Bad Religion, a new book by Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist, is impressive for the amount of research the author did in the preparation of the book. The book attempts to chronicle the demise of institutional Christianity from the post-war 50’s until the present. Douthat’s thesis is that the demise of religious affiliation is due to what he calls “bad religion”. He uses the word heresy to describe “bad religion” and the various aberrations in religious orthodoxy that he says led to the demise.
So, there is a chapter on American Nationalism as one heresy, God Within as another, the quest for the historical Jesus as another and so on. For each heresy the author chronicles the leading actors as well as to cite all the leading figures in the orthodoxy of the era. Fulton Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, Harvey Cox, Rich Warren, Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, John Courtney Murray are some of the figures mentioned. Douthat did a marvelous job of including all the major figures in the old and new religions of the period. It is good reading just for the thorough way he has included so many religious figures in his analysis. It is a great historical record. Think of your favorite religious figure of the period and you will find a reference in the book
Douthat’s analysis of the problem of religion in America places blame on two types of leadership: the accommodators and the resisters. Both liberals and conservatives got it wrong.
Those embracing accommodation urged new concepts for God, new understanding of original sin, new ways to reconcile science and religion, new understanding of the role of women, and, of course, new approaches to homosexuality, contraception and the world in general.
Those embracing resistance were against all the above and were led by First Things and the likes of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. If you have lived for the past seventy years you know the routine!
The author does not hide his prejudice for a return to embracing the religious orthodoxy of the 1950’s and earlier as the way to restore religion in America. Without urging us to embrace the way of life of the Amish, he would have us restore orthodoxy without acknowledging the scientific and cultural trends which are part of the postmodern world and which supposedly caused the religious demise.
Bad Religion is undoubtedly a good read for understanding all the forces making an impact on religion in America during the last seventy years but it provides few new answers for how to restore churches and religion in light of the secular-religious divide in modern life.
Douthat admits that the book is written in a spirit of pessimism but with hope, “every believer’s obligation.” Hope to be found, he says, in radical orthodoxy, an extended period of withdrawal, consolidation and purification, migration of new Christians from other cultures around the world, and the present age of “diminished expectations”. After all, it was the depression and war which inspired the religious fervor of the fifties!
One very important trend which Douthat hardly mentions is the wide acceptance of evolution as a factor in explaining so much of our history and future. He does give a nod to Teilhard and says that those who embraced his thought were “just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer.”
It seems that the demise in religious affiliation has occurred at the same time as widespread educational opportunity for Americans and Peoples all over the world. Could it be that the real problem is that so many educated people have outgrown some basic religious myths that have been able in times past to serve as a way to experience the transcendent?
It seems that we need a new basic myth to replace the story of Adam and Eve to help us understand who we are and why we are. The New Story of the birth of the universe about 14 billion years ago is one that is big enough and strong enough to occupy our minds and to give hope in a world filled with conflicting myths which lead to terror and death. Douthat does not mention the influence of Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim at Yale, John Haught and so many more writers who have influence the thinking of many. Of course, they would not be considered to be orthodox.
That God was present at the Big Bang and whose Spirit has filled every creature and being over all of these billions and billions of years could be a myth that supersedes all previous religious myth and makes all our theological infighting seem petty and out-of-place. Is there a bigger concept than the Universe?