Yesterday evening, while waiting in the car for my stepdaughter as she did some shopping, I was listening to our local NPR station. The show was: “Q, with Jian Ghomeshi,” and one of his guests was one John S. Dickerson, pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Tempe, AZ and author of the book, The Great Evangelical Recession. It would appear as though some evangelicals have recognized that their numbers are dwindling and that their title “evangelical” has been besmirched by, among others, those with a more political than religious agenda. During the conversation, it was interesting to listen to Dickerson admit that he was uncertain as to exactly why evangelicals’ numbers were down. It was even more fascinating to hear him concede that, because of extremists and political evangelicals, he thought that the very term was unrecoverable, even as “fundamentalist” became similarly tarnished not that long ago. That this gentleman could write a book on the decline of evangelism in the United States, yet could not come up with a single reason, other than the influence of those as much invested in politics as in religion, frankly astonishes me. I’m hardly an expert on the subject, but two reasons for their loss of numbers immediately comes to mind.
The first of these is the presence and growth of the internet. Some time back, the YouTube vlogger Thunderf00t opined that: “The internet is where religions go to die.” While religion isn’t dead yet, I believe it has indeed suffered mightily at the hands of a repository of information and participation which, though sometimes poorly disciplined and not always having accurate facts at hand, has the great virtue of being largely uncensored and available to anyone with a computer or a smart phone. Wide-ranging discussions on the topic of religion are all over hundreds and thousands of webpages. Numerous YouTube bloggers create videos criticizing, attacking and mocking Christianity, Islam and Judaism and promoting rationality, reason and critical thought, with further discussion, civil and otherwise, carried out in the comments on those videos. The old and tired dogma of the believers is being repeatedly hammered by skeptics who think outside of the theists’ doctrinal box. Slowly but surely, eyes are being opened and minds are being changed by these interactions.
The second reason is at once simple and not simple at all: 9/11. When 19 radical Islamists attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an attempt at the Capitol or the White House, one of the near-immediate consequences was an increased scrutiny of Islam. That microscope didn’t stay limited to Islam for very long, but got turned onto the other Abrahamic religions in fairly short order. What had been a reserved and “sacred” subject – religion – was no longer so. Then came people like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among many others, who brought boldness, expertise and credibility to the arguments against religion. Add THAT to the internet … and what you have is a near-perfect storm of reason and logic, focused against what had previously been an untouchable subject. The result is far from pretty, certainly not if you’re a subscriber to any form of unverifiable belief.
Most amusing of all toward the end of the interview was Dickerson’s talk about getting people to come back to what he perceived as evangelicals’ primary message: that of salvation through Christ. Again and again, he made the statement that people are sinners; that they fall short of god’s grace, but that through Jesus Christ, they can be reclaimed for their precious deity. I wonder if this isn’t a third reason: the lameness, the inexcusable bullshit which their belief system depends on. Sin is a god-concept. Without a god, there is no sin. There is wrongdoing, certainly, and a need for correction and adjudication to provide balance … but sin? Sin requires a wronged god as an aggrieved party, but that “wronged party” cannot in any ways be located. Funny thing, that, as there is as of yet no god who has been discovered and defined and demonstrated to exist in any way, shape or form. People are seeing that. They’ve been slow and subject to the indoctrination which religion has employed to scare them, goad them, force their compliance, but a growing few have seen through the lies and the threats, recognized that they have been played, and denied any further permission to those players. Could it be that “The Great Evangelical Recession” is a product of man’s curiosity, his desire to learn, grow, and shed that which fails to serve his understanding?
I wonder … could it be that Mr. Dickerson failed to see the forest for all those pesky trees?