The Quest For Meaning 6: The Final Installment

There are many today who are not affiliated with any religious institution. They are called “Nones” or “Dones.” Nones are people who answer surveys about religious practice that they do not have any religious affiliation. Many say they are “spiritual but not religious.” Dones are people who used to be affiliated with a religious institution but have opted out. Enough is enough. They are “done.” Both groups have grown significantly in the U.S. over the past several decades at the expense of established religious institutions. Christianity, still the largest religion in the United States, experienced a 20th-century high of 91% of the total population in 1976. This declined to 74% by 2016. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said that they belonged to a Christian church; this was the first time that a poll found less than half of Americans answering this way.  What is going on? Why is this happening?

The Christian Church—especially the established “Mainline Churches” — no longer meets the needs of an increasing number of people, led by the Millennials and GenXers. I would like to attribute this phenomenon in the Episcopal Church to the overuse of the Nicene Creed. Much of what is in it does not jibe with their understanding of the world today, but all Mainline Protestant churches, including many which rarely use ancient creeds in worship, have lost members, not just the Episcopal Church. The Presbyterians have fared the worst losing almost 40 percent over the last two decades.

Is there still a need for religion today? Do we live in what is becoming a post-religious world?

We Homo sapiens on the planet Earth have been asking the same questions that our ancestors were asking several thousand years ago: What is the meaning of our lives? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen? Why is there so much suffering in the world? These have been the questions of both philosophy and religion from time immemorial. All religions deal with these questions. These questions remain as real and important today as they have been throughout history.

The secular answer is that this is just the way the world is. Get over it. You don’t have to believe in God to get by or to know Truth. Albert Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” portrays the human condition as pushing a huge boulder up a mountain only to lose control and watch it fall to the bottom, but we humans get up and start over again and again and again. There is no such thing as Absolute Justice or Absolute Truth, just the day-in, day-out slogging along in the short time we have allotted to us. I have often used the example of running a marathon. When you stumble across the finish line, the important question is whether you have you given the race your best effort.

Now I am a loyal church goer. A lifer. My parents were religious people who attended the downtown Episcopal church in Nashville, which makes me a “cradle Episcopalian.” My upbringing is the main reason, I suppose, that I am an Episcopalian. Also, the clergy in that church visited me every week during the two years that I was at home recovering from polio when I was ten and twelve, and that made a huge difference. Religious faith was very important to me then and on other occasions in my life, but at the same time, I cannot help asking the same questions as Camus did in the Myth of Sisyphus allegory. I find myself in the skeptical world more than I would like.

From 1964-1968 I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York where I was a “postulant,” someone who intends to become an Episcopal priest. My bishop was a feisty, old school guy, who did me a great favor by telling me the year before I graduated from Union that for every year I had spent at that “heretical Protestant seminary” I would have to spend a year at a conservative, Anglo Catholic seminary, a deal he knew I would never accept. I will always be grateful to him for that. It would not have been the right job for me. He knew that.

I have been asked more than once that if I am not a “True Believer,” why do I continue going to church in the first place. Part of the reason is that I do believe in the fundamental mystery of life that we humans experience from time to time, along with occasional glimpses of the Devine. The fundamental message of God’s love resonates with me. I believe life has a purpose.

Yet at times I wonder.

(Another, I must confess, is that Embry sings in the choir and is now the Senior Warden of All Souls Episcopal Church. Plus, it is a diverse community and a warm and accepting place where people can discuss honestly questions of faith and doubt. Being part of a loving and accepting community, I think, is one of the main reasons people attend church.)

And the times we are in now are especially frightening. We need all the help we can get. The catastrophes of global warming are happening right now with wildfires, flooding, and horrific hurricanes. If the Greenland ice cap melts, it may be too late. Scientists tell us we are at the beginning of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction. More and more countries are acquiring nuclear weapons. What are the chances that they will never use them? We Homo sapiens have the power to do ourselves in and take most of the animal and plant life on the planet with us. And bad things have happened before in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history—five mass extinctions, which eliminated 80-90% of life on the planet each time. But the planet Earth is resilient. It has recovered and thrived after each extinction and is now home to eight billion people. The planet will survive for about another billion years before our sun expands into a red giant and high temperatures on Earth make life impossible. But will we Homo sapiens still be around for another billion years? Please. Does anyone believe there is a remote chance? What different kinds of life may emerge? What new or post human-like creatures will take our place?

The short answer is that we do not know and will never know the answers to these questions. We are just another animal living on an extraordinary planet. We have worked our way up the food chain as we have evolved over the past 3.5 million years. The best we can do is run our race the best we can and try to leave this troubled world in better shape than we found it, a goal which I am sad to say we are far from achieving. Where Christianity and most other religions come in is that they provide blueprints for making some sense of the world and moving forward. The point of all religions, I believe, is essentially the same—to try to understand the meaning and purpose of life, to be touched by the mystery of the Devine, and to live good lives.  One Destination, many pathways. To be part of this mysterious experience is something for which all humans should be grateful. I know that I am.



The Quest For Meaning 5: The Other Religions

While it is impressive that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, accounting for over 31 percent of the world’s population, what about those in other religions? Are they to be written off as lost souls, following fake religions and deceiving themselves? The top three religions besides Christianity include Islam (25%), Hinduism (16%), and Buddhism (7%).  The Big Four religions account for almost 80% of the people on the planet Earth. But there are many other religions including Judaism and lesser known religions like Sikhism, Taoism, the Bahai Faith, Jainism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and indigenous religions. Only sixteen percent of the world’s population are labeled by those who try to keep the statistics as “non-religious.” In other words, Christianity may be the most popular religion, but still out of a world population of just over eight billion, that leaves about 5.6 billion people who are left out. Some would say they are doomed to hell.

