To say that I’m a little ticked about and tried of reading uninformed, inaccurate opinion pieces about religion in general, and African American Christianity in particular, is an understatement. It’s not that I cannot accept criticism of the church. I’m neither thin-skinned nor naive about African American Christianity. My beef is that such opinion pieces betray a bias against faith, which is showcased as simply a rehearsal of objective fact.
On yesterday, I took a break from reading and writing in preparation to speak and present at a workshops several times over the next two weeks. I went online to resume my ongoing investigation of and conversation about Christianity in the public square. I stumbled on an article by blogger Valarie Tarico, dated 14 Oct. 2018, and entitled, “6 Ways Religion Does More Bad Than Good”. At first, I simply intended to dismiss it. After all, I’ve read more than my fair share of these pieces over the years, since graduate school and since my first church. I don’t have the stomach for such pseudo- intellectual and ahistorical pieces. Still, I prepared to consume a hastily prepared, jaded piece from someone who either has experienced church hurt or a self-appointed arbiter of which institutions still have value in the human community and in American culture.
Tarico did not disappoint. She claimed religion did far more harm than good. She cited these six negative effects of religion on the public square, to which I have offered my counter-points:
1. Religion promotes tribalism. My Response: Religion is one of the markers of identity, which is similar to race, gender, class, or nationality.
2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age. My Response: Religion may arise out of a particular historical context, but reveals its enduring value in life-principles and everyday practices which are relatable, applicable, and relevant to our present context, local and global.
3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith. My Response: Sound religious belief and behavior is neither antithetical to reason nor scientific advancement. In fact, there have always been branches of the Christian tree which have been respectful and supportive of those things which improve the human community. At the same time, the Christian faith rightly notes it has always proceed from a very different yet complementary starting point than conventional logic which science uses.
4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions. My Response: Admittedly, like anything, religion can be corrupted, but tends to give rise to noble ventures such as education, health care, housing, and jobs—all facts which are glossed over by Tarcio, yet have been well-attested by the Black Church, past and present.
5. Religion teaches helplessness. My Response: By far, this is most ignorant, inaccurate remark among all her claims against religion. “The Religion of Jesus”, as Dr. Howard Thurman refers to Christianity in his Jesus and The Disinherited, is about equipping people with resources and relationships which are essential to living a meaningful, dynamic, and difference-making life.
6. Religion seek power. My Response: The issue is not whether religion seeks power, but why and for whom does it seek power. At its best, the Black Church has been and remains committed to advocating for access to and the proper use of socio-eco-political power, especially for the minorities and the marginalized.
I take issues with her particular twists on these so-called facts. First, these are half-truths at best. Second, they are based on conjecture and anecdotal information. Third, they are the spurious findings of one who is evidently outside the umbrella of religious faith and who appears to place faith solely in “unassailable”facts, “undisputed” reason, and “unbiased” science—all of which rely on interpretative assumptions which which must be unearthed and questioned— just as much as those upon which religious faith rests.
Furthermore, I find her failure to mark the contributions which religion has made to the stabilization, advancement, and survival of the human community to be more than a little suspect and disingenuous. It’s clear that she either never read or gave much credence to works such as Os Guinness’ Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times and Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed The World.
My biggest beef is that she makes no allowance for the diverse and positive expressions of faith which have inspired and informed the human quest for a better life . For example, the historic Black Church arose as a critique, corrective, and challenge to certain Euro-American expressions of Christianity, which gave legitimacy to the ignoble and unjust practice of the Euro-American slave trade (Gayraud Wilmore’s Black Religion & Black Radicalism). While regressive in some ways, the historic Black Church has been at the vanguard of the creation of institutions (schools, hospitals, businesses, etc.) which have undergirded and championed the survival and liberation of Blacks in America (Lincoln, Eric & Mamiya, Lawrence, The Black Church in the African American Experience). Not surprisingly, Tarico is silent about these things.
Regularly and prudently, I resist being defensive whenever criticisms are leveled against religion in general and the church in particular. I tend to side-step or classify as “par for the course”criticisms of the the church and the Black Church. I have learned, to let some slights about the church go unanswered. Still, there are other times when I not only take exception to negative things people say about the church, but I also feel compelled to set the record straight. This, to be sure, is one of those times when I opted to answer the ignorance and arrogance Tarico’s article spouts.