Does Religion Still Matter?
An Atheist and Metaphysical Christian Dialogue
Toni Stephens Coleman
HTS 551 – Metaphysical Theology I
Dr. Thomas Shepherd
Major Paper – Due December 10, 2009
Carrying in the mail this question jumped off the cover of the AARP Magazine: Does Religion Still Matter? It's an apt question for the 21st century and especially pertinent to a ministerial student. Opening the front page for the contents, page 93 at the far back of the magazine which has only 102 pages total; flipping to find the article among the second halves of so many other stories, there it was; one page, about 75% brightly colored illustration entitled: AARP & You. Special Report: The Good Life. Nowhere on the page is the title question that was on the cover.
One can surmise that the question is useful to get people to purchase the magazine and open the cover, but not important enough, at least to seniors, to really write an article to address the question. Noted journalist and author, Christopher Hitchens answers the question with the title of his book: god is not Great. The subtitle of the book is: How Religion Poisons Everything.
In contrast to Hitchens' view, Eric Butterworth, well known theologian and author of Discover the Power Within You explores why religion matters. At the beginning of his book he speaks of the meticulously scientific and totally unscientific, “The amazing thing is that both of these completely unrelated and contrasting quests may well have deep spiritual implications.”
Religion is defined by Webster's Dictionary as “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power accepted as the creator and governor of the universe.”  Butterworth says, “The word religion stems from the Latin word meaning ‘to tie…to connect, to bind together.'” It originally began with a transcendent oneness experience with the Infinite. “All the Scriptures of the world deal with the same theme: the description of that experience and the way to reproduce it.” Later he says, “Today there is a great religious ferment…the pendulum …is moving from one extreme of ritualism and dogmatic theology to another extreme of humanism and social involvement.”
Hitchens can be considered on the leading edge of that other extreme swinging towards a humanistic view. Having arrived at what is true for him about the one extreme, ritualistic and dogmatic; he refuses to look any further. He calls himself a “Protestant atheist.”
“Even the men who made it (religion) can not agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did…And yet—believers claim to know…not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what ‘he' demands of us — from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality.” Thus Hitchens declares: “Religion poisons everything” and demands “that they (believers) leave me alone.”
Rightly, Mr. Hitchens would be left alone by most, if he weren't so loud and constant. He has tackled a long list of controversial topics, makes his living from being contrary and has challenged the world's theologians to argue with him, “Ever since I invited any champion of faith to debate with me in the spring of 2007, I have been very impressed by the willingness of the other side to take me…up on the offer.” Hitchens boasts that he has been all over the South, to New York, the West Coast, Canada and London “in front of capacity and overflow crowds” dialoging with Protestants, Catholics, and mostly Reform Jews. It's really more likely that this gorilla he poked with the stick has finally given him the attention, status, response and paycheck he seeks.
Another self professed atheist who is at the forefront of the campaign to remove religion from society is Sam Harris, author of the New York Times best seller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. His book won the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. The reader detects less anger and rage in his writing than in Hitchens'.
Harris states in the book Letter to a Christian Nation, a response to the correspondence he received after The End of Faith, “The Christian I address throughout is a Christian in a narrow sense of the term. Such a person believes at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death…Surveys suggest that well over half of the American population subscribes to these beliefs.” He continues in his book, “I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretentions of Christianity in its most committed forms….liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves. (But,)They should recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors.” He admits the liberals and moderates may find the Christian Right as troubling as he does. But, he contends, even “the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.” Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are associates and quote each other.
Hitchens presents his major “four irreducible objections to religious faith: (1) It wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; (2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, (3) that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and (4) that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” Hitchens states that religion is man-made and calls this the “mildest and also the most radical and devastating criticism” of it.
