On November 26, 2010, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens debated whether religion is a force for good in the world. Blair, former Prime Minister of Britain and a Roman Catholic, argued the affirmative case. Hitchens, an atheist and author of God Is Not Great, argued the negative.
What if the real case is ambivalent? I cannot make this ambivalent case from an atheist point of view, of course, since I’m not one of them. But as a Christian, I can make a religious case against religion. Indeed, I can make a religious case against religion by citing chapter and verse of the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 11:17–19, Paul writes:
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.
The words following directives refer specifically to how the Corinthians abused the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34). They also refer to how the Corinthians abused spiritual gifts (12:1–14:40). In both instances, Paul finds nothing praiseworthy in the Corinthian practice.
Your meetings do more harm than good. I have attended church all my life. I have attended boring meetings. I have attended inspiring meetings. I have attended meetings where boring, inspiring, and even weird elements mixed together. But I have never attended a meeting that, on balance, harmed me. Yet that is what Paul claims about Corinthian worship services. They left worshipers worse for wear.
How so? Paul mentions divisions. The first division is between those who eat their full at the Lord’s Supper and those who go away hungry (11:20–22). The second division is between those who edify themselves with their spiritual gifts—especially speaking in tongues—and those who are unedified by those very same gifts (14:18–19). The issue at controversy in both instances is selfishness in religious practices.
Ironically, the selfish Corinthians—wealthy and charismatic—were quite proud of themselves. They didn’t care that their actions left their poor brothers and sisters hungry, or their ignorant brothers and sisters confused. They got theirs, and that’s all that matters.
Typically, Paul sees division among Christians in negative terms (e.g., 1:10–17). But in these verses, he sees the positive side: No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. This is ironic. The wealthy, charismatic Corinthians undoubtedly thought themselves highly blessed by God. Their wealth and boisterous spiritual gifts proved it. In reality, however, the division was one of judgment against them. Their poor, ignorant brothers and sisters had God’s ear.
Is religion a force for good in the world? Certainly Christ is, and his followers can be—unless they act selfishly rather than lovingly. The case would not be ambivalent if Christians would act more like Christ.