Imagine No Religion

John Lennon’s imagination wasn’t all that impressive.  Imagining “no religion” in his lifetime was kind of like Jesus predicting that Herod’s temple would be destroyed…It didn’t take a prophet.  The Jews and the classical pagan world were bound to reach a tipping point sooner or later.  In the same way, John Lennon imagining an irreligious Occident wasn’t such a stretch. Institutionally Christianity was still big.  Inwardly, it was rotten to the extent that within a generation any fear of its authority or sense of obligation to the church for historical reasons would be gone.

That’s how it is with any great empire before it falls.  It continues to look monumental and impregnable.  But in reality its hold on the people, its power to inspire or motivate vigorous action has dissolved.  In the US we had the family friendly fifties where churches boomed.  My own congregation can hardly breathe under the weight of the memories of the 40s through the 70s, when the parish was bursting at the seams with children and when it was difficult to get a seat at the three packed services each Sunday.

When Rome fell, people were aware that it wasn’t what it used to be.  But it was also still the most powerful and cultured political entity on earth.  Its culture never really died but instead begat those that followed.  But when the Empire dissolved, it shouldn’t have really been a surprise.  The Barbarians had been squatting in Roman land lying fallow because the patricians were too busy partying to take care of fields; they weren’t driven to procreate and raise strong sons that would manage estates, sit in the Senate, or command legions; so they enjoyed their privileges and foreigners filled the army and greasy barbarians poured in to enjoy the pleasures of the superior Roman way of life.

Then–it was gone.

That’s how it is with the church in America.  My grandparent’s generation were all Christian–at least formally–and would have identified themselves as members of one Christian denomination or another.  My parents’ generation packed the churches as their parents tried to raise them as good, God-fearing citizens and give them the happy childhood which was denied them during the depression and the 2nd World War.

Then came the 60s and 70s.  The avant garde made tatters of the cultural-Protestant expectation that young people would find a vocation, marry, raise a family, and contribute to society.  Expectations declined, and Midwestern Lutheran parents were happy if their kids didn’t get on TV smoking a joint, attending an orgy, or marching against the war.

By the 90’s, an entire generation was entering adolescence or adulthood which had not been initiated into the customs, rituals and taboos of American Everyman and Everywoman.  Most of us had a very tenuous relationship–or no familiarity at all–with American Judaeo-Christianity.  Most of us had imbibed, in large measure, the skepticism about American life that characterized our parents’ generation.  We were taught unequivocally that our history was riddled with injustice.  The racial prejudice that was part of the fabric of American life for our grandparents was an unqualified evil that made American history suspect.  Patriotism was inculcated, but as one grew older the skepticism about our history complicated any uncritical pride in our nation and flag.  It was simply an unquestionable moral truth, constantly drilled, that women and men alike should find their identity within themselves rather than in their duties to mother, father, husband, wife, children, and that both should be equally to pursue self-fulfillment with (in principle) no interference from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, or the work proper to either sex.  Love, sex, children were components of the quest for self-discovery which was the ultimate end of all of our lives, male or female.  The idea that our lives were not our own to mold as we thought best but rather given to us, along with our vocations, so that we might love and serve our neighbor, our nation, and glorify God–anathema!

So it didn’t take much imagination to foresee a religionless UK or USA.  The pie chart above shows the breakdown of religion in the United Kingdom.  Half of the country self-identifies as having “no religion.”  20 percent of the country identifies with the established Church over which her majesty is head.

In our country, 15 percent of the country identifies as “no religion.”  This is not a shock, is it?  If you consistently prune a tree in a certain direction, how is it a shock when the tree starts to grow that way “naturally”?

For 50 or 60 years my grandparents’ generation’s values haven been being undermined in public schools and in the media.  It should no more be a surprise that a formerly protestant country is now becoming a country of no religion than it should be a surprise that more women go to college than men, or that marriage is falling into obsolescence, or that younger Americans lack the uncritical patriotism of our grandparents.  Or that we dress like proletarians not when we go to work at the factory, but when we go to a restaurant, court, church, or the White House.  Or that male and female clothing is becoming less and less distinguishable; or that families seldom eat meals together at the dinner table with the TV turned off.

For American Christians, maybe it seems like bad news.  But it’s not.  At least it’s not uniformly bad news.

First of all, though my generation was indoctrinated with feminsim and multiculturalism from childhood, and opposing ideas were suppressed–it is also true that my grandparents’ generation permitted or embraced many sins that we might not want to repeat.