In response to Hitchens four irrefutable objections to religious faith, first with the statement that theology misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, he is using the platform of one extreme to justify his claim for the other extreme. To quote theologian Dr. Thomas Shepherd, “Beyond the shrinking fundamentalist fringe, no reputable theologian takes Genesis literally. It… has been spiritualized to mean ‘God created everything' without the crude mechanics of mud-scooping and rib-snatching to bring about man and woman.” Except for an admittedly loud and visible extreme (again), modern theology views the Bible and other early texts to be mythological explanations for questions as old as humankind. Dr. Shepherd continues, “Revolutions in Christian thought are barely beginning to seep down…to the people in the pews.” He continues quoting “Rudolf Bultmann, who insisted we must ‘demythologize' the biblical message of its pre-scientific worldview; Paul Tillich, who said God does not ‘exist' but is the very Power of existence itself”  and other twentieth century theologians.
Hitchens' second contention hinges on the first, claiming that the literal interpretation of the Bible makes followers servile and self-absorbed, as though they and their belief system is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing that exists. Shepherd also speaks to this complaint in his discussion of how ridiculous it is to think of Jesus as the only way shower or teacher when one views Christology from a Galactic perspective. He says, “If the divinity of Jesus is taken as typical rather than unique, which is the position virtually all Metaphysical Christian teachers have advocated, then it does not matter whether the person is a human being or an alien life form, he/she/it will possess the Christ-within.”
“Christ” here is the higher self, the evolved self, the Divinity in Man. Butterworth says it this way, “If you can find the consciousness of your spiritual unity with the Infinite and with your fellow man, and if you can become established in the conviction of the Divinity of Man, (discover the Christ within) you will become an intuitively guided and effective instrument for social and political action within the framework of your interests, abilities and responsibilities.” This is not about giving one's power away; this is about becoming powerful beyond imagination. It is about self-discovery. Butterworth says, “All discovery is self-discovery and all knowledge is self-knowledge.” This is not talking about egotistic self absorption (solipsism) but about developing our minds and emotions to raise the consciousness of humanity.
Hitchens denounces scripture and says, “Literature…sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful.” There is no argument that the Bible and its intention has not been misused and abused by many theologians and their followers. Those who are self-serving and power hungry will prey upon the innocent and ignorant by any means at their disposal. TV evangelists preaching heaven or hell do not represent mainline Christian thinkers. Universalism is the dominant position of mainline Protestant and liberal Catholic thinkers today. There is no hell.
Hitchens' third reason why religious faith should be abandoned today is that it is both the result and cause of dangerous sexual repression. Throughout Hitchens' book he lists the terrible atrocities perpetrated since ancient times upon people in the name of religion. These atrocities from Joshua to 9/11, from immeasurable rape, child abuse, torturing and other hideous acts are detailed in Hitchens' book, all done in the name of God; withholding medical treatment and immunization, and prophylactics in the name of God. Since ancient times there have been untold murders committed in the name of God. He lists behavior that would turn any decent person's stomach done in the name of the perpetrators' religious faith. “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always problematic and very often hostile…Religion continues to pose an urgent threat to public health.”
Harris says it this way, “Christians …expend more ‘moral' energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide…are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research…preach against condom use in Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.” Both Harris and Hitchens fault the entire world community of religious faith in their declaration.
These actions speak to mans' inhumanity to man and ignorance, blatant ignorance. Atrocities since the beginning of time with sacrificing virgins on an altar, to today with killing a doctor who does legal abortions, are the actions of people who profess their religious affiliation and divine guidance in their inhumanity, insanity, and misunderstanding. Sexual repression in a religious context, in the eyes of the Hitchens, feeds the mania that produces and justifies the perpetrators' actions. However, sexual offenders and sexual predators are rampant in our society, a growing population, motivated by anger, power seeking, disrespect for life, and spurred on by the ease today of stalking and securing victims with modern technology. The reasons are multitudinous and not particularly religious.
Those who perpetrate atrocities in the name of religion should be prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law. Neither religion nor government nor any other office or profession should be given a free pass to commit dehumanizing and criminal acts. This requires a cultural shift in thinking and social change in values.
Butterworth says, “The Christian church has preached about the saving of society, but Jesus called for a society of saviors. You must be a savior….Seek the expansion of consciousness.” There is no argument that can justify human beings outrageous, unconscionable ignorant treatment of other human beings. But it is an inside job. Each person must be of good conscience and live by the highest ideals. Religion, if properly directed, can provide a valuable roadmap.
