Hell Relishes a Useful Religion

Dear Swillpit,

The next best thing to a religion that is ignored or marginalized is one that is found useful, i.e., a means to some practical end. Thus, the minute a creature is drawn into religion, help him to see its utility in something important to him.

This something can be as personal as self-improvement or as global as world peace, as specific as saving the snail darter or as general as environmentalism, or on either side of a cultural issue such as abortion. All we care about is that “it” becomes a cause—that thing to which they devote their entire life, exclusive of all else. Yet, even there, danger lurks.

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A worldling who has taken up a cause is one whose sensitivities to fairness, justice, or fellow-creature feeling have been stirred. It won’t strain your imagination, I trust, to see the threat in such untoward arousals. Instead of moving him closer to becoming the kind of being we’re after—a self-absorbed, other-devouring creature—it might inspire him to qualities that our Adversary values: courage, compassion, sacrifice, and, worst of all, love.

To be sure, the risk of failure here is considerable, but, if handled well, it can be turned to our advantage. You can be thankful that, despite your abysmal performance to date, I am not forsaking you to your own wits. Although my patience is wearing thin, I deign to keep the doors to my vast storehouse of wisdom open for you.

As I predicted in my last letter, your idler has been awakened by his sister’s death, and has been poring over the Book for answers to his loss. This is nothing to be wringing your claws over, yet. If the strategy (or your execution of it) that I outlined in it fails to draw him into apostasy, we have another course of action. We always do.

You mentioned that he believes that inadequate medical care was the cause. Whether it was the cause, and whether the physician, insurance company, government or the entire medical industry was culpable, matters little to us. What matters is what he believes. Once that is settled, his righteous energies can be put to our service. But this will require a radical change in approach.

Up until this time, the game has been busyness and distraction. By keeping him occupied with work, responsibilities, hobbies, and other worldly diversions, religion had become an add-on, just one more thing to check off an already crowded list of “have to’s,” “got to’s,” and “need to’s.”

Now that he is besieged with emotion, the game is “hyper-focus”—that is, you want to steer his attentions to religion. This will come naturally enough as he wrestles with the “whys” and the “what now.” If you work your wiles skillfully, he will come to the following conclusions: this tragedy was caused by an evil that his God was either indifferent to or incapable of preventing, and is therefore a symptom of a Bigger Issue—an endemic injustice that he is called to redress.

As counterintuitive as this approach might seem, we’ve actually become quite skilled at this sort of thing. Liberation theology, in particular, stands as a crowning testament to centuries of dedicated devilry. By working with their religious “default setting,” we have turned the gospel of our Adversary on its head: the Problem is class struggle, not sin; the Solution is political will and technological manipulation, not the Cross; and the Goal is heaven on earth, not the Kingdom of Heaven.

Success lies in finding their soft spot. Each of them has one. Remember, they come factory-equipped with affections that can be manifested in any number of ways: a concern for the poor, the disenfranchised, animals, or the environment. But whatever form it takes, a strong affection can become a Cause that reshapes their whole understanding of the Story along these lines:

The Fall is a socio-economic or ecological consequence caused by the actions of the privileged class. Redemption is achieved through the right social programs, governmental policies, and environmental regulations. Failure to repent will bring on the Judgment of nuclear winter or climate meltdown.

In the gravitational shift from heaven to earth, they look for new saviors: Science, the State, and … the Church. I am not referring, here, to that vile organization founded by the Carpenter whose followers truly strive to be like him, even unto death.

Rather, I am speaking of that collection of stooges who have found his teachings “useful,” gathering under his banner in an “us-against-them” subculture of interest groups, community organizations, and political parties, all the while ignoring his divine claims and the deeper application of his teachings.

Happily, even his followers fall for this strategy from time to time. Some become so absorbed by one issue—which is always a “sin” that affects others—that they can’t hear a sermon or read a passage that doesn’t seem to refer to it, however tangentially, all to the exclusion of their particular vulnerabilities to their carnal nature.

This is the place to start with your man. As he has been consulting the Book for comfort and guidance already, go with that for now. Help him discover a Cause and “read” it into every passage he stumbles upon, while steering him clear of passages that might trouble his thoughts about those secret, unexamined corners of his life.

By carefully maneuvering him to selective texts, you can nurture the fear that has been gnawing at him for days: his Maker can’t be relied on—indeed, he is alone, without a Benevolent Hand to guide him or help him. If you can get him that far, Swillpit, you will begin to notice that he consults the Book less and less until finally, he depends on nothing but his distorted memories of proof-texts.

Encourage his autonomy by allowing free rein to his intuitions—particularly, regarding sin. Like most of his kind, he thinks of sin as “acts” and sinners as “them.” Sin is what people do when they commit a “big” one, like murder or adultery, or when they are addicted to a “little” one, like lying or viewing pornography. As for him, he may fudge on his income tax from time to time or in an unguarded moment enjoy a lingering gaze on a buxom miss—peccadilloes common to everyone. The Cross is for exceptional people—evil-doers. He’s not an evil-doer. He’s like most folks—a good, upright fellow.

The idea that sin is rooted in behavior is one of our great, if not greatest, deceptions. They have long forgotten, if they ever knew, that wrongful behavior is the effect of sin, not its essence. The essence of sin is the attitude best expressed by one of their crooners: “I Did It My Way.” Likewise, the essence of righteousness is not in righteous acts, but in the attitude of the Crucified, who said, “Not my will, but Thine.”

This notion of sin, as well as the facility of “managing” it, accounts for their affinity for Causes. After all, boycotts, pamphleteering, marches, lobbying, and special interest legislation can affect behavior on experiential timescales. Hearts and minds, on the other hand, can take geological timescales to change, if ever.

As long as religion serves a Cause, we have the home field advantage. But when a cause is informed by religion, our position is most desperate. That scalawag Wilberforce will serve a fitting example.

That runty Brit was Hell’s biggest nightmare. He was a man for whom religion governed not a slice of life, but all of it. The rascal resisted our untiring nudgings to compartmentalize his faith and, instead, integrated it with his public service, private associations, personal activities, and life causes, of which there were two towering ones: the abolition of slavery and the revival of British morality. When news of those lofty goals reached us, there were howls of derision.

To make a long story short, his dogged commitment to integrative faith led to the accomplishment of both causes within his lifetime. Never underestimate the creature who is totally sold-out to our Adversary.

So, clasp the strings on your marionette tightly, Swillpit. Maneuver him carefully, but deliberately, around the stage we have crafted. Then hope—yes, hope!—that he doesn’t slip into the prostitution of a Wilberforce. If he does, dear boy, be assured that all hope for you is abandoned.

Feverishly Yours,


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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