For Lent this year, I accidentally created a loophole. “I’m going to start going to church every Sunday as my Lenten resolution!” I said. The first week was going pretty well, until I remembered that Sundays were feast days when your resolution did not apply.
Why go to church anyway? All I had to do was show up at a campaign rally in order to be prayed over and occasionally exorcised. I got more than enough religion as it was from my state legislatures.
Church once brought everyone together. Now we have Facebook for that.
Besides, I was demographically far from being alone.
I would say that this is a Millennial thing, but if you glean anything from poring through lumps of data about Millennials, foregoing generations and our religious beliefs or lacks thereof, it is that when you are under 30, no power divine can compel you to show up at church. Powers divine can barely compel you to show up at brunch, and there is bacon there.
I bet even St. Augustine didn’t go to church in his twenties. He was too busy wandering around asking the Lord to make him chaste, but not just yet. The boomers barely did. There is enough to feel bad about on Sunday mornings without having to get up and sing anything. Only the Greatest Generation made a habit of it, continuing their practice of making all subsequent generations look bad every chance they got.
Then I began to worry. Had I stopped believing? I swung by the Reason Rally on the Mall to see if there was anything in atheism for me.
God seemed mildly bothered by the gathering. Rain poured down. The concessions stand ran out of beer. The audio on the tribute to Christopher Hitchens was spotty at best.
There was chanting. You’d think the whole point of being an atheist would be to evade gatherings where you were required to chant things in unison, but you would be wrong.
“Atheist?” the dripping people behind me in the beer line inquired.
“No,” I sighed, “Episcopalian.”
“It’s like being an atheist, but you have to show up at church once a week, and there are more garden parties. It’s the rare sect where you get less brimstone in the pulpit than at a Santorum rally.”
No, I wasn’t an unbeliever. I was just an oversleeper. I could tell because Easter was always the exception — Easter and Christmas, when everyone comes packing into their local churches and tries to feign knowledge of the hymns.
On days like these, when the churches are crowded with people who seem confused as to what they are doing there, it begs the question.
The Very Religious are doing fine. Tennessee, for one, is currently attempting to do-over the Scopes Trial. The Unreligious are doing fine, too. No one was struck by lightning at the Reason Rally.
But what about the somewhat religious? The ones who haven’t spotted Jesus on sting-rays or toast? The “ye of little faith”?
On either extreme, you get a lot of angry shouting. “If you believe in a God, you are mentally negligible!” “If you don’t, you will fry eternally, in the arms of Hitler!” And if you aren’t shouting one of the two, something must be wrong with you!
Faith used to be between you and your Maker. Now it’s between you and your public. Don’t you think of putting that light under any bushel baskets! Stand in the front of the congregation and shout! Never mind the parables. How can anyone tell what you believe unless you talk about it all the time?
You’d think, from the sound of it, that the middle was dwindling. In some ways, it is. Among Millennials, those who believe believe just as ardently as ever — perhaps more so. More than 50 percent of us oppose the Supreme Court ruling that barred prayer in schools, higher than any other generation.
But the number of people in the middle is increasing, too. Of the 25 percent of unaffiliated Millennials, three times as many were “religiously unaffiliated” (lack any particular faith, but consider faith still somewhat important) than ardent atheists.
One underrated liberty, these days, is the liberty to be Religious, But Not Religious Enough That It Makes You Rude To Strangers. Of course I say this. I’m Episcopalian, where politeness has been elevated to a form of worship.
But religious liberty is written into the Constitution because when you’re surrounded by a continent of people who believe their next-door neighbors are going to Hell, things can get pretty edgy quickly without rules. So we learned to be polite when borrowing cups of sugar. Anne Hutchinson was wrong in believing that, we murmured angrily as the door shut, but it was certainly her right.
We are uniquely blessed, if that’s the word I want, to be a nation where we are absolutely surrounded by believers of all kinds.
But we don’t all believe the same thing. Far from it.
Even at the Reason Rally, the people holding signs urging the attendees to Come to Jesus all had slightly different creeds. That’s American faith in a nutshell. As long as you’re waving a sign, you’re all right!
But what if you aren’t? Do you still count as a believer if you don’t own any bumper stickers, if you want to pray, but not at the voting both? If you enjoy singing hymns, but not in classrooms? If you like a good dinosaur from time to time?
What if you believe but don’t want to shout about it?
If you don’t shout, it is hard to make yourself heard. But there’s still room in the debate. And you’re needed more than ever. They also serve who only stand and wait for the yelling to stop.