Is Religion a Racket?

Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
November 11, 2018

Salem, Massachusetts is by almost any standards a unique kind of place. It is, of course, famous for being the site of the Salem witch trials – some of the most unspeakable abuses ever committed in the name of religion. Whether the women who died in Salem had any real connection to pagan religion was immaterial at the time; what mattered to the powers of the day was conformity. Women who did not follow the norms risked a horrible death.

Ironically, it is because of this history of persecution that Salem has now become a haven for modern Wiccans and neo-pagans, who remember the “burning times” and honor a place of spiritual pilgrimage. The streets downtown are a maze of shops that cater to tourists who want to find the real “witches” of Salem. In October, especially, the town gives itself over to a constant stream of Halloween events, some sacred and some silly, but all designed to bring in visitors and their dollars. These visitors include real Wiccans, gawkers, and also evangelists, who stand on street corners with portable sound systems, telling the passers-by to repent their ways, and “Turn or burn.”

Now, street preachers are used to hecklers; they’re trained to deal with them. But I’m not quite sure that one particular preacher a few years back knew what he was in for when a ten year old girl wearing a bright pink shirt ran up to him, mid-sermon.

“All that matters tonight,” he was shouting to nobody in particular, “is where you stand before God before it’s too late!”

And the ten year old shouted, “Shut up! Shut it!”

“We can all be saved and I pray that you turn from your sin.”

“Stop talking!” she bellowed. “No one listens!”

“Because of our sin we need to turn to God!”

And the little girl looked up at him and she said, “Pie holes should be quiet!”

Now, there are any number of ways to look at this little post-Halloween vignette. On the one hand, it’s easy to root for the girl, because she is a child, and because most of us generally acknowledge street preachers to be obnoxious. It’s not fun to get shouted at for a month in your own town. On the other hand, it’s hard to trust the sincerity of witchcraft tourism in Salem; it often feels more like industry than spirituality, and you have to wonder if the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t relish this kind of thing. When the video was posted online a few years back, I remember that once I got past the initial guilty pleasure, I couldn’t honestly say that the girl behaved all that much better than the preacher. Shouting at people is not the way to solve problems, and it seldom convinces anybody of anything.

I wish I could say preachers like these are unique to places like Salem, but a few times a year they come to West Chester, setting up in the university’s quad and spouting hatred against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, against pagans, against Jews, against immigrants. They shout, and they poke, and they provoke until, inevitably, someone starts shouting back at them and they draw a crowd. It’s an old soapbox technique, and it certainly begs the question – is this all just a racket?

People have asked that question about religion for a very long time. One of those people was theologian James Luther Adams, who as a young man served the Second Unitarian Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Only a few years earlier he had been a student at the University of Minnesota, where he had taken a public speaking course for the sole purpose of giving himself an opportunity to write diatribes against organized religion. After one of these speeches, his professor told him, in front of the entire class, “Well Jim Adams, it’s clear what you’re going to be – you’re going to be a preacher!” It was one of the few times the man who would later become known as the “smiling saint of Unitarian Universalism” ever swore in public.

Ten years later Adams wrote a pamphlet directed toward young people like himself, who, finding their minds broadened beyond their fundamentalist upbringings, now believed all religion to be a racket. It’s all very well to say that, he more or less said, but once you have said that, you haven’t said very much. “One wisecrack,” he wrote, “does not make a prophet.”

That hasn’t stopped an entire cadre of public figures from making their livings repeating the same wisecrack. Christopher Hitchens famously said that it could be proven beyond a doubt that “belief in God makes people behave worse.” Richard Dawkins has taken this a step further, claiming that “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” “Faith,” he said, “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think.”

The problem with this approach to religion is that it defines faith in purely narrow, scientific terms. It is in many ways the polar opposite – and exactly the same as – the mistake made by fundamentalists who see science as a kind of religion. By ignoring symbolism, story and parable, and by interpreting religious texts only as literal truth, these would-be defenders of science have unwittingly allied themselves with the religious extremists they most decry.

The writer Thomas Moore, when asked by a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers what he would say to Richard Dawkins if he ever had the opportunity, replied, “I’d tell him that I wish he’d find an opponent worthy of his intellect.”

I agree with Dawkins and his ilk on every point of science. My own theology is one that falls completely within natural law. Nevertheless, I find these characterizations of religion to be shallow at best. In the tradition of the worst kind of science, they have come into a conversation with conclusions already made, defined their terms to support these conclusions, and dismissed out of hand any possibility that there might be more to it than they have already decided.

I have much more respect for Albert Einstein, who once sat down with the Indian religious thinker Rabindranath Tagore to talk about science, religion, and the nature of truth. Einstein never saw it as a debate. Instead, he kept an open mind throughout the conversation. He wanted to learn and understand. Tagore spoke in broad terms. “Science,” he said, “is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of truths. Religion realizes these truths and links them up with our deeper needs.” By the end of the conversation Einstein had told Tagore, “I am more religious than you!”

