Monotheism in the West has undergone two major adaptive changes in the past 2,500 years. A third great leap is nigh. Can it succeed? Whether you are religious or not, you'd better hope so.
Like life itself, religion has repeatedly met the challenge of extinction with a phase change -- a sudden transformation so dramatic that it is hard to relate the before and after pics. Here is a brief, historical account, drawn from several reliable modern sources.
The first phase change followed a mind-boggling disaster. In 587 BCE, after a Jewish revolt against Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jerusalem fell to its besiegers. King Zedekiah was forced to watch his children butchered before his eyes, after which he was blinded and hauled away in chains along with the rest of Jerusalem's elite. The Temple was demolished. So began the long Exile in Babylon.
This catastrophe made no sense. Jews were used to suffering, which the prophets invariably was blamed on their failings to adhere to the law. But when Nebuchadnezzar's army sacked the Temple, they destroyed the very place where God was believed to dwell. How in the world could that be?
It couldn't. The solution that emerged from the lamentations, poems, debates, and writings of the Exiles was simple: They relocated God to the heavens. These were thought to be right overhead, just above the clouds, out of reach of earthly harm but close enough to keep watch on everything below. Phase One, done.
The second great catastrophe was a double disaster. After Persia conquered Babylon in 538 BCE, the Persian king allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. They rebuilt the Temple, and all went well (by the grisly standards of those times) until the Romans showed up.
Rome had what in those days passed for a liberal occupation policy. The Jews were eligible to become Roman citizens, and they didn't have to convert to the Greco-Roman religion. There was one catch, however. They had to put up a Roman eagle in the Temple and offer a daily sacrifice to Caesar. That suited the luxury-loving high priests of the Temple -- hey, what's one more sacrifice? -- but it enraged the populace.
Wave after wave of protest swept against Roman rule and Temple desecration. One was led by a wildly popular young healer from Galilee, but every last one was put down by brute force and mass crucifixion. That was indeed the fate shared by Jesus, the one they called messiah (or "Christ" in the language in which his story was eventually written down). When Jesus was crucified, around 33CE, most of his followers went home disappointed that yet another potential messiah had failed. They had expected someone who would eject the Romans and restore godly rule. Those closest to Jesus, however, adopted a revolutionary understanding of the messiah. It took awhile to catch on.
Some three decades after the agonizing death of Jesus, while Rome was distracted by troubles at home, a group of rebels finally succeeded in driving the conquerors out. Unfortunately, like the Romans themselves, they could not agree on a plan for self-government, and while they squabbled the Romans regrouped. In 70 CE, after a long siege, the Roman army broke through Jerusalem's walls, slaughtered everyone in sight, and for the last time destroyed the Temple.
That's when the next phase change really took hold. The story that followers of Jesus told now seemed to make more sense. It was useless to keep scouring the countryside for a savior to restore the House of David. Of course, the messiah would be in heaven! That's where God lives. Phase Two: the promise of a heavenly afterlife with Jesus.
Pressure for a third phase change is now building. Today's crisis is different. Knowledge rather than violence drives it. Now that science has given us a clear, common, and reliable understanding of the vast Universe we inhabit, it is impossible to believe that heaven hovers just overhead. Daily weather satellite images render that notion laughable.
But there's more. Anyone who grasps the basics of science faces strong claims that miracles are nonsense (universal laws of physics rule out local exceptions), that consciousness is organic (anything from alcohol to brain injury can change a personality), and that no moral pattern underlies the cruelties of nature. Viruses, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires are indifferent to human suffering.
All of this amounts to a profound challenge to theology. So far, the answers seem to be an angry denial of science or a vague, metaphorical reinterpretation of theology that leaves the crucial question untouched: Where is God? As a result, people are peeling away from religion at unprecedented rates.
As unseemly as it might seem for an atheist to suggest an answer, I will. Face it: God cannot be "out there." If he is, he is so far away as to make no nevermind. Every 24 hours, the Earth sweeps out a line of sight of more than 13.7 billion lightyears, and not a deity in sight. The idea of God "out there" is as implausible as the ancient idea of him as a giant king on an oversized throne. Is that cause to be an atheist? For some of us, yes. But it ain't necessarily so.
God is real. Beyond all dispute, God exists as a powerful concept in the minds of believers. This is no trivial statement. The mind itself came about as the result of a series of evolutionary phase changes, from single-celled life to lumbering organisms to thinking, self-aware creatures. One of the many wonders we are able to contemplate is the status of metaphysical objects. Conceivably, that includes validation of a metaphysical existence. The next phase of God is nigh.
Believer, relocate him (or her) in your mind. Accept the responsibility that entails. Ancient scriptures may foster community and be of some guidance, but discard the quaint notion that God (out there) chiseled his laws on tablets or transcribed them in some other form. It's nonsense. The scriptures themselves hold ample proof of their human origins. It is incumbent on you to discern and live up to the moral ideals that belief in a deity evokes. Embrace the change.