New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote this interesting column about the persistence of religion. Here is an apt summary:
While science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious, the cold, hard facts are just so cold and hard. Yes, the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Yes, there is a plethora of Biblical contradictions. Yes, there is mounting evidence from neuroscientists that suggests that God may be a product of the mind. Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?
That sums things up rather well. (I especially like the implication that evolution is something that ought to give pause to religious believers.)
The motivation for Blow’s column is a recent survey from Pew. Blow writes:
“Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.”
So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends.
Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.
(It should be noted that about a quarter of the unaffiliated identified as atheist or agnostic, and the rest said that they had no particular religion.)
So what was the reason for this flight of the unchurched to churches?
Did God appear in a bush? Did the grass look greener on the other side of the cross? Or was it a response to the social pressure of being nonreligious in a very Christian country?
None of those reasons topped the list. Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.
Being affiliated with a religious group is not the same as being religious. When I am asked about my religious affiliation I always identify myself as Jewish, but I am as hardcore an atheist as you are likely to meet.
I think Blow is right, though, that for many people religion has far more to do with social activity than it does with getting right with God. Having lived in Central Kansas for several years I can tell you that in many parts of the country if you are not actively involved in a religious organization you are going to have very little social life at all. The local culture is so drenched with Christianity that you really feel you are being left out of something by not participating. I have no doubt that on Sundays the churches contain many who are just going through the motions.
People doing whatever they need to do to get through the day is fine with me. It’s a pity, though, that so many don’t seem able to have their spiritual needs met without also trying to have the government address the perceived spiritual needs of their unchurched neighbors.
For myself, I have never found anything remotely inspiring in the world’s religious traditions. I have attended Saturday morning services at a variety of synagogues. They were uniformly horrible. You don’t fully understand boredom until you have had the experience. The handful of church services I’ve attended have not been any improvement. But if other people enjoy them, then, hey, different strokes and all that.
Blow closes with:
As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.
We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves.
Dale McGowan, the co-author and editor of the book “Parenting Beyond Belief” told me that he believes that most of these people “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.”
Churches, mosques and synagogues nurture and celebrate this. Being regularly surrounded by a community that shares your convictions and reinforces them through literature, art and ritual is incredibly powerful, and yes, spiritual.
The nonreligious could learn a few things from religion.
The problem is that religion is inspiration on the cheap. It provides transcendence only by inventing things from whole cloth, or from dubious claims to be in possession of a divine revelation, or from demanding unswerving fealty to religious authorities who have done nothing to earn the respect accorded to them. Many people find such things inspriing. I do not.
There is far more inspiration to be found in science and reason then there is from religious dogmas. The Origin of Species has far more of the transcendent than the Bible. Darwin’s work is inspiring not just for the bright light it shines on fundamental questions of our existence, but also for the fact that creatures now exist capable of sifting the evidence and unravelling their history. What can the Bible offer to compare?
The flash of insight that comes from solving a difficult math problem, or from coming to understand a difficult proof devised by someone else, that’s what gets me thinking about transcendance and inspiration. The sheer ingenuity that gets brought to bear by mathematicians and scientists in the pursuit of their work is a far greater thing than the outdated fictions of religious clerics.
Where’s the inspiration in the idea of an all-powerful God who will condemn us to Hell just for thinking the wrong thoughts? Or in the idea that we are such worthless sinners that God was forced to accede to the the torture and death of His son as payment for our crimes? That’s what people find inspring? Count me out.