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Childish religion

By Greg Clarke - posted Monday, 6 October 2008

There is loud chatter today about the immaturity, the childishness, of being religious. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led a phalanx of commentators telling us it is time we put childish ways aside and emerged into the world as post-theological, post-religious grown-ups.

But why is religion considered childish, and is the accusation warranted? Certainly, plenty of childish things are done in the name of this or that God, this or that holy book. But the behaviours of some individuals don’t necessarily condemn the religion itself.

Is it the idea of God that is childish? Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:


There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else ... has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it (p.360).

But there are plenty of intellectuals, even professors on par with or outstripping Dawkins for academic standing who hold that a concept of God is intellectually justifiable, even necessary, to make sense of the world. Think of philosopher Professor Richard Swinburne at Oxford, a practising Christian, or Professor Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project.

Or perhaps we need to move on from Christianity because it is holding society back. Christian heritage aside, is it time to cut loose from any theological moorings we may have had in the past and seek a different future?

Secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas doesn’t think so. A few years back, in an interview that startled his followers, Habermas acknowledged that after 40 years of work in German political philosophy, seeking a democratic culture from the rubble of totalitarianism, he has not been able to conceive of an alternative scheme to what is offered in the Judeo-Christian worldview:

Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.

Habermas claims that modernity is the heir of the conception of justice that emerges from the Law of Moses, and the notion of sacrificial love that Jesus taught and his disciples embraced as a new way of life. In his essay “A Conversation about God and the World” he goes on:


This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.

This extraordinary passage is making at least three significant assertions. First, the values held dear in a globalising world (human rights, liberty of conscience, even modern democracy) spring from Judeo-Christian thinking. Second, Western societies have been adopting and adapting Christian principles all the while; it is how we have achieved what we have achieved. And third, to the amazement of Habermasians, there is no obvious alternative vision for human society. To suggest that there is an alternative to the justice of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament is silly postmodern waffle, says Habermas.

Even if a society wants to “outgrow Christianity” it will struggle to know where to go next.

Ironically, the apostle Paul referred to his acceptance of the Christian way as like entering adulthood: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11). It is a call to see the Christian faith not as immature, but as a grown up understanding of what human society is all about.

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About the Author

Greg Clarke is Chief Executive of Bible Society Australia and Co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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