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Trends in Faith

The National Council of Churches' 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reports the longstanding trend of growth in conservative churches (Catholic, Mormon, Assembly of God, Jehovah's Witness) and decline in liberal churches (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Church of Christ). Every pro-life, pro-marriage church saw member increases, whereas, as Bill Donohue quips, "those religions whose teaching on abortion and marriage approximate the views of the New York Times and NPR are in free fall."

I'm sure prodigal liberal churchgoers are swelling the ranks of "spiritual but not religious" self-identifiers and non-attending non-denominationalists. The moral relativism, progressive policies and multicultural sentiments of liberals put them at odds with the theology and culture of religion. It makes more sense for them to discard religion than to search for a mildly inoffensive brand thereof. The lingering human appetite for spirituality in these would-be atheists explains the modern rise in counterfeit religious substitutes. Psychotherapy replaces confession, social networking replaces parochial community and spiritualism replaces faith.

Faith and reason are mutually complimentary and reinforcing. Liberalism within the context of faith is unreasonable, and hence unsustainable. Conservatism is naturally more compatible with faith, and the trends reported today are likely to continue ad infinitum.

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Discussions - 23 Comments

Shorter version: Jesus plays for the Conservative Team, and the Conservative Team is, naturally, winning.

I think you have that backwards, Craig. The study shows that conservatives are inclined to be on the Jesus team. It is an article of their faith that His team is, naturally and inevitably, winning.

"Faith and reason are mutually complimentary and reinforcing."

Maybe you should tell that to Strauss, Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Cohen, and everyone else who thinks that faith is faith because one cannot rely on unassisted reason to be the guide.

The simple fact is that Justin is absolutely right on these trends - that "conservative" denominations are generally doing very well and more "liberal" ones are losing those lukewarm followers who depart from the orthodoxy. And, yes, conservatives - or much more accurately, the "orthodox" - are cheering this trend because they are preserving the doctrines, beliefs, and orthodoxy of their denominations. The rebels against orthodoxy, accelerating in the 1960s, though certainly existing before that, are going away as they frustratedly see that (for example) the Catholic Church is not changing their views as was mistakenly hoped after Vatican II. Although we would like to see them stay and understand the reasoning for doctrine and abide by it, they are free to go and practice more "tolerant" and multicultural Buddhism, unitarianism, druidism, or reading the NY Times cover to cover on Sunday morning. Although some members may be lost, others are drawn to the sense of strong belief and orthodoxy that provides meaning, purpose, and belief. Many are drawn to the rigorous demands that truly liberate rather than the feel-good liberal denominations.

Tony: I'm not denying any of that. Just pointing out how miraculous Justin's last paragraph is.

Owl, I was just responding to Justin generally, not specifically to you (or that other one).

I disagree that faith and reason are naturally complimentary and reinforcing. Indeed, they are polar opposites most of the time. Nonetheless, faith is valuable BECAUSE of its a-rational certitude and solid base of assumptions about the world. It's one of the better social glues, and prevents an enormous range of anti-social behaviors. It also answers a range of deep human needs that pure reason never could.

So I'm a fan of religion, but let's not conflate it with reason. Theism/religion is powerful precisely because it is not confined by empiricism and logic, but answers some of our transcendent needs. In short, faith doesn't have to be true to be useful, whereas reason must seek truth (as revealed by observation and logic) whatever the cost.

Faith has its own reason. What is reasonable with the premise that God exists is different than what is reasonable if there is no God. The premise makes all the difference with logic. One of those premises is true and the other is false. Yet based on other premise, people can live reasonable lives. "Faith doesn't have to be true to be useful" is incorrect. Faith that is not true is delusion.

Religion does not have be based on faith to be useful. Faith and religion are not the same thing. Part of the point of that post up there is that a given religion can be jettisoned by either the faithful or those with little or no faith. I know people with little or no faith who enjoy their denominational churches very much for the social structure and the stability those churches offer through religion. Yet those people bring all sorts of nonsense into the church because of that different premise about the essential truth of the universe. That nonsense drives out those who base their logic on the premise that God is who he says he is.

