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My friend, a person of faith and a good citizen, has given countless hours of selfless service to his community – so it really surprised me when atheists charged him with using religion as a crutch.
You’ve probably heard that comparison before. Sigmund Freud said it, as have several others.
But considering the work a person of faith exerts to be of service and helpful to all, charging that such a person necessarily lacks inner strength and therefore needs a psychological crutch didn’t seem sensible to me. The more I focused on the crutch metaphor, the less sense it seemed to make. So, I decided to ask members of an atheist Facebook group for their thoughts.
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My Online Interaction with Atheists
I joined this atheist group six years ago when its founder entered a Baha’i Facebook discussion group saying he wanted to invite people with a religion to join his group and ask questions of atheists as a way of creating understanding.
Over the years I’ve read and occasionally participated in their discussions, and learned the group’s ideology and dynamics. Most of the members had left their parents’ churches and now carry some degree of resentment for religion. That I’d been an avowed atheist for a few years before I became a Baha’i gained me some credibility with them – as an idealistic teen, I’d quit my parents’ church because I thought many of its members were hypocrites, and considered myself an atheist until two years later, when I felt the spirit of the Baha’i Faith and converted. In sum, I’d been on both sides.
When I asked the question, “what does it mean to say religion is a crutch?,” 27 people responded.
I periodically thanked individuals for their input while prompting them for clarification. For example, I asked someone what he thought it meant to be “religious” because people often use that term to mean those who only follow rites and rituals.
I said I would define “religious” as someone who works hard every day to better their inner self and their community. He said this didn’t agree with any dictionary definitions, to which I responded with a virtual thumbs up. I interacted with another atheist who said people with conflicting spiritual claims, however well-intentioned, can’t both be correct. I countered with, “Why not? Reality is huge and no one understands all of it.” Although atheists think of their non-belief as formless, it does provide a framework for thought and might even be construed as a belief system.
The Baha’i teachings say “… no matter to what religion a man belongs, even though he be an atheist or materialist, nevertheless, God nurtures him, bestows His kindness and sheds upon him His light.”
When responses to my question about religion as a crutch started to become repetitious, I looked over the responses, compiled the data, and sorted it into three main themes:
1) Religion is an excuse for not thinking critically, controlling others, inaction, bad choices. Most responses were in this category
2) Branding something as “part of God’s plan” explains things away
3) The “let go and let God” approach enables people to dodge personal responsibility or absolves them of culpability.
After pondering all this, I thanked everyone again and told them that, based on their responses, it now occurred to me that anyone – including atheists – can use similar excuses for doing or not doing anything.
Character Flaw or Cosmology?
That is, it could also be a crutch to say, “We’re all going to die anyway so what difference does it make.” I said, what it boils down to is that mature individuals, whether religious or not, take responsibility for their choices and actions. In other words, I said I thought the “crutch” metaphor applied to a character flaw, not someone’s cosmology.
The only responses to this were “Good point” and a GIF of a Muppet character shrugging its shoulders.
I once had a conversation with a woman who’d recently arrived in the United States from China. She said she didn’t believe in God. I asked how she defined God. She admitted that this was something she hadn’t considered. Next time I saw her I learned she’d decided to become a Baha’i.
Another time I had a conversation with a woman I worked with on a committee. She said she was neither religious nor spiritual. I was surprised and pointed out all the sacrificial service work she did, all the injustices she worked to remedy in her social action work, and that she reflected so many of God’s attributes like compassion, kindness and fair-mindedness, and I suggested that her actions actually defined spirituality. She said that made sense, and that she’d never thought of it like that.
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The Baha’i teachings point this out. Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of the Baha’i Faith’s founder Baha’u’llah, defined all actions meant to establish love and fellowship as “beloved and sanctioned” by God:
… inasmuch as God is the one heavenly Shepherd and all mankind are the sheep of His fold, the religion or guidance of God must be the means of love and fellowship in the world. If religion proves to be the source of hatred, enmity and contention, if it becomes the cause of warfare and strife and influences men to kill each other, its absence is preferable. For that which is productive of hatred amongst the people is rejected by God, and that which establishes fellowship is beloved and sanctioned by Him. Religion and divine teachings are like unto a remedy.
My point in sharing these examples is to emphasize the importance of asking people to explain their ideas, and carefully and compassionately listening to what they say, especially before assuming anything. Much time can be lost by speaking at cross purposes, which tends to frustrate both sides and obscure the truth. We’re all on a path toward that truth, and we can help each other along.
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