How Religion Fails Us When We Thank God Instead of Each Other

Anne Radcliffe
Written by Anne Radcliffe

Stop me right now if you’ve never seen anything like this on social media:

I was having the WORST day today! Everything was going wrong. And then when I was picking up my coffee in the drive through, I found out that the person ahead of me paid for my coffee! Thank you for showing me you still look out for me, Lord! <occasionally insert Bible quote of choice>”

I grew up in the Bible belt; an area where in many cases the bedrock of civilization is considered to be the “Good Christian.” The reality is that what you profess to believe in is actually more important than your actions. People will make all the determinations of your character based on your presence in a pew and a cross around your neck.

The leader of our student council in high school was a girl who kept terrorizing my friend (Jewish), telling her that she was going to burn, screaming, in the fires of hell (she was Baptist, by the way) because she didn’t accept that Jesus was the son of God. This Baptist’s family was considered an upstanding pillar in our community.

I remember watching a local man’s political career go down in flames when he ran for Mayor, as the opposition mounted a smear campaign based on the man’s faith alone—or possible lack of it, since he never brought up whether he believed in God. The Catholic man in our town who was arrested for molesting two small girls was forgiven as one of the faithful, since he merely lost his way. He was absolved of his guilt by a priest. His sins—forgotten. He’ll be able to still go to Heaven.

Are they good Christians and Catholics? You might not think so. Or maybe you do. And that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it?

What does it really mean to be good? To be a good human being?

Despite my upbringing, steeped in this culture, these are the questions in the end that I realized that it wasn’t any church’s responsibility to answer. They belonged to me, and me alone. My official break with any organized faith happened by slow stages, as I got older, as I moved, as the great crimes against humanity in the name of gods around the world seemed ever more unforgivable.

I realized that no matter what you might believe in as the reigning supreme being—be it God, Zeus, the Illuminati or the Flying Spaghetti Monster—religion has done humanity one incredible disservice: people now assume a faith is the only blueprint of morality.

But regardless of the invisible entity, when we see ourselves as puppets of a greater force, we start pawning off responsibility for our actions, and the actions of others. And the result is, we get everything from “the devil made me do it!” to “God forced some stranger to buy me a cup of coffee to show me that he loves me.”

It reads kind of silly when I phrase it this way, doesn’t it?

Good is something that we must define and choose—every single one of us. It cannot be dictated to us, fully-formed, in a book. You can be neither a Christian or an Atheist without believing that we possess free will. After all, man’s fall from grace and expulsion from the garden of Eden is a direct result of the expression of it.

Thanking God is an easy expression to take up and a hard one to break; I know this from experience. But when we automatically thank God instead of our fellow man, we do not honour one another as humans. It belittles the efforts of doctors and nurses who put in countless hours in training and service to perform what you’ve labelled as a miracle from God. It hinders our ability to co-exist and seek peaceful resolutions between ourselves. It taints the pursuit of knowledge. It trivializes our system of law, and it marginalizes our role in determining the course of the future of the Earth and civilization.

It takes the humanity away from the stranger who made his own decisions to be kind.

Did a god have a hand in the stranger who bought you your coffee? That’s a question impossible to answer. But the one thing I do believe in is that, if there is a higher power, the games of divine intervention a god might play are deeper and more vast than reaching down to tap someone on their shoulder and encourage them to fork out spare change.

If there is anyone looking down on us, I don’t believe he would mind if we honored a person for the good choices that they make to benefit others and our society before we honor him. I don’t believe a powerful being would gift us with free will and then never let us use it. I believe we would be expected to put it to work; to work together to define good and live in respect and harmony. After all, it would be beautiful symmetry to give us the power to use choice rebuild a paradise we may have lost with one.

If there is no one out there, then all we really have is each other.

