This is the final installment in a review of Peter Vardy’s book Good and Bad Religion (London: SCM, 2010).
Vardy would have us ignore truth claims in our appraisal of religion, fraught as they are with epistemological headaches and what not. Do not judge Scientology on the credibility of Xenu but by the behaviours and ideologies which Scientology promotes.
But judge by what standard? Vardy uses Aristotle’s “human flourishing” as his touchstone and believes that certain hallmarks of religion — stifling authority, fundamentalist readings of scripture, and anti-science rhetoric — are evidence sine quibus non of bad religion.
And so to the attributes of good religion.
Good religion promotes justice. Abraham’s appeal to God to spare Sodom if righteous people could be found was an appeal to justice and made Abraham “good.” (Should he also have lamented God’s injustice when it came to killing his son?)
But how to answer those who claim that notions of justice are purely relativistic? Vardy offers a useful way of demonstrating to such people that justice is universally understood: “act unjustly towards them and wait to see how long it takes them to complain of injustice” (p.126) Aristotle defined justice as “reason free from passion.” Just wars cannot therefore be characterised by passions such revenge or hate or greed.
Good religion promotes equality; “bad religion tends to tolerate and foster the status quo, whereas good religion challenges accepted practice in the name of justice and calls society forward beyond existing conventions” (p.143). If it was good to oppose apartheid; if it was good to challenge discrimination against the disabled; then what of the equality of women and homosexuals?
Here, Vardy wades into some of the great religious wrangles of our time but first, there are easy admonitions: “Both believers and non-believers are human beings, so treatment of non-believers is a test of a religion’s basic attitude to human life” (p.136). So much for crusades or jihads against the infidels. But it is more tricky than this: if “[i]dentifying religion with race or nationality” (p. 140) is bad (cf. Catholic/Protestant Northern Ireland), and if “[g]ood religion is usually open to anybody who is interested” (p. 140), what do we make of Judaism or Zoroastrianism? Having spent a lot of time criticising some of the bad habits of Christianity, some readers will perhaps be happy to see Vardy place his sights on other religions, even if solutions to problems such as Hindu caste are not easily found.
It would be easy to dismiss Vardy as too modern, too liberal. But note that his concern is for “human flourishing” and he is willing to admit that when concern for equality leads to a concern to “have it all,” “women’s interests as mothers and, even more, the interests of their children, are not well-served” (p.147). These are the prerequisites of women’s equality, according to Vardy:
- They should have access to basic education.
- They should be able to determine the course of their own lives.
- The leadership roles of women in religion should be open for debate and not silenced by either authority or fundamentalism.
On homosexuality Vardy’s instinct seems to be for equal rights but he allows that even if religions hold that homosexual behaviour is sinful, they should not force those views on others. For example, a “devout Catholic may, permissibly, condemn homosexual behaviour and refuse to practice such behaviour himself, but must be willing to acknowledge that other [legitimately] Christian denominations do not share this conviction” (p.152).
If all of this seems a little tepid, it’s because Vardy isn’t quite able to balance the right of religions to prescribe sin against the need for agape-love and tolerance. But who is? (His discussion of abortion is similar.) What Vardy is able to offer is a sensible baseline of goodness: if you are open to an honest examination of your view, you are on your way to good religion.
Finally, good religion promotes freedom. In Vardy’s scheme, doctrines of predestination are out as is the Islamic claim that everything happens by the will of Allah. For humans to be responsible for their actions they must be free to choose them (vampires too, cf. Edward Cullen’s refusal to accept his bloodsucking fate, p. 161-2). Vardy also turns his attention to religious education, noting the tension between these two positions:
- Educating the young into the religious tradition of their parents is acceptable.
- Indoctrination is not.
In a British educational context, faith schools are good if they are also teach religions other than their own and allow children the freedom to “question accepted orthodoxy without fear of criticism” (p.164). Religious Education at Anglican schools passes this test; the majority of Islamic madrassas do not.
Vardy’s is an important book because it addresses an issue that both the pop- atheists and most believers tend to ignore. All agree that religion can be bad (with Dawkins et al. arguing that religion is inherently bad), but how exactly? It is easy to condemn al-Qaeda, but harder to admit that some of the seeds of extremism may exist in our own traditions. Vardy offers certain rules for judging between the good and bad. Some will be disputed and tend to be hard to distinguish from secular humanism, but let the conversation between believers continue because we do in fact want our religions to be good. Don’t we?