The Challenges to Modern Religion: Part II

The Challenges to Modern Religion: Part II

There is an amazing backlash to “accelerating change”. There are movements to deny the realities of science, to imagine alien abductions, satanic cults, repressed memories, massive conspiracies, “a flat earth”, to devise simplistic solutions to the complicated challenges of the modern world, with hatred, tribalism, fear, and willful ignorance as its weapons.
I return to the questions in my first paragraph of Part I above, recognizing the big questions, the flaws in the old tribal religions and devising plans to save and evolve our church, to make it relevant to today. I have no illusions that we can reach a consensus on these suggestions. So they are only suggestions.
How can a church leave ignorance and anti-science, and embrace the realities of physics, mathematics, science, biology, and technology?
If I were going to commence that change tomorrow, I would make sure that our ministers and narrators always made it clear that the stories are only stories, the metaphors are simply metaphors, and in Sunday school I would make sure that children and adults are taught what metaphors are. They are made up stories, to illustrate concepts, values, and stories.
If our old traditions such as selling candy, cookies, cakes, and other sweets, or serving high-fat, high sugar, high carb, foods at every gathering, I would gently urge that the Church teach its members that we are poisoning ourselves, that our food industry exists to process nutrition out of the foods and sell us the largest portions for the greatest profits they can manage.
We would start gradually, but we would have a five year plan that would start with 10% high-protein, high-fiber, low sugar, locally sourced, organic, products. Eventually, the traditional Methodist gatherings and projects would promote the physical and emotional health of its members.
I would ask the most dedicated volunteers in our church to read up on these matters, to realize how important it is to reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other lifestyle-related illnesses in our population. They would become nutritional missionaries. They would sell nutrition, fitness, emotional health, reality based self-improvement, and the revitalization of the church; and if not the church, a suitable successor.
I would build a facility near our church with places for exercise, computer literacy, meeting space, and secular literacy. If our school system is failing, I would have our church supplement it, and I would never, never, never teach our children or our adults that we have a special pipeline to God.
If it can be established that our church is better organized than most, more tightly focused in doing good, is objectively improving its community with good works, and has a viable plan for the future, that is what I would sell. I would re-invent our church as one based on excellence, truth, and inclusive.
Of course I will do none of these things. For reasons that are very personal to me, I will continue to show up, will continue to sing, will not mention these things at church, and will sadly watch as the supplicants’ bodies become more bent, the hair becomes more gray, the children become fewer, the empty spaces in the pews become larger, and watch as we continue to give lip service to metaphors that were never true when they were invented and that mankind has known for at least 2400 years are not true.

This quotation is credited to Epicurus, @ 500 b.c.:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
I have written many times about my “can’t-helps”.

In other words, I have taken everything I have learned from my earliest childhood memories, my reading, my education, movies, television, the news, discussions, from accidentally hitting my thumb with a hammer, by having a head-on collision, by making myriad mistakes, by considering the arguments on behalf of every religion, by considering what I have learned of philosophy, by synthesizing what I know of science, by loving and being loved, by disliking and being disliked, by having my feelings hurt, by having my spirit uplifted, by crying, by laughing, by thinking about ending it all, by deciding not to, by trying to be “a good boy” as my mother told me every day of my early childhood, and by being stubborn.
I have decided that my “can’t-helps” include the core beliefs of the greatest religious teachers but without one whiff of the “sci-fi”. Actually, I am an avid reader of science fiction, and I have considered it from every angle.
What I am left with is the scientific method blended with my own personal idea of right and wrong, my “can’t helps”.
One thing I have learned is that some of my ideas of right and wrong have changed, are changing, and will change. I’m going to be living in a world where marijuana is legal. I do not like that. I am going to be living in a world where many fewer people are married. I’m going to be in a world in which my idea of male and female is going to be challenged and probably proven wrong. I am going to be living in a world where fewer people are descended from one major ethnic strand. I will be living in a world where the view of what a man and a women should be will change, and the divisions of male and female, gay and straight, will change and become endlessly nuanced.
I am pretty sure I will go to my grave believing that a “real man” is brave, is gentle, is caring, is compassionate, is tough, is protective, is stubborn, is determined, is funny, is not easily intimidated, can intimidate but tries to avoid it, loves, is loved, wants love, never gives up, tries not to cry, sets a good example, is a good husband, and means well even when he screws up.
But, if I am in a church that values charity, sharing, generosity, empathy, compassion, education, a sense of community, music, spirituality, tolerance, and dislikes sectarian disputes, tribalism, violence, lying, cheating, stealing, deception, and greed, I want to be in it because the people in that church share my “can’t helps” not because some supernatural being told us what to think.
You think my ideas are crazy? I cite, as a like-minded person, Carl Sagan in his book “The Demon – Haunted world: Science As A Candle In The Dark”. Over 20 years old but almost as he wrote after reading today’s headlines.
If you think my ideas are brand-new, consider Epicurus above, but also consider “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. Consider the writings of Thomas Paine. Consider the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, Ethan Allen, Baruch Spinoza, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Voltaire, Abraham Lincoln.
When I learned at age 6 that I was correct and that Santa Claus was a myth, that did not hurt me. When I went down to the Capitol theater to see the radio stars “Big John and Sparky” and learned that Sparky was a marionette, I was really angry. I believed I had been defrauded. When I learned that Santa Claus had not been the one to break my new electric train on Christmas Eve but the my father had accidentally run it off the end of the table, that made sense to me. I always felt that I wanted the truth and not some fairytale.
I think when our religious leaders believes that the average person is too stupid to handle the truth, that they must be given palliative care, that they have to be told if they are good here on earth that they will get to go to heaven, and that it’s okay to suffer here because of the rewards they are, they are being cheated.
I read in “the Religious Virus” yesterday that the author, as a child, was looking at a sunset with his grandfather. His grandfather said to thank God for it, but the young boy, being a whiz in science, explained to his grandfather that the sunset resulted from the refraction of the light. His grandfather said “Oh, I do not believe I could have endured the suffering of my life if I did not believe in God.” But his grandfather, wisely, suggested that he enjoy the sunset regardless. Even as a boy, he decided that he would accept the news that one day he would die, and there would be nothing left of him, except what he may have left for others, taught others, or did for others, but that because he knew he would die and never be thereafter, that he would be even more determined to live a good life here.
Of course it does not make sense because if there are no ultimate truths, no values that are so valuable that they exceed the others, and no one’s values can be objectively tested to be better than anyone else’s, and were perhaps “survival of the fittest” or “natural selection” is the order of the day, to think there is any ultimate reason for us to exist or care about existing.
Except, we evolved with two prime drives, survival and reproduction. That is what drives us. Whether one is an amoeba, a giraffe, or human being, we want to do those two things. We just “can’t help” it. Finding other motivators is “human”.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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