Sunday, November 24, 2013

When Religion Disappears

Sunday
-at the break of day-

Growing up as a boy, every Sunday was marked by a very precise pattern and ritual, all of which  centered around attending church. In my neighborhood everyone identified themselves as belonging to a "religion," and most everyone was Christian.  The main question back then was, "Are you a Catholic or are you a Protestant?" I knew a few Jewish folks, no Muslims, and certainly no atheists. In fact it wasn't until I was ordained a priest in the 1970's that I first met someone who claimed to be a non-believer. 

Many years later, my world (and the world in general) has become radically different than it was back then.  The ever-growing, steady decline in church membership (especially among the young), the popular and burgeoning new age of a secular society of non believers - all makes me wonder whether or not "religion" is disappearing in today's postmodern Western culture.

Every day I browse through the social media, and more and more I find that "religion" today is not only being rejected, but there appears to be a growing antagonism toward anyone or anything that even borders on being religious.

For example, I am  basically forbidden from posting my daily blog in several online communities that identify themselves as being engaged in "philosophical inquiry." When I try to post there, regardless of what I may have to say, I am censored. They are afraid that, being a priest, I will attempt to propagandize people with silly fairy-tale ideas about a superman God in the sky.  Recently someone told me, "there is NO truth in ANY religion."

Religious people today are very concerned that the ever-growing anti-religon climate in today's culture is resulting in churches dying and closing. In truth, I'm not so much worried about churches closing. Actually I think that the ever growing numbers of secular non-believrs may be good for churches-helping them to reconsider their core identity and primary mission. 

However,  I do seriously wonder what happens to a culture (any culture) that has no regard for religion in general, and is even "antagonistic" toward religion? I wonder what will happen to us if religion does indeed disappear in the generations to come? 

Yesterday afternoon I listened to a TED talk on a local NPR station. It was presented by the prominent 21st century atheist philosopher, Alain de Botton. The title of his talk was, "What Atheism can Learn from Religion." Mr. de Botton has become my favorite atheist. 

In essence this well known non-believer raised serious questions about the health of any society that totally dismisses and devalues religion. He concludes that, while he does not believe in a deity and while he finds no place or relevance for church doctrine in his life, there is much about "religion" that is helpful and even vital for leading a meaningful life. And even as an atheist, he respects religion, borrowing from the beauty and the insights that religions have offered throughout human history.  

Over the ages religions of all kinds have produced great beauty through poetry, art, music, and architecture. This great beauty touches something in the human condition, lifting people to experience a sense of something beyond their own self-centered existence. Every human being has a spiritual nature. Human beings yearn to be be inspired -  to be lift beyond themselves. So where will people go to be inspired in such a way if religion disappears? So why shouldn't an atheist appreciate a great cathedral or listen to a Bach Mass? 

Religion has also served as a source for teaching morality, giving guidance in life, and providing consolation in times of trouble. If religion disappears, where will people in the future go to learn and discuss the great moral questions -  how to live with compassion, work for justice, treat others with dignity. If religion disappears, when trouble comes along, where will people go to find that community of other human beings to guide and comfort - government agencies? academia? 

It's a weekend; it's Sunday morning. Lots of people are heading out to church. Lots of people are not. 

We live in an age, where now more than ever, a new dialogue must emerge between religious people and non-believers in a secular society.  The vitality and health of the culture may depend upon it. 

Indeed, what will happen to us if religion disappears?

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