Bad Religion, 5.

This is the next installment in a review of Peter Vardy’s book Good and Bad Religion (London: SCM, 2010).

Having decided that “good” religion leads to human flourishing via the Aristotelian virtues, Vardy goes on to identify three ways in which “bad” religion limits the same.

The first culprit is authority, which can lead to abuses of power within religion. Because religion “has often been a belonging system rather than a system of individual transformation” (p.74), authority is needed to enforce the boundary between “us” and “them.” The bywords here are exclusion and control and find historical expression in the Inquisition and other nasties. Of course, without authority, religions fragment and collapse (note the difficulty of an authority-less Archbishop of Canterbury in holding the Anglican communion together), and so Vardy is left struggling to find a way to describe “good” authority beyond a description of its opposite: authority “that is used to justify lack of independent thought and critical engagement, as well as to encourage a habit of compliance and unquestioning obedience, is often a mark of bad religion and needs to be challenged” (p.87). (Cf. D&C 121.)

Bad religion is characterised by fundamentalist readings of sacred texts. This is a problem for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, many of whom read their scriptures as always expressing literal truth. Vardy extols the Amman Message of Islamic scholars which ruled, among other things, that:

  1. All eight legal schools of Islam are valid interpretations of Islam.
  2. Takfir (apostasy) declarations are thus invalid.

This is not an abandonment of the different Islamic identities: “Each group within Islam still maintains its own distinctiveness, each group still puts forward its own interpretation of the Qur’an and has its own view of history…, but each group also recognizes that other groups are also faithful Muslims and commits itself to refraining from condemnation” (p.102). Good religion humbly accepts that we see through a glass, darkly. All of us, not just the apostates.

Finally, Vardy, like his hero Ibn Rushd, believes that science and philosophy are not the enemies of truth, but further tools for its acquisition: “Bad religion fears science…doubt and questioning are condemned and faith is made to require the subservience of reason” (p.117).

Next and finally, the three goals of good religion: justice, equality, and freedom.






  1. Ronan, when Vardy refers to fundamentalist readings is he decrying them all. Surely some of the ‘eight legal schools of Islam’ are more fundamentalist in their reading than others? So I am unsure whether he is expresses dissatisfaction with readings which are unitary (i.e. of one particular type – ‘expressing literal truth’) or readings that are fundamentalist regardless of whether they form one part of a group of possible hermeneutics.

  2. He has little time for readings which bolster the need of authority. In other words, there’s a bad symbiosis between authority and scripture. How do I know my reading is correct? Because authority figure X told me so.

    A fundamentalist belief in the virgin birth is OK, as long as you don’t shun those who don’t believe it but still want to be Christians.

    Says Vardy.

  3. I like Marcus Borg’s description of scriptures being a lens through which we can see God–and that a historical-metaphorical way of reading is generally more helpful than insistance on a literal reading.

  4. this has been a great discussion — I look forward to the next instalments.

  5. I am looking forward to the segment on the goals of good religion. Thanks for this series of posts.

  6. This has been a great series!

    “science and philosophy are not the enemies of truth, but further tools for its acquisition”

    Yes, I think that is exactly right. That’s what an open canon means to me.