What the hell is religion good for?

I’ve been drafting this on and off for a while, ever since I came across a post online that said: “Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell when they die”, and then compared it unfavourably with “spirituality” – a term which I feel people use in so many different ways that I can’t even begin to engage with statements about it.

Religion is also a term I struggle with, people use it in different ways and by some definitions I count as a religious person and by others I don’t. But I think that in the context of that post, I would count as religious. And yes, I’m relying on my faith in Jesus as my passport to heaven, but is this what I’m in it for? Is this what attracted me about this faith? No, not really.

And there are religious people for whom this isn’t even an issue. Some religious people don’t even believe in heaven and hell.

There are tons of different reasons why people follow a certain religion. Sometimes it’s a question of cultural identity, of sticking to whatever tradition it was you were born into because you value it as part of your belonging to your nation/ethnic group/tribe/family/whatever. Or because you feel a sense of loyalty to your tribe/family/whatever and it’s important to you to follow their customs. It can be about respect for your parents or your ancestors. It can be about preserving your identity as part of a minority group, not wanting to see that disappear.

It can be about spiritual experiences – about how you feel when you take part in certain rituals, or how you feel when you pray.

It can be about wanting to give thanks to whoever you believe is behind the good things you’ve had, and wanting to ask them for help when things aren’t going so well for you. (Isn’t that what people did when they made statues of the sun god and the rain god etc, prayed to them and brought them gifts? Giving thanks, asking for help, attempting to placate the gods in stormy times?)

It can be about a sense of belonging – even if it isn’t about belonging to whatever it is you were born into, even if it’s something you discovered later and embraced for yourself. We humans are social creatures, we need to feel we belong.

It can (sadly) be about a feeling of self-righteousness – looking smugly at “the heathen out there” and relishing the feeling that you are a better person because you attend religious services regularly/give to charity/know the prayers off by heart/etc. (I remember a colleague at work years ago, hearing that I go to church and saying: oh, you’re so good! which is nonsense – I go to church because I’m not so good, and I need God to help me.)

I’m sure there are other reasons, some that I don’t even know about. And yes, I’m sure there are people who are in it for the not-going-to-hell part, and why not – hell isn’t a nice place. It’s just that this really isn’t the one and only reason, there are plenty of other factors that go into people’s choice to embrace a particular faith or religion.

The culture I grew up in was secular Jewish culture. Yes, there is such a thing. In Israel it’s the dominant culture – the vast majority of the population are secular Jews. Some are atheists, some are just agnostic, some I’d say are people who sort of vaguely believe that God exists but they’re not all that keen on keeping his commandments very strictly. At school we learned the Bible, but not as something to be taken seriously, just as a book that is part of our national heritage so we should know it. We learned about the Jewish festivals, and celebrated them at school – not out of a belief that it’s important to keep the festivals God commanded us, but simply as part of connecting with our heritage and keeping the traditions going. At home my mother kept some of the customs, but we didn’t go to synagogue and I wasn’t taught to pray. My father was an atheist, and so is my brother. Most of my friends were pretty anti-religion, but the only type of religion we were at all familiar with was Orthodox Judaism, so when we talked against religion we were really talking against that. And when I rebelled against religion, that was what I rebelled against. And that religion wasn’t about avoiding hell, it was about keeping traditions which had been passed down the generations, about respecting these traditions, about respect and awe of God who had brought us out of Egypt and made a covenant with us so we would be his people and he would be our God – when you’re born Jewish, the religion side of things is part of your corporate identity, it’s not an individual choice and it’s not (at least not mainly) about your own personal salvation. The individual choice is how far you go with it, how strictly you will observe the religious customs or how strongly you will rebel against them.

I did a fair bit of rebelling against them in my teens and twenties.

Then I met Jesus, and my life started changing. What was it that got a secular, agnostic, pretty anti-religion young woman to suddenly show an interest in God? the promise of heaven, or the threat of hell? no, not really. It was first of all my experience of meeting him – that’s what got me hooked in the first place. I felt something, I couldn’t really define it or describe it, I just felt drawn to keep going back to the place where I got that feeling.

You see, in my case it was more of a love story than a question of worrying about what happens when I die. I don’t remember ever worrying about that. I met Jesus when I was 27, it’s not an age to think about dying, it’s an age when you’re concerned with the here and now and with the future – future in the sense of what the rest of your life is going to be like, not in the sense of the afterlife.

Yes, later on I discovered what he died for – to take on my punishment so that I won’t have to go to hell when I die (for which I am extremely grateful). But he came to do much more than that, he said he has come so that we should have life in all its fullness, he said he came to bind up the broken-hearted, release the captives, he said: come to me, you who are heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. He is so much more than the Saviour of the World – he’s a healer, a miracle worker, a friend of sinners… I could go on… you see, I get kind of excited when I start talking about him, because I love him so much. And I love him not just because he did this awesome thing and chose to die for me – that was something I only understood a lot later. What were the things I found out about him first? Kindness. Truth. Mercy. Forgiveness. Love – love for me, personally, just as I was, and believe me, I was a pretty messed-up individual at that stage.

That’s what got me into this. But each person has their own journey. Some are drawn in through healing, through being set free from bondage, through Jesus intervening in their lives in a tangible way and they spend the rest of their lives in joyful gratitude – I’ve met some who have come through that door, I’ve met people in church who had been addicted to drugs, people who had been slaves to alcohol, people who met God when they were in prison, people who have had miraculous healings of their physical conditions.

I’ve also met people who came through the door of debate. I knew someone who had been a staunch atheist, who went along to an Alpha course just to debate with those Christians and prove them wrong, and ended up totally convinced that what they were saying was true.

Of course, the personal stories I know are of people who came to faith in Jesus. I can’t tell you much about what draws people to other faiths, you’d have to find people of other faiths and ask them if you want to know. This isn’t an attempt to present a comprehensive essay on the subject – just to say: no, religion isn’t just for people who don’t want to go to hell when they die, there’s a lot more to religion than that one aspect.

Though I fail to see what’s so bad about wanting to avoid going to hell. It seems utterly sensible to me. One of the most basic human instincts is to avoid pain and suffering. Why the hell not? (sorry, sometimes I can’t resist a good pun.)

So, having said all that, why do I struggle with the term “religion”? Because it is used in different ways, some of which I can relate to and some of which I want to distance myself from. Because people do sometimes (often?) use “religion” to mean a set of rules and rituals meant to make you ok with God, a kind of package deal presented with a label saying: do all this and you’ll be fine.

In that sense, I am not religious. I believe I’ll be fine not because of anything I do, but because of what God has done for me. He sent his son to die so that I – despite all the stuff I’ve done – will not get the punishment I deserve. Jesus paid for all my sins, and the result is (1) that when I die I won’t go to hell; and (2) that right now I can enjoy a loving relationship with God. The stuff that I do which people might file under “religion” – like going to church, praying, reading the Bible – is stuff that I do not in order to be ok with God, but out of gratitude and love and a desire to get to know him better and to please him because I love him. There’s nothing I have to do to earn his love or his forgiveness. In fact, there’s nothing I can do to earn these things. That’s my problem with some senses of the term “religion” – that people are sold a deal which I don’t believe God authorised and therefore they’re just following a set of rules and regulations that will get them nowhere in terms of eternity – sure, some of it may make them feel better now, but then, so does marijuana, from what I remember. Or chocolate.

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