Dear Fellow Christian,
In democracy, there is an imperative — at least for the news media — to treat all religions as equal. The spin-off is that for cynical atheists in the media, this means: all religions are equally useless. Their bias is towards making or keeping this as the status quo! To such media commentators, it is galling that a Christian would “arrogantly” critique another religion; they cannot stand for such criticism as it allows a case to be built that one religion is better than another. Heck, their modus operandi seeks to nullify all evidence that religion offers any value at all! It is a knee-jerk reaction to cut such tall poppies down, but it is based on an ethos of democratic religion-equality. This is a discursive inertia which is worth keeping in mind, as it allows you to pick your battles deftly.
For me, here’s where the battle is at right now for us as Christians: putting forward the case that not all religions are in fact equal. I think that the more you look into religions — rigorously critique them — the harder religion-equality is to maintain. When you’re out at sea, looking into the vast distance, they’re all just islands, but once you go up close, you see Tasmania is significantly different to Taiwain; pull out the binoculars and the microscope, and you see how different the climate, the animals and the soil are … and then of course there’s the fruits. Democracy allows us argue this case, but the media is evidently geared to resist it, wanting to maintain the appearance of giving all religions a fair go.
So there’s a resistance within the media to qualitatively discriminate between religions; this resistance is certainly rife on social media too, where so many of us peddle our religiously influenced ideas (i.e. share the gospel and its ramifications). Let’s take the example of a cynical atheist friend who is quick to point out how Christianity both historically and contemporarily has and causes as many problems as other religions. This is another manifestation of “religion-equalising” inertia. I think that such a person probably needs to be convinced to show some interest in religion – of any sort – before he or she will hear a critique of a competing religion’s precepts, let alone acknowledge that one religion may have something special to it — which we as Christians are so confident of. I’m pointing to a largely unnoticed structural reality in these political debates: it’s typically not Christianity which is being opposed; rather it’s religion in general. And therefore the fight is not to defend Christianity, but to get folks interested enough to look at religious ideas. Folks who have rejected religion are simply not inclined to let any one religion claim a moral high ground: religion itself is the corruption according to their paradigm. If you allow one to claim superiority, then you have to start thinking and critiquing — i.e. doing “Bible study” — and most importantly validating elements of religion, which is the primary no-go zone for the cynic.
There are a number of additional tactics worth using in order to make apparent the crucial differences between religions. For example, the commonalities need to be acknowledged. We have to resist the temptation to hide the similarities. There is an understandable fear in doing this because we risk being associated unfairly. Some folks too quickly see the superficial similarities and jump to the conclusion that all religions are equal. But so long as the conversation is kept alive, the crucial differences do emerge. And it’s worth the effort. You need to inventively cultivate your case, and keep presenting it; allow rebuttals and then keep working the discourse; concede when good counter-arguments are presented; turn the other cheek sometimes, even give up your life in sacrificial love: all great evidence to support your case.
If you are the defensive type, then you often find yourself incensed by the prejudice and targeted commentary which is so common (e.g. snarky Facebook memes). What I’m saying here may help you take a step back and then two steps forward in a very satisfying way. As it is, our words often amount to wasted breath because our detractors have walls of defensiveness and jadedness; they tune out from the start. The way to crumble those barriers is to change tactics: instead of skirmishing, retreat and start rebuilding your fortress on the foundation that not all religions are the same. You are baiting the enemy to look for themselves and see that Christianity in fact sometimes says the exact opposite of other religions, and it’s good news.
Although the cynicism — often via the media, and from authorities — can enrage me and indeed cause real-life damage to me and my community, I feel that I can empathize with my attackers. I can see how they’re operating out of a democratic ethic (albeit sometimes with dark prejudice, but again I understand the way toxic religious encounters are largely triggers for these). Empathy and an understanding of the democratic logic both hone my emotions and nourish a fresh paradigm. I sense this paradigm’s potential is huge because it may allow us to regain a legitimate chance to speak and be heard, and moreover begin to speak with authority on not just religion, but also the “hot-button” political topics which are causing our communities to wither.
(P.S. Do you notice the “us/them” dichotomy within this article? From my perspective, the way I use this terminology actually erases the barrier in real life. Peace.)
Yours in Christ,