A Crisis of Faith: The Decline of Organized Religion

Some statistics say that US church membership is in decline.  Every person I speak to that  doesn’t go to church wants something more than a single book from 2000 years ago to find meaning in their lives.  They also don’t want someone telling them how terrible we all are.  In a world that at times seems hopeless, they are looking to faith for inspiration and reassurance rather than fire and brimstone.  For me personally, sitting in church on one of the few days off I get during the week, singing old music, listening to a speech, and studying an ancient book all fail to make my life feel meaningful or make me feel a part of a community of like-minded individuals.

A man-made faith For every person that tells me a holy text is divinely inspired, I ask why have their been no additional divinely inspired texts recently.  Where is God today?  The answers are many, but one reason church attendance may be down is a failure to recognize new ideas, to update rituals of worship, to leave out the thee’s and thou’s and begats.  Men, and I do mean it as gender-specific, have written all of the canonic religious texts.  The fact that religion excludes half of our population or seeks to limit their role or potential is a non-starter for me.  The fact that some countries are governed closely with their dominant religion and that women don’t have a place at the table (except to prepare the food and bear children), is another reason I have not to like religion much.  Men sat down together at the Council of Nicea and said, “Here’s the Bible, here’s the church” and from the earliest iterations to the multitude of denominations and practices this is the church we know today created by men for men.

The Fallible Document  Every time I hear that the Bible is infallible, I always wonder why being so unimpeachable it is the most interpreted and contentious text in history.  It is easier for Christians to look at the Middle East as an illustration of how differences in interpretation have led to wars, and definitely to extreme suffering, but it is true of Christianity as well as any large religion.  The Bible now over 2000 years old is supposed to be the instruction manual for my life.  Even textbooks get a second edition every other year.  Why is this document so relevant that it will continue on down throughout history unchanged?

It is readily apparent to anyone who spends enough time reading the Bible that there is good content and moral instruction, but the morality comes at the price of belonging to a religion and a church and holding one text above all others.  It is the exclusion and resistance to change that leads to its own decline.

Comparative Religion Moral instruction, a monotheistic religion, and a promise of eternal life are found in at least 3 major world religions.  Why is one better than any other?  My answer would be conquest, war, and aggressive missionary practices (yes, both kinds).  These acts and not the morals they espouse have made one religion more widespread than another.  If the quality of a good religion is moral instruction alone, you could hold up most major religions as good examples that can be basically distilled into don’t kill people and don’t steal from people.

Unfortunately there is no moral GRE that qualifies only people with high ethical standards to be in places of leadership in the church and without, so some of the worst people in history have been practitioners of religion.  It is from a place of conquest that majority religions have spread, not from their moral imperative.  Conversely, it does not require religion or religious understanding to have high moral standards.

The Enlightened Community Although the US is a majority Christian nation, it’s church attendance and membership population is in decline.  This could be partially in relation to freedom of religion becoming freedom from religion.  Church for many is no longer the center of the community as people find their interests and community link them to societies, hobbies, and other memberships that to them have greater meaning than a church family.

Some in the church decry this as a slide toward hedonism or consumerism, a soulless unfulfilling life that will always be lacking.  Instead of facing a modern society and watching the unaffiliated churches that are filling the pews, the establishment church is fine with business as usual, a stale bureaucratic existence.  If they don’t adapt, they are doomed to continue to decline.

There are those also who like what the Bible has to say, it’s parables, but choke on the promise of eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and/or the one true God.  Looking for an explanation for life, the universe, and everything, Douglas Adams exclaimed that the answer was 42.  Those fleeing the church have found the Biblical answer equally unsatisfying and frustrating.  Science has advanced to a point where our understanding of the universe is deep and nuanced and we can spend our entire lives searching for more answers.  The answers that science provides in many ways refute a religious view of our world, but in one way there is an irrefutable immutable answer that always eludes science: creation.

God vs. Science  The evidence we have shows that our planet is billions of years old, and why this is a refutation of religion, I don’t know, but it is a sticking point with creationists who declare the world is flat and less than 10,000 years old.  Science can take us back as far as the Big Bang, but does not currently have an explanation for that first force that set the Big Bang in motion, nor does it explain what happened before that moment in time.  If that isn’t the greatest evidence for some sort of supernatural deity, I don’t know what is.

