Religious Change Denial: The Shifting of American Religion and Where to go From Here

There are climate change deniers. Though I do not know, likely most followers of Westar will say, "Tell me something I don't know." What about religion change deniers? Is there such a thing as religious change denial?

According to the Pew Research Center, the American religious landscape is undergoing tremendous change. When we think of loud religious expression in America (and worry about it), we think of white, evangelical, Protestants who deny evolution, equate opinions with facts, and think the Bible is a science book. Yet, statistically, this population is increasingly a minority position in the United States. Though in religion one should avoid partisan politics, I am nevertheless inclined to say, "Someone tell the Republicans!"

In 1976, according to the Pew Research Center, 86% of Americans involved in religion identified both as White and Christian. Of those, 55% were Protestant (both mainline and evangelical). By 2016 that first number had fallen from 86 to 43%. Today, almost a quarter of the American population (24%) expresses no religious affiliation. White, evangelical Protestantism has declined to 17% from 23% in 2006. The statistics also reveal a complex mosaic of religion and no religion developing in the United States. Canada is similar and even further ahead along the same trajectory. There is definitely such a thing as "religion change" going on in culture, but equally, there are trumpeting minority voices that deny religion can or should change and that refuse to think about the fact of change in religion.

There are of course cultural shifts that account for some factors. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has lost many members in America but has had a major transformation in ethnic makeup. Most of the change, though, is due to the perceived disconnect between religious beliefs and the modern (or postmodern) world. Religion change deniers are those who reject the evidence that strongly suggests traditional religious beliefs no longer make sense to most people. In Christianity, these beliefs include the obvious ones like creation, heaven and hell, and original sin. But further to such beliefs is the problem of intolerance. The resistance religion has shown to accepting the LGBTQ community, to affirming and practicing equal rights, and to understanding how pluralism is a fact of human history, accounts in major ways for its decline. Religions of the world might be more appealing - and possibly even sanctuaries of hope - if they were centers of inquiry, openness, and personal growth rather than centers of doctrine, denial, and close-minded thinking. There are, of course, many exceptions, but why are religions so very often places of denial?

Usually, in psychology, denial is related to fear. We are inclined to deny things that threaten to disorient us and deliver us to an unknown or unfamiliar state. In historical studies, this observation is often used to explain why certain facts are either denied or at least thought to pose a great threat. A classic example is how the earth revolves around the sun. Technically, human beings knew that the earth moved around the sun for a substantially longer period than commonly accepted.  The delay in accepting such knowledge, according to historians, was due to natural, intuitive experience. It is natural or intuitive to experience the sun moving around the earth. It is natural because we live on the earth and this is what we see. It is counter-intuitive to think that the earth moves around the sun. Even today, it still takes work to remind ourselves of this happening. Intuitive instincts, even when wrong, often block the advance of human knowledge and often make human beings deniers of new knowledge.

When imbued in religious experience and doctrine, it is intuitive to accept the truth of that experience and to seek the justification of that experience in the authority of what has been - or seems to have been - always true. When it is pointed out that religion is unstable, changes, and is a product of human history (and therefore subject to shifts in history), this disturbing truth seems counter-intuitive. The consequence is a return to authority like the Bible (or God) and to the reading of authority as that which lies beyond change. It becomes counter-intuitive to question the Bible (or God). Those who do so seem threatening. So, we have a significant problem that can be called religion change denial.

The human understanding of religion is changing. The future of religion and its value for the human family is now questionable. Denying what is happening does not change what is happening. Somehow, if there is to be a positive future for religion, humanity will have to accept the counter-intuitive idea that religion is a human creation.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical-jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical-jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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