There is a type of religion which is not religion but which masquerades as religion. It in necessary to see this interloper for what it is before looking at the claims of true religions. The interloper often clouds our judgement and we are unable to distinguish the real from the fake. The interloper destroys real religious communities, the interloper is very successful. I will confine my description to Christianity, but it manifests elsewhere.
If you look at its marks you can see how it can easily become the soft power of Empire.
What are its marks?
Firstly, God is very distant. He is not ‘everywhere present and filling all things’ as the ancient prayers of Christianity say. He is ‘upstairs’, sometimes intervening with humanity, sometimes cruel, never approachable. For fake religion, miracles are occasional things, the world of God only occasionally intersects with the world of humans. The world is dull, mechanistic and irredeemably fallen. For real religion miracles are normal, it is human stubbornness which prevents them from being sensed. For the true religionist, miracles are usually not outwardly spectacular, just the caressing hand of a profound lover.
Secondly, to reach God, you have to pray and that prayer is transactional. The person prays in order to obtain something. A transactional relationship exists. Often this reaches comic proportions and the believers in fake religion are straining like the constipated, hoping for a prayer to come true. This is ‘magical thinking’ and not prayer. In true religion, real prayer is done with the heart and over time every moment is filled with a wordless awareness of love and that love is its own reward, it has not been bought and it is not handed out by merit.
Thirdly, fake religion always talks about ‘other’: that which is different. Fake religion needs ‘other’ in order to justify its existence, that they are not ‘other’, that they are better than ‘other’, that ‘other’ is a threat, that ‘other’ is evil. From this fake religion derives its moral code and indeed often it is little more than a moral code. True religion is amoral, but not immoral. Moral behaviour should be a fruit of love for neighbour and love of God, it is not a stick with which to beat people. An ancient and much used prayer in the East by St Isaac the Syrian states ‘Lord, help me to see my own failings and not to condemn my brother’. Such a statement is a mark of true religion.
Fourthly, fake religion has a ‘hard sell’. It claims to offer you something that will make your life so much better, that you can’t possibly live without and it tells you what you need to do to obtain this thing. It is nearly indistinguishable from a commercial on a cable shopping channel. Real Christianity never promises anything.
Fifthly, fake religion is individualistic. It is all about the person and the self-improvement of the person. It is a form of consumerism.
All of this has a very old pedigree in Christianity. It got its seal of approval in the 11th Century with the promotion of St Anselm and his ideas in the West. St Anselm considered the very reaction between God and His Son to be transactional: that Jesus had to pay the ultimate price (death on a cross) for the wrath of his father. Where is the love? It is horribly fake, but the Catholics swallowed it (Anselm was a great promoter of Papal power and basically the popes like this so they promoted his ideas!). Alas, the Protestants, whilst kicking against Catholicism, continued to promote Anselm’s ideas too.
Anyone with an ounce of humanity knows that true love is not a transaction. It is given freely, it is given at great cost with no thought to a return on the investment. It is no respecter of status or wealth, it loves all. Any discussion of religion must distinguish the real from the fake. Sadly there is no branch of Christianity completely immune from the infiltration of the fake, the fake is marketable and will make people rich and exert power over the vulnerable.