Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether to allow prayer at town hall meetings. This was brought on by a case in upstate New York in which two individuals felt that the prayer sessions in the beginning of their local town hall meetings violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which bans a government establishment of religion. The two individuals–an Atheist and a Jew–said they felt pressured to participate in the Christian prayers. The town officials suggested that these individuals either leave the room during prayer or ignore it, and they also opened up the floor to allow people of other faiths to give invocations. Advocates of prayer in town hall meetings say that prayer during town hall meetings and even Congressional sessions is a tradition in the United States, and that it in no way violates the First Amendment.
This case comes at a time when a record number of Americans consider themselves nonreligious, with Millennials being the least religious of all generations. The latest Public Religion poll found that Millennials had the highest proportion of nonreligious of any generation (22 percent), and had the highest proportion of religious progressives of any generation (23 percent). The poll also found that Millennials were the least likely to agree that it is necessary to believe in God in order to have good morals and values (39 percent agreed while 61 percent disagreed). But the finding that most directly relates to the recent Supreme Court arguments is quite interesting: While 55 percent of respondents agreed that “if enough people had a relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves,” on the other hand, 72 percent of respondents agreed that “religion is a private matter that should be kept out of public debates over social and political issues,” with 46 percent of respondents completely agreeing with this statement. So if we believe religion is a private matter, then would allowing prayer before town hall meetings contradict that belief?
If you read my blog you know that I am an agnostic, but that doesn’t mean I have a problem with public prayer. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with it. Do I think it is unnecessary? Yes, I do. But it really doesn’t bother me personally–just as saying “One nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance doesn’t bother me, and having “In God We Trust” written on our money doesn’t bother me. However, I do see how others would be bothered by public prayer and if the vast majority of Americans think that religion is a private matter, why then should it be included at town hall meetings? I think that this case and any others like it are helping to progress the important discussion about the role religion should play in government and in public life. And I think that this is a subject matter that will change pretty dramatically with Millennials.
As mentioned above, a record number of Americans are classifying themselves as nonreligious. Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the just last five years. However, the study also found that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” Why might this be? Why are Americans, for the most part, retaining a belief in a God but severing their ties to organized religion? And what makes spiritual so different from religious? I’ve said that I consider myself spiritual but not religious, and that is because I do believe that everything in this universe is connected. And I also believe that there is much more to life than we know, but I don’t necessarily believe we will gain this knowledge through faith in a God or Gods–I’m betting on science giving us the answers we seek.
I cannot speak for all Americans who have gravitated away from organized religion, but I will offer my own reasons for my decision to “leave the church.” And I think that my reasons are probably very similar to why others are reclassifying themselves as nonreligious.
Probably my biggest reason for turning agnostic is my belief in the teachings of science. I believe in evolution. I also believe that our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago from the gravitational pull of our sun causing billions of tiny dust particles to collide, forming larger and larger rocks and boulders, which over the course of several hundred thousand years continued to smash together to form the four rocky planets of our inner solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). And I believe the same scenario applies to the outer gas planets (the suns gravity pulling the gases together to form giant round planets made of these gases). I also believe that our sun was formed about 5 billion years ago after another star had died in a massive supernova explosion, leaving behind a giant nebula of gas and dust that became a star nursery, and ultimately laying the foundation for the formation of our sun and our solar system. And I believe that everything on our planet–from the mountains to the trees to the oceans and all living creatures–are made of the atoms of past stars that went supernova. In other words, we are literally made of stardust. I also believe that our universe was created after some sort of big bang, and it has been expanding ever since. Why do I believe all of this? Because science has proven it to be true. So when Christianity (my former religion) teaches that we all came from the same two people who were created in God’s image, and that our planet is only a few thousand years old, I just can’t get on board with that–especially when there is zero tangible proof of these claims.
