We live in an age where religious controversies abound, from the Ten Commandments in Alabama to intelligent design in Kansas, from school prayers to the Pledge of Allegiance. People of faith feel besieged by skeptics, while humanists feel attacked by religious conservatives. … The Western World is divided between those who weep at The Passion of Christ and those who laugh at The Life of Brian.
Millions of Americans belong to traditional churches, but the commitment has been faltering for decades. Although polls report a steady 40% of the U.S. population attending church regularly, there is evidence of over-reporting with the real figure about half that. In the United States a recent poll showed that among those who identified themselves with a Christian church, only half said they were absolutely committed to Christianity. The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation nearly doubled from 1990 (8%) to 2008 (15%); a 2012 survey found that 35% of Americans called themselves non-religious or atheists.
The Catholic Church in particular is losing its members. In New England alone the number fell by 1 million between 1990 and 2008 with another 800,000 lost in New York State. In Ireland where 90% of the population call themselves Catholic and nine out of ten of those attended mass regularly a generation ago, fewer than 50% attend mass even once a month. In Austria the number of Catholics leaving the Church doubled in the first half of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. In Poland regular attendance at mass is down to 41%. In Paris it is as low as 5%. Atheists comprise about half the population of much of northern Europe. It’s becoming harder and harder to find young people willing to enter seminaries and convents. The number of priests beginning their training in Ireland was over 150 annually in the 1980s, but in 2012 their number had dwindled to 16. 90% of nuns are over 60 in the United States.
It is not just the Catholics who are suffering. Most major Protestant Churches in the United States are losing members. However about 80% of Americans still believe in God and heaven (though slightly fewer believe in hell). If belief is this strong, why is church membership and attendance in decline? There are many reasons, but among them is certainly the feeling that the formulaic liturgy is devoid of any spiritual spark and that much of what the traditional churches ask us to accept as truth is simply incredible…
In our century Doubt has become Bewilderment or Indifference. Montaigne’s search for wisdom began with“what do I know?” Today it’s “Can I believe in anything?” Some atheists are so angry at the fundamentalists, or indeed believers of any stripe, that they have adopted a scorched-earth campaign, questioning the intelligence of anyone who cannot see the world as they see it. Because of the devastating consequences of fundamentalism in terms of body counts and the treatment of women, and with the advent of suicide bombers who seem to measure their success by the amount of carnage they produce, these atheists insist it is time to actively persuade people of faith that their irrational beliefs are not only risking innocent lives, but may end in the destruction of the world. And yet, how can we expect millions of people to jettison age-old beliefs and build a new moral code in their place?
I would like to suggest a new statement of what we believe. This Credo is based on seven universal sacraments that parallel the sacraments of the Catholic Church. It does not begin with a deity. I have always liked the formulation in that old stand-by of high-school poetry classes, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, where the poet does not thank God or Jesus for his “unconquerable soul,” but rather “whatever gods may be.” Perhaps an even better way to put it would be “whatever powers that be.” That phrase covers everyone’s beliefs: Trinitarians, Unitarians, mono- and polytheists, Manicheans, fire-worshippers and even atheists who believe only in the laws of nature. The legacy of the Enlightenment has been an unfortunate division of the world into the superstitious and the freethinkers (or depending on your vantage point, the faithful and the unchurched). I would hope these seven universal sacraments are something we can all believe in beyond the intangibles of an afterlife, a creator, a savior, a book. The powers-that-be, whether they’re the God of the Bible or gene mutation and natural selection have written a sacred text in our hearts and these seven universal sacraments are there for each of us to read.