The Fastest Growing Religion is None

In the more than 35 years that this program has been in existence, there have been many changes in religion and in the demographics of the world. When you listen to the polls, you get the idea that very few changes have taken place in America and Canada as far as belief is concerned, but most of these polls are taken by religious groups. That means that the population being asked is limited, and the sample is skewed because of the nature of the poll. I regularly see numbers like 95% of all people in the United States believe in God reported by some poll, but evidence is growing rapidly that says that this is simply not the case.

One of the better ways to get a more objective view of what the belief systems of various groups are is to look at the census figures. As statisticians start working over the census figures from 2000, a number of interesting things jump out of the numbers. The figures from Canada and the United States are very similar. In general terms, nearly all religious groups lost membership in the past 10 years. Lutherans, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Mennonites, The Salvation Army, and even Jehovah Witnesses all lost 5-22% of their membership. Baptist churches grew about 10%. There were large percentage growths in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; but much of this is due to immigration and is still a relatively small population numerically.

The one census response that stands out in the surveys from 2000 is that "no religion" as a choice has jumped by 44% in Canada to 4.8 million people (Wayne Turner, Gospel Herald, June 2003). In the United States, the numbers are comparable. Humanists and skeptics would like to take credit for this swelling population, but another approach to these numbers is that it is not any attraction that atheism offers that is causing people to reject mainline religions in the United States and Canada, but rather the fact that most people are finding that mainline religions have nothing to offer. If you define religion as man's attempt to reach or find God, you have to realize that the first thing that has to happen is that a person has to want to find God before there will be any attempt to do so. The ignorance level of most of us, as far as what God is or what belief in God really offers, is the soil from which the no religion choice grows. We would like to suggest a few things that we feel might be useful to consider in looking at the question of belief in the western world.

Religion Cannot Compete with Other Entertainment Options

People dancingMany denominations and religious leaders have decided that the best way to grow and to become large and powerful is to provide entertainment that will attract people. All you have to do is drive around your community and look at the marquees that advertise the offerings of each particular church. When the lead attraction is a particular singing group or a special dramatic production, it is highly likely that that religious group is depending upon entertainment to attract visitors and grow. A more subtle way in which churches get into the entertainment business is the basis upon which a preacher or leader is chosen. I have had preachers tell me that they have had to learn to be standup comics to keep their jobs, and I can believe that is frequently the case.

The point that has to be made here is that if religious groups try to compete with Hollywood, they are going to lose. No religious presentation is going to have the staying power of Stephen Spielburg. People who are already members of a church and are trying to decide where to go to be the least bored may be attracted to an entertainment church, but that kind of participation in religion is so superficial that it is meaningless anyway. Churches are not capable of competing with the multimillion dollar productions of theme parks, movies, and video media. This is not to say that there are not flashy religious things out there, but they are temporary diversions at best.

Religion that Cannot Give Reasonable
Answers to Reasonable
Questions Will Die

Two men in a discussionThere are a lot of struggles that all of us have in life that have to do with things that are more than just the cause-and-effect happenings in life. Children used to ask questions and then be able to be put off by a diversion offered by adults. Now adults are asking many of the same questions, but they will not be satisfied by the evasions of the past. It is not enough to say "because I said so" or "because that is what we have always taught" to most adults.

How do we know God created the cosmos? Who created God? Why did God create mankind? Why should we follow the Bible instead of other sacred books? Is life in outer space possible? Do animals have a soul? What happens when we die? Why does God allow massive human suffering, a few individuals to do things like September 11, or the mass murder of innocent people as Hussein, Hitler, and others have done? The list of hard questions is virtually endless. When people attempt to demean the person who asks a question or explain these valid questions in ways that insult the intelligence of everyone, they cannot expect most people to continue to support what they are doing. One religious leader, for example, continues to explain natural disasters as God "getting even" with those people who violated His commands. Floods that kill hundreds of people, including innocent children, cannot be explained in this way--saying that God is punishing the riverboat casinos, for example. Religions can be forgiven for giving incomplete answers, but not for giving foolish explanations like this one. Let me emphasize that I am not claiming to have an answer to every question, but religions need to work on having answers and giving help to people who struggle with things that to them are very real. To trivialize these issues is to drive seeking people away.

Religion that Denies Science that Improves Human Quality of Life Will Not Survive

For a great many people, religion in America oozes such hypocrisy that they want to be as far away from it as possible. There are many ways that this hypocrisy is expressed, but one of these that is vastly underestimated is the negative approach to science that comes from the leadership of many congregations. Imagine that you have a man sitting in the pew on Sunday morning after having had his life saved by a new scientific discovery. He is on a new diet that involves foods and medications that have freed him from enormous pain due to allergies. He enjoys a new electronic device that entertains him and brings pleasure into the lives of his family members. He drives a vehicle that utilizes a number of new scientific discoveries. As the sermon starts, the message is one that presents science as a destructive force in life, and those who are scientists are evil people who want to bring harm to others and cause damage to the future of all humans. This message comes over the latest electronic sound system from a minister wearing the latest in synthetic fibers and a Rolex and is followed by an emotional appeal for money to improve the comfort of the facility.

