Every time I turn around, a new study pops up suggesting that people in this country are deserting their historic Christian religious affiliations. Here's a recent one if anyone needs one.
The "nones" -- some fraction of whom identify as "spiritual but not religious" -- tend to think Christianity is about guilt, condemnation and hypocrisy. They are not fans of claims that churches are being denied liberty.
There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., and this group – sometimes called religious “nones” – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to the new survey. Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S.
... More than 85% of American adults were raised Christian, but nearly a quarter of those who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity. Former Christians represent 19.2% of U.S. adults overall.
Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter writes about the concerns of Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia. Laycock thinks that religious leaders who claim "religious liberty" -- though unspecified he clearly is talking about Catholic bishops and the evangelical Christian right -- are effectively delegitimizing and marginalizing themselves and their institutions.
This is more interesting coming from Laycock than it would be from me, because he was one of the drafters of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a version of which brought infamy on Indiana last spring amid accusations that it would legalize homophobia.
"For tens of millions of Americans, conservative churches have made themselves the enemy of liberty." He fears that more and more Americans are coming to perceive claims of "religious liberty" as a cover for believers who are trying to impose their views on others.
Laycock grounds his perception of what is happening in this country by looking at the history of established religion in France. In that country, religion was the enemy of the anti-monarchical revolution, of democracy, of liberty and equality. So liberty is identified not with protecting religious expression but with tamping down religious power: France has regulations against wearing Muslim headscarves, against some kinds of evangelism, and has tight controls on religious schools which are funded by the government.
"One of the ironies of the culture wars is that religious minorities and gays and lesbians make essentially parallel demands on the larger society," he writes. "I cannot fundamentally change who I am, they each say. You cannot interfere with those things constitutive of my identity; on the most fundamental things, you must let me live my life according to my own values."
Each side of the sexual revolution sees itself as opposing a grave evil and protecting a fundamental human right.
... Laycock quotes Colorado State Sen. Pat Steadman as telling those who wanted a religious exemption to a bill he authored, "Get thee to a nunnery and live there then. Go live a monastic life away from modern society, away from people you can’t see as equal to yourself, away from the stream of commerce where you may have to serve them."
We don't have to look across the ocean to see what can happen when religion becomes identified with repression. The Mexican government is officially secular, despite the religiosity of the country. Does anyone still read Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory? It's potent, in a somewhat horrifying way.
In this country, religion has largely lost the power to dictate personal morals. (Yes, abortion access is a partial exception to this generalization; it's not yet clear where the country will come out there.) If anything is going to save "religious liberty" amid the secular tide, it is probably going to be religion's perceived weakness as much as the enumerated guarantee against governmental interference in the Constitution's First Amendment.
Yet societies do need some kind of moral compass. Whatever we use for that function is not going to be traditionally Christian or even religious. Where do we find it?
My friend Brandon,also like you a committed Christian,is grappling with these problems,too.
As someone who was raised without religion, went into it through my middle years and left it in late middle age, I have seen life and religion from inside and out. I believe, based on personal experience, that atheists/agnostics can live as moral of lives and often more so than those ‘true’ believers who follow some religious dictate without understanding as to where it was supposed to lead—which ends with a lot of the nuttiness today like the bakers in Oregon.
My kids are atheists or agnostics and have been raising their kids with moral values based on what is the right thing to do, how do we want others to treat us, what make us strong as human beings, and which values are most important. Humans do not need religion to be moral, and it doesn't take a deity enforcing rules to live a quality life that balances doing good for others with it for ourselves.
I have a hard time right now with saying anything good about religion when I see the damage it does, how it allows some to be bigots and cruel all while feeling righteous. I could list a ton of examples and not just in one religion. It is found in any of them where the followers consider themselves superior to others based on their ‘faith’ and where they follow some creed blindly.
Religion serves the wealthier and powerful by convincing the poor that they will get a heavenly reward despite living a miserable life. It convinces the rich they can crush others but attain that same heavenly reward by donating to build temples and using some magic words.
