The Danger of Turning Religion into a “Toy”
By Rev. Robert Barron
Just about a month ago, I was in Spain with my Word on Fire team, filming for our ten-part Catholicism documentary. We visited the wonderful Prado Museum, where we were permitted to photograph some masterpieces by Valazquez, Fra Angelico, and El Greco. Next, we travelled to Avila, the hometown of St. Teresa, where we filmed along the magnificent medieval wall and inside of the splendid 12th century cathedral. The following day, we made our way to Segovia, where we visited the tomb of St. John of the Cross, and then to Toledo, home of the one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe. We were allowed to film in front of the the towering golden reredos, swarming with figures depicting Biblical scenes and the lives of the saints. To be in Spain is to swim in a culture that has been shaped dramatically by the Catholic imagination.
Toward the end of our Spanish sojourn, one member of our team turned to our sound-man for the day, a Spaniard of about 35, and asked him what he thought of all of the splendor that we had been witnessing and recording. Here’s what he said: “Well, you Americans come from a young culture, and that’s why you’re still beguiled by all of this. We Spaniards have seen too much of religion and no longer take it seriously. We consider it more or less a colorful toy, fun to take out and play with from time to time.” Well! The condescension of the remark is, of course, bad enough (poor, simple Americans), but what is especially bothersome is the blithe, almost bland, secularism that it expresses. For this man (and if the statistics are right, for an awful lot of Europeans), religion is not so much a threat, as it was for the great atheists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a harmless diversion, like croquet or pinochle. Marx, Conte, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Freud worked up quite a head of steam in their attacks on the faith, because they took religion with great seriousness. I’m convinced that a far more dangerous enemy is this take-it-or-leave-it indifference to religion evident in our sound man’s observation.
The same attitude is on display in the comments made by my young YouTube interlocutors. As some of you may know, I’ve been posting short videos on YouTube for the past couple of years, commenting on the culture from a Catholic point of view, and I’ve focused a good deal of attention on the challenge of the “new” atheism. Time and again, those who respond to the videos on atheism say some version of this: “we just can’t possibly know where the universe comes from; we can’t measure or see what religion is talking about; so it’s best just to drop these questions and move on.” What strikes me, again, is not so much an hostility to religion as the weary, even bored, bracketing of those questions that, for centuries, have captivated the greatest minds and spirits of the human race. Where did the universe come from? What is the deepest purpose of my life? Where is reality ultimately tending? Is there a meaning inherent in the events of history and the movements of nature? “Hmmm… (Yawn) I don’t know.” Once again, I consider that a voice more dangerous than the voices of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.
Now mind you, I say “dangerous,” not so much because it’s dangerous to the church (thought it is to some degree), but because it’s dangerous to those who hold the secularist ideology. Like it or not, our human spirits are wired for God, because they are ordered toward ultimate fulfillment, toward the fullness of truth, and goodness, and justice. And again, like it or not, nothing in this world—no finite truth, no conditioned goodness, no merely provisional justice—will satisfy that holy longing. Therefore, simply to shut down the religious dimension of life, to put aside the deepest spiritual and metaphysical questions is to set oneself up for an interior crisis. Here I’ll rely on the legitimate insights of Freud in regard to suppression. The father of psychoanalysis argued, as we all know, that the suppression of certain feelings and thoughts leads to bizarre symptoms, as the repressed energy struggles to find expression. Nature, as they say, will have its revenge. In a very similar manner, repressed religious longings will come out, sometimes in ways that are quite destructive. One of the commonest symptoms of respressed spiritual energy is addiction. Even when we’ve bracketed or denied God, the desire for God remains, and hence hooks itself onto some finite object which we then try obsessively to stuff into our soul. Alcohol, sex, gambling, money, fame, and power are just some of the substitutes for God. Since these finite things, in whatever quantity, cannot possibly satisfy the infinite longing and therefore, we will damage ourselves if we make them our ultimate concern.
The turning of religion into a “toy,” as my Spanish sound-man suggested, is not only intellectually irresponsible; it is a recipe for disaster at the level of the soul.