Like rocket fuels and cantaloupes, not all theologies are equal.
Discussing whether a particular theology is an accurate depiction of reality is one way to judge between them. That path leads one into deep questions of epistemology, authority, canonicity, exegesis, and all that jazz.
But theologies can also be judged by their impact on those who believe them, as well as those around them. I think all people, believers or not, could agree that some theologies have lousy results.
For example, I would prefer living next to a moderate Muslim as opposed to a community of Islamic fundamentalists. Others bloggers are less hopeful, doubting that religions such as Islam are capable of moderation. So religions that desire physical takeover of the world and theocracies go unequivocally into the ‘bad’ heap.
Another example is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as represented by Warren Jeffs and described in Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Believing that one can kill for one’s faith or force young women into multiple marriages with you also lands you in the bad camp.
One of the reasons Joseph Smith’s sect has had so many fascinating little splinter groups was Smith’s early emphasis on direct revelation from God. While Smith later tried to suppress others’ prophetic leanings (leading to many early divisions) the trend was set. A person who truly believes that God has spoken directly to them with explicit commands is not likely to compromise. So wandering prophets also mostly get tossed into the bad pile.
Last Saturday I drove to Memphis for a rocket launch and was entertained on the drive back by a rather frightening radio program. In it, a breathy, tearful-sounding preacher spent most of his time railing against liberals like me. But he also took special interest in the state of Israel. (Mike Cope recently linked to an article on evangelical support of Israel.)
The preacher said anyone would be a fool to read the Holy Book and not realize the urgency of prophecies regarding Israel. Surely the world is in its last, final days, the true End days. It will all come to a glorious finale within his lifetime. And we should continue to support Israel, he said, because God will work through them to bring about Judgment Day on sinners (like me). For as we bless Israel so God will bless us.
And the clincher: “And we know that the reason America has always been more than just friends with Israel is because of the faithful Christians who have a voice in our government. We can never allow anyone to wrestle that support away, or to use the power God has given us to criticize Israel instead of supporting her. Every iota of freedom America has, every iota of wealth we have, is all because of our support for His people in Israel.” And this guy has a radio program.
Over the last year I’ve come to dislike the idea of a “chosen people” more and more. The history of Judaism (and to a lesser, often more spiritualized extent, Christianity) is chock full of the “chosen people” concept. God is on the side of the Jews. The Jews are His people. Christians are God’s chosen people. Through most of my upbringing, I had accepted this concept from the inside, without realizing how ugly it looks from the outside.
Believing that God would endorse your genocide of entire populations to make room for you, his holy people, is so blatantly racist that now I am constantly amazed to hear my peers justify it. If your theology leaves any room for doubt that genocide is always wrong, maybe we should reopen discussion on whose moral values are ‘absolute.’
The likes of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are delusional if they think this sort of religious passion is going to disappear overnight. Also, Harris’s vindictive style isn’t likely to win many converts. But there’s a grain of truth in it as well, that there are limits to tolerance.
We do not tolerate one who will kill for his faith. And while we may legally tolerate diverse religious views, it may also be wise to offer little respect (on the level of personal interaction) to those whose views are dangerous to society—like the Fundamentalist Mormons, or militaristic premillenial evangelical—in hopes that the social awkwardness of holding certain views will decrease their popularity.
All people who attempt to inform their worldviews at least partially with reason, be they secularists or religious moderates and liberals, should try their hardest to make theocracy, jihadism, ethnocentrism, and other bad theologies go away.