by UnitedCoR’s Executive Director, UnitedCoR Executive Director
On just about any given day here in Washington, DC I see a collection of Jehovah’s Witnesses, standing on street corners with racks filled with materials—sometimes with minimal engagement from the public, but rather conversations and interactions with each other. They included of course The Watchtower, the illustrated religious magazine of their movement.
I have to admit, the only Watchtower that I tend to have much interest in is the 1968 Jimi Hendrix recording on the Electric Ladyland album. But there was something unique about this particular Watchtower in their collection, as the headline read “Is Religion Dying Out?” I have to admit, the look on the face of the Jehovah’s Witness volunteers who were at the booth was something to see when I asked them for a copy of their literature: something they don’t see very often in this part of DC!
The article began with asking a straightforward question: “Have you given up on organized religion?” and then followed-up with statistics such as how the number of religious adherents in the United States has fallen by 13% since 2005. There was nothing surprising here, nor did it shock me to read that in Japan, only 16% of people polled claimed to be “religious,” as 62% responded that they were either not religious or were self-described atheists. However, I was surprised by the attempts made by the article’s author to come to terms with why people have made this “exodus” from religion. (Ironically, the ancient Hebrew accounts reveres the “exodus” as the event in which the Israelites escaped bondage and slavery. I doubt the author intended to refer to organized religion as a form of slavery and servitude.) In between the numerous proof-text Biblical citations, there are two elements that I think the author has made some worthwhile points to which I’d like to take a moment to reflect and respond.
“Material prosperity has risen dramatically,” and the Watchtower quoted from the Global Index of Religion and Atheism, “The richer you get, the less religious you define yourself.” Continuing with this concern, the Watchtower also indicated that “according to the Pew Research Center, a lot of people feel that religion puts too much emphasis on money. Adding to the problem, some religious dignitaries—unlike their flocks—enjoy lavish lifestyles…a report in GEO magazine says that in Nigeria, where 100 million people live on less than one Euro per day, the flamboyant lifestyle of some pastors is beginning to become a problem.”
I remember working in Nigeria a few years ago, during the re-election bid of former President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. I used to drive past some mud huts that stood next to some stately homes in the central districts of the capital of Abuja. I remember being amazed that, despite cooking over open fires and using petroleum generators to illuminate these houses, how the residents would emerge from their homes, looking pristine for a long day’s work to make whatever money they could, sometimes at multiple jobs. I also remember going into various offices in the city—whether they were for Non-Governmental Organizations, private enterprise, or even Nigerian government offices—and invariably, I’d find piles of devotional literature and books prominently displayed on peoples’ desks. These were books by people such as Bishop T D Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and Nigerians Bishop David Oyedepo and Dr. Christian Oyakhilome: the combined wealth of all four evangelists came to a stunning 2014 estimate of $242,000,000.
One of the posts that gained the most attention this past year on UnitedCoR’s social media was when Creflo Dollar wanted the public to help him fund a $65,0000,000 jet that he reportedly felt was needed for his ministries. Some commentators questioned his motives, thereby noting that the “prosperity gospel” that I saw on so many Nigerians’ desks begs the question of Jesus wearing a Rolex on TV. Four months ago, I wrote about non-theistic ethics –doing good through contributions of money, time, materials and personal talents—for altruistic reasons, and not because someone feels as if they would gain anything in an afterlife for what they do today. Whether it be through donations of money, or through years of commitment to environmental programs such as the Columbus CoR (see the picture above that recognizes the Mid-Ohio Atheists as a Gold Star Group), non-theists’ charitable work addresses the needs that are in front of them rather than doing good today because of a desire to be rewarded later.
Religious traditions and morality
The Watchtower wrote, “Many people, especially the young, view organized religion as irrelevant and out of touch. Others have lost confidence in religion. “If you look at the way the churches have behaved over the centuries,” said Tim Maguire, media officer for Humanist Society Scotland, “people have turned away from them because they no longer believe in them as a moral arbiter.”
Having the opinion of younger non-theists has been an issue noted by theistic communities, especially in light of the rapidly rising number of younger people who feel more comfortable to describe themselves as atheists or religious unaffiliated. I emailed Cristin Padgett, an openly-atheist Millennial in Texas, for her opinion on what Maguire wrote. Padgett said, “Maguire’s quote is an interesting one. You can take what he says, apply it to the role religion seems to be playing in politics more and more, and instead of just apathy toward religion, you end up with apathy toward the democratic process. Voters want someone who they can relate to and someone they can trust. As Maguire mentioned, those feelings of trust and connection are not associated with religion any longer. I think this is in large part due to the ethnocentricity that tends to go hand in hand with one’s personal beliefs. Therefore, when our leaders are taking their ethnocentric values, and holding the general population to their personal standards, you end up with things like the war on women’s rights and massive voter apathy among the young voting population, who are statistically drifting away from any organized belief system.”
I have to admit that I am ashamed to read some of the recent rhetoric that has been coming from certain cross-sections of America. Although we appreciate that people are entitled to their opinions and we respect free speech, there have been times lately where I have been embarrassed by some of the divisive things that have been said about one group or another with sincerely-held beliefs, completely ignoring the misgivings and, I will diplomatically say, the dark moments of other religious groups. As non-theists, we, too, know what it’s like to have people say, “these people don’t have to live here,” despite America being a society that is a religious pluralism for all and not just one portion of society.
As 2015 draws to a close and as we are having our winter celebrations, I’d like to ask everyone to pause for a moment and remember that we have the freedom to represent ourselves through charitable work, public displays, promotional literature, and democratic processes. Let us celebrate that we are an important part of the American belief of “out of the many comes one” and that our work and contributions to the greater good make a lasting difference.
–UnitedCoR’s Executive Director