What Happened to all the Christians?

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) illuminates the latest report by the American Religious Identification Survey, which shows that fewer Virginian’s describe themselves as ‘Christian’. Since 1990, some sort of transformation has occurred such that 11% less people identify themselves with this particular major religion. The RTD reports:

Michael Fletcher of Chesterfield County, who describes himself as an interdenominational evangelical, said historic mainline churches and denominations experienced the steepest declines because they “have left their foundational teachings.”

“They’ve softened the Gospel into some sort of watered-down love relationship that doesn’t require anyone to step outside their comfort zone,” he said.

When I spoke to my good friend Rollie about this, he had this to say:

“For one, why do these religious assholes open their mouths and think their opinion means more than a lump of three-week old lima beans? For two, what kind of ‘Gospel’ does this fruitcake want? Oh, God’s word has been ‘softened’! Let’s toughen it up. Let’s add some hard leather and whips and chains. Let’s bring back the Inquisition! WTF?”

I tend to agree with Rollie, though I believe he is a bit rude at times. I forgive him for that, though, because he makes very good chili.

Anyway, I think people bring to religion a kind of template that is already established based on their life experiences and point of view. This ‘hard’ Christianity outlook where believers should be venturing out of their ‘comfort zone’ to truly follow ‘the Lord’ is loaded with macho-ism and overtones of sado-masochism. Whether this is a sign of some kind of abuse as a child or something else, I cannot say. This S&M aspect of life is typically associated with silly leather costumes, handcuffs, and riding crops. However, I believe a serious desire to hurt others that lies inert inside everyone (in healthy people unleashed when we face a serious threat) as well as a willingness to be dominated is cultivated in a lot of what we know as ‘Christianity’.

Again, Rollie had an opinion on this:

“First off, I’ve got nothing against Christians, mind you. They’re good, fine, smiling people out in public, for the most part. The secret ‘Jesus fish’ thing has gotten old, though, I have to say. Then we get to this whole abortion thing. Now, I’m really sad to hear when some stupid girl gets herself pregnant by mistake because it means education-wise, we are a bunch of stupid dumb-fucks, literally. And I value life as much as the next person, of course, unless you start telling me I need to get rid of my guns. But, they talk about valuing life, but for them it seems abortions are bad because it deprives them of more victims for their insane, sado-masochistic ways.”

In this respect, I have to disagree with Rollie. I think he overstates the S&M thing. I think it is there, but it’s much more of a subconscious tendency towards glorifying pain, for whatever reason.

More reportage from the RTD:

“Churches and culture are driving the changes in religious identification, said Fritz Kling, president of Kling Philanthropy Group and founder and chairman of the Richmond Christian Leadership Institute.

“Society discourages us from making value judgments about what is or is not bad behavior, and much that is good has been lost in the process,” said Kling.

“The coarsening of society affects all faiths,” and churches have been slow to respond to societal trends.

The church’s role as “an improver” of society also has diminished, Kling said.

“Christians should be Richmond’s best citizens — always giving, loving and serving. Maybe we Christians aren’t acting that way, or if we are, the message isn’t getting out.”

I find it interesting that while Fletcher thinks the problem is that mainline churches have softened, Kling thinks society as a whole has ‘coarsened’. Fletcher, though, I suppose is concentrating on some ill-guided theological notion, while Kling seems to be speaking from a cultural aesthetic point of view.

Rollie’s take on this:

“Yeah, it’s convenient. Christianity has always been a catch-all religion. Whether you think society is too soft or too hard, Christianity has a place for you. Look, the people in this article, and all people at the heart of a religion are in the business of seeking to win people over to their way of thinking. They may honestly feel like they are trying to ‘save’ someone, but it all boils down to this – if you don’t think the way, I do, you’re wrong.

“Another thing, when I saw that bit about how this guy has the idea that religion is somehow an ‘improver’ of society… that made me laugh so hard I almost fell down the stairs.”

To Rollie’s point, I believe the improvement of society would all depend on who has gained from the religious activity. My contention would be that societal improvement usually flourishes despite the best efforts of entrenched religions.

Which brings me to a basic premise regarding the relationship between society and religion. Religion, I believe, stems from society as a cultural phenomenon and not vica versa. People form relationships, associations. They engage in essential function and life activities. Religion springs from an attempt to explain the unknown. Why did my crops not grow this year? Why did the rains not come? Why is my child sick? What happens when the elders die?

Rollie opined:

“When religion tries to go beyond the unknown and control the known, factual world, it ceases to be religion. It is simply a four-foot high pile of horseshit from a rat-infested stable where the hired hands have all gone off to gangbang the rancher’s daughter.”

