In the last couple of weeks, God has been prominent in The New York Times, though mainly on account of His increasing absence or nonexistence. This apparent paradox is to be accounted for by the immortal aphorism of Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go? You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone."
A recent Pew poll made news when it reported, on the basis of a carefully constructed survey of a wide cross section of representative Americans, that our nation is markedly less religious and specifically markedly less Christian than it has been in the past. That is, more people are claiming allegiance to no religious creed or community and the number of Americans calling themselves “Christian” is in decline.
The demonstration of the general trend probably did not come as a surprise to most believing and practicing Christians, of whom I am one. Though, published statistics always have a kick that mere personal observation may lack.
A while later on the op-ed page I found an essay by Molly Worthen entitled, “Wanted: A Theology of Atheism.” The title of the essay was, I presume, intentionally whimsical, since a theological atheist would be rather like a geologist who denied the existence of stones. But I think she grasps a very good point that most atheist critics of Christianity miss — perhaps along with quite a few Christians themselves. That is that belief is only one component of Christian experience and by no means necessarily the most important.
One, of course, will believe what one’s reason and experience encourage and allow. But there is above all community of the broadest and realest sort, reaching not merely across the contemporary globe to all sorts and conditions, sexes, races and tribes, but back into a deep history far beyond our capacity to see but still knowable to us through magnificent and beautiful works of art, literature and music.
Molly Worthen was advocating the stimulation of godless community events, Sunday morning sing-alongs and the like. Like-minded people ought to get together and give communal expression to what it is their minds like. I’m all in favor of that, too. The American campus during my lifetime has been the fecund mother of inventive secular but quasi-religious mass meetings, political rallies, candlelight marches. And, of course, there are always our elaborate sporting events, which may well come to be the center of an emerging American civil religion. I enjoy many such events and can get into the spirit of things.
Worthen’s op-ed attracted some interesting letters. John Rafferty, the president of the Secular Humanist Society of New York, wrote in to say that his group already has community — they didn’t need sing-alongs. They get together “celebrating the good life.” One can hardly fault that. Socrates and his kids used to get together in a somewhat similar spirit until the hemlock arrived.
If the question of whether God is really on the way out interests you, I can recommend a book that I found most engaging: A.N. Wilson’s "God’s Funeral." His subject is the Victorian crisis of faith — a familiar topic, but here treated with extraordinary tact and intelligence. Wilson himself is the perfect man for the task. He is a master of the higher journalism, the author of several fine biographies, and a man with a peculiar affinity for the Victorian period. Furthermore, his personal intellectual history is something of an emblem of his topic, as he has in a rather public fashion hovered between faith and unbelief. Where he is at the moment, I have no idea.
The title is actually that of a poem written by Thomas Hardy in the first decade of the last century. Hardy’s extraordinary conceit is that he comes upon God’s funeral cortège “following in files across a twilit plain,” and joins it, sorrowing more for his distraught fellow mourners than for the now defunct and nonexistent supreme being. With a particular focus on the rich 19th-century English cultural scene, Wilson’s book explores the powerful and it would seem inexorable forces set on banishing theistic belief from the modern mind.
Yet as Wilson points out, it is reluctant to leave and it keeps coming back. I presume that Pontius Pilate considered the science “settled” some time ago. The Enlightenment on the whole eschewed atheism, but the deism it fostered was from the social point of view pretty thin stuff — and it lacked staying power. Some of the French revolutionaries did their best to get rid of God for good. They pretty well succeeded for a while in getting rid of the Church, but that was not the same thing. The communist countries adopted atheism as a state policy, but Vladimir Putin is now practically kissing kin of the Patriarch of Moscow. Go figure.
Things are rather hard to predict, and Christianity in particular has a strong streak of what might be called resurrectionism.