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.