Considering how often God has been invoked in explaining everything from super storm Sandy to the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school, America may be having what Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called "the God problem." In brief, this is a phenomenon where it becomes increasingly hard to talk about religion in a reasonable manner and all “believers” are seen as extremists and unreasonable (and often irrational) people. This creates a big problem for believers like me, who can be reasonable despite having beliefs in a supernatural God. The folks who are extremist in their beliefs must be dealt with, in order to recognize the good that religion has done in this country.
With superstorm Sandy, it was Pat Robertson, who went on a rant claiming that it was America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality that brought various calamities including Katrina and Sandy. (With Sandy, his rhetoric was against Mormons.)
More words of wisdom came from Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, when he made a direct correlation between lack of religious teaching in schools and gun-violence. He is reported to have told Fox News, "We ask why there's violence in our school but we've systematically removed God from our schools." He continued, "Should we be so surprised that schools have become such a place of carnage? Because we've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability."
Given statements like these, it's not surprising that those who don’t believe see religious folk as crazy, irrational people.
A recent Pew survey on religion pointed out that though levels of religiosity are declining among millennials, the attitudes towards religion remains quite the same, as the older generation, as the report points out. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults' beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Amidst this shift in attitudes towards religion and increasing religious diversity in America, the decline in religiosity it only makes sense that religious figures and those in authority positions should avoid sounding like they are from the 12th century B.C., as it would help if they are able to relate to younger generations.
The argument against religion and religion-talk is compelling. Consider this: A survey of more than 1,600 scientists and social scientists employed at 21 elite research universities found that only 8% of the natural scientists and 10% of the social scientists had “no doubts about God’s existence.” A third did not believe in God, and a third said they did not know whether or not there is a God, and there is no way to find out. In essence, a sizable majority are agnostics. Reams have been written by thoughtful atheists who argue against belief.
Wuthnow’s argument that religion is ultimately also about how we talk about it, seems true. He says, "Religion is always about language. The cup of water, for the Christian, is to be given in the Lord’s name. The worship is awash in words. In the beginning, the Scripture says, was the Word." Perhaps using this insight, our leaders, both religious and political can be a bit more sensitive and caring when they invoke religion to make a point.
While separation of church and state is a valid and much-needed exercise, the other extreme of sneering at those who believe and dis-respecting the beliefs of people is not acceptable either. While the First Amendment gives us the right to believe or not believe, it should be handled with perspective and sensitivity, especially in times of tragedy. If we fail to do that, we may throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater, since a lot of good has been done in the name of religion as well.