I think that much of what is written in the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) is due to the lack of knowledge humanity had at the time of its writing. This was 2,000 years ago, and humanity at that time did not have the means to learn the truth of how we came to be or how our planet came to be, or how our sun came to be and how our entire universe came to be. It is written in the Bible that the earth is the center of the universe, but we now know that that simply is not true–heck, even the Catholic Church has publicly stated that this isn’t true. But at the time that was written humanity didn’t know any better. After the devastating tsunami of 2004 hit, I remember thinking how if it weren’t for modern science, so many people would think that this was simply an act of God. After all, the cause of the tsunami was an earthquake way out in the Indian Ocean that no one on land felt. Without modern technology there would have been no way to determine that there was an earthquake and that this earthquake was the cause of the tsunami. I’m sure some people believed that God caused the earthquake, which in turn caused the tsunami, even though earthquakes are caused by movement in earth’s tectonic plates and not by a God. But if this tsunami had happened 2,000 years ago, I bet it would have been another story in the Bible talking about the “wrath of God,” because humanity at that time didn’t have the means to find out the real reason for the tsunami.
My second biggest reason for becoming agnostic is because there are so many different religions, religious beliefs, religious interpretations, and denominations within religions for anyone to know with absolute certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong. How the hell do you know that you are correct in your beliefs and your interpretations and everyone who believes differently than you is wrong? Agnosticism simply states that humanity lacks the knowledge to know whether there is a God or Gods, and because of this lack of knowledge we cannot yet determine the truth. I’m not an atheist. I do not flat-out deny the existence of a God. But without sufficient proof I cannot claim that I know for certain that there is a God. There could be a billion Gods for all I know. And the fact that there are so many different religions, and within each religion different interpretations of its teachings and different beliefs for how to express your faith and of what is right and wrong, that very fact alone proves that humanity lacks the knowledge to know what is true and what isn’t. If we all believed the same thing, the argument for the existence of a God(s) would be a lot stronger. But since we all don’t believe the same thing–and in fact even within the major religions there is a wide array of differing beliefs and interpretations–the argument for the existence of a God or Gods becomes significantly weaker.
My third major reason for leaving Christianity is because of its hypocritical nature. This, I believe, is especially troubling for Millennials. We, more than any other generation, believe that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and yes, religious beliefs. But many Christian denominations call for the blatant discrimination against members of the LGBT community. I didn’t attend Sunday school for long–just long enough to receive my First Holy Communion–and my family rarely attended mass when I was growing up, so I don’t have much of a religious background to begin with. But what I remember more than anything is that Jesus preached love, tolerance, acceptance, compassion, respect for your fellow man, and forgiveness. And He did this in the name of God. Even though I no longer consider myself Christian, I still live my life according to these values. But it doesn’t appear the Catholic Church shares these values, or the vast majority of Christian denominations. How can you preach tolerance, compassion and love, yet say that an entire segment of our population doesn’t deserve the same treatment as the rest of us, and that the God you believe in–who wants us to practice these values–also thinks that certain people aren’t worthy of the same treatment? That just doesn’t make sense to me. If we are all created in God’s image, and if He loves all of us equally, I would think He would want all of us to treat each other with the same level of compassion, love, respect and dignity that we would want for ourselves–you know, how Jesus would treat us. But like I said, I don’t have much of a religious background so maybe I stopped attending Sunday School before they started teaching intolerance and discrimination, and the fact that you can choose the parts of the Bible you want to believe in/follow, and disregard the parts that you don’t like or that don’t fit with your beliefs–like the values Jesus taught.
I realize that the majority of Christians in this country are good people who are trying to live their lives in a moral and decent way, and that they don’t agree that members of the LGBT community should be discriminated against, or that anyone with different beliefs should be discriminated against. And I mean no disrespect to those who believe in the story of Adam and Eve, or that our planet is only 6,000 years old, or who ascribe to any particular religion. To each their own. But please, don’t be a hypocrite. If you believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, then live by them as well. Practice what you preach. And don’t cherry pick what parts of the Bible you want to believe in and follow, and what parts you don’t, for that also makes you a hypocrite. Also, don’t take some parts of the Bible literally but say that other parts are “open for interpretation,” because if one part is open for interpretation then they all are. And if you think that any part of the Bible may be incorrect (and as I stated earlier, even the Catholic Church has admitted that the Bible is wrong in it’s assertion that the earth is the center of the universe), then wouldn’t that leave the door open for everything in the Bible to possibly be incorrect? As Thomas Paine said, “That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not.” Paine also remarked that “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” In my humble opinion, a God that supposedly says it is okay to discriminate against an entire group of people simply because they have different beliefs than you, is a cruel God.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how religion, sadly, is responsible for so much death, destruction and war throughout history. And it still is even today. I cannot help but believe that our world would be better off without religion. Maybe, even in the absence of religion, humanity would find another reason to justify hating others and to ruthlessly destroy one another. But what I find most contradictory is that all major religions do not actually preach violence, hatred and intolerance–in fact, they preach the opposite. Yet, throughout history, many of those who have ascribed to these religions have committed violent acts, have harbored very hateful and intolerant views, and even willingly murdered others all in the name of their religion. This is still true today–albeit the number of people who fit this description has shrunk considerably, thank goodness.
