I have referred before to the WIN-Gallup survey of 57 countries that showed a decline in religion worldwide and a rise in disbelief. When you have a global phenomenon, the reasons for it are likely to be global in scope as well. My argument (made in a series of posts titled Why Atheism is Winning) is that it is the inevitable march of modernity that is slowly but surely killing religion. Religion has no escape. It is anchored in the past by its holy texts and that anchor is a major drag on it, causing it to steadily fall behind even as science and technology are rapidly moving the world forward.
Several readers sent me an article in which the BBC invited two writers to find more specific reasons for the decline in religion in the US, based on local factors. One of them David Ellis Dickerson argues that conservative churches are losing the moral high ground and that what is driving disaffection with religion is the issue of homosexuality. He says that he too started out as a conservative Christian and later became an atheist and that what started the shift was the recognition that the religion’s generally disparaging view of gay people could not be squared with his own experience. “It was only when three of my friends came out of the closet in one month that I was forced to look at the consequences of my theology. It was The Literal Bible As I Understood It v My Friends, and my friends won. Historically, friends always win.”
He argues that religions will have to become less conservative in their moral outlook if they are to not continue to lose members.
Dickerson is right that lived experience tends to trump abstract beliefs, which is another facet of how the routine acceptance of science in everyday life will win over the abstract rejection of it required by religion. But he is wrong when he discounts the influence of the best-selling books by the New Atheists. Those books have brought these discussions of science and religion out of the rarified intellectual world and into the public discourse and made nonbelief seem like a viable option that is within the mainstream. That is a huge advance.
The other point of view was by Rod Dreher who argues the opposite, that the reason for the decline is religion is because they are changing too much with the times, driven by a mushy, non-rigorous, post-modern religious sensibility being led by the mainline Protestant denominations. “America’s postmodern religious future, then, would appear to belong to theological slackers who believe in a vague deity who makes no demands, and only provides psychological comfort. Who needs that mush?” Although he does not say what exactly should be done, the inference from his critique is that the churches should offer a clear and rigorous alternative to the lure of atheism. He seems to be calling for a return to the orthodoxies of the past, in which religions unequivocally laid down the rules that must be followed and did not change with the times.
One thing that struck me was that Dreher supported his view by saying ” At least atheists have the courage of their lack of religious convictions… I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: “because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth”.”
In my readings of the Bible, I could not recall Jesus ever saying such a thing. It also did not make sense since during Jesus’s time he did not set up a ‘church’ even in his own area, let alone in distant places. So where did Dreher get this quote? I looked it up and found that it is in the Book of Revelation, 3:14-16. For those not familiar with the Bible, this is the last book of the New Testament and it is easily the nuttiest. It reads like hallucinatory tract written by someone high on drugs and is the basis for much of the violent imagery favored by those who believe in the Rapture and the end times. It is purportedly a report of the visions experienced by someone named John who claims that Jesus was speaking through him about the end of the world. Most reasonable people treat that book like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving, someone who is usually kept out of sight and ignored but cannot be excluded at formal functions but whom you hope won’t embarrass you.
When people use Jesus to support their views, they stick with the Gospels. I had never met anyone before who actually took John’s ravings at face value as equivalent to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. To have to go to the Book of Revelation to find a Jesus quote to support your point of view would normally be seen as a sign of desperation. Maybe this is Dreher’s attempt to get rid of the mushy cafeteria Christianity, by making all of the Bible be treated as equally authoritative.