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Is God Irrelevant?

Like it or not, since the 19th century, religion has lost most of its authority as the go-to place for our enduring questions, yearnings, stories and role models.

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It is a bit ironic that sciences are beginning to present—with persuasive documentation (or video clips on YouTube)—evidence that other species behave better than this; that we are the only species that almost routinely kills many members of its own species. The complicity of most churches in Nazi Germany presents a poor argument that the churches have either the needed vision or moral courage to stand up to environments of government-manufactured fear. The good news here may come from our evolutionary sciences.

Primatologist Frans De Waal is one of the most respected and influential ethologists writing today whose well-documented optimism is carried in some of his eight book titles. We are Good Natured, and are parts of the billion-year evolution of many forms of life on the Earth; we are now living, he says, in The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society; we didn’t get our good and evil tendencies from the gods; we are born including both possibilities, and created our gods, religions and civil law codes to serve and teach our higher possibilities to us, our children and their children.

God may be losing his traditional role as the origin and judge of good and evil. But there is also good news. The fruit from that tree of the knowledge of good and evil is finally ripening. The mythical “Kingdom of Heaven” is, as Jesus said, not supernatural, not “coming.” It is the only place it could ever be: within and among us. That “kingdom” exists when we can treat all others as our brothers and sisters, children of God, and the fruits of life’s longing for itself.

Between strident theism and equally strident atheism, apatheism offers a third way. Maybe there are gods, maybe there aren’t; it doesn’t seem to matter. Both the roots and fruits of a good life are measured by laughter among friends, love among families, and serving compassionate values that can grant us, as the gods used to do a purposeful and satisfying life—here and now, rather than elsewhere and later.

Davidson Loehr has a Ph.D. in methods of studying religion, theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with an additional focus on language philosophy (The University of Chicago, 1988). From 1986 to 2009, he served as a Unitarian minister, and has been a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar since 1992. He has one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green, 2005). Now retired from the ministry, he is spending this year building a platform to become involved in national discussions of religion, science, values, and culture, and working on a second book: The Rise of Secular Religion in America.