Hitchens' fourth reason why religion should be abandoned in preference of science is that religion is “wish-thinking and a man-made” concept. He says, “As in all cases, the findings of science are far more awe-inspiring than the ranting of the godly. The history of the cosmos begins, if we use the word ‘time' to mean anything at all, about twelve billion years ago. (If we use the word ‘time' wrongly, we shall end up with the infantile computation of the celebrated Archbishop James Ussher of
“Organized religion ought to have a lot on its conscience,” Hitchens proclaims, “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” So, for Hitchens it is clear, religion is responsible for all or nearly all the problems and evil behavior in the world. The argument continues, Church “evidence and …proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments and miracles. Now that religion's monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.”
Perhaps he has a large constituency since god is not Great has been on the New York Times best seller list for several weeks. At least, many people are buying and reading the book. Perhaps asking themselves some variation on the question, Does Religion Still Matter?
Hitchens has a favorite phrase that he repeats throughout his book. It is “squaring the circle” a reference to making things fit or work. As a professional journalist, an intellectual and a man with an obvious depth of life experience, I think he easily accuses others of something which he is adept at, “squaring the circle.”
Shepherd writes, “Science and education as the answer? The Nazi's flourished in
Today the imperfectability of humankind has become a wide spread viewpoint across society and in theology. “Negativism is so pervasive that if news people announce an encouraging statistic they feel compelled to drain the optimism from their report in the name of balanced reporting.” Current society is fascinated by end-time mind games.
The book god is not Great is pure pessimism. And it has stirred a great deal of interest because many in society today feed on pessimism, fear mongering, and titillation. Idealism stands in contrast to pessimism in our society and our world.
Metaphysical Christianity holds the high watch for optimism in the world today. It presents positive Christianity which focuses on useful tools for living healthy lives, developing healthy relationships, and promoting healthy practices. Guilt and shame are not used to coerce people. Sin is not a bargaining chip, but rather a mistake inviting a do-over, and do-better next time. Heaven and hell (as radical churches envision) are non-relevant, non-negotiable, non-existing concepts in Metaphysical Christianity. Butterworth says, “Heaven comes from the Greek word for ‘expanding.' It refers to the principle of expansion. Life is a limitless experience in an expanding Universe. (And) heaven is…the upper level of man's total consciousness.” The optimistic view focuses on raising the consciousness of humankind to a level where all people everywhere are equally cared for and valued. Butterworth says, “In the cosmic perception of the Divinity of Humankind, I am my brother and my brother is me.” It is said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The truly evolved human being realizes that the world is not what we might want it to be, but it is essential for us to hold the image of the highest ideal. It is the only way we can ever improve conditions. We need to remember our spiritual selves, remember our humanity and function adequately in the world at the same time.
Hitchens struggles with what Shepherd calls the Human vs. Divine Paradox. The question is: are human beings miserable wretches or are human beings Divine, each with a spark of the Divine within? George Washington referred to it as “that little Spark of Celestial Fire that a man may desecrate but never quite lose.” Shepherd says, “Metaphysical Theology…offers a compromise…Those who stand in the idealist tradition believe in the perfectibility of men and women, not because we blind ourselves to the atrocities humans have visited upon their brothers and sisters, but because, to paraphrase a popular epigram, God isn't finished with us yet.” 
Certainly this struggle is common in our society and our generation. There are millions of people wounded and disillusioned by the faith of their youth, the religious teachings of cruel, ignorant or mislead people – doing this “for your own good” or “to save you” or simply “because I want to.” In the name of religion mountains of guilt and shame have been laid upon people's backs, burying them in confusion and anger. It is natural and healthy for a debate such as this to transpire. In this regard atheists and the evangelical movement are in accord. They both want to eliminate the other. They both declare that their way is the only “right” way to be. Hitchens actually says as much in the opening paragraph of his book, to paraphrase, if you disagree with me you are part of the problem. It is good for people to ask the question: Does Religion Still Matter?
