Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield
Chicago Sinai Congregation
My talk today begins with a visit I made to Prague, a great historic city with a distinguished Jewish heritage, and several illustrious synagogues. In Prague, there are these few synagogues and many more churches, except that they are hardly used for religious purposes any more. Just about all have been converted into concert halls and theatres, or tourist attractions. Our guide remarked that the Czech Republic is the most atheistic country in the world; that only 1% of the population practices any religion. The demise of religion there is understandable because Czechoslovakia was under the Soviet domination for so many years and atheism was official state policy.
Prague is not an isolated instance; organized religion is in steep decline throughout Europe. In most of Scandinavia, religious places are used mostly for weddings and funerals, and little more. In other Western European Countries, particularly France, religious services are held but attendance is sparse. Churches are visited mostly by tourists and elderly widows and only draw crowds for the major holidays or for concerts of classical music. I cannot say that what has been occurring in Western and Central Europe is going to happen in America, but we are not that dissimilar.
Here in America, although the fundamentalists and the Mega-churches draw large attendance, the mainstream denominations, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, all of these are experiencing dramatic declines. The Catholic Churches have taken an especially hard hit. Were it not for the influx of immigrants, especially from Latin America, their numbers would be even worse. And in our own Jewish community, synagogues everywhere are shrinking. Of late, several polls and numerous articles have been written about the rise of the “Nones,” i.e. those who respond to questions about their religious practices, “None of the above”.
Also symptomatic of the decline of organized religion has been the virtual proliferation of books that are either anti-religious or pro-Atheism, and these are not identical Several of these books have become best sellers: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The Portable Atheist and God is Not Great and How Religion Poisons Everything, both by the late Christopher Hitchens. Having read most of them, I can tell you that these are not the ranting of cranks. Most are well written and well reasoned. I even recommend them to you, not because I’m anxious for you to go over to “the dark side,” but because these books challenge us to think about our own beliefs and even more than that, the purpose of organized religion in our day and age.
What are the reasons for this undeniable trend in opposition to organized religion? It seems to me that there are several common threads connecting most of these phenomena. The first is a widespread sense of anger over all the harm that organized religion has done. We are all painfully aware of radical Islamic terrorism: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Queida, and the rest. But radical Islam is not the only culprit. The overwhelming numbers of conflicts of the past century have been to some degree religious conflicts. Hindus vs. Muslims in India and Pakistan, Shiites vs. Sunnis in Iraq, Catholic vs. Protestants in Ireland, Jews vs. Muslims in the Holy Land. The word “religion” all too often is coupled with extremism, persecution, and intolerance. In countless ways, religion has incited violence and persecution, always in the name of God, or Christ, or Allah. This is undeniable.
There has also been an extreme reaction over the priest abuse scandals. Those of us who are familiar with the Catholic Church in America understand that, overwhelmingly, the Church is served by dedicated men and women, who sacrifice greatly for the sake of their faith. But there have also been the rotten apples that got away with their predatory crimes for far too long. There is an indelible stain on the Catholic Church that cannot be easily erased, no matter how many lawsuits are settled or apologies issued by Church hierarchy.
Not to be ignored is the hucksterism of the TV evangelists and mega-preachers who spew feel-good religious nonsense, and ask no more of their followers than that they should make generous donations. In many ways, some religious institutions are just big businesses, with slick advertising, the hocking of their wares, and manipulative appeals for money, often aimed at the most desperate and impressionable. Meanwhile some of their most visible leaders fly around in private jets, live in mansions, and build bigger and bigger edifices. The feathering of their own nests seems to be the most important concern, under the guise of saving souls.
And lest you think that I may be letting the Jewish religion off too easily, it is apparent to me that the institutions of the Jewish community are far too preoccupied with matters related to Israel, all but ignoring the matter of personal religious practices. For far too many individuals and organizations, Israel has become a vicarious and surrogate religion. Younger Jewish people who have no direct recollection of the Holocaust simply do not relate to Israel in the same way as did their parents or grandparents.
Put all of this together and it is not so difficult to understand why organized religion is falling on tough times, why more and more people are opting for secularism. And I should add this: there is no evidence that immorality or lawlessness is, in any way, on the rise in those countries in which organized religion has all but evaporated. Decent people, who are of course the overwhelming majority of every society, do not seem to require religious institutions to teach them how to be good.