I understand that religion has helped many people–it helps them cope, it has helped people turn their lives around and has given them a new reason to live. And many people who do charity do so because their religion advocates it. These are good things and I am not trying to disregard these facts at all. But the way I see it, religion has done more damage to humanity than it has helped humanity. For better or for worse, humans have a tendency for extremism. And unfortunately, when religion is taken to the extreme, it does far more bad than it does good. Growing up in the age of modern terrorism, which is rooted in religious extremism, it doesn’t surprise me that Millennials are starting to question the necessity and nature of religion more and more.
A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that Millennials are least likely to pray daily, attend religious service on a regular (weekly) basis, and less than half (45 percent) say that religion is an important part of their lives. Also, Millennials are the least likely to believe in God (64 percent say that they are absolutely certain of the existence of God compared to 71 percent of the total population), are the least likely to believe the Bible is the word of God or should be interpreted literally, and the most likely to believe that evolution is the best explanation of human life (55 percent compared to 48 percent of the total population). And Millennials are the only age group that agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision banning required reading of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible scriptures in public schools.
Moreover, a 2008 study by the Barna Group, which polled Americans aged 16 to 29, found that 87 percent of respondents described one particular mainstream religion as “judgmental,” 85 percent called it “hypocritical,” 78 percent said it is “old-fashioned,” and 70 percent claimed it to be “insensitive to others.” Many might be surprised to find that the mainstream religion in question is actually Christianity. Judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned and insensitive to others–this is how most Millennials view Christianity. A few months ago cnn.com published an opinion piece by Millennial Rachel Held Evans that caused quite a bit of controversy when she offered her take on why Millennials are leaving the church. She stated that the main problem is that “young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” She talked about how the elder church clergy mistakenly think they can attract young people by making church more “hip” and “cool.” But this isn’t the problem, and Millennials (with our highly-tuned bullshit meters) will see right through a ruse like this. She says that what Millennials crave is more authenticity, openness and compassion from the church.
“We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
Boom! Millennials are leaving the church mainly because they don’t find Jesus there. More accurately, I think, would be to say that they don’t find the teachings of Jesus there. You know, all that stuff He said about love, tolerance, acceptance, compassion, respect, and forgiveness. Where is that? Because it certainly isn’t reflected in the church’s insistence that we don’t treat everyone equally–that some of us “choose” to live in sin and therefore aren’t worthy of the same amount of love, compassion, respect, etc. that we would give to others. In addition, Millennials are turned off by the church’s insistence on telling us how to live our lives. Overall, if the church wants to become more hip and cool, as the author points out, it shouldn’t do this by making “a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.” What the church needs to do is make some updates to its substance, not its style. In fact, according to a May 2009 Center for American Progress report, 64 percent of Millennials agreed that “Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.” If the church insists on maintaining its out-dated and intolerant views, it can expect more young people to leave.
Furthermore, it appears that Millennials want to change the kind of role religion plays in government. The Center for American Progress report found that 54 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement, “Our country has gone too far with mixing politics and religion and forcing religious values on people,” compared to just 39 percent of those over 30. This sentiment is backed by a May 2011 Harvard IOP survey where only 21 percent of Millennials agreed that “Religious values should play a more important role in government.” We don’t crave more religion in government; we want less religion in government–and this isn’t surprising. The generational archetype that Millennials represent–Hero or Civic–tends to be more secular. This is likely a reaction to the values-driven, culture warrior nature of our parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers.
