Q: What was the most important religion story of 2009?
The important story for me was the omni-absence of a personal God in so many stories about religion. God may not exactly be dead, but perhaps he, she, or it should be denied health insurance because of a strongly suspected pre-existing condition of nonexistence.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, released in March of 2009, showed that "Nones," those who don't belong to any particular religious group, is the fastest growing religious category in America. They are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union. Some are atheists, some are agnostics, some are spiritual, some believe in Karma or crystals, and some believe in a deity or deities. Most have simply rejected the religion in which they were raised. Generally, though, they are more accepting of those with different beliefs.
Atheist and agnostic "Nones," emboldened by the release of the ARIS survey that showed unexpected growth of the non-religious, have become more vocal. And along with opportunities to increase the visibility of, and respect for, the viewpoints of secular Americans, there come the inevitable strategic and philosophical divisions. Here is my gross oversimplification of the two basic camps.
Group A: Atheists who don't suffer fools gladly. They point out that religious belief should be treated as any other kind of belief, open to criticism, and that unquestioned faith is a vice with inherent dangers, not a virtue to be respected.
Group B: Atheists who prefer identifying as humanists, who would rather look for ways to make this world a better place than talk about gods in which they don't believe. They try to find common bonds between theists and nontheists, and seek issues on which to cooperate. Their focus is on being good without God.
Group A's take pride in being intellectually honest, while Group B's take pride in helping a movement grow. Quite a few, myself included, have a foot or toe in both groups.
Many people distrust atheists because atheists don't worry about rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The message that needs to get out is how many non-atheists live like atheists, for all practical purposes, without belief in a judging god involved in the workings of the world. This would include all deists, almost all Unitarians, and most liberal religionists of all stripes. I even think many politicians, not just the one acknowledged atheist, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal), would be willing to make known publicly that their actions and policies have nothing to do with belief in an afterlife. I expect this category of "functional atheists," those who believe that their actions in this life have nothing to do with how or whether they are treated in an afterlife, is larger than just about any religious denomination.
This brings me back to non-God religion stories, which I'll illustrate with two of this year's movies. The first is the blockbuster, Avatar. Russ Douthat, in the New York Times, wrote about its pantheism, a faith that equates God with Nature, where trees have "spiritual energy" and a network of energy is the sum total of every living thing. Douthat claims that Hollywood regularly returns to such themes because most people can't accept the literal-mindedness of monotheistic religions. It's a movie for my Group B people, since the good guys on this alien planet are spiritual progressives who prefer to be engaged in cooperating and making love, not war.
For Group A people, a more interesting and less viewed movie is The Invention of Lying. It's about a culture even more alien, one in which nobody can lie. There is not even a word for "lie" or for "truth." You can guess what this does to politics, advertising, and dating. Then one person develops the ability to lie. In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, a liar can become a king or a god. With the best of intentions, our liar-hero (Mark) tries to comfort his dying mother by telling her that she will be going to a wonderful afterlife. Of course she and others believe him. Soon everyone in the world is begging for information about this afterlife. Every word Mark makes up is taken as, well, gospel. In the biggest lie of all, he tells the world there is a Man in the Sky who is responsible for everything, and they will be happy up there with him after death. When asked if the Man in the Sky is also responsible for cancer, Mark quickly has to grapple with theodicy, the question no monotheistic religion has been able to answer: Why is there evil in a world created by an all-powerful and benevolent god? Incidentally, I think the 10 rules for the world that Mark writes on Pizza Hut boxes compare favorably to the 10 Commandments.
This movie helped me to imagine a world without lies. The movie's theme was that Man in the Sky religion is possible only in a world where it's possible to lie. (This reminds me that if there were an international anthem for atheists, it would be John Lennon's "Imagine"--no religion).
Atheists sometimes compare belief in the biblical God to belief in Santa Claus. One difference is that Santa is omniscient only in December and omnipotent only on Christmas Eve. In "Do as I say, not as I do" fashion, many parents this month explained to their children why lying is bad, and that "Santa will know if you've been bad or good." Whatever parents teach their children about God or Santa, I hope it will include a message to be good for goodness' sake, a message to live by in all seasons.