Religion used to be about providing people with answers to the universal questions, like where did we come from? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with our lives? And so forth. Today Metaphysical Theology, in particular, is all about asking questions. A good definition of theology comes from Dr. Shepherd: Theology is “organized, rational reflection on ideas and practices pertaining to the Divine, God and Ultimate Concerns, evaluated from within the boundaries of a chosen circle of faith.” With reflection and evaluation, people are encouraged to find their own answers. The answers come from living with and processing the questions. As stated before, it's an inside job. If one has chosen a Metaphysical Christian church or study group, one has chosen a venue for introspection, growth and personal responsibility for one's own beliefs and actions. Gone are the days when the priest or pastor will tell you what you must believe or do if you go to a Metaphysical Christian church or center, as many call themselves. The concept of church is being reinvented to meet the needs of people and the times.
Hitchens and Harris are not from within the boundaries of a chosen circle of faith, although they both originated there, as Hitchens, self professed “Protestant atheist” declares. Both men through their lives, marriages and friendships have broad experience with diverse religions. The questions they pose are aimed right at the very existence of all organized circles of faith. Both state unequivocally that religion, as it is known historically, is unhealthy for people and the world and should be eliminated from our society. It reminds one of the old cliché about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Hitchens and Harris might do better to see religion in the context of history, rather than
seeing history in the context of religion. Human beings at particular points in their evolution have performed spiritual practices consistent with their understanding at the time. The same must be said of scientists and medical practitioners and…plumbers. There are countless anonymous innovators, some evidenced in mythology, and a few notable individuals from recorded history who stand out for increasing the body of human knowledge. When more enlightened understanding evolves, change occurs and people as a culture act as though it should have been that way all along. An obvious example of this is when human beings realized that sacrificing a sheep was as acceptable to god as sacrificing a human being. Hitchens and Harris only acknowledge the “sacrifice” not seeing the consciousness shift in this example. And they don't recognize that this behavior initially grew out of humankind's primitive understanding of and attempt to manipulate their destiny. For example, hunting mastodon, someone in the tribe always gets mortally wounded. Perhaps if we give the mastodon (spirit) a less valuable member of the tribe first, it will let our best hunters survive, the idea of a life for a life. Hitchens would say that this is early religion, but it grew out of the observation of people sitting around the fire eating mastodon and grieving the loss of their best hunter. They asked questions and hypothesized answers as best they could. In typical human fashion, to do something was better than to do nothing. Their solution initiated a change and perhaps their skills or tools improved, perhaps only their attitude improved as they “felt” safer going out on the next hunt. (A parallel discussion could be made with the concept of Atonement, human beings trying to explain and make sense of the unexplainable.) Most in our society would agree that we no longer need a sacrifice to be made for us, whether it be a virgin, a sheep – or, as a Metaphysical Christian would say, a man named Jesus.
Those people in our society today who still proclaim “an eye for an eye” are at the same consciousness level as the mastodon hunter. But, at the time “an eye for an eye” was introduced into society, it was an advance over the behavior of one tribe killing everyone in another tribe for the wrong of one of its members.
Consciousness in humankind is like the warp thread in a fabric that is being woven. It is built on previous advances in understanding, yet cannot stand without that which went before. Sam Harris offers valuable insight into that which will lead to the next step in the evolution of consciousness.
Harris says, “One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.” 
The community of Metaphysical Christians agrees with Sam Harris' statement, except that there is nothing wrong with according respect to religious faith. Being other than respectful in the debate makes each side equally rude. It is the manipulative, harmful, proselytizing organizations who promote ignorance and blind faith who need to grow into the twenty-first century and into the next step in consciousness. The Evangelical movement should give other belief systems the same respect and freedom of belief that they enjoy. It would serve humanity and our national intention if they would realize that people have a right to their own individual spiritual paths. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Beware of the man of one book.”
One of the things many self professed atheists overlook is the deep relationship between the spiritual and scientific. What Butterworth referred to as the amazing observation that both quests have deep spiritual connection. Numerous scientists have made statements like Albert Einstein's, “Science without religion is lame, religion with out science is blind.”
