Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The New Fabulous Invalid

Woolgathering, mostly, and apropos of nothing except this article at Salon pricked this flow of words out of me.  I don't take it very seriously, but this bit is my favorite:

Anthropologists have often stated that religion evolved to help early man cope with anxiety and insecurity. Barber contends that supernatural belief is in decline everywhere for the fact that ordinary people enjoy a decent standard of living and are secure in their health and finances. “The market for formal religion is also being squeezed by modern substitutes such as sports and entertainment. Even Facebook is killing religion because it provides answers for peculiarly modern narcissistic anxieties for which religion has no answer,” observes Barber.

Yeah?  Name two; from within the past 100 years, and exclude any like Fraser who aren't really widely esteemed anymore.

Honestly, when are atheists going to get out of the 19th century and catch up with the rest of the world?  And religious belief is in decline because of the Industrial Revolution?  No, what's in decline is superstition.  Even in the era of "biblical Israel," the idea that God was responsible for all your comforts and conveniences was never a central teaching of the Torah.  "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"  What in that question speaks to worshipping God so you will be profitable, prosperous, and never know want for all of your days?  Does anybody even read the story of Job anymore?  The story is not just about the problem of evil, it's about the relationship of prosperity to piety.  The Hebrew scriptures are shot through with such stories.  When the widow feeds the prophet, she doesn't do so because God has spoken to her and reassured her she'll survive the drought; she does it because of simply human decency, because of the value and importance of hospitality; because she is a good person.  She doesn't become rich from it, either; she simply survives. Which reminds me the greatest blessing offered in the Christian scriptures is "life into the ages."

If few of us today want to take a lesson from a story that involves surviving on oil and flour until the drought is over, it isn't because we no longer need to cope with anxiety and insecurity.  I'll accept that the "market for formal religion" is being squeezed by sports and entertainment, but I'd also ask when it was every any different?  Theater in Europe was recovered, not by a Greek revival (of which the Renaissance was the first of many) but by the Church.  And you can draw a straight line from theater to movies to TV today, without any real effort.  Did the church wither in the Elizabethan age, when the theater was a rising power?  No, it withered more because it was attached to the state, and as the state stopped letting the church tend to the poor with it's help (Oliver Twist asks for more in an orphanage run by the parish council) and started doing the thing directly, Europeans who associated the church with such charity (as they had associated the church with the law.  There's a reason British barristers wear robes in court, and US judges wear robes as well.  It's the same reason the common law adopted from Britain has a side of equity included.  Equity came from the ecclesiastical courts, where standards of justice were more tempered with mercy than the common law was wont to do.) soon associated the church with things they didn't really need.  Was this the triumph of the Enlightenment?  Or the failure of the Church?

Probably both and a little bit of neither.  It isn't true, though we largely take it as gospel today, that the Church opposed the advance of science via Galileo or Bruno or others, because it superstitiously feared the advance of empirical knowledge.  The Church was much more involved in the politics of the age(s) than it is today, and was more concerned perhaps than it should have been with social stability (on that criticism I will stand with the critics, especially since I never say my ministry as one of upholding the status quo either in society or in the ecclesia).  It sought to control ideas in order to assure stability just as 19th century British intellectuals (at least) sought to tamp down the idea of the "death of God" (they agreed with Nietzsche, so to speak; they were just afraid to say so) for fear the populace would lose their fear of the controlling powers (if the Great Chain of Being is not topped by God keeping all in order, what might the masses think of the monarch and the landed gentry supported by and in turn supporting the monarchy?).  Mendel, after all, was a monk; and a Jesuit priest (as I've said over and over again) formulated the Big Bang theory.  The conflict between Christianity and science is not what it is said to be.

If the Church went wrong in its position on ideas we accept today, we have to acknowledge it didn't try too effectively to suppress genetics or modern cosmology.  And if people have taken a basically heathen position towards Christianity, an idea that God is a cosmic slot machine who is supposed to pay off when they put enough spiritual coins in and pull the lever often enough, is that the fault of religion, or the Church at large?  I think there are better explanations, and I've found most people have rather intractable beliefs about what the Church should do for them, or what God is supposed to be for them.  It lets individuals rather lightly off the hook to say the Church has simply failed or people have simply "outgrown" religion.

