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If a Religion Must Lie, It Must Die

Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, wrote a very moving and, to me, troubling essay in USA TODAY. The basic idea is that too much truth when it comes to religion is a bad thing.

At issue is Rod’s journalistic examination of the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church. It drove him out of Catholicism and into Eastern Orthodoxy. After I left Rome, Rod writes, I made a deliberate decision not to investigate scandal in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), my new communion. To his credit Rod says the decision bothered him, but he needed a safe haven and would have one even at the cost of truth.

This is what I found so troubling. If the only way I can remain loyal to a community is by turning a blind eye to evil and falsehood, then I cannot help but question my need for that community.

I assume that power corrupts, and absolute religious power corrupts not only absolutely but existentially. So I steer clear of any religious institution that demands such power for itself. I want a religion that frees me from slavery, not one that enslaves me. If the institution is corrupt, it is also corrupting, so why would I want to belong to it? Why would I endanger my family by belonging to it?

Rod argues that while it might seem a good thing that the Catholic sex scandal was brought to light, it’s not such a clear-cut issue. He fears that by shining light on religion we lose the magic. Just so! Magic isn’t real. When a magician tries to con you into believing what he is doing isn’t simply entertainment but revelation demanding absolute loyalty, it is vital that light be shined on the scam.

But not all religions are like this. True, as Rod says, no institution is perfect nor should we expect it to be, but the more transparent an institution is the less damage it can do. And I am not limiting my concern to religious institutions as Rod does in his fine essay. I think all religious teachings can benefit from daylight: historical and scholarly exploration. If religion is sleight-of-hand and only viable in the half-light of half-truths, then I want nothing to do with it.

Rod asks a very important question: How much reality must we choose to ignore for the greater good of our own souls, and society? My answer is simple: none. If my religion cannot stand up to reality, who needs it? If my faith doesn’t help me engage reality but rather demands that I ignore reality, who needs it? A religion that ignores reality is just escapist fantasy, no different than watching television or reading a good novel. And, as many atheists will insist, that is what religion is. But I think there are exceptions.

While I do not believe it is possible to package the truth, I do believe it is possible to point us toward it. That is what religion should do, both theologically and institutionally. If a religion has to lie in order to survive, it is time for that religion to die.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He blogs at Toto.