Most Americans, I still think, need to do a little more interrogating of the few moral certainties we still share.  Americans still believe that freedom and equality are good.  And they are.  But they are not the only goods.  And they are not good in every circumstance, all the time, always.  For instance, Americans almost universally believe that men and women should be treated equally, and get angry if anyone starts to question what appears to be an obvious moral truth.  But this certainty has prevented us from raising questions that really should have been asked a long time ago.  If our primary concern in discussing “women’s rights” (note the framing of the debate) is the autonomy or equality of women, haven’t we created a situation in which those people who most need to cooperate are made competitors?  Might it be better to think of the relationship between the sexes another way?  Is it in the interests of children or of society as a whole to have the people who bring life into the world (together) focused on protecting their “rights” over against one another instead of working together to conceive and rear children who are a benefit to the rest of the country instead of raising kids who sneer at the notion of being part of a community and having an obligation to it–whether that community is the family, the PTA, or the nation?

But I’ve said all this before.  And there are plenty of Christians who have recognized the flaws in the moral education we received.  The Christian right would be the sort of mass-market insurrection against the mainstreaming of 60s countercultural values that was taking place in the 80s and 90s.

The problem is that this reaction, which went on when I was a kid and an adolescent, was simply an attempt to turn back the clock to a time when Christianity was still ascendant in Western Culture, at least as institutional religion.  But in 1950s America, the Christianity that continued to enjoy the benefits of being the religion of most people’s childhood and of being woven into the fabric of Western civilization–was tottering.  It wasn’t weak enough to overthrow yet.

The article above, and others I’ve read like it, says that the present willingness to embrace “no religion” as one’s religion stems from disaffection with the religious right’s efforts to fight politically against the decline of traditional morality and the rise of the morality of activists in the 60s.

We shouldn’t view this as a rejection of Christianity.  Christianity had already been rejected by many, if not the majority, in our grandparents’ day.  If you look back at the last 300 years or so of European and American history, it is apparent that Christian orthodoxy had its power broken in Europe awhile ago.  During the French Revolution the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was turned into a temple to Reason, and priests who continued to be loyal to the Pope were killed or imprisoned.  In the 1700s and 1800s in Germany many protestant pastors and seminaries were teaching a Christianity that denied that Jesus’ death on the cross was an atonement for our sins; Christianity was presented as the best form of natural human religion which could be found in every creed, which had in common that there was one God who was loving and just and required us to live morally, but did not require any sacrifice to take away sins.  In the United States, this rationalistic Christianity reared its head everywhere.  Even though revival movements continually swept through the country which  continued to proclaim the death of Jesus on the cross as the propitiation for our sins, even these tended to be conspicuous in drawing attention away from the death of Jesus to the inner experience of salvation within the penitent, and, consequently, the moral life that was supposed to result from such an experience.  Alongside of the more orthodox revival movements in America, the bastard theological offspring of English dissenters continued to develop American revisions of the Christian faith, which blended American worship of freedom, prosperity, and self-creation with certain aspects of Christianity or church life.  Thus we see the long and storied tradition of respectable, Christless self-improvement Christianity exemplified by men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen.

We shouldn’t want to go back to that, either!

If Americans are rejecting their grandparents’ values, in which one was patriotic, generally protestant, moral but legalistic, hard-working but in denial about original sin, the bondage of the will, and the fact that the Kingdom of God does not look like a prosperous plantation or a new house in the suburbs, we should agree with them.

Not that we simply capitulate, in a dishonest way, to the hippie indoctrination that drives this rejection.  But just as it is an error to think that Christianity can be made to fit the modern American revision of morals, it’s an error to simply react against this revision.

People under forty or fifty don’t reject the religious right purely out of hatred of everything good.  They reject the religious right out of a sense of moral indignation.

It’s true that their moral compass is misguided.  But for the most part–why do teenagers tend, generally, to get riled when Christians say that homosexuality is a sin?  It’s because they believe that 1.  the most important moral duty is that you embrace who you are, not who people say you’re supposed to be and 2.  Christians are discriminating against homosexuals for being who they are.

Having incited the ire of many people about this particular topic, I have come to appreciate why this is viewed as hypocrisy.  If you are saying that someone is a sinner and condemned to hell because they are, possibly, born a certain way and choose not to suppress it, you are saying that they should suppress what they feel or desire at the deepest level of their awareness.  The question might be put this way–Who are you to tell me to turn away from the very thing that I desire and believe will make me happy?

