An interesting statistic from last night’s Real Time with Bill Maher: according to a recent survey, 1 in 5 Americans under the age of 30 don’t believe in God. I found that number to be staggering, but as I thought about it in the context of Maher’s closing monologue – that people who believe in God aren’t rationale thinkers – the statistic started making sense.
I’ll talk to the religious tradition I know best – Christianity. I was a Christian for most of my adult life, and I genuinely believed in the main, faith-based premises of the tradition. Jesus as God’s son, born of a virgin, died and rose again to save us. As a Roman Catholic, I had incredible respect for the institution of the Eucharist, and I even fully believed in transubstantiation.
But how many of these “great mysteries” of various faiths came about as a way for humankind to try and understand what was at one time unfathomable? The parallels between the myths of the ancient world and today’s major religions can’t be denied, and as our lives became more complicated through those early centuries, the religious institutions adapted.
So do I think Christianity is a myth? No. Do I agree with Bill Maher that only atheists are, to use his word, rationalists? No. Are true believers in Christianity, Islam and Judaism rational thinkers? For the vast majority of them, of course.
The belief in what can’t be seen or proven – be it in Heaven above or deep within our minds and hearts – is what defines us a humans and sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As I’ve written here numerous times, religion is a beautiful, awesome thing that can inspire people to both the heights and depths of what we are capable of.
Yet, as our understanding of the world around us has grown – as science has explained things that were incomprehensible just a few centuries ago– it doesn’t seem wholly unusual that people would start to turn away from traditional religious beliefs. We know with absolutely certainty that a virgin birth, that is the development of a woman’s egg into an embryo without a man’s sperm, is physically impossible. As faith in the unknown and unproven weighs less and less in the human equation, we lose touch with those mystical elements of our shared heritage.
Perhaps this is why the humanist movement has begun to thrive in cities and towns across America. Buddhism, which some would hesitate to call a religion, is flourishing in the West. Atheists and agnostics are now part of the mainstream, at least in some parts of America.
Even so, I’m left to wonder about that 20 percent of Americans under 30. What, if anything, do they truly believe in? Does the potential exist for this nation – or this world – to completely convert to Maher’s rationalism?
And what is it about humanity that makes us seek out –isms in the first place? Maybe that’s the real difference between man and ape.