About the author

Anne Radcliffe

Anne Radcliffe

Anne usually speaks in memes and SAT words, and she frequently attempts to explain the laws of physics and high school chemistry according to the kitchen via her home blog FoodRetro. If you want to know why ice melts or pretzels turn brown, and you want to make food that you never imagined could be made from scratch in the process, she's your blogger. Her friends describe her as "hilarious when you get to know her," but it could be that they are just amused by the way she gets riled up when reading the paper. She can also be found playing the part of community editor and grammar nazi here on BLUNTmoms.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

20 Comments

  • Could not agree more. I knew I had a problem in second grade in the confessional when I actually had to make up things to confess for fear of coming across as thining I was a perfect child to the judgemental ear on the other side of the screen. What? No sins? Who are you kidding here, you are 7 years old! Surely some venial sins have been commited!! I struggle with the hypocricy of organized religion, particularly Catholicism which is what I was baptized into. I have said many times to a friend of mine who still practices, that if Jesus popped on down from Heaven above and took a good look around, he would be so ashamed! We treat each other so unkindly or we don’t even acknowledge one another at all. Great post. I like the ol’ Do Unto Others rule. I say that just about covers it all. 🙂
    Mary McLaurine recently posted…My love, my stars, my moon and sunMy Profile

  • Thank you for starting this conversation. I was certain I was not alone questioning our custom of thanking gods for the good yet blaming the evil for everything else (me included) for the bad.

    • Conversely, it seems to me that people who rejecr faith, such as Stephen Fry, tend to blame everything bad on the God they say they reject and give him credit for nothing good.

      As a practicing Catholic with a degree in Theology, it seems to me that what so many people who reject the Church are doing is judging the church by the merits of its worst practitioners. This is like rejecting Julia Child because so many people fail at “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

      Find out what a faith actually teaches before you reject it. For instancr, the author’s example of the child molester. Our church doesnt teach that just because you go to Confession you are guaranteed heaven. Not even close, there is a lot more to it than thwherever church emphasizes exactly what the author is getting at: outward show nothin’, it is about how you treat people, where your heart really is. As Jesus Himself boiled it all down in the Gospel of Luke when the rich guy asked Him how to get to Heaven, “love God and love your neighbor.” Then He told the story of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were abhorred by the Jewish people because they didnt worship correctly. They practiced a form of syncretism and worshipped wherever. Jesus’ point was this: it was the guy who didn’t practice the “right” way who was the best person. The others who passed up the guy without helping him did so because to touch blood made you unclean, and since they were on their way to worship, they didnt want to become unclean and then be unable to do their “religious duty”.

      • Any Catholic canon lawyer will tell you that there is “the rule” and then the spirit behind it, ans it is the latter that is more important.

        Sorry for typos, typing on phone while nursing baby!

        Anyway, not trying to bash anyone, just makes me sad when people miss out due to misunderstanding or having been thrown off by other people’s crappy example.

  • And Anne you r absolutely spot on about free will. In Catholicism, we do get and give “credit” where it is due, recognizing that each person is a miracle, a child of God, an immortal creature of infinite value and dignity. This need to give props to each other is part of what goes on when we recognize saints. They, Paul put it, ran the race. Just as we are responsible for our sins, so also do we hope to hear the “well done”when our race is over. But whether we r doing well or not, we remember that “while we were yet sinnrs, Christ died for us”. As moms,we can totally relate( and there are times in the Bible when God is likened to a mother- it is a metaphor, this whole parental idea of God, since God is neither male nor female) : we hope r kids do well, we hold them responsible for their mistakes and applaud them for their triumphs, but whether they r doing well or poorly, we love them as they are and we sacrifice for and fall in love with them long beforr they could have ” earned” it.

    So we have free will and we use it, but what we do with it does not affect God’s love for us, tho it may affect ehere we spend eternity ( assuming our actions were deliberate enough to make us culpable for them, which is abother essay entirely). And we are called to love as He loves, in this very unconditional way. That may be why we are reluctant to condemn others, evrn the worst, to hell, but instead hope for redemption for everyone, even thosr “most in need of thy mercy”.

