A recent survey showed that there are now as many Americans who claim “no religion”—
23 percent—as there are who identify as either Catholic or Evangelical, the two largest affiliations. This trend has been rising steadily, reportedly growing nearly 270 percent in the last thirty years. This means that the next time they take the poll, the most popular answer to the question “What is your religious tradition?” will probably be “none”. This would probably shock our ancestors here, who created this country with the right to religious freedom, and who referenced the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, assuming a belief in God and the assembling of citizens to reinforce and celebrate that belief.
There are lots of reason for the growth of the category “none” in recent years. In our own tradition, thousands of Catholic priests sexually abused innocent children for decades, shaming them into silence. Islamic jihads have been the rallying cry for killing people all over the world, including the events of 9/11 in our own country. Hindus and Muslims in India continue their long-standing conflict, killing one another in scores of attacks. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, have boasted Christianity as justification for their actions. Religion has been cited to reject the LBGTQ community, and TV preachers have sold religion to finance indulgent lifestyles. We have all learned recently that a Catholic bishop in a nearby state also yielded to this temptation of seeking a lavish lifestyle.
Unfortunately, religion is sometimes a casualty of other sociological forces at work. Religion is sometimes mis-used by fanatics and extremists. Religion is sometimes mis-appropriated by psychologically immature or spiritually underdeveloped human beings. And religious leaders are sometime victims of the blindness that can touch us all. Terrible things happen in the world, therefore, that are connected to religion, and so perhaps it makes sense that the category “none” is growing. You can ask, “Why would anyone turn to religion anymore?”
Something to think about in this regard, though, is that religion and faith are most importantly not about what others do in the name of it, but what it does to you. And when you reject religion or faith, you often wind up limiting the influence of the divine in your life. The major religions weren’t birthed to ruin the world, but to understand it. Sure, there are many who warp their faith for personal gain or destruction. But there are far more who use it as a guide: to behave better to one another, to commit acts of charity, to find a moral compass, and to grow in relationship to a higher power than politics, advertising, entertainment, or social media. It is important to realize that if you limit the influence of God in your life, you are intentionally losing access to a profound resource for guidance and for good, for hope and for love.
In the gospel reading we just heard, the crowd asks Jesus, “Teacher… what signs will there be when all these things are about to happen?” Jesus then went on to explain how to read the signs of the times, as he so often did. He was challenging people here though, not so much to have an intellectual insight into particular events, but rather to struggle to discover the finger of God in those events. Saint John of the Cross wrote: “The language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives.” For Jesus, and hopefully for us, to read the signs of the times is to look at each event of our lives and ask: “What is God saying through this event?”
The Jewish scriptures are already a wonderful example of this. We see there that, for Israel, there were no pure accidents, no purely secular events. God’s finger was everywhere, in every event, in every blessing, in every defeat, in every victory, in every drought, in every rainfall, in every death, and in every birth. If Israel was defeated in battle, it wasn’t the Assyrians who defeated them. God defeated them. If Israel reaped a bountiful harvest, it wasn’t simple luck: God was blessing them. Nothing was ever purely secular or simply accidental.
Israel wasn’t so naive or fundamentalistic, of course, as to believe that God was actually the effective cause of these events or that, in the case of death and disaster, God even intended those events. But, nonetheless, in their view of things, God still spoke through those events. The finger of God and the voice of God were seen in the conspiracy of accidents that made up the outer events of their life. To discern the finger of God in the everyday events of life was, for Israel, a very important form of prayer.
My parents and many of their generation understood this well. Reading the signs of the times was a spontaneous practice for them. They believed in something they called “divine providence” and, for them, like Israel, the finger of God was everywhere, in every event, good and bad. There was no such thing as pure accident or simple good luck. God was in charge, somehow behind everything. Sometimes they took this too far, believing that God actually started wars, burned-down houses, caused someone to get sick, or broke somebody’s leg to teach a lesson. There are some people today who continue to envision God acting in this way.
But the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme for many others today, especially those in the religious affiliation category “none”. Many no longer search in this way for the finger of God in the ordinary events of life. For these folks, there is a lot of pure accident, pure secular event, simple good luck, sheer luckless fate. In most of the events of their lives, they are on their own, orphans without God, at the mercy of fate, victims of a pure conspiracy of accidents.
Thus, as they look at the events in the world and the church, they see only historical accident: on 9/11, only terrorism, not God, speaks; in the sexual abuse scandal in the church, only the media, not God, speaks; in our incapacity to create peace and justice, they hear only human voices, not God’s; and in the personal blessings and tragedies within our lives, they hear only the voice of luck or fate, not the voice of God.
Partly these instincts are right. God didn’t cause ISIS, God didn’t send AIDS as a punishment for sin, and God doesn’t single out some people to win lotteries, while causing sickness and tragedy for others. A conspiracy of accidents does that. But people of faith know that God speaks to us through all of those accidents, good and bad, and one of the most important tasks of faith is to search within that conspiracy of accidents to try to find God’s finger and God’s voice there, because of the wisdom and the guidance that we can gain.
Organized religion has much work to do to clean up its own act and distance itself from awful things done in its name. But before too many people give up on faiths that go back thousands of years—because somehow we, in the 21st century, are more intelligent and enlightened than those who came before us—let’s look around at the world we’re creating, while proudly losing our religion. Is it really an improvement? Are we really guided by better ideals? And a final thought– is it really God and faith and religion that so many people are disillusioned with—or is it our fellow human beings who sometimes act improperly in God’s name?