originally published at ABTS Lebanon
Having grown up in the West, I was aware that a trend emerged in the post-World Wars era towards a rejection of religion. The brutality and sheer evil of the World Wars led many to reject belief in God. If God is good and all-powerful, how could such evil proliferate in the world this God created? Much of the debate with atheism in the West has centered on this “problem of evil.” Though Christian intellectuals have responded, the hemorrhaging of mainline churches in the West demonstrates that skepticism is here to stay and too obvious to be denied. A culture that recoils from faith in God has increasingly become the environment in which we live and move.
Then I relocated to the Middle East and learned that in this culture, religious faith is ubiquitous. At least, that was true until recent years. Nowadays I increasingly detect a suspicion of religious faith even here where religion still holds a high place of cultural esteem. That may surprise some readers, but I notice that the questions being asked here, rather than revealing a religious orientation (e.g. How can I be assured of God’s acceptance?), increasingly come from a mindset of suspicion (e.g. Is there meaning to life? If God is good and all-powerful why is my country in the throes of war that has killed some family members and scattered others?).
Going back to the West, we can understand this trend towards religious skepticism through the intellectual contributions of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. All had devastating critiques of religion. Freud postulated that religion is man-made in order to meet the universal human need of self-justification. Because we all have emotions of guilt and fear, we need some means to alleviate those and assure ourselves that all is well. Creating a god who punishes us for our guilt and rewards us for our good meets a deep psychological need. We create God to make us feel better.
Marx offered a social critique of religion. In his view we create religion to exclude others and establish our own superiority. So religion becomes a tool in the hands of social elites to manipulate and control society. Religion is a power play whereby societies permit themselves to enslave or manipulate less privileged people under the guise of “divine right.” Religion enables these imperialistic elites to keep the poor and oppressed in their place on the promise that, if they are good adherents of religion, things will be better in the afterlife—the “opium of the people” concept.
Nietzsche’s take on religion is the nail in the coffin. Nietzsche critiques anyone who says they have a truth claim of any kind. He submits any truth claim to an underlying skepticism. His thought is aptly named the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” He subjects the Christian claim to be motivated by love to relentless interrogation. The result is a thorough-going critique of religion of any kind as a thinly veiled “will to power.” Whereas Marx recognized religion as the means whereby the rich control the poor, Nietzsche thought that any religious adherence whether by rich or poor was an attempt to seize power through exploitation and abuse.
In summary, religion among many Western intellectuals is a means of self-justification, exclusion and exploitation. It is antithetical to true humanitarian values. Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are no friends of religious belief. However, it just may be that their critique of religion is a valuable service to Jesus’ Kingdom. I’ll come back to that, but let’s talk about the Middle East for a moment.
A friend of mine from Cairo came into my office recently. He confirmed my suspicion that the questions asked by youth have changed since the recent revolutions. Pre-revolution questions were the classic questions Muslims ask Christians such as “How could God become a human being? How can God be three and one at the same time? Hasn’t the Bible been corrupted?” According to this friend, those questions are passé. Today’s questions revolve around why God, if He exists, would allow suffering, injustice, poverty and other perennial problems to devastate our societies. Is God not watching what is happening in Syria? In Iraq? In Sudan? In Yemen? Where is he?
Middle Eastern media has also detected the rise of atheism. Although atheism is not commonly associated with the Middle East, the times have changed and some feel that religious belief is in serious decline.
It’s not too surprising. After all, it was after the blood baths of two World Wars and a Great Depression that religion lost its appeal to many in the West. Perhaps the same phenomenon is taking hold in the Middle East today as a result of bloody revolutions and upheavals. Religion is being seen as a means to hold power and exploit the poor. Skepticism of traditional religious values is at an all-time high and it’s no longer just the West.
It is striking that Freud, Marx and Nietzsche gave voice to the very critique that is being made of religious belief in today’s Middle East. Religion has become a means to exclude, socially manipulate and exploit people. The critique is devastating because it is self-evident. Religion has tremendous power to mold a society and shape it according to the desires of its overlords.
And yet, there is a mystifying resurgence of faith in our contemporary world. We’ve realized that the truth claims of Nietzsche and his ilk are also a type of religious belief—absolute truth claims which cannot stand up under scrutiny. These claims, very much like the religion they denounce, become a means of control and manipulation.
Jesus is the way out of this dilemma of religion. He was scathing in his denunciation of religious strictures and authority. He required of his own leadership apprentices that they become like children, serve one another in the most menial ways and refuse to call one another “teacher” or “father.” Furthermore, no one could claim to follow Jesus who had not renounced his wealth and status. There would be no class superiority among Jesus’ followers. The means of power and exploitation have to be tossed at the door when one enters Jesus’ Kingdom.
Jesus belies the claim of religious power. We’re still trying to understand the mystery of a God who ‘empties himself’ becoming a human being. He humbled himself by submitting to the cruelest and most unusual exploitation ever known to man—the crucifixion of the God-man on a Roman cross instigated by—you guessed it—religious leaders. Such a God simply does not fit into Nietzsche’s critique. We’re talking about something different. He’s not religion.
Jesus echoed the atheistic critique of religion in his scathing rebuke of religious authority in his own day. In fact, the exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised through religion is a constant theme of the prophets. The dismantling of the religious infrastructure within a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection gave way to the mighty deluge of Jesus’ Kingdom throughout the Mediterranean basin. We might say that the overthrow of religion bodes well for the Kingdom of Jesus.
So maybe Marx and Freud and Nietzsche are inadvertent cheerleaders for Jesus. Maybe the current skepticism of religion in the Middle East bodes well for his Kingdom. It also forces us to ask ourselves if we have domesticated Jesus’ Kingdom by turning it into religion.
1 Much of this blog was inspired by a podcast by Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The message is titled “Losing My Religion: Why Christians Should Drop Their Religion.” Listen to it here.
Keller also refers to Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. William B. Eerdman’s, 1993.