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Atheism is on the rise in America. The recently published American Religious Identification Survey reported that people claiming to have no religion now total 15 percent of the population, nearly double the 1990 survey. Then there was Newsweek's recent dark and brooding cover story, "The decline and fall of Christian America."
Some people think that recent tracts by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other rabid religion haters have been responsible for this trend. But most readers see them for what they are - high priests of a new faith called atheism, as closed-minded and doctrinaire as the most fundamentalist religious extremists, with Dawkins going so far as to suggest that governments prohibit parents from teaching their children religion because it constitutes a form of abuse. No discerning reader is going to take such biased bunkum seriously.
It is even less likely that the rise of science is killing off religion, since science still cannot account for the nearly infinite complexity of organic life. Genetic mutation accompanied by natural selection is still no match for the sheer mathematical improbability of higher organisms ever emerging from random events.
RATHER, TO understand the decline of faith we religious people must look to ourselves. People come to religion to escape the suffocating materialism and shallow egocentricity of the secular world. But what happens if, when they get there, they discover that religious people are no better than the rest of the population? Presumably, they'll feel ripped off.
The vast majority of my Christian brothers and sisters devote their lives to church, charity and chastity. Catholics and Evangelicals field an army of faith-soldiers which spans the globe building hospitals, treating lepers and raising orphans. But an increasingly vocal minority waste their time on gay bashing, calling Barack Obama the anti-Christ, and attributing every tragedy in America to divine punishment over the "holocaust" of abortion. They end up discrediting a great faith.
I debate some of these people on the airwaves and am amazed at how friendly, sane and rational they are in the green room compared to the inanity that comes out of their mouths the moment the camera goes on. Is it really necessary to publicly proclaim that anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus is going to hell? Will a statement like this play to his glory or his dishonor?
As far as Islam is concerned we need go no further than the most recent bizarre story coming out of Saudi Arabia, which featured an eight-year-old girl obtaining a divorce from her middle-aged husband to whom she was sold into marriage by her father for $13,000. The permissibility of such child abuse disgraces a great religion that has brought the knowledge and love of God to untold billions. And it goes without saying that Islamic clerics who call Jews monkeys and pigs are an equal abomination to a religion that historically treated Jews with far greater tolerance than Christianity. If I sat in a synagogue where my rabbi said something similar about Muslims, I would stand up, make it clear that such hatred perverts Judaism, and walk out.
WHICH IS NOT to say that we Jews have not contributed our share to turning people off religion. Sometimes even our most loving movement can spread intolerance. I am a proud and devoted disciple of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who reconnected more unaffiliated Jews with their people than any rabbi in modern history. Chabadniks continue that loving posture by living and dying in places that most Jews would scarcely visit, as the murder of Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg demonstrates.
But it recently came to my attention that a confidential Chabad Internet forum designed to assist its global emissaries was being used to libel fellow Jews and other rabbis. One Chabad emissary went so far as to write that a fellow rabbi's public appearances would "desecrate" Chabad institutions. While the Rebbe taught of the inherent holiness of every Jew (and indeed of every human being), some who would dare speak in his name now betray his memory by suggesting that Jews with whom they disagree "desecrate" a synagogue.
Proximity to God should breed within the heart of a believer a palpable humility that has him or her focusing on their own faults rather than that of God's other children. Finding virtue in our brethren where others find none is the very heart of religion. And if we religious people don't rediscover that pillar of faith, then the ranks of the those who see only hypocrisy in religion will continue to grow.
A unique obligation in this regard rests with our Christian brethren because they are America's dominant faith. Pat Robertson is a friend of mine, and has always welcomed me with courtesy and kindness. But I remember once practically pleading with him to issue a clarion call to all gay men and women in America to come to church and pray to God. Surely, I argued, God loves even those who do not always live in accordance with His will.
Joel Osteen inspires enormous audiences with an incredibly positive message. The other night I saw him fill the new Yankee stadium. But his sermon was principally about how belief in God will give you material blessings like a promotion at work. Indeed it will, but surely religion isn't designed to feed America's obsession with materialism but to offer a rich spiritual alternative.
Indeed, the greed that decimated the American economy bespeaks a country that, for all its public faith, suffers from an inner spiritual emptiness. When people are empty on the inside they try vainly to compensate with clothes, jewelry, money and fame on the outside.
America needs a religious renaissance now more than ever. It won't come about through what we religious people say, but primarily through what we do.
The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network. His newest best-seller is The Kosher Sutra (HarperOne). www.shmuley.com