Andrew Sullivan's unsurprisingly saccharine piece about the Ashley Smith case symbolizes everything I love and hate about religion.

Sullivan gets a big part of it right. Ashley Smith's story is astounding, both for her courage, and the fact that her courage didn't result in her lying dead in an alleyway. And even I, a fairly devout agnostic (Happy Easter!), am deeply moved by the extent to which Smith's faith played a role in producing her courage. But what kills me about the whole thing is that for many who embrace Smith's story, her courage becomes completely peripheral to the goodness of god. TNR's Lee Siegel observed that the story basically turned CNN into an extended Sunday mass:

Reverend Frank Page, who presented himself as Ashley Smith's pastor and spiritual adviser and was going forth and multiplying himself on every news show in creation, told a linguistically bold Soledad O'Brien (" you think it's sort of a greater power at work in this sort of thing?") that Smith's encounter with Nichols was "part of God's plan."

On her show, Zahn endorsed the idea of a benevolent orchestration of four murders leading to many blessed hours and days of crowd-pleasing coverage like this: "For those who believe God works in mysterious ways, Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols will long remain a case in point, but the legions of those who have been touched by Rick Warren's teachings will not be surprised."

You know who doesn't seem to get a lot of credit here? Ashley Smith, that's who. It seems like the modern religious right has lost a vital focus on the importance of faith. It sees people as mortals, moved around on god's chessboard as part of a "plan" they can't possibly hope to comprehend. Instead of advertizing the incredible power of faith, they seem to cut out the free-will middle man and just talk about the power of god.

As an agnostic, I have to say, this kind of rhetorical move makes religion seem completely alien to me. I can't have anything but respect for the power that religious faith gives people, because faith is an experience I can have, too. But if you start talking about faith as an artifact of god's hand moving all of us around, you lost me. And, more importantly, I think you lose the vital part of religion that sees mankind as beautiful and worthy. The thing I love about organized religion is that it gives people, like Ashley Smith, the power to do things much greater than themselves. The thing I hate about organized religion - or at least, the religious right's version of it - is that the people themselves become entirely incidental to the picture. I like thinking of humanity as beautiful and miraculous; their view reduces humanity to cogs in an impressive machine. If Ashley Smith's interaction with her assailant truly was the work of god, is there anything extraordinary about it at all?

- Daniel A. Munz