Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Death of Christianity?

The April 4 issue of Newsweek magazine has a feature story, "The End of Christian America." Apparently, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has dropped 10%, to about 75% of the population. The loss of Christianity has been the gain of eastern, new age and Islamic religious groups.

There is a problem with labels in describing religious affiliation. People in many mainstream religious denominations would have trouble signing off on each article of the Apostle's creed. In many congregations, current fashions hold a lot more sway than the scriptural canon. This is a trend that became entrenched in the 60's and 70's. Today, it is the more traditional denominations that continue to experience growth, even as the religious mainstream loses members. This trend is mirrored among American Jews, who have moved more to the religious right after decades of drifting away from tradition.

Will a post Christian America be kinder and gentler? I have serious doubts. There is a human tendency to put human words into the mouth of a rubber stamp god. The G-d of our age tends to remain silent, creating a temptation for believers that resembles that of a substitute teacher who has stepped out of her classroom.

This century has seen its share of new religions. Marxism is a comprehensive world view in which the existence of G-d or any god is denied. Nazism attempted to launch a Nordic religion based on Norse myths as well as a revisionist and dejudaised Christianity.

America has provided refuge to many religious dissidents who were persecuted elsewhere. From Puritans in Massachusetts to Old Believers in Alaska, America has defined itself by its tolerance of all who will obey the rule of law.

America is also the birthplace of a number of new religions. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists are among the American born religious denominations that have enjoyed the freedom to march to a different drummer.

Religious dissent is very much a part of America's way of life. We seem to be a compassionate nation with a respect for spiritual searchers. America's reported change in religious demographics is not unprecedented. In the 19th and early twentieth century, immigration changed the tone of Christianity in large sectors of the population. Additionally, it raised the percentage of Jews in the country.

Today, there are increasing numbers of Muslim and other non Christian immigrants. Will they become an Americanised subgroup in the general population? Immigrants from hotbeds of nationalism in Europe were assimilated into American life. My mother's family told me of Slavic fraternal organisations of which no government employeee could be a member. Particularly during World Wars I and II, Americans from enemy nations were subjected to scrutiny. There is no need to apologise for a desire to assure the loyalty of Muslim Americans as well. My digression into politics is not accidental. Religion has always had a political dimension.

I can not applaud the announced decline of Christianity until I know what is going to take its place. There is an enthusiasm of new believers that can easily spill over into intolerance. Some of the most beautiful utopian visions existed among believers in communism. Millions who were feared as obstacles to the "new order" were liquidated in numbers that dwarfed the body count of Christianity. It is for this reason that I am skeptical and fearful of any new vision for the future.

I have seen new age devotees displaying as much dogmatism and intolerance as any bible thumping Christian ever did. I have had people who disliked my orthodox beliefs try to force me to violate the Sabbath. These people were not born again Christians but new age, rainbow flag waving devotees of alternative lifestyles. but Intolerance is a human, psychological condition that cuts across political and theological lines.

I believe that my religion is unlike all other faiths, which are man made. I am also aware that as I type, others are making the same claim for their religions. I have a saying that defines the terms of this theological standoff. It is very simple and it reads as follows.

"I don't care if you believe I am going to hell, as long as you don't try to send me there ahead of schedule."

Religion can go in two directions. It can enshrine the beliefs and character of its adherents as an ideal to aspire to, or it can turn inward and strive for the improvement of the individual. A lot of the new age religions seem to be ratifying the intellectual fads and trends of our age. A biblical canon and set of laws seems to offer the possibility of standing apart from the passions and prejudice of one's time.

Good people can make a deeply flawed political system somewhat livable. Conversely, the most elaborately conceived social organisation can be subverted through malevolence and selfishness.

We should not be joyous about the announced demise of Christianity, because we do not know what will replace it. I must caution those who laud the death of traditions. Before one discards old ways, one must know the logic and reason for them. And even as one strives for better beliefs, one must strive to be a better believer. Sphere: Related Content

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