Rollie has a wild imagination and watches way too much porn, but I tend to agree with his fundamental opinion. Religion, when it attempts to explain the unknown borders on science and when it uses scientific principles to move mankind forward to understand the previously unknown, it can certainly be described as an improver of society.

Unfortunately, many Christians wholeheartedly reject active engagement with the physical and known world in favor of ‘textual’ evidence that is held to be the final authority of all that can ever be known. This viewpoint is insufficient to bring any kind of improvement to society. I would argue further that it is detrimental to any kind of improvement anyone would hope to bring about.

The idea of improvement to society, though, raises a more fundamental question. That is, how do we define ‘improvement’ and who decides? Invariably ‘improvement’ favors some group over another and we are really left with a political problem, a public policy problem, best left to the realm of government, rather than religion.

At best, religion then becomes a ritualistic placeholder for the practice of beliefs once held. I see it as a kind of ancestor worship. By following the religious practices of those who came before, regardless of the logic behind them or lack thereof, we glorify the past, longing for some ‘happier day’ that we think has been lost (but may have never existed).

Perhaps those that do not identify themselves as Christians these days, do so because they do not see a compelling reason to follow in the footsteps of their forebearers. They see the opportunity to invent their own ways, their own rituals, their own culture. Perhaps the past is not so glorious after all. Perhaps, instead, we should be looking to make the future a better place.

I have always found Christianity to be a nihilistic religion. Even if you ignore the sects that concentrate on the suffering of Christ as their theological focal point, and even if you ignore the sects that believe that believers should also actively accept suffering in their own life as a homage to Christ’s, even if you see Christianity as the soft fluffy ‘love’ religion that Mr. Fletcher finds so distasteful, the end game of this religion does not make much sense. Though there are wildly differing opinions among branches of Christianity, it undeniably relies on some form of destruction of the world for its fruition. Essentially, the end game is the annihiliation of humans on planet Earth in favor of a ‘new heaven and new earth’. Believers, rather being human, take on supernatural bodies that never die and live in an eternal ill-defined ‘heaven’, a domain close to God, Jesus, etc.

Rollie, once again, had an opinion:

“Look, any nihilistic philosophy favors the now over the future. It may also favor the past to remind us of just why we believe in this nihilistic philosophy to begin with. This seems to be the Christian strategy – keep going over the same events time and time again so that everyone can feel comfortable in the fact that the world is going to end in hellfire and brimstone AND if they don’t accidentally deny the Holy Spirit or forget to accept Christ’s redemption for their real or imagined sins, they will get to go to the GREAT BEYOND! Church must be a great place to sell insurance, used cars, and pyramid schemes because if you believe that load of … well, you know what I’m saying.”

Rollie has a point in that Christianity sits in a holding pattern, spinning its wheels, emphasizing the study of its mythology which is presented as hard facts in the more fundamentalist sects. In all Christian branches, the emphasis is on a closed loop of select few past events. Christianity also makes a special point to disallow any new information to be included in the ‘canon’.

Referring back to the RTD article, Kling’s assertion that Christians should be ‘giving, loving, and serving’ as ‘best citizens’ contains some fundamental assumption which need to be challenged.

First, Kling’s assertion implies that Christians make the best citizens, as if non-Christians are somehow on a lower tier. The whole idea of ‘best’, here, is misplaced. At best, it is simplistic. At worst, it is elitist.

He also defines the ‘best’ behavior available to citizens as ‘giving, loving, and serving’. These three things sound very good on their face. However, who is giving what to whom? How does Kling define ‘love’? And to the service of whom and in what way? These questions evolve into questions of public policy (in the case of service/giving) and private relationships (in the case of love). While I believe citizenship should include contemplation of others and their needs, I do not see the need to mix these questions in with explaining the unknown or worshipping someone’s ancestors. I believe the best way to ensure everyone’s needs are met and that they have opportunity to pursue their private happiness does not rely on religion of any kind, much less Christianity. Again, these are public policy issues.

Rollie’s last word:

“My theory that you have not thought of here that explains the results of the American Religious Identification Survey is not that there are fewer people identifying themselves as Christians, but that there are simply fewer Christians. There are fewer Christians because they were taken up in the rapture. That’s right! It already happened! You missed it! The rest of the people who identify themselves as ‘Christians’ were found to be unworthy by the Lord and so they were, unfortunately, ‘left behind’! This would explain why these ‘Christians’ are not busy giving, loving, and serving because they really aren’t Christians at all!”

Amen.

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