When it comes to dying and coping with life, religion probably isn’t helping

I turned 65 recently. This makes me officially old, in that I’m now old enough for Medicare.

The good news is that for the first time in my life I’m on socialized medicine. The bad news is, well, I’m 65. My mother died at 85, my father at 89. That’s pretty long as lives go, but it also suggests about three quarters of my life is in my rear view mirror.

Both my parents were devout Catholics. This was one of the few things they had in common: they liked going to church and the ceaseless rituals their faith provided. For both of them, religion was mainly a way to cope with life, which can be pretty chaotic. It also offered a way to cope with death, as it provided assurances that you were loved by some higher power. Unless you led an egregiously bad life, the afterlife was promised to be much better: free of the pain that is rampant in real life plus external life to boot.

But when it came to actually helping my parents cope with death, the results were mixed. It worked better for my father who took comfort in Catholic rituals for the dying. My Dad also had an easier death, as he could exercise reasonable independence right until the end.

For my mother, dying was something of a horror show. Removal of a polyp in her colon resulted in loss of bowel control, and her Parkinson’s-like symptoms meant she could not move her eyes or focus on much. She confided in me just how terrified she was in dying. All that Catholic ritual didn’t work and seemed to offer no comfort.

She wanted family by her side 24/7, but that simply wasn’t possible as her children were living all over the United States. The best I could manage was a once a week visit. For much of her last year she languished in hospitals and a nursing home. Her fears were entirely rational. In a way, the church made dying much worse. She sensed the falsity of their teachings about an afterlife and took it as a betrayal of trust. She exited the world a scared woman with no sense of control over her life and unable to cope with the reality of death.

In a way, both of them were cheated out of a lot of what life could offer. While religion offered the illusion of certainty, it also imposed shackles on their thoughts and behaviors. Sundays were not for sleeping in, but for going to church. It imposed limits on free thought, introducing guilt or worse if they even considered transgressing those boundaries.

My father picked the wrong spouse. As a result, we got sort of Stepford parents who often seemed unreal or surreal. I hold their religion principally to blame, in that it imposed a set of rules and expectations on them often contrary to their nature but which they could not seem to escape.

It’s not surprising then that of their eight offspring, just one remains a Catholic. It just didn’t agree with us. Coming out as non-Catholics as adults simply added to my mother’s guilt. My father didn’t seem to be very much bothered, as his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant.

The good news is that many of us survivors are getting it. The “Nones” (unchurched) now amount to about thirty percent of the population, a figure that is likely to keep growing. The long term impacts of this trend are hard to know. It’s unclear whether by being unchurched these same people will be as loving and charitable as those who are churched.

As I read the tealeaves, I’d say the Nones are in general more so. Those in the churched community seem increasingly non-ecumenical, at ease only among people who think and behave a lot like them. In many ways their lives seem cloistered, and they seem unable to cope with those who don’t share their perspectives. I think this contributes to a lot of the racism and political instability that exists in our current society.

This results in large sets of “Christians” bearing no resemblance to Jesus Christ. I give Catholics points for at least being ecumenical. The word Catholic means universal, so it’s a faith meant to apply to everyone, regardless of race or creed. But even among Catholics, a lot of them no longer seem to have that ecumenical spirit. I count, for example, my brother-in-law (married to our Catholic sister) who voted twice for Donald Trump and does not want “those people” living anywhere close to him.

If religion is supposed to form your center of being and be the prism through which you experience and navigate through life, then it’s largely failing here in the United States. It’s likely to fail faster for the churched than for us unwashed heathens.

You can see it in the response to the pandemic. Minds trained by religions to be closed are minds that are conditioned to believing crazy things, like the pandemic is a Chinese conspiracy, vaccination is evil and wearing masks is an infringement on personal liberty. Over 900,000 Americans have died from covid-19. While many of these were in minority and marginalized communities, many were also people of closed minds simply untrained to cope with reality and the shared sacrifices modern living requires.

If this is what religion amounts to in the 21st century, the sooner it goes, the better.

Christianity Today

From the perspective of this non-Christian, Christianity today is a mess.

The magazine Christianity Today hinted as much with its December 19th editorial calling for Donald Trump to be removed from office. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well with Donald Trump, or the evangelical wing of Christianity which it supposedly represents. Trump quickly criticized it of course, calling the publication founded by Billy Graham a left wing magazine. Many in the evangelical community were shocked to find one of their own criticizing their political choices. Lots canceled their subscriptions but at least in the short term many more subscribed.

