This isn’t the REM song…

Today, CNN.com posted an article in their religion page entitled “Losing Our Religion“. As I read through it, I realized that it seems to validate through data something that I’ve noticed over the past few years, but only had circumstantial evidence for. Americans, especially younger Americans,  are turning away from God at an astonishing rate, and being applauded for doing so.

That’s me in the corner

I grew up in a Christian home with Christian friends. I went to high-school in a small semi-rural community that was somewhat conservative by nature. So, when I want away to school to a large university, I noticed something. In an environment that purportedly encourages free-thinking and widespread acceptance of new ideas, those with more “traditional” beliefs were somewhat looked down upon. In fact, if you believed that God created the heavens and the earth, you were considered somewhat of an intellectual midget. Apparently, the only thing that was truly widely accepted was the “scientific evidence” to the contrary. Even so, I kind of got used to being looked down upon in this way and figured that it was just the nature of academic institutions. Intellectuals seem to be a little full of themselves, anyway, so the thought of not being in complete agreement with them didn’t really bother me too much.

That’s me in the spotlight

A few years ago, the world of social networking exploded, first in the more technical communities, and later in the mainstream. I joined Facebook in 2009 after attending a Burton Group conference where everybody was tripping over themselves to fit the term “web 2.0” into their presentations. What I discovered was a fantastic way to re-connect with people I knew from years ago, and a way to throw out absurd little comments to a group of close friends who would “get me”. The social network revolution, however, was not just about sharing inside jokes with your buddies. Blogging, micro-blogging, and aggregation sites meant that everybody had a voice that could be heard by anybody with a computer. Soon, like-minded individuals were “voting up” opinions they agreed with, and just like in a small room, the loudest voices got the most attention. It was almost enough to change an entire culture…

I noticed it in my Facebook and Twitter feeds a few years ago. Then I started noticing it everywhere else. No longer were people simply evasive about whether they were religious, they were downright proud of the fact that they weren’t. All of a sudden, religion was a bad word. I’ll admit, I’ve been uneasy with the term in the past – I never “declared” my Christianity on Facebook, preferring instead to opt for the less-confrontational phrase “I believe what Jesus said”. Why do people now outright reject religion? Here are a few reasons off the top of my head:

Joss Whedon, creator of the popular “Firefly” television series, writer of the recent “Avengers” movie who is extremely popular with the younger “geek” culture for his talents in the sci-fi genre, talks openly about his disdain for God, referring to Him as the “bully in the sky”. Ricky Gervais, a very funny comedian and TV writer/actor, creator of  the original BBC “The Office” refuses to get married because “there’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God”. Albert Einstein called the belief in God “pretty childish”. Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking says that God is not necessary, and that heaven can’t exist. President Obama, in his 2008 campaign, used the phrase ‘they cling to guns and religion’. In itself, this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, but considering that religion is not a physical ‘thing’ that can be clung to, Obama is invoking a metaphor. Clinging to religion as a child “clings” to a security blanket that in reality, provides no additional safety or security against the child’s nightmares than if he had nothing at all. The word itself, when used in a non-spiritual sense (i.e., he religiously takes his medication) even means to do something repetitively without thinking.  These are the images our younger generation is bombarded with when religion is presented to them. Is there any wonder that they want no part of it?

The article takes an interesting spin, stating a few times that more people than ever are now comfortable stating how nonreligious they are. As if they’ve experienced some kind of freedom they never thought possible! I would take the opposite side. I think there is much more of a stigma attached to admitting that you’re religious than ever before. Culturally speaking, it’s just not as acceptable as it used to be.

