Ticking over with Christianity lite

03 May 2013

Rituals and ceremonies have a part to play in our faith, says Harriet Baber

Up the road, in Encinitas, a couple are suing the district for introducing yoga into their child's school, as part of its physical-education programme. Backed by an Evangelical watchdog group, they claim that it violates the separation of Church and State.

Most residents are indignant: yoga does not involve any indoctrination, just relaxation and stretching exercises; so how could it be religious?

Yoga is religion lite - so light that the religious connection is virtually imperceptible. Hinduism lite and Buddhism lite have become so familiar that we hardly notice them. We speculate about possible past lives, and talk casually about karma, but we do not take any of it seriously.

Most people in the United States have no objection to yoga because they see it as inclusive. Everyone, regardless of their religious belief - or unbelief - can do it. Christian practices are another matter, however, and the assumption is that they cannot be done without religious conviction. So public scolders complain that Christmas displays exclude non-Christians, and demand strict rules about which ones are sufficiently secularised to be displayed in the public square.

I have some sympathy with the yogaphobes. The problem, though, is not that Buddhism-lite or Hinduism-lite products are pervasive, but that Christianity lite has virtually disappeared. The problem is that we regard the myths and symbols of Christianity as expressions of serious religious conviction.

This assumption grows out of the Evangelical tradition, which rejects the folk religion and "empty ceremonies" that both believers and unbelievers can enjoy. So Kierkegaard attacked the cheerful Sunday religiosity of the bourgeoisie of Copenhagen, and American Evangelicals now insist that Christianity is "not a religion, but a relationship". For them, Christianity lite is, if anything, worse than no Christianity at all.

This is the Reformation programme: the attack on superficiality and folk religion; and the insistence that Christianity demands conviction. It is the programme that kick-started secularism, and will bring about the end of religion.


Christianity heavy, the religion of conviction and witness which shuns superficialities, is too high for humanity: only a few can conjure up the religious fervour that it prescribes. For many, it promotes religious fakery - the mass-produced "born-again" experiences, contrived testimonies, and routine use of inflated language which make Christians look like hypocrites and fools.

There is a great deal to be said for superficial religiosity. It keeps religion ticking over. It gives us access to a system of beliefs that makes serious religion available when we need it. And it is enjoyable: the customs and festivals that featured in medieval Europe, and still survive in Mediterranean folk Catholicism, are simply fun.

The Church was not built on the blood of the martyrs. It was built on Constantine's patronage. It flourished because it became a public institution in which people without serious Christian convictions, including crypto-pagans, could participate in much the same spirit as contem- porary Californians do yoga.

That is the Church we should want: not the Church of the martyrs, or the New Testament Church of Jesus's disciples, but the Church of Constantine - a Church suitable for sinners like us.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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