As the pew sitter thinks of those things that have improved his life, and as he enjoys comforts and freedom from pain that he knows science has produced, he is going to have serious doubts about the validity of the religion he just had presented to him. One of the terribly destructive consequences of the evolution/creation controversy is that many people who may not be that literate in the theology or the science of the issues come away thinking that they must choose between science and faith. Many times in my 41 years of science teaching in the public schools, I had students who told me they wanted to go into science and work to improve the lot of mankind; but they hated to give up their faith in God to do it. The anti-intellectualism and belligerence that many religious leaders have radiated toward science is going to eventually have a boomerang effect upon their followers. Science and faith are friends and must not be presented to the world as antagonists.

Religion that Relies on Emotional
Manipulation to Survive Will Die

One aspect of many religions is the fact that they depend upon emotionalism to control and maintain their influence over their followers. In the 35 years we have been doing public programs on belief in God, we have frequently had people from every background imaginable in our audiences. I can remember one young Moslem student at the University of Georgia who had been active in the question/answer session for quite a while. He left the room for an extended period and then then came back, extremely agitated and actually disrupted the program. Late that night, he came to my motel room and wanted to apologize. I asked him what happened when he left the room, and he told me that he went out and talked to his Islamic teacher who reminded him that he must be active for Allah and be strong or he would be condemned. He confessed that he was so afraid to think about what we had been talking about that he deliberately forced the program to close to avoid any further discussion.

Many religions use emotionalism to control their adherents. The problem is that the emotional experience may produce a huge high, but it will also crash to an incredible low. This emotional roller coaster is highly destructive, and as people become better educated by experience and by formal education and learn how destructive the highs and lows can be, they will avoid the source of their crashing. One year, I had two foreign exchange students who came to the United States from the Middle East on opposite sides of the political and religious fence. One boy was an orthodox Jew, and the the other was a Palestinian who had fled to Egypt from the Gaza area. I was warned to keep them apart; but in my lab-oriented physics class, that was difficult to do because there were so many class projects where students had to discuss how to solve laboratory problems. One day I heard these two young men arguing in an escalating flow of words. I raced back to break up what I was sure was an Israeli/Palestinian fight and got there just in time to hear them agree that the egg-drop material should be jello. I laughed and said "I was afraid this was a Jewish/ Palestinian war going on back here." The Palestinian youngster put his arm around the Jewish young man and said "Over here we do not have to fight our family's wars; we can be reasonable friends." American denominations that are turning to emotionalism to control and build their memberships are making a mistake that will be negative for them because emotional fires eventually run out of fuel.

Religion that is Structured so that
Power Struggles Can Exist Will
Eventually Self-Destruct

Power struggles exist in nearly every aspect of our lives. We see struggles for power at work, at school, and in politics. The world is full of power struggles. If you want to see how much the world has invaded the church, look for evidence of power struggles within the Church. Jesus taught a system that was absolutely free of power struggles. When a mother came and asked Jesus if her sons could be on his right and left hands (Matthew 20:20-22), He carefully showed her that His Church was not about that. When the issue came up another time, He washed His disciples' feet and commanded them to be of the same mindset. As Jesus gave "New Commandments," they involved unity and love (see John 13:34; 15:12, 17, 1 John 1:7; 3:23; 4:7-12).

Many Churches today radiate the power struggles going on within them. Only the preacher's opinions are held to be valid, and anyone who questions or has a problem with something said is forced (or at least encouraged) to leave. If you have to have a special place in the Church to be allowed to participate and if the church is exclusionary in its membership, you can be sure there is a power struggle going on. In the church that Jesus died to establish, only God is at the top. Those who have a desire to be nearer the top should do so by doing more service to others than anyone else. "Let those of you who would be chief among you, let him be your servant" (Matthew 20:27-28, John 13:5-16).

Religion that Does Not Offer Unique Help in
 Meeting Needs (Both Individual and Societal)
 Will be Rejected

"Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Christianity is a need-serving faith. The irony of that statement is that those who serve the needs of others will find that their own needs are met by serving others. The opposite of power struggles that we discussed in the last section is service. When Jesus gave a picture of the judgment, He clearly showed that the basis of condemnation in the pictures He painted was what people had done to meet the needs of others: "I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was in prison.," etc. The New Testament radiates service that meets the needs of others.

The time has come for false religion to die. Our society is ripe for that to happen. The temptation for Christians is to allow ourselves to get caught up in the negatives and miss the service aspect of the Church and what it means to be a part of "pure and undefiled religion." That involvement will not only remove disbelief in God, but it will silence the skeptics before that ever happens.

--John N. Clayton

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