The media explodes every time a scandal pops up about some well-known religious figure. Whether it's embezzlement or sexual abuse, everyone stops for a moment in stunned silence when someone who was supposed to be a spiritual leader is exposed as a self-serving fraud.
But there is a deep, persistent abuse of religion which rarely receives any attention, which doesn't stop us in our tracks, which goes on every single day. Scandals may turn away some, especially from certain forms of organized religion, but this kind of abuse turns away many from even the simplest form of faith.
I'm talking about people who use religion in a way it was never meant to be used - as escapism, as an excuse to remain ignorant and irresponsible.
I often hear Christians speak as though their faith makes everything automatically all right. I understand where they're coming from - I thought this way too for a long time. The train of thought goes something like this: "Yes, this particular matter is troublesome, even heartbreaking, but I am rising above these negative emotions. This book I've been reading has many biblical passages arranged into a solid argument as to how God is in control of everything and everything is turning out for good. Therefore, this situation is not really bad at all and I only have to keep smiling and see the good in it." I used trains of thought like this to defend myself against the pain of loved ones dying, against the doubt that accompanies knowledge of great evil and suffering in the world, and against the suspicion that my view of "God's chosen" was probably too narrow.
The problem is, when I relied on other peoples' reasoning and out-of-context Bible verses to escape the normal emotions and questions that we as human beings face on a regular basis, I essentially was using Christianity as a shield against the painful process of maturity. No teenager should feel guilty for grieving at the death of her grandmother, yet I did because clearly there were verses in the Bible that said everything works together for good. So why was I sinfully doubting God's goodness? Instead of dealing with life circumstances, I reasoned them away by forcing them into pigeon-holes I had created (or had been created for my) based on faulty religious reasoning.
When I began to study philosophy in college, I began to notice more and more that the nice handy little Christian phrases people like to use are often nothing more than laziness. There is nothing like a good Christian phrase to short-circuit an intellectual discussion. "God has this under control" means "I'm planning to be irresponsible about this." "God said..." means "A lot of good Christian people think this and I don't have the time to go investigate for myself" (used most often in debates about gay marriage).
Please don't hear me wrong. There are many Christians who are mature and responsible people, actively engaging in their lives rather than trying to escape from them. These people usually have come to terms with the fact that not everything is clearcut, that no one person has all the answers (themselves included), and that they must come to terms with their lives for themselves rather than regurgitating arguments someone else wrote in some appropriately spiritual-sounding book. The immature, irresponsible escapist contingent are abusing religion, they are not automatically made immature, irresponsible escapists by being religious.
This is a real world we live in. We just finished celebrating Christmas which is really a celebration of Jesus coming down to this real world and living a real life with all of its ins and outs, all of its scary emotions and grayscale situations. Christianity should not be about some Victorian-era dream of shedding this earth and achieving mystical peace in a land of rose-tinted clouds and baby-like cherubs. It is about here and now. Trying to escape will only stunt my character and in the end shortchange me on life, because this life was meant to be lived, fully and unapologetically, with tears as well as joy. I have to learn to be okay with questions and with tension.
I used to say, "I just can't wait for Jesus to come back." I thought if only he returned to earth tomorrow, all of my problems would disappear and I would be happy forever. But if I don't see Jesus in the day-to-day grind of life, how would I expect to recognize him when he appeared in person?
No-one's ever going to write a headline news article about the abuse of religion by using it as a means of escape, but it's a scandal nonetheless, and its results are poisonous. Escapists frequently wonder why their children "get out into the world" and then stop going to church. It could be because the discovery of real life is incompatible with escapist religion, and thankfully many of my generation have finally figured that out.