From the primitive worship of Greek and Roman, Hittite and Sumerian gods, to the new monotheism, we have always looked to a supernatural beings to explain what we don’t understand.  We still do.  What happens to consciousness and individuality at death?  The thing we greatly fear is oblivion, the loss of being, and from that fear springs a belief in a neverending afterlife.  We as rational amazing animals cannot accept that our only purpose is to live and die and survive.  So we have fabricated the promise of eternal life.  But why should we live this mortal life, if we can have eternal life on another plane of existence?  Even typing these words is difficult and produces in me a great deal of existential angst.  Religion answers these questions and fears in a way that science cannot, because science has an answer we do not want to hear.  Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but we don’t know about your personality, your individuality, or your soul.

But if we focus our collective intellects on a better understanding of our universe, we discover that the sun is not a god in a chariot driving across the sky, but a giant ball of burning gas.  Jupiter is really a gas giant and not a star, and stars are similar to our sun.  Only not all stars are the same.  Some are older, some are younger, and when they go supernova, some create black holes.

And to me these explanations while not as fanciful are infinitely more exciting and meaningful.  And so far they have done nothing to diminish the possibility that beyond the Big Bang we live in a created Universe.  As long as there are questions left unanswered, there lives my God.  And really my God is a god of discovery and curiosity and creation.

If I had my way, ancient religions and practices would fall away in favor of soulful community, the pursuit of discovery, and instilling in every person a feeling of purpose for the betterment of themselves, their families and humankind for now and for the possibly infinite future.  But what do I know?  I’m just some damn fool idealist.

Social Media Feed:  A Healthy Diet

I am alarmed in daily conversations with the number of seemingly high-functioning adults that talk about social media exhaustion or bombardment and have made the decision to quit these platforms–even if only temporarily.  My wife and I like to call them “the Facebook suicides.”  How often do you see someone who posts that they’re taking a break from Facebook usually around a particularly contentious political campaign or a contentious post that leads to argument?  Even in that “suicide note” there is either a play for attention or a feeling of obligation to others.  Although, my reaction is sometimes “bye, Felicia” I think that it is a cry for help.

I have a few tips, personal rules, and advice to give on this subject to help protect ourselves not only from bad people and circumstances, but also to protect ourselves and not invest our emotional capital in too many stories.

Social media rule #1-You Are What You Eat.  If you consume a steady diet of bad news, don’t be surprised if you don’t become cynical and depressed.  Feed yourself inspiration and you will be inspired and inspire others.  There is a cultural phenomenon I’ve noticed where people feel they are obligated to care for the world or for a certain caliber of literature or to care about all the terrible things happening in the world.  It is the same with people that become trapped in the 24-hour cable news cycle.  I don’t know where this obligation comes from, but I do know that escaping it can be difficult.  Some do it for the schadenfreude, some to stay informed, but others increase their own suffering by reading about the suffering of others.  It is one thing to stay informed about world events, but it is another to wallow in the rampant misery that can be found in the greater world.  News media gravitates toward the most terrible events and sensationalizes them.  There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and we cannot possibly hope to experience all their suffering to be informed about all their lives, nor can we have the empathic capacity to care for them all.  Nor does it do us any good to hear about something we cannot have a reasonable impact on.  The news tends to follow anything related to death, so if that is all we consume, we can quickly form a world view that does not acknowledge the good things that are happening all around us.

Conversely, some people worry that only focusing on good things means you are ignorant and unprepared for the real world.  By my way of thinking, the world is what we make of it.  If consuming good news gives me hope, optimism, and energy, these are things I think will help me make my bit of the world a better place.

The great thing about Social Media is that it is a tool.  It is one way in which we can experience the world, and we can set our filters, use our privacy settings and be largely in control of what we see.  We must remember that we have control.  Facebook, for example has some amazing tools that let you see more of what you want, less of who you don’t, or let’s you begin and end friendships every day.

Social Media Rule #2:  Friends.  How many do you need?  Let’s be honest that social media is a popularity contest.  That is what drives you to have 500 friends on Facebook, 1000s on Twitter and Insta.  We have an innate desire to be well-liked.  Although social media can be a powerful tool to connect, there are few personal, intimate, and meaningful connections we actually make online.  We certainly can’t be good friends to hundreds or thousands.  I can sit on my feed and like posts all day long trying to honor every acquaintance I’ve ever made hoping that out of a hundred likes, they see mine, and that they appreciate how I’m cultivating that relationship, but it does nothing to strengthen the deep connections I have with my closest friends.

