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Friday, 16 December 2011

Good and Bad Religion

The following review originally appeared in St Mark's Review , No.217, August 2011 (3).

But what is religion?

Peter Vardy, Good & Bad Religion, SCM Press, London, 2010, paperback, 179 pages, ISBN978-0-334-04349-2, RRP $29.95

The necessary connection between religion and violence has become a familiar trope in both media commentary and the public polemics of the “new” atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Peter Vardy, Vice-Principal of Heythrop College in the University of London, has written, Good & Bad Religion to redirect the debate from being a purely defensive reaction on the part of religious people and as an attempt to find common ground between believers and atheists.

Good & Bad Religion is a brief, paperback, relatively accessible in style, targeted at a thoughtful, but non-academic audience. In a non-defensive even-tempered manner Vardy has sought to place the argument about “religion” and the contemporary critique of its dangers, and indeed its inhumanity, more clearly within the history of western philosophical and theological thought than has often been the case in the debate to date.

The organization of the book is simple. Vardy develops his argument in two distinct parts and at the end of each part he provides a clear summary of the argument that he has developed and the conclusions that hedraws.

In Part One, entitled The Challenge, Vardy sketches the critique of religion provided by contemporary atheists.  Religion can be bad, Vardy concedes to the atheists, but supporters of “good” religion should be at one with them in resisting “bad” religion. It may be, Vardy asserts, that … in today’s world there is a more important distinction between atheist and theist, namely that between those who pursue bad religion and those who stand for truth and what is right, whether it be within, or without a religious framework (p14).

Vardy then takes us through a discussion of the nature of truth and the good in the major philosophical traditions as an aid to assessing what “good” and “bad” religion are. The author concludes with an account of Aristotle’s approach to the nature of human flourishing which he argues is the most helpful way of distinguishing between  ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion.

Aristotelian philosophy, Vardy contends … offers a partial solution to the problem of devising standards against which to judge religion and religious practices. … the natural law approach is compatible with the major world religions and indeed has been used by them in the past to extend and enrich their philosophies of religion … Further the approach may be acceptable to atheist philosophers as well.  …most normative philosophical systems rely on defining good and bad in relation to what it means to be a fulfilled human being.(p.67)

In Part 2: A Way Forward Vardy covers a range of issues that arise in the assessment of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad religion’, starting with questions of authority and textual interpretation, and then moving on to the topics of science and religion, justice, equality and freedom. From the discussion in each of these chapters Vardy provides us in The Conclusion with a summary based on an Aristotelian, natural law framework, of six broad conclusions, and 26 more detailed criteria that we can use to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ religion.

Given the natural law basis of his argument, the conclusions that Vardy draws are coherent, admirable and largely predictable. The major problem that I have with the structure and argument that he develops lies not in his analysis but in the underlying assumptions about the character of religion that are touched on briefly in the first chapter but are not systematically developed.

The brief references to religion that he provides do not add up to a consistent, or coherent account. Vardy starts out promisingly by noting that religion is the cord of ideas, beliefs and practices that hold communities together and that it is not a consistent monolithic phenomenon. However, he then goes on to affirm that religion can be used in damaging ways, but that it is important to the human psyche and cannot be eliminated, thus moving towards an essentialist and non-historical account of religion.

This is followed by the observation that religion has often been taken over for political purposes. A key question arises here. If religion is as he acknowledges, the cord that holds communities together, how could religion not be political in character, and can we then distinguish in any meaningful way between religion and politics?

The working assumption that I draw from Vardy’s references to religion, seems to be that we all know what religion is, and that it can be treated as a timeless generic category that can be evaluated in its specific manifestations as either ‘good’ or “’bad’.

The problem with such a generic account of religion becomes clear when Vardy refers to the early Christians as having taken a stand against “bad or debased religion”. This really will not do. The early Christians affirmed that they were followers of Jesus whom they affirmed as “Lord”, a term in with both political and the religious connotations and implications. What they took a stand against was not “bad” religion, but the specific political religion of the Roman Empire, because Roman officials sought a commitment to the Emperor that would overrode their primary and basic loyalty to Christ.

I would argue against overall thrust of Vardy’s project to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, that people are not committed to ‘religion’ in general. People are committed to living lives from within specific traditions, traditions that embody differing accounts of the world, and differing accounts of what it is to be human and how one should appropriately live and shape one’s life.

As William Cavanaugh argues in The Myth of Religious Violence, religion has a history … and what counts as a religion and what does not in any given context depends up different configurations of power and authority … the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena, is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern secular state as it developed in the West. In this context religion is constructed as transhistorical, transcultural, essentially interior, and essentially distinct from public secular rationality. (p59)

Vardy’s apologetic is overall an eirenic and thoughtful response to the new atheists. He seems to share with them an account of religion as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon. If we do not accept his account of religion, the task before Christians and members of other faith traditions and communities is to interrogate the history of our own traditions, their specific beliefs and practices, both for their implication in encouraging violence at the individual, family and communal levels, and for their resources for witnessing to, and embodying shalom. This seems to me to be a more promising, though more difficult project than the one that Vardy has undertaken.

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