Does this make common sense?

Of course not. Especially when you consider that while there are important differences in these religions, there are also similarities. Furthermore, when you consider all the differences within Christianity concerning belief and religious practice, an argument could be made that there are as many differences within the Christian community as between Christianity and other religions.

There is lot, however, that most religions and religious practices have in common:

  • Most religions believe in a supernatural deity. Most are monotheistic though there are still some religions which acknowledge other gods. (Note, however, Christianity has been described by some as also polytheistic due to the concept of the Trinity, along with the plethora of angels that some Christians pray to.) Buddhism and Confucianism are the main exceptions and are more philosophies than religions, and neither worship a supernatural deity.
  • They promote behavior equivalent to the Golden Rule: Treat others like you would like to be treated.
  • They have rituals and sacred writings.
  • They pray to their deity.
  • They have places of worship like temples, synagogues, and churches.
  • They have an ethical code.
  • They have barriers to entry—circumcision in Judaism, baptism and confirmation in Christianity, and dietary restrictions in many religions like prohibitions on pork and shellfish in Judaism, meat in Hinduism, pork in Islam, and alcohol in many religions.
  • They acknowledge a genuine spiritual realm beyond human understanding.

Here are some of the other similarities and differences among the major religions. Hinduism, considered by some to be the world’s oldest religion, is said to have no beginning as it precedes recorded history. It has no human founder. It is a mystical religion, leading the devotee to personally experience the Truth within, finally reaching the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one. From a Hindu website there is this: “In Hinduism we talk of many Gods, but there is one God behind them whom we all worship. One God who is Brahman. Similarly, in Christianity there is Trinitarian conception of God. However, we accept it as one God which is all powerful and loving.”

Islam, of course, along with Judaism, worships the same God as Christians, and their members have similar ethics. Both religions have expectations regarding religious practice like praying five times a day for Muslims and attending synagogue on High Holy Days for Jews. Catholics are not supposed to eat meat on Fridays and weekly attendance at mass is expected. Protestants are not as strict in this area though church attendance at least at Christmas and Easter services is common. It is one of the ironies that the three Abrahamic religions, which have most in common  and worship the same God, have often been in conflict.

Sikhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, is strongly monotheistic, believing that God is without form, or gender, that everyone has direct access to God and that everyone is equal before God. A good life is lived as part of a community, by living honestly and caring for others. Empty religious rituals and superstitions have no value.

Taoism, still important in China, is a religion which like Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion. While there is a (small)  polytheistic component, it has a strong ethical system. Jainism, which is another ancient religion dating back to 900-600 BCE in India teaches that the path to enlightenment is through nonviolence and reducing harm to living things (including plants and animals) as much as possible. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in reincarnation. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is determined by one’s karma. Shintoism, practiced in Japan, stresses purity, harmony, respect for nature, family respect, and subordination of the individual before the group. There are many Shinto gods or spirits, and these have shrines dedicated to them where people offer food, money, and prayers.

Some would argue that while the religions are not the same, they have more similarities than differences and are all trying to make sense out of the world we humans live in. I argue that this is the human condition we Homo sapiens inherited from our ancestors.

What are we to make of these other religions? Why do some Christians consider them a threat or even worse, evil? Why have there been so many wars associated with religion? Why has it been so important to convert people from one religion to another religion–to one’s own religion? Aren’t these members of other religions searching for the same things we humans who call ourselves Christians are searching for—for meaning in life, for wholeness, and for being loved and accepted, for connection with an unseen spiritual dimension, which we believe is real? This comes back to the God-gene that I wrote about earlier. It is part of our human nature. That some 85 percent of human beings living on the planet Earth are considered part of some religious group is a compelling indication that the need for a spiritual connection for us humans is strong. The skeptic, of course, would point out that just because people are searching for something does not mean that it is real or that it actually exists. And they would have a point. This is the blessing and curse of being a human being. 

And what is wrong with the notion that there is one God, the Creator of the Universe, who is accessible to all humans, who do not necessarily share the same vision or use the same name for their deity that other religions use? I remember the story of five blind men who were asked to describe an elephant:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. One described the elephant as a tree, another a wall, another a rope and another as a large spear.

And, of course, they are all correct. This parable is found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Jainism, and in ancient Chinese and Japanese proverbs. However, it never found its way into Christianity.

And finally, if  you ask yourself why you are a Christian—or a person belonging to any religious group for that matter– and not part of another religious group, or why you are part of one Christian denomination and not another, it could boil down to which country  you were born in, which language you speak, where you grew up, what religion your parents practiced or what you were exposed to at a young age, and other factors that have little to do with any specific creed or belief. That is another part of our human behavior: We tend to go with the flow.

The last essay in this series will be about the state of the Christian religion today in the United States. There is a strange paradox that while Christianity is growing among Pentecostals and those in nonaffiliated churches such as Praise Churches, attendance in mainline Protestant churches–and even among the evangelicals–is plummeting in the U.S. as it has been for decades in Europe. More people are signing up as “Nones,” or “Dones.” What is this all about? What if anything can be done about it? Or should anything be done about it?

Stay tuned for the final installment.