Martin Luther would read that question this way–“Who are you to tell me that my god is an idol?”  His answer would be, “I am nobody to tell you that.  God says it in the first commandment, and requires me to love you enough to tell you the truth even if it means you hate me.”

And all that is well and good.  But if we’re going to call our society out about homosexuality, we also have to preach against our own idols.  Otherwise we are creating a righteousness of our own, drawing a line in the sand between “Church” and “World”–a line of our own making.

Surely a culture’s stance on sexual morality or its recognition of the importance of marriage, procreation, and the stability of the family unit–all these things that Christians have been crusading about politically and which this generation has found repugnant–surely these are not sufficient as markers of Christianity.  Something like traditional Christian morality held in Europe and America for a long time after Christian orthodoxy started to go on the retreat in the culture.  But these were by no means Christian societies.  That was Kierkegaard’s cry in the wilderness of 19th c. “Christian” Denmark.  Bourgeouis, world-loving businessman and clergymen filled the churches.  It was part of being a respectable person.  But Kierkegaard pointed out the joke of “Christian” Denmark in the 1800s.  There were a whole lot of respectable Christians who would never think of selling what they had and giving it to the poor and following Jesus; the whole point of being a Christian Dane was to be a successful, prosperous, well-thought-of member of society, whereas Jesus’ call was to follow Him outside the camp, to take one’s place among the cast out and damned, carrying one’s own death, rejection, and utter humiliation upon one’s back.

That can hardly be done by making fortifications at this or that moral law and saying to the culture, “Here we stand!  This law, at least, has to be upheld in our society!”

What, so we can get back to the golden days of Kierkegaard’s Denmark?  Or the high water mark of morality in Christendom, which would have been–when?  The middle ages, when popes and priests had concubines?  The Reformation, when Luther tells us the peasants were drunken swine and the lords were murderous thieves?

Maybe the Christians were moral in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd centuries.  But then they had no say in politics.  They didn’t mobilize voting blocs and political fundraisers to get Caesar to put a stop to infanticide.

I’m not saying that Christians should not be politically involved.  Probably, being politically engaged is part of being a faithful Christian.

But we have a better opportunity put in front of us by our society that would rather affiliate with “no religion” than with Christianity seen as militants seeking to uphold the moral norms of the America of the recent past.

Our opportunity is to stop drawing lines between the “Church” and the “World,” and stop fortifying ourselves for a war, and become guilty of the sins of the world.  Allow ourselves to be killed rather than try to protect ourselves.  That was the main political action of Christians before Constantine, wasn’t it?  To live quietly until required to make sacrifice to Caesar or Roman gods.  And then to lovingly bear witness to Jesus Christ and refuse to worship Caesar.  And then to allow their blood to be spilled rather than seek vengeance.

If our society no longer thinks that homosexuality is wrong, what blame do we bear in that?  Don’t we bear some blame because we didn’t diligently teach our own children the ten commandments?  Because we didn’t love our neighbors enough to put aside self-seeking and seek their salvation?  Because we retreated when it was time for judgment to begin in the house of God, and we tolerated divorce outside the situations in which Scripture permits it?

I have failed so often as a pastor and as a Christian because I wanted to maintain my claims to righteousness in the flesh–well, I’m not as chaste as I should be (that is, completely chaste), but at least I’m not shacking up with my girlfriend…I’m an imperfect pastor in many ways, but at least I don’t teach contrary to my ordination vows. etc.

How sad it is that we come to our brothers this way.  Our society now openly admits what before it hid–that it isn’t Christian.  Instead of pity and patience with ignorance and weakness, I usually react with anger and force.  Which still means, I’m in the right here.

I imagine that when Peter or Paul came with the Gospel, it must have struck people that they came preaching the crucified Christ whom at one time they denied or persecuted.  They were not irritated with the Gentiles for worshipping idols or practicing sexual immorality.  “How could you be so stupid!  You mean to honestly tell me that you didn’t think it was wrong to participate in fornication with prostitutes in order to honor a stone statue that looks like a bull?”  But that’s what Christians sometimes are like; or they’re trying to get everyone to vote to make it so that people who don’t know God can’t do the things that they like doing.

And when Jesus came preaching the gospel?  He had a reason to get angry with sinners, especially when they talked back or mocked him or threatened His life.  But instead He made His innocence ours and our sin His.

That was why the Gentiles who worshipped idols suddenly changed–because Christ bore our sins, and because the message was not concerning a better law or simply a better religion.  It was in some sense the end of religion and certainly the end of the law.  “Christ is the end of the Law that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”  “Through the Law I died to the Law that I might live to God.”  “Therefore my brothers, you also have become dead to the Law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit to God.”

