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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics Hardcover – Apr 17 2012

3.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (April 17 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439178305
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439178300
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #248,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Not only is Ross Douthat’s account of orthodox Christianity’s decline provocative, but his critique of today’s ascendant heresies is compelling. This volume is a sustained proof of Chesterton’s thesis that when people turn from God, 'they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.' Everyone who is interested in why the church is faring as it is in U.S. culture today needs to get this book."
—Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City

"Bad Religion is superb: sharply critical of the amazing variety of American religious pathologies, but fair; blunt in diagnosis, but just; telling a dark tale, but telling it hopefully. For those trying to understand the last half-century or more of American religion, and to strive for a better future, it is an indispensable book."
—Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

"Ross Douthat's thoughtful, articulate, wide-ranging, sometimes contrarian and always provocative new book asks a tough question: Why has Christianity been so misunderstood, and so misused, in the past few decades? From those who (foolishly) watered down the most basic Christian beliefs, to those who (falsely) promised worldly success to the followers of Jesus, the values of orthodoxy (literally, "right belief") have often been blithely set aside. With an impressive command of both history and contemporary social trends, Douthat shows not only how we ended up with a Christianity of our own making, but also how we can reclaim an adherence to the teachings of the real Jesus—not just the convenient one."
—James Martin, SJ, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything

"Bad Religion is nothing short of prophetic. In a time of religious, political, and cultural upheaval, Ross Douthat tells the American faithful—liberals, conservatives, and everybody in between—not what we want to hear, but what we desperately need to hear. With this provocative and challenging work that no thoughtful Christian can afford to ignore, Douthat assures his place in the first rank of his generation's public intellectuals."
—Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons and senior editor of The American Conservative

"A brilliantly reasoned argument for orthodox Christianity and the need for vibrant faith in society. In this perceptive and timely work, Ross Douthat extolls the ‘vital center’ of belief while calling out the fashionable heretics among us. This is one ‘Bad Religion’ we can all believe in."
—Raymond Arroyo, New York Times bestselling author, host of EWTN's The World Over Live

"Mr. Douthat offers a lively, convincing argument for what kind of religion we need." (Mark Oppenheimer New York Times)

"Bad Religion" is an important book. It brings a probing, perceptive analysis to bear on the tragic hollowing out of American Christianity. In Douthat, readers have a guide who explains how we ended up drinking at a narcissistic trough draped in spirituality that doesn't quench anybody's deepest thirst...." (G. Jeffrey MacDonald Christian Science Monitor)

About the Author

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times op-ed page. He is the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Before joining the Times he was a senior editor for The Atlantic. He is the film critic for National Review, and he has appeared regularly on television, including Charlie Rose, PBS Newshour, Real Time, and The Colbert Report.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Format: Hardcover
Douthat presents an accessible summary of Christianity in America and how it got stuck in heresy. I found his definition of heresy to be solid. He did not resort to creeds or church councils as I expected he would. Instead, he clearly shows that Christianity and Jesus are both paradoxes. He gives a list of some for Jesus: fully God vs fully man, superman walks on water vs weeps over losing a friend, Prince of Peace vs I bring not peace but a sword and many more. We drift into heresy when we attempt to "solve" the paradox by choosing what suits our thinking and glossing over or ignoring that which doesn't fit our faith perspective. When we do, we create heresies hence much of modern American Christianity. He goes into depth on a number of the popular ones including modernism, fundamentalism, prosperity gospel, and Americanism.

It was an interesting read. Was it helpful? If it is helpful at all, it's bringing to light what we know but don't want to admit. American Christianity is in trouble. American Christianity is running off the tracks. How to get back on? Embrace the paradox of Jesus.
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Format: Hardcover
Douthat has a thesis that he wants to prove in this book, and that's a good thing. It gives a reader a clear idea of why Douthat is telling you all these stories. What Douthat thinks is that the USA's problem is not too much religion or not enough religion, it's bad religion, i.e. heresies. The book explains what heresies Douthat thinks are prevalent in the US.

The first part of this book provides a history of how America moved from having what you might call a backbone of orthodox belief, both in Protestantism and Catholicism, to not having such a backbone at all. It also catalogues the orthodox responses to changes in the 1960s & 1970s, categorized as accommodation and resistance. The last 1/2 of the book is dedicated to spelling out America's heresies, including the quest for the so-called historical Jesus, the cult of the God Within (personified by Elizabeth Gilbert), the prosperity gospel and a couple others.