I cannot deny that I am disheartened by the harm that is perpetrated in the name of religion. I also sometimes question what I am doing as a rabbi. And yet, as we say in Hebrew “Af al pe chain,” all of this notwithstanding, I remain devoted to the Jewish religion and to organized religion itself, because I believe, at its core, religion continues to occupy an essential place in the fabric of society and the world at large.
I am a rabbi, and therefore I will use the language of my faith to describe what I mean. The Jewish religion has always been a Messianic faith. By that I do not simply mean that we believe that the Messiah some day will come to bring about world peace and well-being. To be Messianic, as both Christianity and Islam also are, is to believe that the world, as we know it, is not the best of all possible worlds. To be Messianic, is to believe that we must be God’s partners in the endless task of Tikkun Olam, of repairing our very broken world. At its very core, this Messianic ideal is the essence of the Jewish religion and resides in the heart of all great faiths: to make life better for ourselves, for our children, for all of humanity; to work tirelessly and selflessly for that day when poverty will end, when most disease will be eradicated, when violence between countries and neighbors will come to an end. The greatest thing that organized religion can offer is the dynamic of people banding and bonding together to do more collectively than they could ever do simply as individuals.
I don’t think I need to tell you that our world is not getting better. In fact, it definitely seems to be getting worse: more conflicts, more terrorism, more human suffering, more pollution of our environment, more waste of precious and irreplaceable resources, a billion people suffering from hunger every single day, and no end in sight of racism, genocide and cruelty.
I cannot believe that this is the way it is supposed to be. I believe that the God, in whom I continue to have faith, wants this to be a much better world, but that God simply cannot do it by Himself/Herself. God has given us the gifts of moral insight and conscience to envision the way the world could be. And God, I believe, relies upon people to respond with our hands, eyes, our hearts and our minds.
The purpose of organized religion should be to awaken that sense of urgency to do more, to join together as communities of faith devoted to this sacred task of repairing our troubled world. Religion, I believe, exists to be a part of the solution, and not of the problem.
As I see it, the reason why atheism and secularism are on the rise and that organized religion is in decline, is because too many religions have become part of the problem. Religion should be promoting peace and harmony, not fomenting violence. Religion should be committed to the Messianic goal of making life better for the many who suffer every single day from poverty, disease, racism, inequality, and countless other afflictions. Religious groups should be putting their energy into how they can increase peace, respect and understanding.
And this is my chief criticism of the fundamentalists that have become such a formidible element of the religious landscape. Fundamentalism of all kinds is divisive. It is “we’re right and you’re wrong, “ or: ”we are righteous and you are sinful.” Fundamentalism is anything but constructive.
I can hardly blame a person who looks at what often passes for religion and concludes that he or she wants no part of it.
The churches, synagogues mosques and other houses of worship that stand out so prominently in each city, town and village of our land, including our own, only have value if they inspire and empower people to look beyond themselves.
This leads me to say a few words on God’s behalf, not that God has ever spoken to me personally. I do not really believe that most people are atheists at heart; that there really are that many who have stopped believing in God. But there are many who have stopped believing in religion. I believe that most people continue to believe that we live in a created world, that there is a transcendent Source of moral law, whether one chooses to call this God or by any other particular name.
My greatest concern is that, in rejecting organized religion because of its sins, society may also dispense with the tremendous power that religion has to make our world a far better place. Humanity must never let go of the conviction that the world in which we live is not yet the best of all possible worlds. We must never let go of our hopes and dreams for the realization of that day envisioned by the prophets of a world transformed by justice and peace. People of faith are charged with keeping this timeless hope alive. As we say, “The world is not yet complete; we are charged with completing it.”
There is abundant evidence of what people of faith can accomplish. The civil rights movement, the unionization of migrant farm workers, the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the Women’s movement, even today’s push for ecological responsibility: all of these have been given impetus and often led by religious groups. The daunting task of feeding the hungry in our midst is fulfilled largely by religious groups and a wide array of faith-based organizations. Many of the greatest and most inspiration leaders of our times have been people of faith, Mother Theresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Ghandi, Elie Wiesel, Pope John Paul II, and these are only some of the most recognizable names. There are countless men and women in every community, working within the structure of religion that are making a gigantic difference every single day, usually without notoriety.
Even after 35 years as a rabbi, I don’t pretend to know much about God. But I do think I know a little about faith, and about hope, and about the great religions’ sacred and age-old goal of a world transformed. I am certain that our world would be a far poorer place were it not for the communities of faith, ordinary people working together to build that better world.