A New View of Growing Atheism in the West
To Believe or not to Believe, That is the Question
By: J. Marlando
I have been reading quite a lot lately on a topic that keeps popping up—growing atheism and a reduction of church attendance. Indeed, I just recently read an article in Scientific American Mind by Sandra Upson, the managing editor of that intriguing magazine. The name of her heading: Healthy Skepticism with a sub that asks, “Who is better off: the religious or atheists? Cultural values determine the answer.”
Part of her statistics is that non-believers number between 500 million and 750 million worldwide and, she says that here in the United States the population that proclaims their religious affiliation as “none” has more than doubled over the past two decades. (Another article claims the heavy decline began in 2001 and yet another blames the 1960s. Maybe no one knows for sure but a whole lot of people seem to know that the decline is real).
Upson tells us that “In the least religious nations—which include Estonia, the Scandinavian countries, Hong Kong and Japan—the role of faith in public life can still be surprisingly complex” and goes on to tell us about a sociologist who spent 14 month interviewing people in Denmark, “one of the hallowed lands where religious belief is low, yet people’s spirits are high.”
A major point in her article, I believe is that church goers who live in a community of other church goers are pretty content in their lifestyles while atheists who live in non-believing communities are content in their lifestyles. This makes sense because at bottom line we are after all a social species. In any case, she also tells us that Denmark and Sweden have the lowest church attendance in the world and yet most Danes and Swedes baptize their babies, many by a clergy that doesn’t believe in God either.
I have a couple of friends who are PhDs—one an ex-college professor—both convinced atheists. On the other hand I have a couple of cousins who are Reborn Christians and so they are on the other end of the atheistic pendulum.
Most other people that I know have “somewhat” of a belief in God but are kind of in the center between my PhD friends and my cousins who believe…absolutely.
I believe there is a reason for the non-belief that Ms. Upson speaks of and why lots of people are turning away from their religions. My intent here is to suggest reasons why so many seem to be turning off to God these days and to suggest a new view of turning back.
The Common Causes of Disbelief
I noticed that the Scientific American Mind article did what can be found in a great many other articles and in the conversations of my more skeptical friends. The terms God and Religion are used (or almost used) as in exchangeable meanings. However, to say that people are turning away from their religions is not the same as saying people are turning away from their God. On the other hand, I believe that most people who reject their religion’s teachings interpret the rejection as turning away from their religion’s god.
This is where I see the roots of the loss of faith problem. I consider myself, for example, a “true” believer in God but I have absolutely no faith in any organized religion nor do I believe in the Jewish, Christian or Islamic God which breaks my cousins’ hearts and confuses my atheist friends. How can I claim to be a believer and reject…religion? Indeed, I believe that the very thought of rejecting the god of organized religion will send many readers away at this early juncture of the article. That is fine, my objective is not to discourage or change anyone’s faith. My objective is offer an alternative of returning to God without returning to any bureaucratic organization called the church, temple or mosque.
I will dwell on Christianity here, however, since most reports of the biggest fall in (church) membership has been Christian and anyway I was raised as a Christian and know the most about Protestantism and Catholicism although I’ve studied world religions for a number of years. In any case, I too gave up going to church a very long time ago for exactly many of the reasons covered in the following.
*John Shelby Spong tells us, the biblical phrase “Lord God of the Sabaoth” meant, “God of the military.” I cannot bring myself to bow before a warrior god. He also tells us that in very ancient times “he,” the Lord of the Sabaoth, was a pro-Jewish God, then in 312, this same god was said to favor Constantine over Maxentius in the battle that was fought for the Roman Empire. Later, in 1588 God as both an external power and an invasive deity “became dominant in all Western civilization. When the Spanish Armada, sailing for England in 1588, was destroyed at sea by a storm, it was widely interpreted by the English as a defeat for the Spanish Catholic deity at the hands of the English Protestant deity. God had sent the storm out of the sky to destroy the Spaniards and thus to shape English history with a new version of the biblical favored-nation status.”
All this nonsense is typically among the reasons why thinking people step away from the religious myths that seem to be remaining in the bloodstream of the church. I mean who could possible believe that a God would favor Mormons over Southern Baptists, Protestants over Catholics and Muslims over everyone? As is said, give me a break!
In addition to this the “church” by any other name, is still speaking directly for God just as the ancient god/kings did to keep the citizens of their city/states in line. I really have serious doubts that God relates his messages through some bible-thumping evangelist or oddly costumed pope to keep the rest of we mortals in line. In regard to this, in America it is said our heritage traces back to the Puritans. Nothing to brag about, the puritans were fanatics who came to America to practice their religion freely and then punished (often tortured) people severely for not accepting their faith and following their dictates. Oh well, as Emerson said, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person hypocrisy begins.”
