Do we even need religion any more?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
It’s no secret that organized religion in America has slipped dramatically in the public eye during the past several decades. Though just as many people claim to have some sort of faith in a higher power, since the 1970s we’ve witnessed a steady decline in church attendance.
This isn’t exactly the case across the board. Large churches, with membership over 500 people, are still pretty strong overall, and the more conservative evangelical churches tend to maintain their bases of folks more than the moderate, so-called
There are a handful of reasons why this downward trend has continued for nearly two generations. First, an increasingly mobile population, held together more by technology than by geography, has dissolved many of the physical, social centers that helped make up communities in the past. After all, why go through the painstaking effort of getting the whole family out of bed and dressed when you can just hit folks up on Facebook, or Skype grandma, who now lives more than a thousand miles away?
Second, there’s been a pervasive suspicion of all things institutional that took hold particularly around the Watergate/Vietnam era. Prior to this, most people held something of an inherent trust of the systems of governance and authority, assuming they had the best interests of the general public at heart. But with the scandals, protests and violence of the ’60s and early ’70 came a cynicism about powerful institutions that we’ve never shaken since, and, perhaps, with good reason.
Add to this the breakneck speed of the distribution of information and the lack of filters to contain and/or verify what’s true and what’s garbage before it reaches consumers. On one hand, this explosion of the information age has democratized the information-sharing process; on the other, it’s created more opportunities for gossip, scandal exposes and even outright slander.
The all-seeing eye of the interconnected world misses little these days, and there few things that it loves than watching the mighty fall, especially when there’s also sex involved. So when ministers are caught getting a massage with benefits or predatory priests are found to be molesting boys, it’s sure to make headlines.
Some folks assume that early Christianity was all about establishing churches, but the institution we now see as organized religion didn’t come along until much later. Jesus himself didn’t spend much time in the synagogues, opting instead for small gatherings in homes and traveling the countryside to talk with whomever he came across.
It wasn’t until three centuries later when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire that the community of believers began to seriously get both organized and powerful. Though Constantine’s motives for converting to Christianity are arguable, most historians believe the move was more about consolidating power than it was about his faith.
Over the following centuries, the powerful combination of church and state helped spread Christianity to all corners of the world – often at the point of a sword – while the church willingly sanctioned the conquest of nations by rulers who claimed fidelity to the church. It was a convenient, if unsavory, marriage.
So, given the fact that the earliest church was more of a movement than an institution, and considering that, later, the real strength of the institutional church was built upon the backs of millions it forced into claiming loyalty, perhaps the institutional church as it stands actually is a bastardized version of what an otherwise peaceful and life-giving community of faith had to offer.
What if, after all the time, money and effort that’s gone into propping up our religious institutions, it’s actually those very institutions that are keeping communities of faith from doing the real work of positive social change to which they’re called?
In the end, every faith community has to continually take its own pulse, asking if the effort and resources being expended are primarily intent on keeping a building or power structure in place, or if those institutions and systems are, as they ideally should be, simply a means to a greater end.
Meanwhile, house churches and loosely networked faith groups continue to spring up, much like the seeds of early Christianity before religious barons ever thought about buildings, polity, conquest or empire. Many would see the collapse of the institutional church as we now know it as a failure of faith and humanity. But what if, after all the dust settled, we were left with something more genuinely focused on mission rather than on institutionality?
It’s hard to comprehend now, but perhaps we’re witnessing an evolution of human faith, shedding one older, rigid skin for a more pliable, adaptable one. Regardless, humanity’s resolve to maintain belief in something greater than itself has endured far worse than a weakened system of authority and some crumbling buildings. We’ll continue to seek an understanding of the divine, with or without the church.