It was refreshing to find at least one voice in this community criticize not only Trump’s clearly unChristian behavior but many of those in the evangelical wing for supporting him. The editorial neatly laid out the long term issue with Christians who support Trump:

Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

This is hardly a new problem. The rank hypocrisy of Christians on the right has been obvious for a long time, and is leading the next generation toward abandoning religion altogether. The world’s fastest growing religion is not a religion at all: its the “nones”, as National Geographic pointed out in 2016. The spread of this religion was accomplished without any of the usual evangelizing. No “nones” missionaries were beating on doors trying to convince people to stop going to church, believing in God, or embracing atheism. Yet the “nones” are beating out even the Mormons, with none of its missionaries and billions of dollars to throw into evangelism. Western Europe has been a principally “nones” region for decades. Hardly anyone there bothers to go to church anymore. It’s happening in Australia as well, and most ominously for evangelicals it’s picking up at a breathtaking rate here in the United States. “Nones” make up more than a quarter of the population in the United States now.

I see it here in Massachusetts. The Catholics seem the most dispossessed, but other protestant faiths are also heavily affected. Here in Northampton, church consolidation has been going on for a long time. The remaining Catholics all go to one church because the diocese closed the other three. They keep trying to sell these properties. When they sell them, it’s not to a fast and rising evangelical church. It’s usually to some retailer or condo developer. Mostly though they linger on the market, their doors barred seemingly forever.

Even I have been affected. Living in Virginia, I regularly attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I went to a few services at our local UU church, but couldn’t quite summon the energy to join a congregation again. The purpose that it held in my life seems to have been amply handled by many community endeavors that I am engaged in. It’s hard to know how to fit it into my life again, or why. My wife is rarely practicing Buddhist but is essentially a none. Rather than singing hosannas to God, she’s volunteering at a local survival shelter instead. Guess which activity is more Christ-like?

As I recall from my teens, smelling rank hypocrisy was one teenagers’ innate skills. No wonder then that modern teens look around them, see the hypocrisy that is much of modern Christianity and want no part of it. And sad to say, the evangelicals represent the worst of Christianity. It’s echoed in their largely unflinching support for Donald Trump, who emulates all the sins they are supposedly against. Sadly, most of them seem wholly unaware of their hypocrisy. No wonder they were stung by the Christianity Today editorial and attacked it. Who would want to admit they were taken in by this charlatan and that their values are so contrary to the ones they profess?

Who would have ever though the majority of America’s evangelicals would support the locking of immigrant children in cages? That they would cheer the arrest of other Christians who took Jesus at his word and leave bottles of plastic water in the desert along our southern border for migrants? That they could excuse Trump’s rampant and egregious sins. You would think that he doesn’t attend church might rankle them. None of his behavior seems to faze them in the least.

Rather, they want more of it. Because it seems the one true value of evangelical Christians is universal subservience to their moral law. They want a Christian society on their terms, and they will bend society to make sure it happens. If we have to give up a secular government in the process, it doesn’t seem to bother them in the least. They can’t seem to relate to anyone with a skin tone different from theirs who won’t parrot their values. In that they have plenty in common with Trump, so in that sense it’s no surprise that they support him so passionately.

It’s just that this is not the least bit Christian. In fact, it’s about the farthest thing from Christianity. Hate thy neighbor? The road to heaven is paved with riches? The first shall be first and the last shall be condemned to hell? It’s okay to cheat on your wives, grab women by their pussies, and bully people in person and on Twitter if it gets us some more conservative judges? It just gushes with hypocrisy. So no wonder younger people are rushing toward the “nones”. I was just in the vanguard forty plus years ago.

But maybe we are underrating the “nones”. It doesn’t look like they are going anywhere near houses of worship. But that doesn’t mean that many, if not the majority, still retain Christian values. It’s just that “Christians” today don’t recognize them. These “nones” live in a world that is multicultural and don’t feel threatened by it. It’s normal and they welcome diversity. Many are appalled by the cruelties and injustices in today’s world, pushed by many of these evangelical Christians. They figure the way to get this world is to stop going to church and start going to Bernie Sanders rallies instead.

Humility is also supposed to be the mark of a Christian. You’ll find little of that in today’s version of American Christianity. If Christianity in America is to reverse what looks like an inevitable demise, it might start with this radical idea: actually start acting like Christians again. Step one: actually read the New Testament again. Start with the parable of the Good Samaritan.