And speaking of hypocrisy, another reason I believe people are sent away from the church is the rejection of the holier-than-thou attitude held by so many church goers. I once lived in Salt Lake, the land of the squeaky clean whose god told their prophet that all other religions were wrong and he needed to start a new one. One would think that God would create his own religion if he desired one. You know, if he created the galaxies, a temple of his own shouldn’t be that difficult. But then again God’s nepotism has always had a few chosen few like Abraham, Moses, Mohammed and Joseph Smith to build his churches for him and enforce his laws.
Since every religions is God’s religion, God must give each a set of rules of their own. The real point of most religions is that anyone who isn’t obedient goes directly to hell. The thought of hell is bewildering to most of us—if God created all things, he must have made Old Red Legs too. Well, I suppose everyone needs an antagonist for their story.
Speaking of mental bewilderment, when God became displeased by the actions of people he flooded the earth the first time and when that hadn’t worked in the second round he could not imagine, with all his creativity, how to save the world from sin except to create a son to suffer and die in an agonizing death for the rest of us. Well my question is, as someone else once asked, if Jesus died for my sins, why do I have to?
With “strange” in mind we run into another irony: Jesus told us not to judge and when sinners asked him for forgiveness he simply said, go and sin no more but God instead whispers to church leaders that penance is needed to be endured by sinners or some other punishment like public confession and so forth. One would think of everyone, Jesus and God would get their stories straight. There seems, however to be a lot of conflict between God, Jesus and most of the rest of us. The very idea that suffering is the path to salvation is enough to turn me off and I imagine it turns off a lot of others too.
There is just so much that “the church” teaches that is difficult to swallow but it isn’t only the church that is getting between God and the rest of us. Adding to the religious pomposities and hypocrisies there is the unfolding of a high tech world and a large population of scientists and other scholars who are teaching the kids the ways of the reductionist—self-enamored people like Richard Dawkins who teaches that we people are nothing other than gene machine; robots!
Atheism is also trendy—in universities there is a certain pomposity that professors pass down to their students in disbelieving in everything that can’t be seen, touched, tasted or in other words experienced in one way or another like sticking one’s tongue in a light socket. Such teachers have barely grown out of Newton’s clockwork universe but never the less believe they know it all.
So there are reasons why “the church” is failing people and in turn people are failing the church. In view of this, I believe the church—all of them, not just the Christians—need to seek new realizations; stop preaching what the somber old men of their histories decided is God’s truth and start opening up to God-ness themselves. I believe that the church, temple, mosque, any architecture that claims to represent God should simply stop the ploy to be the voice of God and instead become the bosom of God’s warmth and compassion, a place of good Samarian-ism and shelter for the needy not a place that preaches fire and brimstone or pompous centeredness or clan-like isolationism—there should be no names above any church or temple or mosque doorways except perhaps a welcome sign. Preachers and priests—all representative of religion, alike should lead the people in song and thanksgiving so God can be realized or, in other words, interpreted instead of being intellectualized as the final judge.
*Spong, John Shelby * Why Christianity Must Change or Die *HarperSanFrancisco
* The Scientific Mind*May/June 2012
Finding the GOD of LOVE
Yes, I am well aware that I sound like the heathen of the Year and atheist of the month but I assure you I am neither—I love the Jesus of history, I pray and I find God everywhere I look—Not the god of war or the punishing god that our religions warn us to fear but a God of unconditional love and universal mind; the God who lifts my spirits when I have fallen and doesn’t throw stones in some absurd statement of cruel justice.
It’s true, I don’t go to church to find my God, I go inside who, *like the Christian mystic Catherine Adorna of Genoa, who lived in 15th century Italy said, “My being is God, not by simple participation, but by a true transformation of my being.” A reminder of what Jesus said about, he and the “father” being one.
The father…? In the times of Jesus, male domination ruled. The religiosity of Ancient Greece had influenced the Hebrews and later the Christians and so even later the Muslims to a strong male deity but God cannot be gendered as the spirit of goodness and love must necessarily permeate all without prejudice or discrimination; God simply is and cannot be named he or she or even it. In regard to this, it is as John Shelby Spong tells us: “There is in this new way of thinking about God none of the external motivation for goodness or faithfulness in worship that was part of the God of the past. Institutional Christianity loses the power it derived from an external God who judged and who imposed motivating rewards and punishments based on judgment.” And as Joseph Chilton Pearce told us: “Mind Mirrors the universe that mirrors man’s mind. Creator and Created give rise to each other.”
As I think about growing atheism in our country and around the world, I believe it is religion that is turning most people away with, perhaps, the icing on that cake being the scientific intellectuals who believe in nothing but their own technologies. And, I believe that as long as we perceive God as being out there someplace beyond the blue of the sky, an old disciplinarian who looks down at us from afar but who we cannot know, see or experience that atheism will keep on the rise. I believe it is not only true but vital that we realize God as the living, creative agent in everything, including ourselves; a God of unconditional love and everlasting life.
Goswami, Amit with Richard E. Reed and Maggie Goswami* The Self-Aware Universe*Tarcher/Putman