If someone feels good about gathering together with like-minded folks, hey, many people like to belong to clubs. To me, that’s their business (unless the club teaches harm to others). When that person though sees themselves as superior to others, that’s when I move toward less tolerance. I remember my days fondly when I was in churches (Catholic and then Evangelical). It felt good, but there came a time when I didn’t believe what they were espousing, where I didn’t want it looking as though I did.
I not only believe a person can live a moral and helpful life without religion, I’ve come to believe it might be harder to do it when living within one of the ones we have today.
For sure, people don't need to adhere to a religion to find ways of living (and feeling they are living) moral lives.
But an advanced capitalist society like ours breaks everyone down into atomized individuals, units of production of wealth for the owners of capital, and would render us isolated, amoral actors. In fact, things have never gotten that bad, because we instinctively preserve a sphere of human solidarity in families and some (fewer and fewer) voluntary social groups -- often under the rubric of religion. And we get on, not terribly. But more and more, our values are ad hoc and I think weakly rooted.
Religion of the authoritarian type, especially where dependent on scientifically unsustainable cosmologies, is dying and that's fine. But we are left to ask from where we derive any ethics of social solidarity.
I think it comes through common causes like environment or slow foods or working for a more ethical world. The ones I know are very involved in social issues. They just don't have some kind of a creed or threat system behind their groups. I know atheists who work to limit or even end abortion, want to end the death penalty, a lot of the same causes with which some churches are concerned. The more I thought about this, after reading your thoughtful blog, the more I do believe it's easier outside religion than inside -- given how many religions have lost their way spiritually. If you read Revelations, you see the description of the churches and see it's always been a small sector who live morally in churches.
To believe in living ethically but without a fear of a punishment behind it is a better way to live anyway.Frankly a lot of the people living the most immoral lives right now, are doing it within a church body... at least that's been my experience. And look at those Republican leaders, all claiming Christianity but with no concern for the poor, for immigrants, and selling their votes for dollars. Even if someone opts to stay with a church, and yes, I liked the camaraderie of it also, they have to find their own ethics. The church can't do it for them even though some of us got into it hoping it could.
"I have a hard time right now with saying anything good about religion when I see the damage it does...."
But not a hard time saying much good about atheism, as if it had done no damage preached by various governing systems. Interesting.
I flatter myself that I have a strong moral base although I'm not religious. It's simple. People should refrain from doing awful things to each other and should help their fellow humans as much as they can. We are a selfish species by nature but also loving and nurturing. It's the paradox of humanity. One thing is that I have no gripes where religion is concerned. All that village atheist stuff bores me senseless.
The issue raised here, amspirnational, was not whether atheism can be bad but is it possible to be moral without religion. Anybody can be bad in any system if that's their goal, but the debate was whether it requires religion to be good. My experience with other people is it does not. Yes, after my personal experience in churches, I know how often people used the-- we're forgiven sinners-- as an excuse to keep right on doing whatever it was-- with frequent trips to the altar. An atheist does not have the luxury of getting a divine being's forgiveness. I won't list the things that happened in those years, but if you have been active in a church and know the people well, you already you know. it can be quite disillusioning if you yourself try to live a moral life. It also was a very negative witness in the community, I should add. Not to say all of those who call themselves Christians live that way. I know they do not. But I know atheists who live right also!
In my country, maybe it's also yours, I doubt an atheist could be elected President. The way some though espouse their 'faith' and then do the things they do, should make people look for actions more than just words.
Incidentally, I don't call myself an atheist. I believe in something out there-- just not in the manmade religions attempting to define what it is...
It's a lot to ponder. As I've posted here before, I go to a Southern Baptist church that I'd characterize as moderately conservative, theologically speaking. In my experience, I've met good and bad people who were and weren't Christian. I also know people who were raised in the church (various denominations) who left because they were "churched out." I also know a guy whose parents were atheists, but who became a Nazarene, although an enthusiast of liberation theology.
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