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.