Douthat's book is undeniably fascinating and readable, and I do think he has identified some legitimate concerns. However, like any overarching narrative which tries to tie all society into one story, it doesn't necessarily account for all the data. With that being said, Douthat explores a wide range of events in this book and it is fascinating to see how he puts them side-by-side into his narrative. This is definitely a book I enjoyed reading and one I will continue to think about for some time.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Unbelievable but to the point
.... worldwide problem today!...
would recommend to any serious reader
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is no doubt about it: controversial titles help to sell books. Being a free thinking person with a serious interest in religions and spirituality I couldn’t resist getting this book. From the outset I wondered “where is he coming from, passing judgment on the populace having become heretical?” Is Douthat just one more finger-pointing fundamentalist relegating those of incongruous beliefs to the sin bin of doctrinal deviance? Going through his book we become acquainted with numerous “deviant” individuals and organizations. What is missing is a compendium at the beginning of the book of exactly what comprises “good religion.” Due to that deficiency, Douthat is free to cruise through the historical terrain taking pot shots in every direction at whomever and whatever strikes him as being associated with “bad religion.”

There are at least three ways to critique this book: 1. Is it well written, factual and informative? Other than being biased and opinionated, yes it probably passes the muster for those criteria. The author attempts to include a lot of aspects and influences of religious activity, especially since the 1950s, so it is difficult to collectively assess. He chooses to overlook the bad elements of religion which existed in the 1950s. I think that many elements contributing to change were left out, many of them arose in the period 1880 to 1950, although he does include Ralph Waldo Emerson, dismissively so. He denigrates pantheistic thought but fails to examine panentheism. He pays little attention to the recent global village of pluralistic influences or the information technology evolution. I would give three stars for this aspect as provided by the author.

2. The book is clearly addressing conservative Christians but does it truly reflect their viewpoints?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars 256 reviews
234 of 246 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Look at American Religion, Culture and Politics April 30 2012
By Jody Harrington - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Although the title sounds polemical, Ross Douthat's book is actually a thorough, thoughtful and scholarly study of the ways in which the orthodox tenets of Christianity are losing ground to the many popular heresies of the day and the ways in which this phenomenon affects the church and the social and political culture of the country.

My IPad version of the book is covered with yellow highlighting and notes. This is not a quick and easy read because it is so thought-provoking that I often put it away for a while in order to digest a new insight.

Beginning with the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts of the early twentieth century in the mainline Protestant denomination, Douthat sets the stage for his thesis that

"America's problem isn't too much religion or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place."

These pseudo-Christianities include accomodationism, the embrace of Gnosticism, solipsism, messianism, utopianism, apocalypticism, nationalism and the prosperity gospel. As Douthat trenchantly observes in the prologue, heresies have always sought to simplify and eliminate the paradoxical and difficult teachings of Jesus into something that better fits the spirit of the culture and the age.

Historically, orthodox Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to defining its beliefs against the popular heresies of the day. As Douthat says "Pushing Christianity to one extreme or another is what Americans have aways done. We've been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks and our sacred selves for hundreds of years. What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response."

As a Protestant I was unaware of the extent to which the cultural conflicts which roil the mainline denominations also affected the Catholic church in America until I read this book. Douthat makes a persuasive case connecting the decline of orthodox belief in all denominations to the rise of the hyper-partisan gridlock in our government that threatens the future of the country.

Douthat is even-handed in his criticism. Readers will nod in agreement over some passages and then squirm uncomfortably as their own presuppositions are questioned.

The concluding chapter notes that Christianity through the ages has weathered other eras of decline and revived itself with reformation and offers four opportunities for its recovery in the present age which would make great discussion for study and book groups.

Bad Religion is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to readers interested in the intersection of Christianity with American culture and politics.
111 of 118 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The how, when and why of heresy May 8 2012
By Matt - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As part of the generation just emerging from college, I've always been curious about the emergence of the dominant current forms of Christianity. There are churches galore, but few seats in the pews. Nearly everyone says they're a Christian, but few can give an accounting of what that means. The media is obsessed with Christianity, but usually to mock it. And there was the memorable line a guy shouted in my philosophy class, unrelated to the discussion at hand: "I hate organized religion!" The fact is, while the thought behind the line may have been surprising to me - a Christian whose education up until that point was a private Christian one - it was seemingly pretty normal among my college peers.

Ross Douthat charts a compelling narrative through the ideological landscape of the 50's and 60's to the present day. First, he takes us through the high water point of Christianity, when the horrors of World War II had disabused most everyone of the notion of continual human progress. This was the high point of institutional Christianity, when it could be theologically rigorous, intellectually respected and civil rights oriented, while being less politically polarized than it is today. Alas, the sexual revolution, a global outlook, materialism and class issues drove Christians into the two competing camps of the accommodators and resisters. The second part of the book looks at the current state of American Christianity. Douthat believes secularists and orthodox Christians alike have little to be pleased about, as a narcissistic, materialistic and nationalistic spirituality has carried the day. While Douthat supports his narrative with evidence, his strength is that he does consider competing hypotheses. He doesn't believe in a Christian "golden age", and qualifies many of the statements he makes. He manages to state and support how he believes society evolved and how Christianity was taken along for the ride, while not being dogmatic about his interpretation.

