Infantile Religion

Is religious faith something modern societies grow out of?

There is loud chatter today about the immaturity of being religious. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, writes with confidence of the adult age beyond religion. ‘There is something infantile,’ Dawkins states, ‘in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… [or the view that] somebody else must be responsible for my well being and somebody else must be to blame if I am hurt.’ Religion, says Dawkins, is a thing of childhood and through moral and philosophical education an individual will be able to emerge as an adult who has no need for reference to God.

Dawkins finds vocal support from the likes of French philosopher Michel Onfray and writer Christopher Hitchens who’s popular 2007 book, God is Not Great ranted against religious belief. Hitchens quotes the apostle Paul, the zealot-turned-Christian:

  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.  

Hitchens argues that it is time to abandon childish religious faith and grow into something more mature and sophisticated and less damaging to our intellect and character.

Of course Paul, quoted by Hitchens, does not see the world in quite the same way. He seemed to have little trouble believing that religious beliefs might not only fulfil a human need, but also be true; or that there could exist an adult version of religious thinking that fulfilled human needs, but did not jettison reason and self-understanding in the process. Rather, Paul wrote against the small-mindedness of human beings who seek either to capture God in a set of human rituals, or through apathy or arrogance, to dismiss God without investigation. Paul’s adult heart and mind were enthralled that Jesus came to lead human beings away from empty religiosity towards true spirituality.

Paul’s words warn Christians and non-Christians alike to have deep, considered attitudes towards spiritual matters – neither to pigeon-hole, nor to thoughtlessly dismiss God.

Christians need to have a mature type of Christian expression that is intelligent, informed and self-reflexive. That is not to say they should develop a religion that changes its teaching simply to reflect the etiquette of the age – that would be pointless – but a religion that can revisit its way of speaking, say sorry when it needs to and try again to express its ancient beliefs about God in a way that is attractive and makes sense.

The atheist should also guard against being blinded by his or her own religiously held views that might lead them to reach immature and erroneous conclusions on spiritual issues. Believer or non-believer should recognise that Jesus is less interested in human constructions of religion, and more in the human heart – in faith, hope and love, the three things that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, ‘remain’ in this world of shadow and imperfections. It is open to all to ‘grow up’ into this reasonable faith, this life-giving hope and neighbourly love, taking seriously the words and deeds of Jesus as the true communication of God to the needy human heart.

Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

Kate Wilcox is a CPX Intern.