A standard “From the Pulpit”-type article in a recent edition of the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader newspaper illustrates one reason why Christianity has so robustly perpetuated for several centuries in the United States.
Written by Christina O’Hara, rector of the city’s episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, the article—“If you’re called to new life, something may have to die”—was nominally about death but mostly about life after death. Readers likely don’t register that such religion-page articles, ubiquitous in thousands of large- and small-town and metro newspapers throughout America, are located in the opinion section. Thus, they are likely read as factual accounts, just like credible, authoritative stories on news pages.
It’s fair to question the accuracy much less the verifiability of the idea of “life after death,” in which the body and what is defined as the “soul” purportedly reunite for eternity in heaven or, for the wicked, presumably in hell. Yet, there it is in the newspaper, presented as fully actual. And readers are not only adults, who hopefully are mature and reasonable enough to fairly assess the truth of such claims for themselves, but also children, who aren’t.
So, therefore, most Americans—roughly 70 percent of our population is Christian, according the Pew Research Center—are having the unverified claims of their faith constantly repeated to them (and their children) in the normal course of their lives. The repetitions occur not only in church sermons and scripture readings on Sunday, but in newspaper articles masquerading as paragons of factuality. In TV religious services and talk shows. In Pledge of Allegiance phrases and printed on our money, and even in the halls of Congress (watch the proselytizing religious sermons by U.S. House members on C-Span during November’s National Bible Week).
The problem is that children soak up all this indoctrination along with adults but with exposure to virtually zero alternative explanations of existence, even mild, curious agnostic doubt. Forget atheism.
A lovely thought, undeniably. But is it true? Has it ever actually happened? That is the question.
Of course, among believing Christians immortality is viewed as infallibly true, but among those of us who are less accepting, more skeptical, it has the sure look and feel of fantasy. Nonetheless, it comes at us relentlessly in the culture and from the pages, screens and audio amplifiers of mass media. Of course, media exist that do specifically cater to nonbelievers, but they are niche outlets, mostly preaching to the already unconverted. But there are few if any regular opinion columns in the vast majority of community newspapers that regularly inform and update the masses about the country’s fast-growing agnosticism or other religiously contrary trends. So, in general, most people rarely even hear about doubting, humanist conceptions.
Therefore, the noble ideas of nonreligious rational humanism are not dispersed throughout the populace with the same breadth as long-reinforced Christian ideals. It’s human nature that ideas most frequently applied have the most impact and staying power. Thus, humanism, like Sisyphus, must push its boulder uphill; Christianity, downhill.
Quoting American poet T.S. Eliot’s classic “The Journey of the Magi,” O’Hara wrote that the maji “wise men” experienced new life with the birth of Jesus as the “death of the old dispensation.” The “new life” represented the possibility of eternal life after the death of the body. It promised a complete transcendence of earthly reality, where death is, in fact, final except for decay. Irreversible.
As I said, eternal joy is a lovely thought. But, as far as anyone can confirm, it only happens for sure in books.