And as for anxieties and insecurity being quelled by this modern age, tell that to the families still mourning their losses from 9/11.  Or the Malaysian flight lost at sea; or the mudslide in Washington state.  Or the school shootings, mall shootings, theater shootings of recent memory.  Or the poor living in poverty and inner city squalor or invisibility in the rural areas of just this country.

Have people "given up" on religion?  True, they've taken to mega-churches which preach a very light form of Christianity, if Christianity it is at all.  Other mega-churches thrive, though,  on that "old-time religion," even if it isn't the church of Jerry Falwell anymore, even if they aren't proclaiming their moral majority but just their conviction in some strange new form of Calvinism.  As I've said before, I've heard this refrain before.  In the 1970's, just as I was getting old enough to decide for myself whether to go to church in college or, toward the end of the decade, in my married life, the predictions were coming hard and fast again that young people were leaving the churches and organized religion was doomed.

And perhaps as a social organization it is, but the fault is not in religious belief nor in acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory (Oh, yeah, that's a reason, too:  "With an increasingly majority of younger Americans accepting evolution as fact, Christianity for many under 35 is becoming a watered-down hybrid of eastern philosophy and biblical teachings."  This assumes, of course, that prior generation, mine included, rejected evolution, and so kept our Christianity.  It's a stupid assertion with no basis in anything except knee-jerk atheism.  But I digress....); it is in sociology and even in the Industrial Revolution.  Sociologists have identified reasons for the decline in church attendance, even as they identify reasons for church attendance; and the primary factor has more to do with how we see ourselves as individuals in society now, than it does with our scientific beliefs, or lack of them.  Church is first and foremost a community, but that is increasingly an odd thing in a society that values "bowling alone."  And communities are hard to maintain in a world where people don't live where they grew up, and don't stay long where they are living.

I pastored a church which was built around a farm community that left vestiges of its existence despite the fact the area around the church was now urban/suburban, and plants existed only between the streets and the buildings and the parking lots, rather than the buildings among the plants.  That community was one homogeneously white and largely German; by the time I got there the community was black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean; and "Hispanic" is just an umbrella term for people from many countries in Central and South America.  Whites were a minority, and many who grew up in that church now lived so far away, or were so old, they couldn't attend anymore.  But even those who hadn't darkened the church door in decades were still "members," and even though the community of that church had decayed to a bare remnant, that community still determined who was, and who was not, permitted there.  I see a lot of churches around me now comprised of small groups of common ethnicity:  Korean, Vietnamese, "Hispanic."  Are they in decline, too?  I wonder if they are even counted, yet.

Are mainline denominations in decline?  Yes.  The world they were once a part of is gone.  Is that a failure of religion, or a failure of the institution to adapt?  The Roman Catholics seem to have adapted better than the Protestants, or at least seem to be more adaptable.  Protestantism was always an expression of the culture more than of the institution; the former gave rise to the latter.  Now that culture is changing away, and the old orders will not prevail against the change.  There is even, in the wisdom of the church, an expectation of this:

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
Will the Church withdraw into a remnant of what it once was?  Only to the extent it stops serving the people.  This may be what Bonhoeffer meant by a "religionless" religion; not because the culture had become atheistic, but because the Church no longer served the needs of modern existence.  There's a great deal of effort going into responding to those needs, and a great deal of it is being accepted.  It may be the reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated.  It may be, as Evelyn Waugh (IIRC) predicted, that European-American Christianity will be saved by African missionaries.

In any case, it is far too soon to be triumphantly driving nails into Christianity's coffin.  It may be Christianity just needs a new Reformation; that the "end of Christendom" has finally come, and it is a necessary one to move the Church into the third millennia.

And ain't it funny, again, how nobody ever mentions Judaism in these discussions?  I wonder why that is.....*

*don't tell me it's because of percentage of the population.  The article mentions (and I accept the statistic arguendo) that 1% of the US population is Muslim.  What percentage is observant (v. ethnic) Jewish?  And why isn't that ever raised to make one point or another?


  1. And again, we see that there is nothing new under the sun:

    Christianity for many under 35 is becoming a watered-down hybrid of eastern philosophy and biblical teachings.

    I am sure that both Sadducees and the various groups of Zealots/Essenes said a similar thing about Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism. I am sure that Jews said similar things about the nascent religion of Christianity. I am sure that Christians throughout history said the same thing of Judaism.