Overall, Millennials are currently the least religious generation alive today. And even those Millennials who are religious tend to be more open-minded about different religious beliefs, different religious interpretations, and the different lifestyles of others. We may become more religious as we age, but I don’t think we will become more conservative in our beliefs, necessarily. I also think Millennials will focus more on trying to bridge the gap between religion and science. Today, religion and science are having a tough time coexisting. In the past century-and-a-half, through the advancements in science, humanity has discovered so much that has lead to a deeper understanding of our existence. So how do we reconcile this new knowledge with what has been taught for the past 2,000 years (or more, depending on your religious affiliation)? This is a difficult question to answer, and right now humanity is really in the thick of trying to figure this out. I think and I hope that Millennials will explore this more deeply.
I am an agnostic because I don’t believe humanity yet has the knowledge to know if a divine being (or beings) exists. I shall remain open-minded about this until I feel there is sufficient proof either way. And if I never find out the truth, that is fine. I don’t need to know, for I don’t feel any spiritual void in my life whatsoever. The universe is my God, and I feel deeply connected to everything in it–because I know from what science has found that everything in the universe is connected.
I have no issues with other people’s personal beliefs. Whether you believe in God or not, or if you believe in multiple Gods, or if you believe in no God does not matter to me–nor should it. I do, however, take issue with one group of people blatantly discriminating against another group of people because they have different beliefs or different lifestyles. No one should be denied basic human rights because a certain group of people doesn’t agree with what they believe or with who they love. That is downright absurd. And I’m sure that if Jesus really believed what He preached, then He would agree with me. I’m all for the protection of the church, and that is why I don’t think the government should have the authority to force churches to do anything that would clash with their religious beliefs–such as supply birth control or officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies. But the government should also not be allowed to pass laws, based on a specific set of strict religious beliefs, that would infringe on other’s individual rights or advocate discriminating against certain groups of people.
When I have children, I will raise them to always have an open mind. I will encourage them to explore different religions and belief systems–both past and present–and to constantly seek the truth in everything in life. I will raise them to help the less fortunate, to treat others with respect and dignity, to stand up for those who are at a disadvantage, to be compassionate, loving and honest. But I will not tell my children that these are Christian values, and that the only way they will have a pleasant afterlife is by practicing these values in order to impress some invisible man who lives in the sky. I will tell my children that these are human values, and that they should practice them simply because it is the right thing to do, and because it is the only way to guarantee the continuation of our species. There is no reward for practicing these values except the satisfaction you get when you do right by others, and the knowledge that your kind actions and your caring nature will help make our world a better, more peaceful place. I cannot promise them an eternity in heaven because I don’t know for certain if heaven exists. All I can hope to do is raise my children to be loving, respectful and thoughtful individuals. If I do that, then I have succeeded as a parent.
The Ancient Romans started out as Pagans or Polytheists, meaning they believed in multiple Gods (most of whom were the same as the Greeks Gods, they just had different names). At some point, we all learned about these Gods in school. We found the beliefs of Ancient Romans interesting but also kind of silly and ridiculous. And we learned that after a man named Jesus came along and said that He was the son of God, religion in Ancient Rome changed forever. It took a while–over three centuries of Christian Emperors repressing paganism–but eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the worship of Pagan Gods was prohibited. Who’s to say something like this couldn’t happen again. All three major monotheistic religions–Islam, Judaism and Christianity–have prophets (Muhammad, Moses and Jesus) whose preaching’s began each respective religion. I wonder–will another prophet pop-up sometime in the future and lay the foundation for another new religion, or create a tangent off of a current religion, as Jesus did with Judaism? If it happened before, it can certainly happen again. And maybe it already is happening. Maybe a few hundred years from now Scientology will be the most popular religion in the world, and statues of L. Ron Hubbard and Tom Cruise will be sites of worship. All joking aside, my point is, if humanity survives another 2,000 years (or even 200 years), do you think our ancestors will still believe the same things we do today? Or do you think they will study the different belief systems during these times and find them both intriguing and somewhat ridiculous, just like how we view the Pagan beliefs of the Ancient Romans?
I realize my opinions about religion could change. After all, they already have from when I was a child. But in the meantime, I will happily remain agnostic and open-minded. As Thomas Paine said, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”