What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

The one type of presidential candidate everyone hates

Many glass ceilings are being smashed with the announcement of the democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee. It is rare to have a woman as a national party’s candidate, and even more unusual to have a person of color. There’s one barrier that hasn’t been crossed, though. There hasn’t been an openly atheist presidential or vice-presidential candidate, and there won’t be anytime soon.

Research continually demonstrates that nearly half of voters will not support an atheist. Also, although trends show quick and increasing acceptance for other diverse voices including people from the LGBTQ community or people with non-white racial heritage, the needle is barely budging on atheist acceptance. It simply is politically unfeasible to self-identify as an atheist when such a broad swath of voters will disqualify you on this merit alone. A candidate is more likely to identify as a socialist than an atheist, even when they’re probably both.

It is past time for an atheist president. Getting past this hurdle of public opinion, though, will take some time.

After God

I came to the BBC docu-series The Sea of Faith by way of the Samuel Barber musical setting of the Matthew Arnold poem which its title references. I later discovered it’s author and narrator, Don Cupitt, was a prolific writer and former priest. I’ve been familiar with his work long enough to cherish his contributions to religious thought but I only recently revisited After God, a stunning gem of a book which is made even more remarkable by how prescient it seems nearly 25 years after its publication.

Cupitt’s writing is so unusual because he splits his attention between laypeople and academics yet never fails either. His references to the philosophical canon are deep, yet if you don’t know the citation you’re immediately made aware of its importance without his ever being patronizing. He is fluent in the technical language of Kant but speaks as directly and colloquially as a friend.

His writing, viewed some 25 years later, rarely feels dated. His interest in Derrida, Foucault, and the post-structuralists feels of it’s time: those writers today are relegated to a historical tradition which doesn’t place them much higher than other writers, but much of the writing from the later half of the 20th century feels like a direct response to them. His construction of religion as language feels steeped in Wittgenstein; I don’t think a contemporary writer would try to frame his argument thus nor rely so heavily on the construction of language.

The prescience he demonstrates in his examination of religious history is culminated in his remarks about literalism. He nearly predicts our current climate of intensely divided ideology. He links this dying conservatism to authoritarianism, which is clearly demonstrated in a current day Republican Party which follows no ideology but seeks only power-for-power’s-sake. He presages the continued decline of religion- since he wrote in the 90s, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has probably doubled, or more. What seemed like a crisis in the 90s today is an unabated trend.

And yet there are still believers! I agree with him that, in the future, all philosophy will be naturalistic. Yet we’re still arguing those basic points today! The Sea of Faith has ebbed but not emptied. Its supporters believe it can be refilled, without any major reformation. His writing is unequivocally one of the greatest influences on my own belief in The Catholic Atheist, and yet he, and I, remain somewhat lonely in our crusade to de-mystify religious theology and reform religious life. Why isn’t Cupitt a worldwide sensation? Why hasn’t he changed our world, the way he’s changed mine?

If I knew the answer to this, perhaps I could get my book published. In the meanwhile, it is worth noting that Cupitt’s plea to begin the creation of a worldwide religion has been largely unheeded. What is needed is not a new Catholicism, but a global sense of unity, tolerance, and inclusivity which defines a new world religious sensibility. We can keep our tribal sects, we should embrace our beautiful differences. But the only path forward is one in which religious traditions drop the dogma and embrace pluralism, one where theology is supplanted with self-examination, where absolute truth is replaced with the Blissful Void. “What of all this deserves to survive will survive.” But only if the process of post-modernization doesn’t destroy that which we already value.

Are atheists on a faith journey?

Atheists really bristle at the idea that they might be considered “just another faith.” They are adamant that atheism represents the neutral position, that no-belief should be considered the default, and that theism should be the outlier position. The words themselves aren’t helpful for this, as the a- in a-theism implies a lack of something that we assume should be there. Like in court, theists have the burden of proof.

Progressive churches frequently justify accepting people from a variety of theological backgrounds by proudly, if vaguely, affirming that they accept you “no matter where you are on your faith journey.” This has always made me uncomfortable coming from clergy, I suppose because its unclear if the clergy person is speaking from their own sense of compassion and acceptance or from the chair as a representative of the dogmatic theology of their organization.

A journey implies a starting point and a destination. The starting point, presumably, is where ever you are, while the destination is presumably where ever the ideal follower of that religion should be. The “journey,” then, becomes a failing; if you’re still on the journey then you haven’t arrived at the ultimate truth the religion has on offer. Like, if you’re on a “faith journey” to Catholicism, for instance, then you’re struggling to accept the teachings of the Catholic institution, until you arrive and you’re a full-fledged Catholic.

Of course, a lot of believers don’t use the term this way at all! They use the idea of a journey to indicate that we’re all in different places as regards belief, and it doesn’t matter. “We accept you, regardless of where you are on your faith journey” means “we accept you no matter what you believe.” It is beautiful and ecumenical and… problematic!

First of all, it’s not how journeys work. You don’t set out on a journey without a destination. A journey without a destination is called wandering. The journey implies an arrival, even if we never make it, which implies something we know we’re striving for, even if we can’t articulate what that thing is yet.

It might be that clergy use this “journey” turn of phrase with the understanding that we don’t yet know the destination. It’s the Meno 80D problem: how do you look for something when you don’t even know what you’re looking for? If we’re on a journey towards truth, how do we know what we’re looking for in the first place? Even if we found it, would we recognize it?

If this is the sense that we understand the “journey” analogy, then it becomes clear that the clergy’s answer is no more valid than the congregant’s. Even if the clergy implies that the hopeful destination of the faith journey is the stated beliefs of the church, the uncertainty of that arrival means that they’re equally supportive of looking at other answers. This removes a value judgement from the journey; we’re still working towards a destination, but since we can’t be sure what that destination is, there’s no right or wrong path for that journey to take.

Maybe clergy do believe that individually, but when speaking as the representative of an organization with an inflexible theology they inevitably appear to be implying the “destination” is the church they represent. There’s not really an easy way for them to say, “my journey led me to the beliefs of this church, but you don’t have to believe that,” since the institution of the church doesn’t allow for diversity of opinion. Even a welcoming and ecumenical church inadvertently expresses its bias.

Unless the church doesn’t have a monolithic, absolutist, single theological position. If the theological position of the church is vague, then the profession of any single clergy member can’t be taken as representative of the entire institution. If the stated position of the church at large is open, then the destination of the faith journey within that church is open. When we can’t pinpoint the desired destination, we can’t judge the value of any given person’s relation to that end.

Of course, there aren’t many churches that are so vague in their theological positions. Some are adopting, more and more, an openness to specifics, like the many churches which don’t take positions on individual issues of faith. In the United States churches are expressly forbidden from making political pronouncements, and this variance of political opinion is just one of many fields in which churches can encourage diversity of thought and action.

To be truly non-judgemental about someone’s faith journey, though, the church would have to essentially abandon any absolute pronouncement of theology. The Unitarian Universalists are a great example of this! When a UU says “we want you part of this group regardless of where you are on your faith journey,” you know they mean it in the least judgmental way, because there’s no indication of where that journey is supposed to lead. Should all churches become like this? Maybe! If they want to truly include people on all of life’s many journeys in a non-judgmental way.