The Challenge to the Church in The Modern World (Or, What’s It All About Anyhow?)
I have been struggling with the fact that my church, The United Methodist, is dying. Quite literally, its members are dying and not being replaced with equal numbers.
The reasons are complex, but the most obvious is its assertion of the supernatural as fact. The “magic word” of course is “Faith”. That is supposed to excuse all the silliness.
Jesus, who the church assumes really existed in flesh and blood, and maybe he did, is somehow equal to, or is, God.
As I have written before in Perspectives of a Small Town Lawyer, “Burt’s Views on Religion and Religiosity”, , each religion seems unable to resist giving its founder supernatural trappings and attempting to control the thinking of its penitents.
I cannot tolerate this, but I remain in the church, where I have been, with some interruption, for 68 years.
Almost as obvious to me is that the church requires this “faith” of its members. If you don’t have it, they don’t really want you. I make my way in the church by keeping these views to myself, and attending choir and church, and participating. I avoid Sunday school and discussion groups.
While I agree with Prof. Richard Dawkins in his reliance on the truths that science provides, I am resisting his assertions that skeptics need to unite and outcompete religion. Militant atheists sound to me no different than other closed minded groups.
For now, I shall not become a “group of one”, but will try to suggest a way my religion can become tolerable to me and survive in the modern world. I confess, I do not think it can.
For purposes of this analysis, I will pretend the world had four kinds of people, and myself (a fifth group composed of one person).
Group 1: People who are limited by tradition, learning, intelligence, fear, or delusion and who believe in supernatural religious concepts such as heaven, hell, and myth as truth.
Group 2: People who know in their hearts that the supernatural does not exist (except that certain clothes, words, or rituals effect the outcome of sports contests), but because of tradition, fear, or a desire not to offend act as if they believe and feel ambivalence.
Group 3: Intelligent, well educated people who acknowledge that the supernatural doesn’t exist but who want their church to survive and want to believe, at the very least, that something intelligent got things going and set up the order of things.
Group 4: Hard-headed assertive, and sometimes militant, believers in science who are willing to call themselves atheists and are strongly anti-religion.
Then there is I, who do not believe in the supernatural, or a sentient creator (prime mover), but who expects never to accept a label like atheist or even agnostic. My group of one does not wish for the end of all religion (yet, but I have certainly been considering it) because no one has figured out what will replace it. I at least want to have an idea before I chuck the whole thing. Also, for now, I wish to remain a member of the church I have been with for a lifetime.
Flash back 52 years or so to a Methodist Youth Fellowship (M.Y.F.) regional gathering at the Moundsville, WV, Methodist Church in Marshall County. Our speaker was a good looking college basketball player, all conference point guard from a Va. small college. He had been “saved” and wanted the same fate for us. He told of his conversion and his desire to serve the Lord via Jesus. I felt – nothing. It made me uncomfortable.
At the end of his sermon, he announced the organist was going to play hymns in order to give us time to feel the spirit, come to the alter-rail, kneel, and be saved. Some of the kids were crying, others were clearly moved, and most appeared embarrassed to stay in their pews. And then there were the few of us who refused to budge.
Some hopped up happily and came up to kneel. I figured they were pretty much saved already. Others slowly followed, and I was surprised that some simply caved to the pressure and reluctantly knelt. That’s when I knew I would never be saved. But flash back, and forward, again:
1. When I was perhaps five, maybe six, I got my cousin Karen to confirm what I had figured out by counting the chimneys in my grandparents’ neighborhood and multiplying (although I knew not what that was) them by the dozens of other neighborhoods that existed in the world, that there was no Santa Claus. Reluctantly, cousin Karen filled in for me the mystery of the toys under the tree, and got in trouble.
2. But, as an adult, when a close family member was facing permanent disability or death, I promised something unknown and unseen that if that person were restored to health, I would sing in our choir to the day my breath ran out. As I sit here, I love singing in the choir, but I stay there, and the church, hypocrite or not, because I dare not go back on that promise. You see, that person was not just restored to health but was set on a path to an exemplary and happy and productive life. Who can argue with that.
Where am I headed with this? To the question how does one reconcile a belief that religion is based on fear and ignorance, control and prejudice, and that its time his come, with a belief that mankind needs every source of ethics and morality it can use?
For myself, and other skeptics, how does a person who does not believe the teachings of the supernatural presented at every sermon and Sunday school justify spending a few hours each week at a church service or choir practice?
I have given my word on two profound things in my life:
1. If Nancy would fall in love and marry me, I would try to be a good husband and father; and,
2. If a close relative would recover from a life threatening illness, I would stay in the choir, and therefore the church, for life.
Since writing the paragraphs above, I have watched the movie “Noah”, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and received a review of “God is Not Dead” from a person I respect who says it catered to every prejudice and fear of the religious right. He says the only thing it lacked was Ted Nugent cutting off the heads of unbelievers.
Noah was one of the silliest and worst movies I ever saw.
This paragraph is the transition paragraphs for two articles I have written. Above I discuss how I have got to this point in my thinking, and below separates the teachings in the bible (Old and New Testaments) in unimportant and important.
My conclusion is there is nothing in the bible regarding the supernatural that needs to be there in a modern world. If you have the patience, read on and see if you believe me.
Important vs. Unimportant
U = Unimportant
I = Important
U – Everything was created by an infinitely wise and powerful creator or prime mover.
I – Something existed that turned into our universe. There is no evidence that this “something” was a creator or was created by a creator. Our universe just might be one of an infinite number of universes, and there is certainly nothing “special” about our solar system or us.
U – That the world was created in seven days, and then God rested.
I – That the best evidence supports an inconceivably vast explosion from a tiny dense “singularity”, the size of a walnut, 13 billion years ago. And that 300,000 years later the material dispersed began to coalesce into galaxies of stars, many of which gained orbiting planets.