  • I wonder tho if it isnt reasonable to thank the stranger for the coffee and also be thankful to the God who created him/her? I am thankful to God for creating beautiful, competent medical personnel who use the gifts they have for the good of others, and to those people themselves for doing so. It seems to me that you have created a bit if a false dichotomy here, that ee EITHER thank God OR people. Why not both?

    As for medical miracles, there are awesome remedies that seem miraculous to us, but the real definition of a medical miracle is when a patient recovers and the doctors say it was impossible, given their medicsl knowledge and assessment of the situation. So we credit doctors when they are the heroes, and God when the doctors swear itwasnt them.

    • I don’t believe I’ve created any such false dichotomy. As in the title, the key word is “instead.”

      In the closer, I put “I don’t believe he would mind if we honored a person for the good choices that they make to benefit others and our society before we honor him.”

      People are welcome to thank both god and person, if they believe. I am trying to get people to realize that they shouldn’t forget to thank the person first.

      Also, as the child of a medical practitioner, I know that doctors are like mechanics. The problem is that people’s bodies aren’t really like cars… they’re considerably more complex; the knowledge required to fix some things is extensive; and there are still a great many things about the body and healing process that aren’t well understood, especially when it comes to the less tangibles, like mind over matter (ie. the placebo effect).
      Anne Radcliffe recently posted…How to Cook More in Less Time in 7 Easy StepsMy Profile

      • True what you say about the complexity of the human body. Which is why Catholics dont espouse the old “God of the Gaps” idea- that anything not yet explained by science must be where we find God in action. This fallacy leads to God getting squeezed out as science discovers more and more. It is silly to try to cram God into his creation. To use the clockmakrr analogy, we r not worried when we dont find the clockmakrr actually sitting in his clock.
        I dont think u intentionally created a false dichotomy, but that seems to be how it waz received, judging from some of the comments.

  • Belief in God absolutely does NOT hinder our pursuit of knowledge, and history is replete wi evidence to the contrary. Throughout history, it has been the religious who assume that there is rhyme and reason to the universe, because they believe it is the product of a mind and not randomness. For example, the man who posited the Big Bang was a Jesuit priest, Fr Georges Lemaitre (Belgian i think). The theory was dismissed as “too religious). Until Einstein heard Fr Lemaitre’s theory and backed it wholeheartedly. The fathrs of many modrrn sciences were monks- they had the time to do experiments. Even heliocentrism, the focal point of the Galileo mess, was defended by the pope and Copernicus was urged by that pope to publish. No one had a problem with Galileo’s science, it wasnt news. His crappy theological extrapolation s were the issue.

    Also, peacemaking is not hindered by faith either. A person of faitu cant just give up and wash thrir hands of someonr- we are held responsible by that divnity even when we dont feel like doing good. But an atheist can totally decide not to ” waste their time” on someone who frhstrates them. If this is all we got then lifr’s too short right? Move on. But a person of faith must seek solutions and reconciliation because this is not all ee got and life may be short but eternity is long. On a macro scale, look at atheistic governments, such as the communist countries: Russia, China, Cuba. The Nazis were anti religion, not just Jews but everyone, especially Jews and Catholics. When people live like there is no one watching, how others do suffer!

    • I respectfully disagree. It doesn’t HAVE to hinder the pursuit of knowledge (there are a great many agnostic or practicing scientists, after all), but in practice, it often does. Take, for example, the witchcraft trial era, which saw many herb women and midwives executed (among others) setting modern medicine back a hundred years. Take, for example, the theory of evolution–which we have some proof of on small scales. Or the people who insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaur bones are a fraud.