Don’t be friends on social media with people who upset you on a regular basis by what they post.  Unfriend.  It is simple.  If this person a) notices and b) is offended enough to ask why, you can honestly say that your posts upset me and I found I was no longer enjoying my feed because of you.  Sometimes it’s what someone needs to hear, and if they can’t accept the criticism and become abusive, it is time to cut that person from your life.

On the other end of this argument are the connections we choose to make online that are good for us.  For example I have a friend I went to college with who lives far away.  I don’t know if I will ever see him again or talk to him on the phone for that matter, but our beliefs and interests are such that we find a lot in common and online it is a wonderful friendship that I find worth cultivating.  He also makes me laugh.  Humor is an important component of my friendships and that’s what makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.

Social Media Rule #3:  Comments.  Nothing more than a few sentences at most.  What an incredible tool we have to start conversations, but it is fairly easy to get drawn into arguments, name-calling, and again feeling terrible.  I try to limit my comments to something brief, because it is really easy if you disagree with something to start typing a letter.  The problem with this type of rant is that you aren’t composing an email to send, but are immediately responding to something usually from a very emotional place.  So again, if I start to get a couple paragraphs deep, I know that it is something I’m passionate about and that I need to reconsider my response.

Often what I will do is copy and paste my comment into a blog post, and then if someone wants to read it later they can after the emotion of the moment is spent.  The comment is usually for my benefit anyway.  And sometimes writing it out in something I’m going to edit allows me to carefully think about what I want to say and sometimes I will delete, leave for later editing, or find a more succinct way to say what I want to say.

I still believe that conversations of a serious nature in order to be productive should be had in person, or on the phone at least.  There is so much room to interpret tone and meaning in the written word.  I break this rule from time to time and almost always regret it.  If a long response starts a contentious conversation, you can always ignore additional responses.  As tempting as it is to tell someone how wrong they are and point out their inconsistent arguments, it is almost always fruitless.

Social Media Rule #4: Post Frequency.  Have you ever experienced the dreaded anxiety of wondering whether someone is reading your post?  Did they click the video?  Do they understand the essential you-ness of you?  If you look to social media for all of your validation, it may be time to get out of the house a little.

I follow a rule of three most often.  I can easily find more than 3 things I want to say or share in a row, but I know that frequent posting is a turn-off for many, so I try and distill my posting to once a day, two to three times if I can’t help myself.  Now, if you are blogger or make your living by cultivating an online audience, you might follow different rules, but for most of us, this is a good rule not to turn off the people who already like you and appreciate your insights and informative posts, pictures of family and food, the memes, the humorous articles.

There is so much to consume, but it is good to stop and take stock from time to time about how beneficial it is to us and get back in control of our social media diet.

 

We Have Nothing To Fear…

I have a passage I have tried to memorize known as the Litany Against Fear. It is from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune.  It is a mantra repeated by a group of very wise sisterhood in the book called the Bene Gesserit.
It reminds me of how many different aspects of our lives might be governed by our fears. Our careers, family, friendships, community, our dreams, desires and distractions. And it reminds me not to let fear overcome my thoughts.
It goes like this:

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.”

In Dune, for the people of the desert known as the Fremen they had two great fears.  One was the Coriolis storm, a sandstorm of such strength that there were stories it would kill a man and leave nothing but bones behind.  The other great fear was the great Worm or Maker, giant sand-worms that burrowed through the desert and were attracted to the sounds of machinery or human activity.  They too would destroy anything in their path and leave nothing behind.  These were the fears they faced.

Our real fears are a trifle less fantastic, but no less significant and can metaphorically consume us if we allow them.  Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of difference, fear of letting your guard down, these are all very natural and common fears we face every day.  My hope is that we each find courage whether in a mantra, a litany, faith, or other means to face our fears and overcome them, and can witness our own potential.

The only other thing I can say about overcoming fear is that it is easier if you can share it with others.  Bringing your fears into the light of a shared kindness and understanding makes them shrivel like raisins in the sun.

Personal note:  I say this to myself as I run.