U – That all species of creatures were created by God at the same time, were immutable, exist now as they always have, and have only existed for 5000 years or so.
I – That although the exact mechanism remains a mystery, the phenomenon we call “life” began on earth with the right combination of moisture, material, and temperature around 3.6 billion years ago. Since there seems to be nothing special about earth, life probably exists elsewhere in the universe.
U – That a vengeful, and rather infantile, God (all powerful, but for some reason allowing things to spin out of control), became angry at mankind for straying from his wishes, especially the descendants of Cain, decided to commit genocide, regardless of individual justice, and select just a few favorites as well of 2 of each species of animal and plant, so the world could have a “fresh start” and so things could be perfect thereafter.
I. This story ignores so many scientific fundamentals that to believe it would require a person to believe multiple, exclusive, opposing views at once. A few such conflicts are the millions of species that would have to be loaded on the relatively small ark, that Noah and his family were helped by fallen supernatural beings called angels, that any species reduced only to members would almost certainly go extinct, and that Adam’s and Eve’s descendants would have to engage in endless incest.
U – That species that God “created” cannot change.
I – As occasional mutations in cells occurred, some of those mutations resulted in organizations of cells better able to survive and reproduce. This “natural selection” inexorably caused life to “evolve” with what in retrospect appears to “common sense” to have been created by an intelligent being.
U – That God created Adam in his own image from dust and breathed life into him, and then put Adam under an ethereal anesthetic and created Eve from Adam’s Rib.
I – That creatures which evolved in the sea left the sea, and that a branch of that life form stopped laying eggs and began feeding its young with a product of the mothers body, milk, allowing slower growth time and a species with a larger brain that eventually developed opposable finger and thumb and a form of self-awareness that exceeds all other species.
U – That the woman, Eve, hooked up with evil incarnate, Satan in the form of a serpent, to eat a special throbbing (according to Russell Crowe) red fruit, tempting Adam with it and getting them kicked out of the Garden of Eden. (Leaving out any explanation of how, then or after the Great Flood of Noah, how a pair of any species could multiply into millions and billions.)
I – That when mankind did not know something, such as how it came to be, how the earth was formed, or why natural events such as earthquakes, plagues, floods, or powerful storms occur, members of the family or tribe simply made up or hallucinated the answer. Groups of “believers” organized into religions with leaders who had special insights into the truth justifying the imposition of these beliefs, based on “faith”, upon others.
I – There existed on the earth a particularly deep and wide landmass (Eurasia) that evolved a greater complexity and number of species than other areas, such as North and South America or Australia. Civilization was born there because of Mankind’s ability to domesticate animals and plants, and to spread because of its greater sophistication and the germs that evolved in its many animal species.
U – God gave certain prophets “the inside story” who communicated “the truth” to others. One prophecy was the birth of a savior who would “save” mankind.
U – According to Christian religion, God sent an angel to an unwed woman to tell her she would become pregnant without sex, and got a fellow named Joseph to accept this as true and marry the woman and raise help raise her child.
I and U – That as culture matured from being nomadic, tribal, and territorial, and the concept of empathy and mercy emerged. Apparently, a person or small group of persons put together a list of “do’s and don’ts”, built upon The Ten Commandments and “The Golden Rule” to guide people in their behavior and ostensibly to set them up to live in a spiritual world of perfection for eternity. Unfortunately, as Adam, Noah, Mohamed, and Jesus would be sad to know, there has been a lot of backsliding going on.
U – Certain groups figured out “the truth”, and other groups were heretics or non-believers who the true believers were entitled to persecute, ostracize, mutilate, and kill.
I – Every religious group, especially a rather arrogant one that calls itself “Atheism”, is certain that its “can’t-helps” are true and that even small deviations from the groups precepts are going to lead others into serious problems, including but not limited to, burning eternally in the fire and brimstone of hell. But no single group has all the answers.
U – Questions such as whether Jesus was man, God or man and God at the same time, or whether there is something called “the holy spirit” are profoundly important.
I – Questions such as the ones above are ridiculous and divisive.
U – The most intense, aggressive, and devout group, say militant Islam, should and will prevail, until all the people of the world will be subordinate to the teachings of Mohammed and his laws.
U – Even the Moslems can’t agree among themselves, and the Sunni’s and the Shiites enjoy killing one another as much as they do Christians. And for 1100 years in Byzantium, Christians killed millions over the nature of Jesus or whether they should venerate (worship) objects.
I – The most rational of human beings accept the scientific method as the best method ever devised to reach objective truth. That rational and secular approach seems the least likely to end in the destruction of mankind by ward or natural event. Even the most tolerant of religions looks down on anyone who does not accept that religions precepts on faith. And virtually every religion demands you accept its guy as having supernatural powers or insights.
U – The best way for religion (say the Christian Faith) to survive is to hunker down, return to its fundamentalist roots, and rage against social change.
I – The only sane religion must be one tolerant of other beliefs, rational, open to most anyone, and focused on core ideas that encourage curiosity, individual thought, the methods of science, and our simple, physical, survival.
I – Focusing on United Methodism, a traditional, mainstream, non-radical arm of Christianity, I believe that it should be just as happy that a rational non-believer wants to be a member, as a blind follower; more actually, since the rational non-believer is more likely to adapt to the challenges of the modern world and more able to contribute to the group’s welfare.
I – Refusing to adapt and change, to broaden its tolerance, and to give up all beliefs in the supernatural will cause a mainstream religion to die. Religion based on delusions of the supernatural should be opposed by objective scientific evidence, and the best ethical and moral (in the right sense) standards.
This post was written by Burton Hunter
A challenging time for churches, for sure. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this.
Your last three points? Back-to-back-to back home runs.