American Gods and European Atheism

What follows are a few excerpts from a lectured entitled:  Attack of the Atheists” by Reverend James Kubal-Komoto, Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church, Des Moines, Washington, April 1, 2007. It provides some interesting information about religion. (I can’t find the original lecture on the internet, but I took these notes when the lecture first appeared.)

… there was a fascinating study released by Baylor University last fall titled American Piety in the 21st Century, and unlike most studies, which only ask very basic questions about people’s religious beliefs, this one went further in-depth.

One of its main findings is that while most Americans say they believe in God, Americans really believe in four very different kinds of Gods. Some Americans (31.4 percent) believe in an “Authoritarian God” who is very angry with the sins of the world and regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world. You might think of this as Pat Robertson’s God. Another group (23 percent) believes in a “Benevolent God” who also regularly supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the world, but is less wrathful and more of a positive influence. You might think of this as Oprah’s God. Another group (16 percent) believes in a “Critical God” who is not happy about the affairs of the world, but doesn’t intervene, preferring to mete out rewards and punishments in the next life. You might think about this as the “Wait until your father gets home!” God. Finally, another group (16 percent) believes in a “Distant God.” Individuals who believe in this sort of God tend to think of God as a cosmic intelligence which set the law of nature in motion at the beginning of time, but neither intervenes in the affairs of the world nor cares about them. You might think of this as Thomas Jefferson’s God.

And guess what? Which one of these Gods people believe in does have a lot to do with how they live their lives. It also has a lot to do with how people believe about all sorts of other things such as sexual morality, politics, the environment, the “war on terror,” discrimination of all sorts, whether God favors the U.S. in world affairs. And if you’re wondering, those who believe in an angry, intervening “Authoritarian God” tend to have the values most divergent from many of us in this community.

Other research studies show that people who believe in a personal God who loves them and also loves everybody else—a theology similar to many of the early Universalists—tend to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more involved in social justice making than others, and these are qualities I greatly admire, and the world might be a better place if there were more people with this kind of belief in it.

… [ the reverend now turns to another issue.]

For example, why is it that some countries in this world tend to be very religious while in other countries traditional religiosity seems to be on the decline? Why is it that in many European countries, atheism is at an all-time high? What explains this variability better, evolutionary adaptation or social changes?

Well, in 2004, the United Nations commissioned a Human Development Report, which ranked 177 nations on a “Human Development Index” which measures societal health according to indicators such as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, per capita income, and educational attainment. According to this report, the five highest ranked countries – – Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands – – also are countries that have the lowest degree of traditional religiosity. All of the top 25 countries on the list have low degrees of traditional religiosity.

In fact two scholars – – Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart – – have found that high rates of individual and societal well-being are the leading factor in predicting a country’s degree of traditional religiosity.

In other words, when people have access to quality medical care, education, and jobs that pay enough money to live comfortably, they tend to be less traditionally religious.

What about the United States? Aren’t we one of the most religious countries in the world? Yes, we are. But the sad truth is that we also lag behind many other developed nations in terms of individual and societal well being. In many ways, the United States can be a scary, unpredictable place to live. Is it any wonder that lots of folks believe in an angry, punishing, authoritarian God?

Finally, if we’re truly concerned about some of religion’s negative effects in this world, let’s try to figure out to the best of our ability the root causes of these negative effects. It seems to be that the best evidence suggests they result from fear, from hopelessness, from despair, from need, and it doesn’t seem that simply labeling them as irrational or delusional is the best course of action. (In some ways, attacking people’s religions that we may find irrational is like attacking people for poor eating habits during a famine.) It seems the best thing we can do to moderate or mitigate the dangers and excesses of religion in this world is to work toward a world of love and justice.

In other words, we won’t make the world better by getting rid of bad religion, but we may get rid of bad religion by making the world better. From my perspective, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris confuse the symptoms with the disease, and bad religion is the symptom, not the disease …

No, religion is the human quest for connection and meaning, and this being on this quest is part of what it means to be human. But in a more loving and just world a lot of religion might look different than it does today, and that wouldn’t necessarily be bad thing.  So may it be. Amen.

This might be the best sermon I’ve ever read.

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