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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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While the media still milks the chattering and snarling between theists and atheists, most people are bored by this show, and many have quietly moved into a more productive position. Growing numbers of people don’t particularly care whether or not there are gods since, even if there are, they don’t seem able to do anything in our world. If they’re omnipotent, they appear to be indifferent to the small and large-scale wars, tragedies, and slaughters around us. If they’re impotent, who needs them?

Even when people are reflexively tempted to thank God for saving them from a disaster that may have killed hundreds or thousands of other people, they don’t want to say it too loudly -- because they know someone may ask them, rhetorically, what their God had against the thousands he let die. Even bromides about God have lost much of their usefulness.

Still, with or without gods, we cannot escape the existential questions that have underwritten all the religions—and most civil codes of law—throughout human history:

Who am I?

What am I serving that will outlive me and carry my love and my work forward?

How should I live so that when I look back on my life, whether a year or decades from now, I can honestly be glad I’ve lived the way I did?

Theologians, ministers, and active congregants may say, correctly, that their religions still offer some responses to these most basic human questions. But theologians and preachers can no longer claim (and anyway are no longer granted) any particular authority for their differing, often warring, prescriptions.

Christine Wicker, author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, and David T. Stone, author of The American Church in Crisis, are among the authors citing research that shows a dismal picture of American religion:

• Christian churches are losing two million people a year.

• Between just 2000-2005, church attendance declined in all fifty states.

• No matter what people may tell pollsters about their church habits, when you count the bodies in the pews, fewer than 18% of Americans attend any church regularly; 82% don’t.

• When asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes ranked lower. After the stories of hypocritical preachers and political moralists caught with paid lovers, it might be interesting to ask the prostitutes about that ranking.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are dismissed as “New Atheists” by many of the faithful. Others see them as today’s prophets. As much as anything, their attacks seem like the moves of predators taking out the weakest members of the herd. Wherever we come down, we have become used to reading—or skipping—broad dismissals of religion like these:

“There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”

“A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western [culture]… Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society. The post-Christian narrative… is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.”

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”

What gives these particular critiques more power is that, in fact, they don’t come from atheists, but from people who are profoundly invested in religion. In order, these three quotes came from Pope Benedict XVI, Dr. R. Albert Mohler (president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY—one of the world’s largest), and Barack Obama.

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. Other stories, other myths, other people have become not only more appealing, but also better at helping us frame our abiding questions and experiences.

In dangerous times, these young people identified with the heroes most able to inspire them, linking their plight with that of an imaginary Na’vi race light years and centuries away. Younger people are surrounded by vivid and accessible myths that have taken the place of the Bible’s traditional role in providing the framework and role models for our lives.

Throughout the 20th century, religion’s stories lost their competitive edge. Books, movies, radio, television, and now (as in the case of James Cameron’s Avatar) computer-generated images that can create a seamless blend of our world and a fantasy world, offering images and a moral that inspire hundreds of millions of people around the world—people of any or no religion—with the role models and moral scripts for which they hunger.

Yes, there are also films from the dark side. Unforgiven, Pulp Fiction, and No Country for Old Men come to mind. But even in these movies where senseless evil wins, we know that these stories have crossed a line far beyond the moral and ethical acceptability: the overwhelming majority of us simply know better. The Bible also has many immoral and psychopathic stories; disobedient teenagers are stoned, non-virginal brides are sentenced to death, Yahweh orders the slaughter every man, woman and child in a village—and worse. The point, in both cases, is that we do know the difference between good and evil well enough to know whether movies, religions, or world events have crossed over the line—at least after the adrenalin rush wears off. The worldwide outrage at the continuing saga of the sexual abuse of children by priests, covered up by their superiors—all the way up to and including the Pope—is a clear illustration.

The Good News, Thanks to Evolutionary Sciences

Scientific fields like ethology (comparative animal behavior) have observed, studied, and often filmed many interactions among animals including chimpanzees, bonobos, monkeys, dogs, rats, dolphins, hawks, elephants, and other species that we recognize immediately as akin to our own sense of fair play, fairness, empathy, and compassion. It is becoming clear that we get our cooperative and moral sensitivities from the same place we get our territoriality, sexual jealousy, and aggression. We weren’t born in “original sin” nor in “original blessing.” We were born with a mixed bag of potential that tilts toward goodness. In social animals like humans, apes, monkeys, dogs, dolphins, and thousands more, we are born incomplete, unfinished, and our potential requires some shaping from our societies. We’re born with the capacities for both good and evil, and “nature” can be either refined or fouled by our social environment. Surely this provides some insight as to why 4% of Americans are said to be sociopaths, 30-100 times more than in Asian countries.

While we are born with a human nature tilting toward good, we can cross over into evil with frightening ease. The well-documented story about the rise of Nazi Germany is as good a case as any. The German people were born neither better nor worse than people around the world. But they showed us the power of charismatic leaders in acquiescent societies, uniting the people in hatred against scapegoat groups that included Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, and intellectuals. Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant “German Christian” churches aided, abetted, and covered for the slaughter of millions of “God’s children.”

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.