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Heretics here and there

Douthat (Carrie Devorah/WENN/Newscom)


Heretics here and there

Authors analyze challenges for American Christianity from within and without

Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) notes rightly that heresy often comes from intensifying one Christian teaching and ignoring those that temper it. For example, we need to keep in mind that we are both made in God's image and fatally corrupted by original sin. Douthat writes that "absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness," with adultery becoming "following your heart" and vanity becoming "self-improvement."

Douthat writes well about contemporary heresies, including the "pray and grow rich" and the "God within" schools. While he seems overly fond of the 1950s, the decade that ended two decades before he was born, he does note that Americans planted then the seeds of today's misemphases: Norman Vincent Peale was an early Oprah Winfrey, Oral Roberts led to Joel Osteen, and W. Cleon Skousen was a proto-Glenn Beck.

(Douthat includes a telling observation from Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens, authors of Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers [1994]: "The mainline churches made few demands on those who flocked into its ranks during the 1950s. In effect, many members acquired only a thin gloss or 'veneer' of religiosity. ... To some of their children, even the weak requirements of church membership seemed too burdensome or too pointless to assume. The church 'boom' of the 1950s was an ephemeral one.")

The tough question now is whether American Christianity has hope for recovery. Douthat shows that some comes from abroad, as Koreans improve Presbyterian churches, Hispanics animate Catholic churches (and also evangelical ones), and American Anglicans put themselves under the authority of African churches. But much needs to come from within, with Christians understanding the biblical tapestry and not just one strand.

Douthat writes well and analyzes thoughtfully what needs to change. One example: "The Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitably seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases-on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrates that should command the most attention from Christian moralists."

Douthat cares about what's true and is critical of much contemporary religious practice. Other writers have emphasized the attacks on Christianity. Michael Coren's Heresy (Signal, 2012) concentrates on 10 sets of lies, including those promulgated in The Da Vinci Code and broader statements like "Christians oppose progress and change."

Jeffrey Russell's Exposing Myths About Christianity (IVP, 2012) is a useful guide to answering 145 viral lies and legends ranging from "The New Testament was composed long after the death of Jesus" to "Hitler was a Christian." (Russell notes Hitler's hostility toward Christ but also mentions that German churches "were dupes of salami tactics, acquiescing in the gradual slicing away of their liberties.")

Those two writers defend truth and expose lies, but Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor and an atheist since his teens, has a different goal: He wants to know what works, so he focuses on the unifying power of faith in his new book, The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012).

Haidt cites research showing that a fear of God may make a society more ethical and harmonious. For example, one study found that people were less likely to cheat if they were first given a puzzle that prompted thoughts of God. Haidt also notes that of 200 communes founded in the 19th century, only 6 percent of the secular communes survived two decades, compared with 39 percent of the religious ones.

Those that survived longest were those that demanded sacrifices of members, like fasting, daily prayer, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or adopting new forms of clothing or hairstyle: "The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship."