkering, beyond remodeling. The gospel is about the Cross, which puts a nail in the coffin of religion as such. And the gospel is about resurrection—not an improvement nor an adjustment, but the breaking in of a completely new life because the old life has been obliterated.

The gospel's harsh judgment should make us quiver in fear; its unrealistic demands should make us sigh in despair; its surprising grace should leave us astonished in wonder; its unexpected hope should cause us to collapse in joyful laughter. It should leave fans of religion and sociologists of religion dumbfounded. It should make common people either run from Christianity in fear and trembling, or fall at Jesus' feet and clutch his ankles, saying, "My Lord and My God!"

Article continues below
* * *

The problem is that contemporary Christianity may take comfort when it hears that it may be useful for humanity. That's when Christianity becomes bad for people, and the most dangerous enemy of the gospel. Religion, precisely because it is good and useful and edifying, tempts the religious to say (along with the Pharisee in Jesus' parable in Luke 18), "I thank you Father that we are not like others. We participate in something good and useful. Society is better off with our religion!"

But in the parable, it is the irreligious man—the man who is not good, is not useful to society, does not make the world a better place—who, says Jesus, is the one upon whom God looks with favor.

Religion is impressive, perhaps the most impressive of human achievements—until you start comparing its achievements to the will and character of the Holy and Transcendent One. In that light, its social usefulness smells like filthy rags, and its moral uplift sounds like a bad joke. Paul's critique of religion is as severe as is that of Jesus: "You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, 'The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you' " (Rom. 2:23-24).

Christianity can't help but be a religion. It is composed of human institutions that of necessity use moral and social techniques to make a go of it. There's no getting around that.

But if people look at us and see only religion, and worse, pat us on the back because humanity is better off because of us—well, that's about the most damning thing they could say.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. His latest book is A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God  (Baker).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: