The extinction of religion? Novel thought indeed. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine such a thing could even be possible. And that probably has something to do with the fact that I live in America, where religion, if it is anything, is in vogue.
Or is it? Not according to the findings.
Religion is in our news, as well as our politics, almost daily. But what we hear, as well as see, is anything but pretty. Religion seems to have fallen on hard times in the last few years and deservedly so. Due largely to its manifold abuses: the inexcusable scourge of clergy abuse of children in the Catholic Church; the pockets of religious hate-mongers in virtually every religion who actually believe God is on their side and condones their violence, even if it is only verbal, against others; even the more benign versions of religion where people use politics, legislators and the electoral process in an attempt to force God's Kingdom; or when that fails -- and coercion always does -- they withdraw to an illusory world of safety in their churches, synagogues, temple conferences and convocations and so pray for the speedy and sudden return of their God. Then, they think their Kingdom will come with justice against evildoers and, for that matter, anyone else who refuses to embrace their vision of the world.
I don't have to convince you that millions and millions of Americans have given up on these expressions of pathological religion. In the U.S. alone, where the Christian religion still dominates, the annual reports of virtually every denomination show steep and perhaps even irreversible declines.
Could this be the beginning of the end of religion?
Don't get your hopes up too quickly. It's not that defectors from organized religion in the U.S. have given up on their faith or have shed their spiritual longings like a snake its skin. Most of these people still regard themselves as spiritual people and, in some instances, more so since their departure from their faith tradition. If you listen to them, as I try to do, you'll hear a familiar theme. Since their escape from the stifling walls of religious imprisonment, they have discovered a sacred world of spiritual freedom. Many will testify that their faith is more authentic, as well as more meaningful, than it's ever been before.
This would be my story. And, you can be certain, the guardians of organized religion are unhappy about the declines and even more so with the defectors who have left or are leaving. You should read some of the hate emails I get from God's faithful for having written about these things in what I regard as an interfaith-friendly book that not only makes room for these defectors but embraces them and is respectful toward all faith traditions. Because they feel threatened by their declines, however, as well as by those of us who write about the need for radical reform in all religious traditions, these institutionalized guardians label, judge, point fingers and wag their heads in disapproval. After all, they're convinced nobody could ever be spiritual or live a God-realized life without church, synagogue or temple involvement and blind submission to religious doctrines and dogmas.
When my father -- a man for whom I had the greatest love and admiration -- unexpectedly suffered a stroke that took his life a few days later, my life sadly unraveled. I was a religious leader myself, pastor of one of the largest Baptist churches in the southeast. My parents had retired to our city and began attending the church I served. One Sunday morning, they joined. That very evening, however, Dad suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. A few days later I preached his funeral sermon.
Was I upset with God in the ensuing weeks following his untimely death? Did I become angry with the church? Religion in general? You bet I did. I had counseled others in times of crisis to trust the beliefs they'd been taught, but when crisis came to me, none of those beliefs worked.
Why? Because a "belief" -- dogma, doctrine, statement of faith -- is the stuff of religion. By its very nature, it evolves, changes and, yes, sometimes disappears. So there's a sense in which the researchers are right. Whenever religion becomes too ill, too corrupt, too rigid, as does an aged oak tree during the winds of change, it will crack and break under the pressure. This is precisely the sort of thing that's been happening with religion in Europe and other places like Canada and Australia, as the researchers have pointed out.
Faith, however, is the not-so-easily-defined capacity within humans that is beneath and behind all doctrinal expressions of it. Faith cannot nor will it ever disappear. Why? One of the distinctive features of the human experience (in fact, one aspect that distinguishes humans from all other animals) is this strange little capacity we have to intuit, to imagine, to believe. It is this capacity of the self to reflect upon itself that is so remarkable and unique to the human species. It's inescapable, too. Which is why there will always be religions. Yes, how religion is conceived, as well as the way it is expressed, will change from time to time -- and well it should. But, since we are a believing people, we will choose to believe in something, even if it is to believe in nothing.
The problem with religion today (and this is nowhere more acutely seen than in the Christian religion) is that the winds of change are blowing again. But there is resistance. Big resistance. Those who resist are mostly the fundamentalists. Whether in Christianity or in Islam, they want to resurrect and so return to their illusions of a better day of believing. Furthermore, these radical fundamentalists will use whatever means are available to take the willing, as well as drag the unwilling, back to their blissful, but imaginary, days of believing. What they do not realize, perhaps because they do not know, is that returning to a place that never really existed is not possible. As a consequence, when the tree resists the winds of change, it has no recourse but to break.
This is precisely what we're witnessing in religious history today. Some religious traditions will likely disappear in the coming decades. Which ones? You can probably guess. Just watch which ones look like rigid oak trees in the wind.
In the crucible of your own real life experience, your religion will have to be more to you than a catalogue of beliefs or it, too, will one day become extinct in your life. Beliefs are little more than words -- a collection of thoughts, ego-attachments, judgments and opinions, as well as ideas and concepts, important only because they give expression and some measure of understanding to that which would otherwise remain too mysterious, too inexplicable. In other words, beliefs come and go, often change and, yes, sometimes even die. And, they should.
In my own experience, I had for years quietly questioned many of the beliefs handed down to me. Some of them seemed so silly, useless, even destructive -- not to speak of hypocritical. Many of the things I had been told to accept without questioning, I didn't believe at all. But, when you're a minister in a Christian church, you learn not to be too public with your questions and doubts or you risk career suicide. So, like most preachers in America, I learned to keep quiet about my struggles, questions and doubts. As a consequence, I lived a life of ministerial duplicity for many years. On the day my father unexpectedly died, however, I was given the grandest gift Life could have ever given me. I didn't see it at the time. But, on the afternoon of my spiritual awakening, I got it. With his death, my beliefs died, too.
His death broke the cycle of madness in me. I have long loved the way the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle puts it: "Life will give you whatever experience you need for the evolution of your consciousness." What I had regarded as grotesque at the time of his death turned out to be my grace-awakening.
Grace is simply the Unseen Mystery orchestrating the contradictory, frequently unwanted, experiences of your life in order to bring about your spiritual destiny. All of this became to me what Carl Jung described as "synchronicity," what Deepak Chopra calls "the conspiracy of improbabilities" or what St. Paul put so profoundly in his Letter to the Romans: "God works in all things for our good" (Romans 8:28).
Faith lives. It always has. It always will. It is religion that dies, must die, at least from time to time. So, for what it's worth, my advice to any openminded and spiritually interested person is this: Make it your spiritual practice to know the difference between religion and spirituality in your own life. The former will one day die. The latter in you lives forever.