As the title conveys, I’ve gotten behind on my reporting about our discussions with folks at the Community Presbyterian Church (CPC). Our 4th meeting took place in January and the 10th in February. Our 6th meeting is scheduled for March 10th. The content of meetings 4 and 5 was rather similar, but the participants were a little different so I will cover both with this post.
in January, we decided to discuss a list of values that could be agreed upon by both secular humanists and progressive religionists. The list had been created by Herb Silverman representing the secular perspective and the editor of the paper in Charleston, South Carolina where they both live.
While we could find some changes in the wording that we might prefer, there was reasonable consensus that most of the list reflected ideas we found as a positive expression of our core perspective. We even found that many of us arrived at the same position by similar processes of examining the world and applying reason to ideas we found to express a positive, affirmative and humanistic orientation toward our fellow humans. Religion did not need to be a driving force in that process to get to the same place.
Having found, yet again, that we could avoid disagreement, we decided to expand the group to include a more diverse representation of religion and additional secular views from more GRAF members. That became the 5th meeting on February 10th. A storm on that night left us with a smaller group than planned, but we had two people from the Baha’i group in Grand Rapids and someone with a Jewish background, but not actively practicing that faith. The new assistant pastor at CPC was included as well. Some CPC members who had missed many of the earlier meetings, rejoined the group and were reintroduced along with the new members.
The expansion brought in some different perspectives, but not a lot of differences of opinion about the list of humanistic values. One of the Baha’is brought in comments that had been posted by someone claiming to be familiar with attitudes in east Texas. The vitriol and intolerance expressed in those comments either by the author or his neighbors, was enough to lead us to wonder if there was any hope for connecting with similar people sharing similar anti-humanistic values locally. One CPC member shared an experience trying to talk with a group of women from the local NRA gun group. Their close minded attitude regarding guns left him feeling that it was hopeless and did not bode well at all for trying to get more inclusive in our conversation with people similarly closed in their perceptions relating to belief and non-belief.
For our next meeting they accepted my suggestion that we read and discuss David Brooks article published on February 3rd in the NY Times on “Building Better Secularists“. This article was intended as a response to the rapidly growing number of younger people who decline to report any religious affiliation. Brooks feels there is a risk for our broader society is these “nones” do not find ways to replace what they have lost in giving up on religion. I presented this as an issue on which we might find grounds for at last finding disagreement without necessarily discovering that we could no longer feel comfortable in our conversation together. Several prominent atheists have already taken Brooks to task for his ideas and others have been more accepting of his view. Plenty of room for differences among all the CPC participants.
Subsequently in conversation with some of the GRAF participants, there was concern that maybe we were avoiding all the huge obstacles between us or that we were talking to people who really didn’t believe the faith claims either. Maybe they just enjoyed being part of the church. So they might all be atheists but for the name. It may be that we are in fact discovering the “dirty little secret” that interfaith dialogues are successful only to the degree that they avoid faith altogether. Faithiests like Chris Stedman may just be fooling themselve by never bringing up the giant elephant in the corner. They imagine good feelings, but ignore what all the pleasantness hides. I don’t think that will be true of our group in the long run. I’m very certain that some of them will vigorously defend their religious beliefs and notions of faith if pressed. And finding those points that can’t be resolved may be the ultimate test of whether the conversation can be held together or not.
With that in mind I’ve decided to supplement the Brooks article with a piece by Gregory Paul that describes the failing status of churches in much of the world including the U.S., wHich underlies the rise in secular numbers. They aren’t just not religious, they’ve actively left the churches. Why and what does it suggest for the future of the church and religion? An article I recently saw regarding attendance at Catholic Churches suggests that no more than 15% of supposed Catholics attend mass on any Sunday. That can’t be good for the church. It also noted that most of that 15% consisted of the elderly.
A second article by Paul and Phil Zuckerman, summarizes the research that shows secular countries like Denmark and Sweden, have much healthier societies than the U.S. We know that various political and social events led to the development of these more robust safety nets and support in these countries, but why did that also result in a drastic decline in religiosity? What does it say about the role religion plays? What will progressive religionists say about their religions? Is it really just a salve for untreated social harm and not a real help at all?
I know that some in the group will be a bit more uncomfortable with this direction since it challenges them to consider the idea that improving our country’s care and support for its citizens would further hasten the loss of those who feel obligated to believe. Atheists can claim it’s not our fault that your faith could be irrelevant and people are figuring that out. We could keep quiet and it would likely happen anyway. The very humanistic values you agreed you supported and shared with us are the ones that may ultimately lead to the extinction of faith if we put them into action. Somewhat ironic I suppose.