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'Old-time religion' is not good enough for us all in this day and age

By John Williams - posted Friday, 23 January 2004

As a matter of historical fact, what is commonly called "the old time religion" is not really old at all. It began in the late 18th century and became a widespread phenomenon by about the middle of the 19th century, albeit only in English-speaking nations.

By the end of the 19th century the adherents of the new revivalist gospel - people who typically knew little or nothing of church history - claimed that their religion was the original and only authentic understanding of Christianity.

So they called it, "the old-time religion". In one of their hymns they sang that this "old-time religion" was "good enough for Moses", even though Moses lived some 1200 years before Jesus and sang also that it was "good enough for Joshua", even though Joshua was a primitive Hebrew general who ordered the massacre of every man, woman and child in the city of Jericho. The content of the so-called "old time religion" is simple. Its basic presumption is the insignificance of human beings' present, earthly existence and preoccupation with a future existence.


But one cannot deny that this "old time religion" concerned and concerns itself with some matters other than escaping the fires of hell. It has converted many a drunkard to sobriety. It has sometimes made people kinder in their daily lives. It's social influence has, here and there, been good.

So is there any harm to it? I believe there is. A religion must be judged by thinking and informed people, not by what it, in the absence of available alternatives, might have done, but by what it does today.

First, the "old-time religion" is in conflict with the little we human beings can claim, after millennia of experience and experiment and thought, to know about the cosmos of which we are a part and about the processes that brought us to birth.

To teach a child to accept as true what are but fantasies and to further teach that child that questioning any one of those fantasies is a sin, is to perpetrate an evil.

From its beginnings, the assertions of the "old-time religion" were based on ignorance, even ignorance as to the nature and selection of the library of diverse books we call the Bible.

A religion that requires men and women - and boys and girls for that matter - to treat improbable conjectures as established, sure and certain truths, is destructive.


An evangelist who preaches the "old-time religion" is asking hearers to stake the living of their lives upon beliefs for which there is no evidence whatsoever and that fly against humankind's painfully acquired knowledge of the world and of themselves. That is not simply, as we today are taught to say, a "big ask" but an outrageous ask.

The problem is not merely intellectual. The conscience is involved. Personal integrity requires that truth be believed and the false be rejected. The attainment of truth is possible and truth matters. An all-but-forgotten, late 19th century liberal Christian theologian, John Oman, had it right. Wrote he: "There is no graver moral peril than an attempt to manipulate truth, and the peril is in no way lessened because the task is piously performed."

A second problem, related to the first. The "old time religion" has it that questioning, that doubt, is itself a sin. But doubt, as Galileo asserted, is the parent of discovery.

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This article is an edited extract of an address to St Michael's Church in Collins Street on 18 January, 2004 as published in The Age.

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About the Author

Dr John K. Williams is a retired Uniting Church minister.

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