A More Christian World – With Fewer Christians?

Hello friends,

Recent news of the sale of Andover-Newton’s campus, where I was a seminarian from 2004-2009, has me thinking of the future of faith. News of the decline of religion in America has been coming in steadily for several years now, each report highlighting the same data: the Millennial generation is the least religious in American history, the numbers of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated people is skyrocketing (now anywhere between 16-25% of the population), churches are cash-strapped and closing in the face of dwindling attendance. Popular culture reflects changing demographics, too: more celebrities are “coming out” as proud atheists, talk-show pundits are more critically assessing faith and religion, and films and television shows are comfortable picking on faith or showcasing non-religious characters.

Empty pews: this cathedral is a sign of the times, as religious affiliation reaches historic lows. (c) 2009 Jace Paul

My own denomination, The United Church of Christ (which I’ve also written about here), is one of the “mainline” churches experiencing the worst of religious decline. The UCC is a very liberal denomination, and one thing liberals proudly shun is conformity. We’re not very judgmental and don’t care for shame or “sin” as tools for religious formation. All good things – but the flip side is we don’t have a very good retention rate for members. (Which is just to say that conservative Christians are very good at bullying, threatening, and shaming people into staying in church.) We identify ourselves primarily as agents of change, and proudly showcase our record of being on the right side of history. We ordained African Americans when other churches would not. We ordained women and advocated for suffrage and reproductive freedom while others crusaded on patriarchal, misogynistic platforms against equality and abortion. We welcome LGBTQ people into our ranks of members and clergy, and performed same-sex marriages long before they were common or even legal.

I have the utmost respect for people of all faiths, and of no faith. I have now been both a Christian and an atheist, and it turns out I’ve landed back in the community of believers, with a lot more self-awareness and (I would like to think, anyway) a more evolved and critical faith. In a nutshell, I’ve come to the conclusion that – while the universe is governed by bare facts that none of us can escape (including the accepted model of cosmic inflation or the “big bang theory,” and evolution, by the way), we humans are fortunate enough to have the faculties of meaning making: imagination, creativity, hope, intelligence, and wonder. Life is enriched by this infusion of constructive thinking, taking us further than the acceptance of what is and must be, and closer to a state of gratitude and joy. It’s not for me to say what set of beliefs or ideas are best, and I don’t believe there’s a fixed path to perfect happiness in any case.

Ideally, however, any beliefs that one chooses should assume a number of things that, strictly speaking, are beyond proving empirically. They include, for example, the notion that all life has equal value, and all beings are deserving of equal dignity and freedom. That kindness and compassion are almost always a better choice than hatred or violence is another essential truth. And, one more, that we are bound in a common fate to our planet and our fellow homo sapiens, and that web of dependence compels us to act for the best interest of the whole more often than our own self-centered desires. These are beliefs easily discovered (if not always practiced) in many of the world’s major faiths, and in secular humanism, too.

The good news to temper the decline of religion is that progress has kept up or caught up with the church and now, while much work remains, gender, racial, and sexual identity equality have made significant in roads in America. While people will point to the rise of Donald Trump as a sign of persistent racism and ignorance (and indeed, it is), I think the broad arc of evolution favors progressive thinking and social justice. After all, we’ve had our first black president and legalized same-sex marriage across the land in less than a decade. And twenty years ago, would an openly socialist candidate like Bernie Sanders, running on a platform of free college, universal healthcare, and a living minimum wage ever have come as far as he has in a presidential election? I think not. Many problems remain, but with each year, the nation leans further left.

So let’s return to the story of my own denomination, which is Christian, and consider the tension between faith and secular progress. I raise the news of religious decline and the social justice aims of my church to pose a question – what if the end result of a more progressive America is the loss of religion? How would we feel about that?

I’m sure some folks will reject the question off the bat as a false dichotomy. We can have a more just world AND a robust religious identity, they’ll say. Perhaps. But right now, progressivism seems to be rising at the cost of religiosity. If present-day Europe is a portent of things to come, we can expect significant gains in social and political progress with a related decimation of the church.  (And, as an aside, we can certainly understand why this is happening: Christianity has become undeniably linked with the worst forms of ignorance and fundamentalism in America. Rather than adopt of more nuanced, forward-thinking form of faith, most people are so disgusted that they’d rather leave faith behind completely). So assuming this trend continues unabated, we’re facing the world we’ve always wanted…without the faith we hold so dear. What do we make of this?

This may come down to the “faith versus works” debate that’s plagued Christianity for as long as it has existed. If you hold that faith alone justifies a person, then every soul in a world filled with kind, compassionate people helping one another is still lost. If you’re firmly in the works camp, you’re content with a world full of atheists as long as the hungry are fed, the sick being treated, and the oppressed set free.

I don’t have an answer myself, but I will say that I incline toward the feeling that what matters ultimately is justice and equality. But, I hasten to add, I don’t think we’ll get there unless we adopt some of the principles I outlined above – an ethics that unites people of all faiths and no faith. That ethics, I believe, will require more than an acceptance of what is, since science is moot on certain values and principles that I believe are needed (though, I point out that some atheists, including Sam Harris, have tried to build an ethics based purely on science or logic).

In any case, it’s quite possible for Christians that we will see the new world Christ proclaimed – poverty eradicated, the guns of war silenced at last, equality and dignity for all – with much less of a Christian presence in it. What do we make of this?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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