Religions, like puppy owners, often don’t do a good job of scooping up the messes they leave behind. But that’s not a compelling enough reason to give up on either your God or your dog. This is my conclusion after participating in some fascinating conversations in the past week.
Last Friday, our Office of Religious Life hosted a talk by Dr. Richard Dawkins here at the University of Southern California. A famous British evolutionary biologist, he’s one of the world’s most well-known “public atheists”. He packed the house at our big Bovard Auditorium with an overwhelmingly friendly crowd of students, professors, and people from the community. In person, he’s much more congenial and charming than in print. But he was steadfast in his categorical rejection of religion, repeatedly reminding the audience of its sins and omissions. He referred to the Episcopal Church of his boarding school upbringing as having “the mildest form of the affliction”, which suggested that we progressive Christians don’t get off his hook. I felt the urge to ask him this question: “I preach that God IS evolution – God is the process of creativity in the universe. I preach that the biblical miracle stories are mythological, to be read for deep meanings and metaphors, just as you do with the poetry you value so much. I’ve been a faith-based activist for social justice and peace for my entire career as a pastor. So doctor, what’s wrong with me?” Uncharacteristically, I held back, wanting to know what students might ask when the Q and A time came up. All the questions suggested that the questioners were atheists.
The most current Pew Research Religious Landscape survey of the US population shows that “among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.” The enthusiasm of the young people who gave up their Friday night to hear Dawkins is one manifestation of this statistical trend away from religious identity.
It’s a shift not nearly so evident at the Air Force Academy, where I spent this past Monday at the annual national meeting of college religious affairs staffers. On a stunning, clear fall day, with fresh snow gleaming on Pike’s Peak, we drove from Colorado Springs up to the spectacular campus of the Academy, in a forest at the base of the mountains. We got there in time to watch 4,000 cadets (mostly white people, moreso than the other military services) in blue uniforms form up into squadrons to march – with the band playing a rousing martial tune – to lunch.
Several years ago, the Academy came under public scrutiny because cadets were subjected to pressure to profess and practice evangelical Christianity on campus. Teachers and officers had become insensitive to the effects of untrammeled evangelizing. Some cadets worried that their career mobility might be in jeopardy if they didn’t “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior”. The Pentagon ordered an investigation, and this led to a concerted effort to make the campus more friendly to diversity of belief or unbelief. The chaplain corps adopted a “religious respect” training program for faculty and staff. A new “earth-based” outdoor rock circle was created to allow Pagan, Wiccan, and Native American cadets to conduct ceremonies. We toured the Muslim prayer space and Buddhist meditation room that had been added in the basement of the famous Air Force Academy Chapel. The top floor is the big Protestant chapel, and the basement already included a sizable Catholic chapel and an unusually beautiful Jewish space.
Our group of college chaplains engaged in a fascinating discussion about the US Constitution as it applies to the exercise of religion in the military. Much of the conversation applied to public university campuses, as well. And it also informed religious life on private university campuses, which find it just as necessary as public ones to avoid showing preference to any particular religion. Otherwise, things get messy – just as they did at the Air Force Academy. And perhaps more importantly, the blessing of the state (or the university) on a particular religion is often a kiss of death. Dawkins mused, in his talk at USC, that the reason religion is lively in the US and not nearly as much in Europe is that the US separated the state from the church, allowing for a flourishing free market for faith. He suggested also that in northern Europe, religion has a weak hold on people because they are economically secure: they are supported by much more substantial “safety nets” than exist in the United States. He said that people hold onto religion for emotional support in the absence of adequate material support.
Dawkins’ prescription for cleaning up the very real messes left by religion is to reject it altogether. The chaplains at the Air Force Academy say they are beleaguered by activists of this persuasion who mount legal challenges against religious practice on the campus at what the chaplains consider the slightest provocation. (This is a trumped-up claim, according to a recent article highlighted by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.) Getting rid of religion, especially in the fertile cultural soil of America, is very hard to imagine. Even as fewer and fewer young Americans identify with any particular faith, there’s still intense interest in matters spiritual and even religious. Old faith institutions may wither, but new ones will take form. Hopefully, the old ones will do a better job of cleaning up after themselves – ridding their religions of homophobia, misogyny, and anti-scientific doctrines. And hopefully, the new ones will avoid making these messes altogether.
The US military has a long way to go in creating a climate that is truly friendly to religious and non-religious diversity. Even if it cleans up its policies in conformance to the Constitution, a climate of pressure on soldiers to subscribe to evangelical Christian dogma may continue at least for a while. The real threat to the practice of religion in the military – and everywhere else – is not militant atheism. Rather, it’s high-pressure evangelism – with or without the blessing of the state.
I’ve been involved in campus ministry or religious life on university campuses for most of my career, in one way or another. There is no way for any student at any university to avoid getting the pitch to become an evangelical Christian. What’s been the net effect of this well-financed, extraordinarily organized, long-term campaign? More students have been de-evangelized by evangelists than have been evangelized. Certainly among American-born young people, there is an increasingly widespread perception that due to its messiness, religion isn’t worth any good it might deliver.
Getting rid of religion isn’t the answer. Getting rid of atheists isn’t the answer, either. The answer is for religion to clean up its act and become a force for spiritual enlightenment and progressive social change.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California