As a Christian, I'm intrigued by Douthat's book and the challenges it outlines. It's scope is both wide and deep, and packs plenty to think about in less than 300 pages. For the thinking Christian, it's an informed rejoinder to the political essence that envelops both sides of the aisle. However, I also hope the secular humanists also takes a look, as Douthat makes a strong argument that a strong institutional Christianity will do much more for the poor and helpless than alternative spiritualities. I consider it a must read and hope it finds a vast readership.
98 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, fun to read, thought-provoking, inspiring. June 9 2012
By David Taylor - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I came across this book while watching late night TV one night and being completely glued to a speech he was giving on C-SPAN. I had to read the book after that - in fact, I ordered it on my Kindle as soon as the TV program ended. By the time I finished this book, I was ready and inspired to take the mantle of Christianity more seriously than I had been. I read the Kindle edition which tracks that I made 263 notes & marks - which I'm now ready to go back and re-read.

His research is solid, robust and exhaustive. He describes the decline of American Christianity and does so by giving a good history of American Christianity. He is a brainiac of brainacs whose writing is still eminently readable and likable. He critiques the more common heresies we see in Christianity today, particularly accomodationism (which tries to keep Christianity relevant but at the expense of some of Christianity's core beliefs) and American exceptionalism (which sees America as a new kind of "chosen nation" thus giving America the right to evangelize the world with its thoughts, beliefs, and culture).

Consider some of these quotes:

"The result is a country where religion actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produced our current economic meltdown, rahter than serving as a brake on materialism and a rebuke to avarice," (p. 5).

He calls America "a nation of heretics...Yet heresy without room for orthodoxy turns out to be dangerous as well. Many of the orverlapping crises in American life, from our foreign policy disasters to the housing bubble to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional the expense of all the others...Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme...What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response," (p.5 , 8).

His critiques include both Protestantism and Catholicism without ignoring the likes of Oprah, Joel Osteen, the New Atheist movement, Bart Ehrman, the Jesus Seminar, Dan Brown, Glenn Beck and many others.

He makes great points that American Christianity has suffered from second rate witnesses as seen in the televangelists and in Christian art/music. Many times, as a Christian myself, I have seen these same witnesses and thought that if this is what Christianity really is - big poofy hair, fake smiles dripping with manipulation, silly songs (though not of the VeggieTales variety!), gimicky church services - then no thanks. To this, Douthat says - "Worse, many Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate," (p. 292).

As a student in seminary, having read a lot of theological books both for school, for ministry, and for personal growth, I can say that chapter 5 "Lost in the Gospels" was incredible and almost Schweitzer-ian in its critique of the modern quest for the historical Jesus. "The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creed, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them...The goal of the great heresies, on the other other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus, (p. 153). This is exactly what many current Jesus-questers do when they extract or re-interpret the miraculous element in the gospels, or try to re-constitute Jesus as a cynic or non-divine teacher. Jesus gets oversimplified. Douthat's further critique of this is just plain fun to read.

In one instance, he even sounds Spurgeoun-esque. On p. 152, he begins an artful section that is almost worthy of memorizing in its entirety. Here's just a snippit of it: "Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament's Jesus...He (Jesus) makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness...He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners."

He has so much to say - from critiquing the health and wealth, prosperity gospel (Ch. 6 - "Pray and Grow Rich") to describing the heresy of Nationalism and the heresy of Apocolyptism. He uses Thomas Jefferson, Basil the Great, Abraham Lincoln, John Winthrop and many, many others as sources of heresy and orthodoxy.

What a tremendous and thought-provoking read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fundamentalist's Guide to Understanding Revisionists Views of the Historical Jesus July 17 2016
By Sherlie S Scribner - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bad Religion includes reviews of a wide range of scholarly works on the historical Jesus. Douthat expresses his position in the title that the revisionist views of Jesus have led to a decline in Christianity. He appears to believe that the Bishops at the Council of Nicea correctly understood everything that needed to be known about holy texts and succinctly stated it in the Creed in 325. Those who have postulated differing views about Jesus based on noncanonized texts and revised translations are seen as heretics who are somehow responsible for the decline in church membership since the mid 1960s.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings about this book Feb. 15 2015
By Jori Page - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The author is clearly a brilliant man. The book is well-written, smart, and often piercing in its critical analysis. Some parts are truly fascinating and well-worth the slog. However:

1). When a ten cent word and a ten dollar word will both work, the author will always choose the latter. I had to download a dictionary onto my Kindle to read this book.
2). The author spends three hundred pages describing what "Bad Religion" is without nary a word on what comprises "Good Religion". The pessimism gets tiring.
3). It is often too heady, wordy and fact-ridden.
4). I didn't follow the author's point at all regarding Glenn Beck (who shows up surprisingly often in the book - and I am still uncertain as to why...)
5). Ultimately what's the books point? Progressivism and accommodation - bad. I agree, but I knew that going in.
6). A bit surprised that the author preaches an orthodox view of both Christianity and the Bible, yet does not attribute any of the "Bad Religion" to the arc prophesied book of Revelation.