(Once again as my standard disclaimer on the subject, I was raised Catholic and suffered through Sunday School for many years, which gives me the right to say anything I please about the religion. I paid my dues. Beyond that, I have few doubts that most Catholic priests would openly agree with 90% of this post, and are likely to privately agree with the rest. So save your blasphemies for someone else.)
Gee, big surprise the Catholics are having problems getting worshippers:
[Pope] Benedict gently rebuked the German church for putting social service projects and technical assistance to the poor ahead of spreading the Christian message. African bishops, he said, told him all doors were open to them in Germany when they wanted to talk about aid projects, but added they were greeted with reservations when it came to evangelization.
"Clearly, some people have the idea that social projects should be urgently undertaken, while anything dealing with God or even the Catholic faith is of limited and lesser importance," Benedict said.
He said that faith must come first, before progress can be made in social problems, such as the AIDS epidemic in Africa. "Hearts must be converted if progress is to be made on social issues and reconciliation is to begin, and if — for example, AIDS is to be combated by realistically facing its deeper causes."
Now, is it just me, or is this an implicit threat from the Pope? As if he’s saying that the Church doesn’t want to help folks until they convert first. That could certainly be one understanding of what he’s saying. Or at the least, that the Church can’t really help until you convert, which could surely be an excuse to deny that help.
And even if he doesn’t mean that at all and insists that services shouldn’t be withheld to non-believers, I still find this to be a troubling message. That the Church comes before helping people. And that the problems of poor people should take a backseat while they try to increase church membership. Because I most certainly do believe that the Catholic faith should be of lesser importance than helping people, and I suspect that many others would agree, including most Catholics. The Pope may mean well, but his message really does sound a tad bit selfish.
The God of Niche
Especially as he’s got it entirely backwards. You get more followers by giving them more services and showing good deeds. To give people a reason to invest their energies in God. And the reason why religion is on an eternal wane isn’t because they’re giving away their services for free, or because of some modern movement conspiring against them; but because people just don’t need religion as they once did. Even here in a relatively religious country like America, people don’t use religion as they once did.
Where once God permeated throughout everyone’s life and was interwoven with the social and governmental fabric, people now use God to fill in the blanks for how they’d like things to be. Or to justify their feelings of superiority over others. Or to provide a sense of order in a seemingly unordered world. Or to justify one’s own unjustifiable actions and attitudes (eg, the whole anti-gay thing). Or all kinds of little niche functions, rather than the all-encompassing “He’s everywhere and everything” model folks used to have. They still the say words, but they obviously don’t apply.
But the rules never changed. The reason people used to have the more all-encompassing God is because they needed that. Because they didn’t have much else. They couldn’t predict the weather. Health and sickness were seemingly random events. And things occurred for no apparent reason. But thanks to science and other modern innovations, those services have been filled by far more reliable alternatives. So this isn’t some new development, but an obvious turn of events that cannot be prevented.
If I can go to a doctor to cure my sickness, then God becomes little more than an unpredictable back-up medicine. And so it is with everything else. They still pray. But the few who rely solely on that mechanism are usually castigated and sometimes taken to court for those beliefs. Even the Pope needs a doctor.
And yet the church thinks that some group or evil line of rhetoric is to blame, and that they just have to do enough of their own evangelism and everything will work out. But it won’t. People who don’t need alot don’t need God much either. And as long as people’s needs are taken care of, they’ll have less need for God. And that seems to be exactly what the Pope seems to be saying with this.
Even the supposed increase in religious belief after 9/11 completely confirms this idea. People turned to God in a time of need, and they will abandon him as that need dissipates. The more hostile the world is, the more we need a Big Daddy to smooth things out for us. And now the Pope seems to be suggesting that we allow things to get alittle worse before the Church will start making things better. As if we need to temporarily slow-down our services to the poor until after more people rely on the Church for them. Now that I think about it, that’s the Bush Plan too.
But again, it won’t work. Because many of the people who see themselves as being devoutly religious are the exact niche-people I’m talking about. They think of God when they need him, and as time passes, that’s becoming increasingly rare. They might have God for an hour during Mass, but that won’t impact their ungodly actions while stuck in traffic on the way home. Because God has become about churches and symbols, and when people are faced with problems, they generally turn to their own resources. Though that’s not to say they won’t use God’s name to blasphemously justify any decision they make. Only that the God justification came later.
Overall, people have become more self-reliant; and that bodes ill for a jealous and demanding god whose powers are limited to helping the desperately needy. The Pope laments that Africa and Asia are more fervently religious than Europe; and yet that just makes the most obvious sense. They need God more than we do. And as their needs go away, so will their need for God. And again, a cynic might suggest that this concept hasn’t eluded the Vatican either. And I might be that cynic.
And sure, there still are religious people here in America who really do devote their lives full-time to God. Who still see God as their sole purpose, rather than a hobby they dabble in occasionally. But those people are becoming more and more rare, to the point that they’re seen as oddities, even by other religious people.
Despite the typical denunciations of atheists for belittling religion, intolerance of other religions is an age-old practice among Christians. In fact, of all the religious practices that have survived into our modern age, the belittling of other religions is still strongest. And I suppose, if you think you’ve got the one true religion, then it would just make sense to mock the people who waste their time handling snakes or needlessly avoiding caffeine, believing that it doesn’t do a damn thing to get them any closer to God. It’s only when it comes to their own beliefs that people start getting uppity about religious intolerance.
And for most people, God has become but a minor obligation in their lives. They consider themselves very religious and might even go to church each week and pray each night. But that’s generally the extent of their belief. They do the smallest amount they think is required and then turn to Him when they need a little assistance; which often is limited to asking for help on a test or getting a little nookie from a well-liked girl.
Even the Eternal Mystery of God has now been relegated to use as a “Get Out of Argument Free” card; a catch-all explanation for why even they can’t explain their holy position on an issue. A nicer way of saying “I’d like to explain it to you, but we’re both too dumb to understand.” Call me crazy, but I find such explanations to be a tad less than satisfactory.
Over time, church attendance has become the last bastion of God’s once-omnipotent tendrils; and even that’s on the wane. “Believers” go because they feel they must. Not even necessarily because they think God requires it, but more out of habit. Because they’ve just always done it and have it ingrained that this is something they need to do. As if their warm body heating up a pew is all God really wanted from us. I guess those big churches can get quite drafty.
And for the rest of it, church service is little more than a social event. The place where your friends are. I’ve even known people who openly speak of church as a good way to network, for business purposes. Or as a place to see hot chicks dressed up in their Sunday best. But even many of the purists benefit more from the church’s social structure than it’s theological one.
And they have their pot lucks and fish fries, which are always great excuses for seeing friends. Growing up, that was the only part I liked about religion, anyway. I love fried fish. And if they do some social service that actually helps other people in the process, all the better. But as the Pope said, that service comes second. And that it’s more important for these people to convert more friends. To expand the network.
And while Pope Ratzinger can hope that these efforts will help bring more people into God and into his churches, there is really only hope for the latter. Good social circles are hard to come by in these relatively nomadic and isolated days, and that aspect of religion might never pass. But a lot of bad stuff would have to happen in Europe and America before these people start needing God in any kind of full-time capacity.
Rather than Lord & Savior, it looks like God has been demoted to a position as Social Director of the Cruise Ship Christ. And I’m not so sure that religious leaders necessarily have a problem with that. After all, a warm pew is better than no pew at all.