“Good and Bad Religion” by Peter Vardy – A summary of his conclusions to aid the discussion at Wymington Meeting Place on February 2nd 2019
In seeking to distinguish between good and bad religion Peter Vardy looks at the issues of “Authority”, “The problem of texts”, and “Science and Religion”, and sees Justice, Equality and Freedom as key to enabling the distinction. This is to enable atheists as well as those who belong to a religion to make the distinction. He seeks to provide a universal standard against which religious practices can be judged through the use of Aristotelian (natural law) philosophy.
Truth is important in religion but needs to be accompanied by humility. A path needs to be steered between fundamentalism and relativism. The point is not to separate one religion from another, but good and bad within each religion.
He draws some broad conclusions which have been abbreviated as follows:
- Bad religion encourages social cohesion rather than individual transformation, authority being used to ensure the former.
- Bad religion resists the rational scrutiny and interpretation of religious imperatives, leading to these imperatives being imposed.
- Bad religion resists scientific discoveries and insights whereas good religion recognises that religion and science are both seeking truth.
- Good religion practices justice and challenges fellow members of the same religion (within religious institutions, families, countries, internationally) who fail to practice justice.
- Good religion fosters human flourishing, affirming freedom to make choices, using this freedom to reach their full potential, while fostering the virtues.
- Good religion respects human freedom, rejecting coercion and indoctrination. It respects autonomy and has the humility to allow perspectives other than its own. It allows conversion to another point of view, whether religious or otherwise.
Peter Vardy refines these broad conclusions which are again abbreviated.
- Good religion aims to develop positive habits or virtues whereas bad religion encourages habit in terms of obedience.
- Belonging and unity are not the final word, good religion being about changing people and society for the better. In bad religion authority is maintained for its own sake, rather than the pursuit of truth. Where institutional religion is given priority over justice bad religion results.
- Bad religion is often text-based and may result from an illegitimate use of a text, lacking humility about the way the text is read. Good religion is open to discussion about the way a text is read.
- Good religion encourages scholars to study and debate the meaning of texts. It also encourages good religious education in schools and places of worship, with study, discussion and debate, bad religion reducing the study of texts to rote learning.
- One of the most fundamental ways of distinguishing good religion from bad is the exercise of a degree of humility in making claims, recognising the possibility of error. Sincerity in bad religion doesn’t excuse its badness.
- Good religion is aware of the competing claims of fundamentalism and relativism, aiming to stand between crude literalism and authoritarian oppression on the one hand and the denial of truth, meaning and values that go with relativism.
- There is a legitimate plurality within religions. Where subgroups retreat into their own certainties condemning other positions as deviant and mistaken, bad religion is the result. Instead there should be attempts to build bridges.
- Good religion complements science, bad religion goes against it. Good religion provides insights into the human condition not available elsewhere, and sees the universe as full of meaning and purpose.
- Religion and science do not need to diminish the importance of each other. Religion points to an unseen world and reality which is enhanced by science.
- Good religions stand together in affirming the centrality of justice, truth and goodness.
- Good religion is willing to engage in discussion about the nature of justice and how it should be administered, seeking to bring justice to all people.
- Bad religion tends to tolerate and foster the status quo, whereas good religion challenges accepted practice in the name of justice, and calls society to move beyond existing conventions. Religious commands can call people to act outside cultural norms but should not run against a general consensus internationally of what counts as admirable moral behaviour, grounded in a common understanding of what it means to live a fulfilled human life.
- The moral authority of religion is in standing for justice and truth even when inconvenient and inexpedient rather than in attitudes to disputed issues like sexual morality or stem-cell research.
- Good religion respects the essential value of human life, regardless of the beliefs of individuals, and can’t support “holy war” against non-believers without unequivocal provocation.
- Good religion is political in standing for the search for truth, justice and equality, engaging in public debates on this basis, but should resist being dragged into political disputes or used by political force.
- Good religion is open to anybody who is interested, offering fair access to the truth and salvation, though there may be exceptions to this, subject to discussion.
- All human beings have broadly equal potential to flourish but are not all the same. It is inappropriate to stand in the way of people reaching their full potential. But people find fulfilment in different ways and there can be legitimate differences of understanding between cultures on key roles.
- Women should be able to reach their full potential as human beings, with rights to life and liberty, including equal access to basic education, and the ability to determine the course of their own lives.
- Good religion is open to development and change acknowledging the possibility of having made mistakes which need rectifying if possible.
- The agents as well as the actions should be considered in ethics, prohibitions being subject to reason and discussion rather than blanket bans, appeal to texts out of context or arguing “it’s always been like this”.
- It is not possible to say that a religion is good or bad depending on its attitude to particular ethical issues, such as abortion, the agreed criteria being insufficient. It is more a matter of how it engages in ethical debate, in a spirit of openness, compassion and respect for people wrestling with ethical decisions in real-life situations.
- To be accountable for their actions, individuals must have freedom and responsibility. Bad religion teaches that people are not free and seeks to restrict individual freedoms, thus restricting individual responsibility. If it claims to be protecting people from sin, it may also be standing in the way of possible reward and/or salvation.
- Good religion is open to alternative viewpoints, countenancing difference while secure in its own position. It is not frightened but confident that truth will triumph, and that exposing people to different ideas will not corrupt them. It will support rigorous and balanced religious education and general education for all.
- Bad religion is often strident, assertive and will not accept difference, lacking humility and willingness to listen. It is keen on maintaining orthodoxy, fears freedom, is nervous of science, seeing science as beyond religion’s control and understanding.
- Inculcating faith in young people and helping older people to understand their faith more deeply must be combined with open-mindedness to alternative perspectives and a deep respect for the freedom and autonomy of individuals.
- Bad religion forgets that religion is a human response to a mystery that is never more than partially understood. Good religion recognises it is a living tradition open to the possibility of change and development. It is a journey towards God (the divine), grounded in the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Its practices are tools and food for the journey; they are not ends in themselves.
Peter Vardy makes clear these are starting points for discussion, rather than exhaustive or conclusive.
Rodney Ward, 8th January 2019