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We’re better off without religion

Recent terrorist actions in Paris and elsewhere, claimed to be done for religious motives, raises again that key question of our age: Does religion do more harm than good? Are we, as a people, better off without religion?

It may surprise you that my answer is Yes – we are better off without religion… and this is why: religion is a system of beliefs which, at it’s core, is about being “righteous”. That is, a set of things that you need to do to be “right” according to your ultimate authority (or ‘god’), whether that be the Universe, Zeus, or Yourself. But what that means is that we end up with different groups, each thinking they’re “righteous” and superior to everybody who isn’t. That, in turn, leads to a genuine belief that they must impose that superiority on the ‘unbeliever’ by any means necessary, and they’ll be justified in doing so – hence the Paris attacks by Islamic extremists, the Gulags of Atheist Russia, the Inquisition of Spanish Roman Catholics… the list goes on.

In fact, Jesus himself predicted all these things would happen, he said: “the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2).

So yes, we are better off without religion.

But that’s why Jesus doesn’t call his followers to subscribe to another religion, which is a common misunderstanding.

Truth is, if you read carefully what he says, he is really calling people to a form of “un-religion”. Think about it: while religion is a set of requirements to be right with God, resulting in feelings of superiority; Jesus teaches that to trust him is to admit that we can’t make the requirements to be right with God, resulting in humility.

Jesus made this quite clear in a parable of a religious man and a humble sinner. Have a look:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This, in a way, gets to the heart of all that Jesus came to tell us. Who ends up justified before God? Not the religious man who thinks he has God’s favour because of what he’s done, but rather the unreligious man who knows he doesn’t deserve God’s favour, but instead needs mercy.

People think that following Jesus is a religion the same as every other religion. Unfortunately, that’s what Christianity has become in many churches – a set of requirements that you need to do to be made right with God.

But that couldn’t be further from what Jesus really came to tell us. Not only did Jesus reveal who God really is so that we can stop guessing, but he also showed us that instead of us trying to get to God, God has come to us. Instead of needing to earn “righteousness”, we need only to rest on his mercy. We need only to trust what Jesus did to make us right with God when he died on the cross for human sins.

If you believe in that mercy, you can’t but be humble. In fact, mercy is the biggest antidote to feelings of superiority. Yet mercy is also one of the most difficult things for us as proud humans to accept, and that’s why many people still don’t believe what Jesus did.

The problem is, though, unless we learn to accept the mercy God gives us in Jesus, I’m sad to say there will still be much more conflict to come.

Categories: Tough Questions...

About Nick

Nick is the Pastor of St Mark's church in Plumstead, a suburb of Cape Town.

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