      Re: peacemaking – absolutely a person of faith can (and does) wash their hands of someone. And re: the atheistic governments you’ve identified, the religion was displaced in order to elevate the worship of a dictator. There are people watching us all the time. Funny enough, nobody seems to care what they think. Nor do many of the people watching seem to care to involve themselves in stopping an atrocity. Maybe they’re secure in the knowledge that they can be a coward and have to do nothing because they assume an end reward if someone ends their life, and a deity’s eventual retribution.
      Anne Radcliffe recently posted…How to Cook More in Less Time in 7 Easy StepsMy Profile

      • Ah, i think u and i have different ideas on this because i am Catholic and u come from a protestant background.

        Catholics believe in Evolution ( and when i say Catholics i mean the magisterial position, not necessarily that every Catholic gets this. My mil, for example, claims to be a devout catholic but hasnt bothered to find out much about actual teaching and she objectg to evolution). Our last several popes have gonr out of their way to say so. If you read Genesis u instantly see that the Creation storiez are metaphorical. One easy clue is that there is a talking snake. Thst should be an instant tip off that it was not intended as historical or scientific fact. Different genre if literature entirely. If u read it in hebrew, it original language, u find thst the word translated as day is actually the word for eon, an unspecified period of time. My point is thst the issues u raize r protestsnt issues, arising from poor biblical exegesis. Catholics have no beef eith evolutin or the earth being really really old.
        Protestsnism has often been a hindrance to scientific progress. Still is, especially in thr Bible belt. But Catholicism has more oftrn thsm not been a catalyst for it. Do some research into fathers of modern sciences: albertus magnus, lemaitre, mendeleev, etc etc tc. Look into the pontifical academy of sciences. Look at guys like dr ken miller and dr brother guy consolmagno. It is a bummer u were raised in an area that has the kind of ethos u describe in ur article, but mapping those problems onto other faiths isnt reasonable. I am not saying catholicism has no problems, since humans make mistakes and the church is full of humans. But i think some of the problrms u and others have with “religion” is based on misunderstanding, overgeneralization, and judging “religion” and religious people by their worst representatives.

  • Now there are those people of faith who just suck. And there are people without faith who do all right. But the generalizations in this post are refuted by history. Also by general experience. I hage known crappy catholics, protestsnts, muslims, etc. But it is not their religion thst makes them crappy. It is their lack of authenticity. They claim a faity they dont practice. But what do we blame when an atheist is an ass? My sister in law is an atheist and she and her christian fundamentalist father are the two most repugnant people i have ever met. You might blame his crappiness on his church, but what about her? She claims to follow her own morality, but that clearly fails her and there is no way she can right herself because she has made herself the arbiter of truth in her own universe. When a person ‘s their own due north, how can their moral compass point toward anything other than what they have decided is right? Religion can and does cause problems but atheism can hardly fail to.

      • I agree. I think u r saying that peole can be good without religion. Trur, i have known some decent agnostics. The catholic church agrees with u also, which is why we have the idea of “people of good will”. We dont claim ti have cornered the markrt on decency.
        At the same tjme tho, the same benevolence should be extended by nonbelievers to believers. While religion isnt necessary for decency, it also doesnt preclude it, and more iften than not is a catalyst for it. But again, i am an educated Catholic from CA so my experience of faith has been vastly differrnt from urs. Maybe all u have seen is its destructive side there in the Bible Belt ( i could not be paid to live there, as much as i enjoy fried food).

        Agsin sorry for typos- using tiny phone while nursng baby.

        • I realized i could be misunderstood above: when i say i am an educated Catholic, i dont mean as juxtaposed to you, but to the Protestants u grew up around. If you were taught anti evolution, young earth, literalism, then u must have been surrounded by uneducated christians. U yourself seem to have realized how silly those ideas are. However, they do not reflect the positions of mainstream Christianity, as much as the media tries to paint it so.

  • The problem is that people do bad things, religious or otherwise. So how about placing the blame where it belongs, on the person, not the religion they fail at. Just as we would blame the failed savory aspic on the person who made it, not Julia Child or her cookbook.