Somewhere Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “religionless Christianity.”  In some ways the growth of “no religion” in the US is a positive development; perhaps the cross meets less resistance among religionless people than religious.  After all, when the Church began, it probably was difficult to think of something less “religious” than the cross.  Maybe that is the reason that the cross and its theology continues to find it hard to live in the Church–both in churches where “religion” is not a dirty word, and still more in churches that claim to have “no religion.”

  1. Paul
    April 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    60% of the “unaffiliated” have a certain, or largely certain belief that God (however they perceive God) exists, nearly 3 times larger than the amount of “unaffiliated” who claim that God does not exist. Plus, there is some other good news, an article from Forbes recently showed that every year of college made you 15% more likely to attend religious service. Furthermore, 43% of postgraduates attend religious service weekly, the highest number since the 1960s, and on par with the weekly average attendance rate in America. There are positive trends too, they just get brushed under the rug by the media and leading academics intentionally.

  2. May 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Everyone who talks about Christians lump them all together in one big mob. Then they denounce them. If you ask the single individual if he believes in Christ that individual will more than likely say yes and say it with conviction. Kierkegaard wrote to the single individual because he knew the big church model wouldn’t work because each person is to work out their salvation in fear and trembling as God works in them both to will and to do his good works. The press is the group that Kierkegaard wrote against because the press can say anything it wants and whoever wants to be somebody repeats the party line just like in a religion. The philosophers do the same as does the State.

    • May 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm

      Interesting. Yes, repeating theological slogans is not the same as Christianity. I agree with Kierkegaard–and probably Bonhoeffer would have said the same thing–that in our day (like Kierkegaard’s) one must emphasize “the following of Jesus.” Not because I think Luther or the Lutheran Confessions misread the bible in saying that a man is justified apart from works by faith alone. Or because I disagree with Luther that “doctrine is heaven, life is earth.” But because it needs to be emphasized that there is no justifying faith that does not follow Jesus. And discipleship is, as you say, very personal. What I may have to do as a Christian may be different from what you have to do. Like Bonhoeffer says: a person cannot believe who does not also obey. If my conscience tells me that it is a sin to smoke cigarettes–even if my conscience is wrong–I cannot have a good conscience before God unless I quit smoking (or unless my conscience is liberated)–because “whatever is not of faith is sin.”

      Although it’s necessary for the Church to bear witness to the Law of God vis a vis homosexuality in this time, I think we are on the wrong track when we spend all kinds of energy attempting to fight the rolling back of the moral law in civil society. It may be that Christian laymen need to be involved in this politically. But what would be far more useful in improving the moral status quo in the United States would be a renewal of the church’s life. It was the influence of God’s actual church of those who believe that caused Europeans to embrace Christian morality for so long. If the Church is strong spiritually, it will influence education, which would influence what the US electorate is willing to tolerate in terms of social legislation. But to fight a war at the level of legislation seems destined to fail to me. Americans born after the baby boom (and in it to some extent) have been taught so many things that lead inexorably to gay marriage that to try to prevent the laws from changing without first changing the way the average person thinks will be impossible.

      There are ways to get people to think that gay marriage is unacceptable without them becoming Christians. If Americans were to embrace Islam, or orthodox Judaism, or Stoic philosophy, or probably Aristotle, they would no longer vote for gay marriage. They vote for gay marriage because they believe that equality and tolerance are among the highest virtues, and they believe that homosexuality is an identity rather than a deviation from the proper use of human sexuality. Until that changes it’s going to be tough to win this battle. The solution is the preaching of the Gospel (1st and foremost) and prayer–and it lies in the hands of God. A secondary solution is not legislation but rather rational arguments in the public square, free of hostility, explaining how homosexuality contradicts natural law and the public good. But even there it seems unlikely that these good gifts of God–rational argument, etc.–will accomplish much, because people really want to believe that homosexual marriage will work, and because the instruments that have made them want to believe this–the media, film, music, entertainment, academia–are overwhelmingly in the thrall of moral nihilism. So I think Christians should continue to argue persuasively and winsomely where they have opportunity, but I also think we need to accept our status as a minority religion and change our strategy in politics. It’s useless to try to use government to impose natural law on people who have rejected it, even if it would be better for society.

  1. April 17, 2012 at 10:06 pm
  2. April 22, 2012 at 6:39 pm
  3. June 24, 2012 at 12:42 pm
  4. March 16, 2013 at 10:08 am

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