It is often suggested that economic crises lead people to more spiritual reflection (take the coins from the eyes of the corpse and suddenly it sees again), so it was interesting to read the cover story in this week's Newsweek magazine (April 13, 2009: http://www.newsweek.com/id/192583) about the declining state of religion in America. Under the banner "The End of Christian America", the article describes how the percentage of self-identified Christians in this country "has fallen 10 points in the past two decades." Moreover, the numbers of those reporting themselves as unaffiliated with any religion is growing fastest in the Northeast, the historic seat of American religious culture, rather than the Pacific Northwest, long known for its less orthodox tendencies.
A Newsweek poll shows that, "fewer people now think of the United States as a 'Christian nation' than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is 'losing influence' in American society, while just 19 percent say religion's influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion 'can answer all or most of today's problems is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent."
Across the pond in England, Madeleine Bunting writing in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/05/christianity-new-atheism-faith) reports that a recent UK poll found "only 22% could identify what Easter was celebrating." And she wonders, "What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity?" Bunting also worries that real debate about faith in England is being drowned out by "the foghorn voices" of the New Athiests, a group of scientists and philosophers who strenuously deny the existence of God (see The God Delusion by Richard Hawkins). Philosopher, John Gray, and former nun and religious historian, Karen Armstrong whom she quotes in her article suggest the Church may have created its own problem by insisting the litmus test of piety is whether you "believe" in God or not. "Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice," says Armstrong. I agree, except I do think practice should lead to personal experience of God and not just practice without end. (And I don't believe suffering needs to be a part of it, either).
I was raised in the Church of England (the one that's in such decline), a fairly milquetoast version of Christianity and one that British comedian Eddie Izzard once described as mainly being concerned with "when to have afternoon tea." During my teenage years I had strong religious experiences that were unable to find a home in the well-meant but dour sermons by our local vicar. It wasn't until I learned meditation in the 1970's that I understood the value of looking within myself to find God. The path to God cannot be confined to books (nor interpretations of those books by others). Direct experience is a far better approach and that's what true meditation provides. The teachings of the prophets make far more sense once you sample the inner state of being which produced them rather than just read about them. In other words, a strawberry is far better when you taste it yourself than when someone else describes it, no matter how prosaic their words.
This is not to disparage in any way the teachings of Christ. He offered mankind a pathway to God through open-hearted love. It's the transliteration of his message by others where things have often gone astray. Where, for example, in Christ's words do we find justification for religious intolerance, war, torture or slavery? Much of the cause for our present global dysfunction can be traced back to cultural and commercial bullying by western nations, inspired in part by their sense of being "elected to rule" (and pillage) in God's name. It's a tragic history stretching back centuries and practiced by Holy Roman emperors, Spanish conquistadors, British imperialists and more recently by the combined force of American corporate interests and missionary zeal. If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, then isn't God available to everyone, no matter what religion, race or creed? No-one should feel they have eminent domain.
When the writer of the Newsweek piece, Jon Meacham, was interviewed on CNN, he commented that although interest in formal religion seems to be waning, he believes people still are seeking religious truth. However he stopped short of saying how they could get there. Questioning the limitations of formal religion may be a good first step, but people still have to find a suitable vehicle to reach their destination. Meditation certainly helps. Instead of arguing about who does or doesn't believe in God, or whose idea of God is the best, people may discover a more intimate and personal relationship with God that is free from rules and restrictions and which, I hope, will lead to more tolerance and compassion in our world.
"Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see," John Lennon sang in Strawberry Fields Forever. Our spiritual eyes have been blind for years, gummed up by intolerance and ignorance. It is time for us to "see" a better truth and take a visceral bite of divine reality. It might do us all a power of good.