I thought that I heard you laughing

Leaders of secular and atheist movements seem downright giddy about the direction in which our culture is heading. They hope that these statistics point to voters beginning to elect representation more in-tune with their interests: “As more of the voters are unaffiliated and identifying as atheist and agnostics, I think the politicians will follow that for votes…we won’t be ignored or dismissed anymore!” exclaims  Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. Though, I wonder exactly how the secular movement has been ignored over the last 20 years. School prayer is out, many religious displays are being removed from government buildings, or face repeated challenges for removal, one-time religious holidays are gone, replaced with agnostic equivalents,  and same-sex marriages are legally allowed in seven US states (this number will grow, by the way. I predict all 50 states in the next 20 years, and it will be lauded as great progress for human rights), effectively ignoring the biblical definition and re-classifying marriage as strictly a government-sanctioned event. That’s to say nothing of the cultural shift mentioned earlier. One thing they may be seeking is the removal of tax-exempt status from organizations that profess a religious affiliation, though that is simply idle speculation on my part. Still, I think it would probably make secular, atheist and agnostic organizations very happy to see that exemption removed, and it would have devastating consequences on smaller churches who do a lot of uplifting work in their communities.

I haven’t said enough

Why can’t the church combat these trends? Is it really because there’s just overwhelming evidence to the non-existence of God? It seems like it, if you listen to popular opinion. On the contrary, there is exactly zero evidence that God doesn’t exist. The problem, as I see it, is that the church is very set in its ways, and has difficulty adjusting to new things. When I was younger, there was an all-out assault on rock n roll music by many in religious circles. It was new, it was not well understood, and therefore it must have been wrong. Entire video campaigns showing record albums being played backwards were launched in youth groups across the US. Did it ever occur to folks that rock music is fun to listen to? That it could be a tool to deliver your message instead of an enemy to be battled against? Eventually, most people did realize this, but only after an entire generation was subjected to the ridiculousness of the church. We’re facing a very similar problem today. Churches either can’t afford, or don’t understand technology. Therefore, we shy away from it. We continue our work (which, contrary to what our culture thinks, is more food pantries than angry picket lines) in traditional ways and leave the vastness of cyberspace largely unchecked. When was the last time you read something written by a truly great religious mind on the web? When was the last time C.S. Lewis was quoted (saying something profoundly religious) on the front page of CNN? I can’t remember a time. I do remember when Einstein was quoted saying there is no God – a few days ago. Our absence sounds like defeat to those who live in the web every day. After all, the Internet isn’t really about discussing ideas and educating people (like we foolishly thought back in the 90’s). It’s about selling your idea, making perception reality. If you hear the same thing from several sources over a period of time, that’s exactly what can happen. Our mind thinks in a “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” mentality, regardless of the truth. And right now, there’s not much religious smoke in cyberspace.

But that was just a dream

Can the trend be reversed? Perhaps, in little ways. However, anybody that has worked in a large organization knows that the hardest thing to change isn’t process, people, or technology…it’s the organizational culture. The same holds true for large countries. We’ve been set on a path that’s going to be very hard, if not impossible, to reverse. Perception has already become reality for most, and the apathy people feel towards God, religion, and even religious people will eventually turn to disdain for those foolish enough to continue to cling to old myths. We’ve had a good run in the US. Freedom of religion brought us many good years of worship under the protection of the government. But who needs freedom of religion when there is no religion? How can the church be protected by the government when we claim separation of church and state? We should have seen this coming, by the way. Revelation doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the acceptance of Christians.

These are the things I think, and worry about. Not the economy. Not which party is going to control which branch of government for the next four years. Not China. Not even Iran (ok, a little bit Iran).

In order to keep my sanity, I tend to need to remember things like this: to focus on what I can control, and let God (there is one, you know) handle the rest.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firmin one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel – Philippians 1:27

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4 thoughts on “This isn’t the REM song…

  1. Whoa, excellent, right on point, has been a direction I’ve seen coming for 30 years, and our small group is right in the middle of a study on this topic.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    Wow! Nicely written! Working in social media that is always changing reminds me to keep Christ at the center of all we do.

  3. Sherry Robards-Cottone says:

    That was great, Ben! I’m with you all the way! Didn’t know you had a blog, but I will be watching you now! 🙂 Thanks for giving us things to think about!!!

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