Notes on the Post Religious World

Since the release of my book The Holy Bluff, the Search for Meaning in the Post-Religious World, I’ve been asked several times how I can speak of a “‘post religious world” when whole nations are still governed by Islamic law, the Pope is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the President of the United States still concludes his State of the Union Address with “God Bless the United States of America”. So what am I talking about?

To understand the post-religious world, which I believe we’ve been living in more or less since the turn of the twentieth century, it’s important to understand the religious world we lived in before then. It’s easy at times to forget that for all of human history from the caves on up, the existence of some form of deity was for homo sapiens as much of a reality as the sun, the stones, the water we drank, the food we ate, our fellow creatures and, most importantly, ourselves. In fact, all these lesser realities (including us) were seen in the context of divine creation – which is why we called ourselves “creatures” in the first place.

In the religious world, the fact that different people and groups had different views on God’s nature and intentions were not seen as a challenge to God’s existence. Different tribes had worshipped different Gods from the very beginning. God was by definition mysterious.  If your neighbors disagreed with your version of the almighty, you reacted to them with tolerance or with charges of heresy, depending on your tribe’s inclinations. Disbelief was simply not an option. The American experiment (still ongoing) in separation of church and state is a prime example. The founding fathers did not choose unbelief over belief – they simply decriminalized heresy and identified freedom to believe as a God-given right, which in the religious world is not a contradiction. Fish don’t doubt the water.  So what happened?

There had been major groundswells of change during the 19th century. The Catholic Church executed its last heretic in 1826;  The Origin of Species was published in 1859; Neichze declared God dead in 1882 – and he wasn’t burned at the stake [1]; in 1879 Thomas Edison harnessed the magnetic power of the universe to turn on the lights–  and by 1893 the gods’ angry thunderbolts had become something you could make toast with. Our sense of ourselves was changing. By the end of the century, with a long overdue nod to Galileo, heliocentrism (the idea that the earth orbits the sun and not vice-versa) was fully entrenched as humankind’s default position, Genesis notwithstanding. As the century turned, Religion still explained many things for many people – but it no longer explained everything for everybody. The fish were beginning to rethink the water.

When I was doing my research into what would become The Holy Bluff, I stumbled upon a fascinating book by the Reverend William Hallock Johnson, The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlights, in which the Reverend argued for the endurance of and continuing need for adherence to the eternal truths provided by faith despite the mechanistic information provided by Darwin’s discoveries and the seemingly game-changing view of the universe provided by recent advances in cosmology. I was well into the second chapter before a reference to the terrible war raging in Europe prompted me to check the date of publication – which turned out to be 1916.  The Reverend was not simply defending his beliefs against some other theologian’s, but the validity of belief itself. A century before, he would have had no one to argue with.

In the century since, the argument has rumbled on with all the subtlety of a tectonic shift. From the Scopes trial in the 1920’s, where beleaguered evolutionists fought for the right to teach their theories in school, to today’s courtroom battles for (and against) the inclusion of an “intelligent design” curriculum as an alternative to evolution, we’ve seen a major tide change. And like all tides, it has left a lot of people high and dry.

The difference between the religious world view and the (for lack of a better word) secular world view comes down to one simple point: in the religious view, an eternal perfect being created everything for a purpose and we created beings draw our lives’ meaning from serving that purpose. In the secular view, creation is an accident, with no guiding intelligence behind it and nothing eternal except eternal change. Those of us who live in the post religious world are stuck between these two positions and both sides are digging in. It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it’s where we are. The United States is split pretty much down the middle and it’s not working for us.

Religion isn’t over. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s my opinion that we wouldn’t be any better off if it did. The first two attempts to base a modern nation on a purely secular ideology were Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Few among us, believers or unbelievers, would consider Stalin or Hitler preferable to Jesus. They simply filled a vacuum left by the collapse of something that had been there before.  In the post-religious world, vacuums are a problem, perhaps the problem.

Which is why I wrote the book.


[1] The actual quote is “Though God is dead, we still see his shadow” – as good a picture of the post-religious world as you’ll find.

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