    In fact, I can think of a couple of prominent Rabbis in my denomination who would say that exact same thing about Judaism and follow it up with "and this is the way it should be … young people are getting Judaism right!"


    That community was one homogeneously white and largely German […] I see a lot of churches around me now comprised of small groups of common ethnicity: Korean, Vietnamese, "Hispanic."

    But isn't this again, the same as it ever was? It's just the ethnicities that are changing while some groups assimilate into the "white" culture.


    And ain't it funny, again, how nobody ever mentions Judaism in these discussions? I wonder why that is.....*

    Don't worry, I'm here now! ;)

    Seriously, though, part of it is that being Jewish is as much about ethnic identity as about theology. I would imagine that there is a similar omission in these discussions of Eastern and "Oriental" Orthodox churches for similar reasons.

    That being said, within the Jewish community, you will hear a lot of the same worries about declining synagogue attendance, etc., as you do in Protestant (or even Catholic … and no doubt in all other religious) circles. What's interesting is the "nobody ever mentions" issue works both ways -- discussions within the Jewish community proceed as if we live in a vacuum or embedded in some generic, secular American culture. That the challenges faced by mainstream synagogues are very similar to those faced by mainline Protestant churches hardly gets mentioned.

  2. But isn't this again, the same as it ever was? It's just the ethnicities that are changing while some groups assimilate into the "white" culture.

    Yup. And pretty much what I meant, although I think I stopped before I made that clear. The church is dead, long live the church.

    Or synagogue. Mosque. Temple. What have you.....

  3. That the challenges faced by mainstream synagogues are very similar to those faced by mainline Protestant churches hardly gets mentioned.

    And I think, as you said at the beginning of your comment, 'twas ever thus. If my own life experience is any guide (and who knows?), I've been hearing this refrain since I was in high school. The usual comparison, though, is with the church after WWII, when there was an explosion in church attendance, really all out of proportion to anything seen since the Puritans started their colonies (and lost control of them within just a few years, really).

    We've been returning to status quo ever since. As I've said before, but am too lazy to look up (somebody ought to organize this place!), this could be a good thing, this decline of the grand old institutions. Maybe it's clearing away the dross; maybe it's a transformation.

    Either way, it's coming, and I suggest facing it without expecting it to be more than it is. You'll always be disappointed by that hope.

  4. It's telling that C. J. Werleman has written pretty much the same distortions of the Pew research findings that he and other writers at Alternet have written before. And they know that they are lying about them because I've pointed that out to them before, at Alternet. And that Salon has repeated those lies. After observing the behavior of atheists online, the anonymous ones on comment threads and even those who put their names on articles, I've come to the conclusion that when you don't believe in sin, you don't believe it's a sin to lie and you are more likely to lie if you figure you can get away without paying a price and atheists allow other atheists to lie as they know they are lying. That is one of the things that the experience of going on line has taught me.

    Having worked in a public library before, it's a known phenomenon that people will use the library when they are children, they will disappear for a decade or two when they are teenagers and, later, when they have children or get older. they'll start using it again. I suspect something like that happens with churches.

    I don't attend mass or other services but I don't think I've ever been more religious or more realistically religious. As time goes on and often against what I'd really like to believe, I see more and more reason to believe. Finding out how much of the case for atheism is a complete lie and realizing that it is cowardly to not come to conclusions that are staring you in the face has had a minor role in that conversion. So, maybe I'm an example of how people return to religion as they gain knowledge. It is as Francis Bacon said that a little philosophy inclines people to atheism but fuller knowledge produces religious conviction. I once read something that the atheist God(less) father, Paul Kurtz wrote by way of philosophy and it was as callow and superficial as anything I've seen produced by a professor of philosophy. I once read a review of his book, "Exuberance" that said his book had a lot in common with Shirley Maclaine's writing.

  5. If my own life experience is any guide (and who knows?), I've been hearing this refrain since I was in high school. - RMJ

    I cannot remember a time in my life in which there have not been predictions of the imminent demise of my (current) denomination (Conservative/Masorti Judaism). And yet, after > 30 years, the movement is still alive and kicking. And you are right about the timeline, as far as I know, at least for our movement, the comparison point is, AFAIK, just after WWII, as well.