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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.

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.”