Many opinion surveys and denominational statistics indicate that fewer people in America these days are religious. There are many reasons for this, including the assumption that science and theology work in the same way leading to a false choice between them. Retelling religious stories is popular in movies, but less celebrated in homes or shrines. Moral strictures based on ancient social patterns do not always apply to modern life.
More basic to this decline, however, is the fact that religions are too serious, too much focused on suffering and death, to be attractive to happy comfortable people. During war it was said that there were no atheists in foxholes. Imminent death and pain forced soldiers to face the meaning of existence. That is what religions address: the deep, existential facts of life.
Today we hide death, opiate our suffering, and kill remotely with machines. We do not want to hear the Buddha on the futility of desire or take up Jesus’ cross, let alone the Qur’an‘s call to struggle. Thinking soberly about life’s deepest problems and responsibilities does not fit in the modern pursuit of happiness.
Giddy piety is OK; it is part of religious life. Nothing is wrong with joy itself, but it is empty without a rationale. If one is happy because religion is the answer, what is the question? Without a question you do not need an answer. You cannot rejoice in salvation if you have nothing from which to be saved. If you do not recognize sin and suffering in human life, most religious language and practice is meaningless.
Young and youthful people usually think they are immortal and invincible. Sometimes they worry about economic, sexual, and social achievement and some religious groups respond with gospels of success. More profound help is needed to face failure, strife, and disappointment. It’s not pleasant to anticipate illness and death, so a lot of people just ignore them. It’s also unpleasant to face immorality and the evil in human nature, so people avoid places where these matters are discussed.
If predictions of atomic warfare, ecological disaster, and economic decline are correct, however, religions might yet again be needed to offer ways of understanding and affirming fate and misfortune.
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George Weckman is a retired professor and director of music at Christ Lutheran Church. If you are interested in being a guest columnist, contact editor Joe Higgins at 592-6612 ext. 224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.