Many of us fear that our society is becoming increasingly godless and religion-less. In our Catholic faith, for example, it is estimated that for every one person that joins the church another six leave it, and nearly 50% of young adults brought up in Catholic households self-identify as “nones,” i.e., they claim no religious affiliation. It is important to distinguish that being religion-less is not the same as being godless.
After the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton last weekend, merely the latest in a long list of similar tragedies in other places, it might seem that our society is increasingly godless. While these horrendous reports sober us to the fragile nature of our lives, citizens are numbed by their common occurrence. Though a far different circumstance from the devastating holocaust during World War II, many people now, like then, conclude that the absence of goodness translates into the absence of God or that they can’t believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God because such horrors occur.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister who was killed by Nazis during that time, witnessed persecutions and atrocities by the evil regime that are beyond our vision and probably our comprehension. As a religious leader, he spoke out against them when many other religious leaders failed to do so. While even Catholic bishops in Germany at the time pledged an oath of fidelity to Hitler, he courageously stood against cowardly submission, even participating in plots to assassinate the dictator. So vexed was he by other religious leaders that he proposed a religion-less Christianity, i.e., a society that would faithfully bear the message and mission of Jesus, even enduring a similar passion, though abandoned by religion–much as Jesus was.
The quagmires of institutional religion prevent it, at times, from positively impacting its own internal chaos and the moral code of the society in which it exists. In times of crisis, like the sad suffering of our current catastrophes, some people run to God or religion while others flee them. I can see either response as valid because it is personal. Granted, this goes way beyond religion. People lose faith in other institutions, from government in general to specific laws/politics in particular, in similar ways. Disgust, apathy, indifference, and anger are normal responses to horrible events which occur—even in wonderful times.
When people tell me that they are atheists, that they don’t believe in God, I often ask them about the god in which they don’t believe. As they describe their image of a judgmental, uncaring, punishing, cruel deity, I tell them that I don’t believe in god either—at least not that god. When people tell me that they are agnostic, that they don’t know the existence of God, I discuss with them the fact that God is unknowable. In the end, I admit to them that I choose to exist in the immensity of the mystery of a God that I cannot possibly know, not in totality anyway. By their definition, I might also be atheist or agnostic. But, at the same time, I do catch glimpses of what I think is God—His too personal and intimate revelations to me that are tied to my thoughts, feelings, imaginations, and dreams, as well as His manifestations in nature’s beauty, people’s goodness, and moments of grace that are not explainable. Also, I am aware of God who seemingly abandoned His own Son on the cross, who left Jesus forsaken along with Bonhoeffer and every other person in history who has suffered in horrible circumstances.
Like Bonhoeffer, I cannot imagine being godless but I understand how being religion-less in Christ would be a sanctuary for many who have suffered at the hands of churches or witnessed the suffering of others. We’re not living in Nazi Germany but we do have steep challenges to face in our own time. As a society and church, we can and should provide healthy and holy responses that invite and encourage people to turn to God and religion as means to help them through tragic circumstances and difficult periods of living.