Last night, I had the oddest dream. I was walking in Kansas City – I’ve never been there, but a friend just got a job in a company based there – when I was recognized by a sheriff, who was dressed in a suit. I didn’t know him, and have no idea how I knew he was in law enforcement, but he knew me as a reporter and called me by name. I have retired, but he didn’t know that.
He told me that he was a member of the Church of Christ, but was concerned because membership had fallen. As we walked past stores in a crowded business area, I started to explain why.
I woke up then, but still remember the reasons.
For starters, the internet has opened our eyes to multiple cultures and religions. It’s no longer realistic to tell people only believers of one religion will go to heaven and everyone else will be punished. When we didn’t know how many billions of other people there are or that some of them have the same belief, but in their own religion, any claim will work. That’s not true anymore.
Second, the more we know, the less plausible heaven and hell seems. A true believer has a problem believing he’s going to be rewarded after death, but must accept the existence of multiple heavens for others, who have different beliefs, but are living “good” lives.
Pope Francis tried to end that confusion by saying all good people, including atheists, can go to heaven. That disrupted the centuries-old insistence that only Catholic believers in Jesus can be “saved.” After all, the New Testament claims that. However, Francis had no choice but to concede the obvious.
If heaven has an open door, hell has vanished. The concept of people being punished for not believing a certain dogma simply makes no sense, not with a known 4,600 religions with each having its own tenets. Many have punishments as well. Actually, the idea that all the people born before Jesus and having no way to believe in him would face eternal punishment simply because of when they were born never seemed plausible anyway.
Then, too, religion has undermined itself with the Catholic Church trying to hide pervasive priestly abuse of children, and evangelicals actively supporting such known pedophiles as Roy Moore and known adulterers like Donald Trump. They have conceded morality to nonbelievers without a whimper of shame.
In addition, biblical claims of inerrancy have been completely compromised by archaeology, anthropology and other sciences. Believers are forced to close their eyes and ears to documented research, moaning as the Bible is reduced to a collection of unsupported stories combined with morality teachings. As time passes, concepts of morality are altered anyway. The Bible has come up short in that area, too. The Catholic Church has abetted the shift in culture by conceding that the Bible represents not facts but the “beliefs” of the authors.
Moreover, the old concept of a God who sees everything and is involved in our lives has become unbelievable. A simple glance at the news shows that innocent people are struck down randomly, such as a child dying of the flu or a car driver swept away by a surprise cascade of mud. We are inundated with such obvious contradictions of faith on a daily basis. The traditional excuse that God works in mysterious ways falls flat.
Where can anyone find a God in daily life?
Elie Wiesel gave his definition when, in 1945, he watched the hanging of a young boy in a concentration camp. That was God, he told a companion, hanging from that noose. He lost any faith, as have many others since. That life is a series of random events has become increasingly obvious.
Then, too, we have new gods. Humans like Mao and Stalin were elevated as divinities, in the same way Romans defied emperors or Greeks turned heroes, even imaginary ones like Hercules, into gods. We have done the same with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and other cultural touchstones, including the National Anthem and the flag.
Everyone has their own god anyway: Allah or Muslims, Yahweh for Jews; and Jesus for Christians. Or no god, like Buddhists; or thousands of gods, like Hindus. The whole concept has become untenable.
Besides, we are also turning electronics into gods, just as Paul Simon noted in the 1960s: “And the people bowed and prayed/to neon god they made.”
The end result is that vast numbers of people are walking away from our existing religions. Statistically, nearly 24 percent of the American population are no longer associated with a religious organization, the highest number of “nones” ever reported. The totals continue to grow, leaving my dream sheriff, who reminded me of Lt. Tragg from the old Perry Mason TV series, to wonder about the future of his belief.
Even in my dream, the sheriff knew today's violence, along with the persistent attempts by believers to control books, media and lives, represents the last spasms of aging, fading religions. One look at the lonely old souls who are typically the only ones these days occupying pews would illustrate that.
For the shrinking remnant of believers, of course, this scenario is not a dream, but a nightmare. For the rest of us, it’s the end of one era and the beginning of the next.
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