History is full of great thinkers and scientists whose contributions to the knowledge base of society might not have occurred had they not had the influence of the church in their lives. Hitchens would argue that they were persecuted by the church, perhaps even executed, but biological and psychological sciences of today have shown the environment and experiences necessary to develop an agile brain. “It was the Christian worldview that provided the environment for modern science to emerge…Belief in one God led people to expect a uniformity in nature, with the underlying laws of nature remaining the same in time and space. A universe that was capricious and irregular could not be systematically studied…The historian Herbert Butterfield stated that ‘science is a child of Christian thought.'”  It can be argued that without the church, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Pasteur, Kelvin, Huygens, Kant, Emerson, Switzer, Einstein and just about every other great philosopher, inventor or scientist might not have developed the mind to do their work. These incredible minds and great thinkers are known as sublimated theists. They produced the foundation of knowledge that has so enriched our world from within the influence of their spiritual understanding.
If you were around in the 1960's perhaps initially reading the title, Does Religion Still Matter? brought to mind the TIME Magazine cover of April 8, 1966 – Is God Dead? In TIME there actually was a decent sized article on the topic, “a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence.” A discussion of Nietzsche's thesis ensues since he initially coined the phrase. Then Kierkegaard is quoted warning that “the day when Christianity and the world become friends, Christianity is done away with.” The article goes on to quote Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote prophetically from his Nazi prison cell, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all.”
According to the National Study of Youth and Religion studying the same young people over an eight year period of time their belief in God fell seven percent. For the same group of young people, those who describe themselves as “not religious” dropped to 27 percent. Growing hostility toward religion was determined in one out of ten young adults.
It should not be surprising then that a growing new club being found on college campuses is the Atheist and Agnostic Society, affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance. Universities are now offering humanist chaplains to support students. With the popularity of a number of anti-religion books published recently, including the books of Hitchens and Harris, atheism has a growing following.
When queried about what they believe, students like Andrew Severin reply I'm a “spiritual atheist” not believing in God, but thinking that meditation and nature experiences can produce biochemical reactions that feel spiritual. Others say they believe in God, just don't want to have anything to do with religion. Many say, “I'm spiritual, just not religious.” Student atheists stress that their goal is to obtain inner peace and do random acts of kindness, believe in the sciences, logic and reason.
Eric Butterworth summarizes the thought by saying, “There is a unity of all life, a transcendent oneness of all people. Beyond the chaos of separation and conflict and disunity there is a cosmos of love and understanding…problems will only be solved when we… deal with whole people.”
Shepherd says, “Human beings are irrevocably religious. They will deal with the great questions and find the answers which permit them to live in a stable mental/emotional worldview.” We have an innate spiritual nature, a driving need to grow, develop, express and express our spiritual selves.
The AARP article that originally stated the question, Does Religion Still Matter? is a cheery graphic with statistics on sunbeams. It says that among 18 to 29 year olds 44% of the population claim religion is important in their lives. Among 30 to 49 year olds it is 54%. With 50 to 64 year olds the figure is 61%. With 65 to 74 year olds the figure is 62%. And finally, the population of seniors 75 years and older say that religion is very important in their life. The article also says that “people who worship regularly follow a healthier lifestyle and share a life-lengthening network…A third of those over 65 said that religion became more important over the course of their lives.”
The only conclusion to be drawn at this time is that to many people, religion still matters. But the whole concept of what religion is to and for people in our society is shifting. This shift did not just begin with the publication of the current wave of atheistic inspired books; it is an ongoing examination and growing awareness of responsibility and ability in our own lives. The consciousness of people is expanding so that coming generations may create an entirely new and unrecognizable network for spiritual growth and interaction. As Metaphysical Christianity demonstrates, what is considered religion today is vastly different from the religious faiths of our grandfathers and before. It has been said that the purpose of religion is to make itself progressively unnecessary. This idea was perhaps foreshadowed in the ancient words of the prophet Jeremiah 31: 33-34
33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of
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