If religion really existed in order to explain natural phenomena, then it would indeed be easy to knock down as a racket. For example, I can think of a religion that offers no such explanations, doesn’t tell its adherents what will happen when they die, can’t even say whether there is a God or not – and they still expect their followers to show up on Sunday mornings, bring friends, volunteer, pledge a portion of their income to support the congregation, and stay for the Town Hall and anti-racism conversation this afternoon. How much of a racket is that? Fortunately nobody here would… uh, never mind.

I do understand why people see it that way; I think many of us as children or teenagers were taught that religion came into being to explain things. Since we, enlightened people that we are, have better explanations, it’s easy and a little fun to poke holes in religious texts. After all, the Bible contradicts itself all over the place – the two first pages give completely different accounts of the creation. In the story of the great flood, one line says it rained for forty days and forty nights, while the next says it was a year and a day. That’s not even to mention all the contradictions in the four gospels! I mean, honestly, how could people have missed this?

And the answer comes, quite obviously when you think about it – they didn’t. People five thousand and three thousand and two thousand years ago didn’t know as much as we do today, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t intelligent. They could see the contradictions; they knew that the texts didn’t all agree. They knew the difference between history and myth, even if they wouldn’t have expressed it in those terms. Their stories served a larger purpose. They taught wisdom, they reinforced rituals, they brought the community together, and they entertained. These were good stories, and in a civilization without the technology of mass media or printing, good stories were important. I think they still are.

While there are religions today that hold their creeds to be scientifically true, they are fewer than is generally assumed, and I don’t think very many people join them for that reason. I don’t think the people who go looking for a church or a temple or mosque or gurdwara are doing so because they want to know how the universe came to be. People come to religion because they want a community that they can feel comfortable in. People come to religion because they’re suffering, and they need solace. People come to religion because they need to heal or change, or they want to grow. People come to religion because they want help teaching their children to be good adults, with good values.

To be sure, religion can be abused and made into a weapon. On the other hand, so can science, and it’s probably happened at least as often. But I think even the most radical religions draw followers because they address some deep seated need in the human spirit. It might be a need for order in a world that seems chaotic or empty. It might be a need for belonging. It might be the need to take control of a life that seems out of control, and religions address those kinds of needs. They may always not address them very well; I won’t stand here and defend ISIS and its crimes any more than I would defend preachers of homophobia and race hatred in the United States, or the anti-Muslim violence committed by Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka. But the need is still there.

This is the religious impulse. We think of it in this country as a question of belief, but it’s more a search for meaning. At its best religion does exactly what Rabindranath Tagore said it does – it takes truth as it is, and links it with these deeper needs. The religious impulse is not a quest for the right beliefs; it is a search for meaning and wholeness.

Today is Veteran’s Day, and this week I found myself turning back to a letter I once read from a young soldier, written from battle in 1944. “Dear Fred,” he wrote, “the last weeks have been hard, filled with many bitter, hateful things…. Sometimes I feel very old…. Joy and beauty have many different faces, but brutality and hatred have but few.” And then he said this: “I have come to the extremity of knowing beyond all doubt that there is no other way for me to survive this period except the hard Christian way of finding the finer points in my associates and loving them for those characteristics…. I am driven to the Christian way out. It is hard, yet there is great comfort in finding it. I sleep better now, and because I give love I find it oftener.”

Faced with suffering, having to endure not only the evil of others, but also the inevitable evils of his own participation in war, he searched for meaning and found it in his religion. It didn’t matter to him what the Bible said about how the world came into existence, or the truth or falsehood of Noah’s ark or the walls of Jericho. It didn’t matter whether his prayers received answers. It didn’t matter which stories of Jesus’s life and ministry were true and which were not. All that mattered was the great lesson he had learned – love. Unconditional, universal love.

I can disagree with points of doctrine. I can decry the evils committed in religion’s name and I can challenge hypocrisy wherever I find it. I can dedicate myself to the promotion of science and the opposition of intolerance. But I cannot deny the value of religion in that young man’s life. I cannot pretend that it’s all part of some delusion. I would not for a moment suggest that the entire world needs to be religious, but I do believe that when religion answers the true religious impulse – the need for deeper living, for belonging, for meaning, for growth, for a way to work through suffering, for reaching beyond the self, it can yield the highest good. Its theology may contain lessons of God, or it may contain dharma teaching from the Buddha, or Humanist wisdom. It may involve drumming and dancing and gods of nature, or it may be quiet and contemplative. It may look to ancient scriptures, or it may find wonder in the stars, or it could seek meaning in both. When religion guides us with integrity, leads us to deeper insights, helps us to see beyond ourselves and beyond this moment, it is goodness and it is hope, and I am grateful for its gift.


For all who see God,
may God go with you.

For all who embrace life,
may life return your affection.
For all who seek a right path,
may a way be found….

And the courage to take it,
step by step.

– Robert Mabry Doss