The result is that those who have faith find those churches for which faith is option, but not essential, to be hypocritical and absurd. They seek out other people of faith whose premise, that God is and is who he says he is, builds a logic and reason they can embrace. Hence the growth of conservative churches, conservative because they think faith requires God.

There is no accounting in that report as shown of churches like mine, that have no denominational label. I know of dozens of churches like that in my area alone. We are orthodox in basic doctrine, but part of no national structure. My church is part of an unorganized religion; we are only bound by faith and fellowship. If there is no God, that makes no sense. If there is a God we are following a Biblical pattern that makes perfect sense. We are bound by something immaterial, supernatural and greater than ourselves.

In fact, logic and reason demand the acknowledgment that God is there and He is not silent. That otherwise intelligent people continue not to do so is because of denial, the same denial that Adam and Eve displayed when they tried to hide from God, even tho they knew He is omniscient and omnipresent. It's the same as someone with whom you are having a conversation closing his eyes and putting fingers in ears and saying, "I can't see you! I can't hear you!". It is an inarguable fact that existence as we know it is impossible without God. The cosmologic, ontologic, and moral arguments demonstrating that are iron-clad, notwithstanding any particular human being's denial of them.

Faith is not belief. Faith is the trust that we put in Jesus to have done what He said He has done for us. "The devils believe...and tremble" as it says in the Bible. But they don't have faith. It is logical to put our faith in Jesus, knowing what we know, and should acknowledge to be true, about Him.

Finally, the article's list of 'conservative' churches might could use a little 'tweaking'. The Presbyterian Church USA might be lib, but the (slightly smaller) Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) is very conservative. The Episcopal church might be lib, but the Anglican church worldwide often is not. And don't forget the Southern Baptists; many congregations are very conservative.

But reason relies on certainty. The faithful way of life is best because it is hardest. It doesn't take me one iota of faith to believe that 2+2=4.

Doc, James is not really distinguishing between reason and faith. He's distinguishing between faith and works. One does the works he does because he has faith. If he has faith but doesn't do works, he is like the devils.

Reason is the standard which is used by philosophy, i.e., by heretics who try to intellect the world without God's guidance.

Ah Owl, thou wise one; what would make you say that? What reason wouldst thou give? Nope, sorry, reason is part of the nature God gave us. It is darkened, to be sure; but by God's grace He lifts the veil from those towards whom He has mercy so that they can see clearly enough to acknowledge that He is there. 'Come let us reason together'. 'Paul reasoned with the Jews, proving from Scripture that Jesus is the Christ.' I'm afraid you'll have difficulty giving me a good reason not to use reason.

Doc, didn't Adam and Eve fall because they gained knowledge of good and evil? And isn't the "universal language" (Genesis 11:1) mathematics?

The term "nature" is conspicuously absent from the Old Testament. There can't be a set of rules governing the world if God will do what He will do. We can't observe, for example, a natural rule that says the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night if God can make it stay up for 6 straight days at His will (Josua 10:13). God is the proclaimed logos (John 1:1), but how much man shares in that with God is debatable.

We are made in God's image (Genesis 2:27) but I'm not sure that that simply means that we are fundamentally rational. For surely God is more than a thinking being.

I don't really appreciate being pejoratively called "thou wise one" either, Doc. Just because we disagree doesn't mean you get to be a jerk.

I note in passing that you quote Isaiah 1:18 ('Come let us reason together') but ignore Isaiah 6:9: "Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not."

Fear of the Lord, not reason, is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).

I don't know, Doc, about people being in denial about a God they naturally know. Before I knew God, I didn't know him. I really didn't. Isn't that the whole point of revelation? To know what you didn't know before?

Faith is a revelation we get to have by the grace of God. Isn't it a gift? I don't see how we denounce or blame anyone if faith is a gift we get to have and they don't get to have it. I don't know about you, but I am not naturally good and thereby a naturally suitable recipient of the grace of faith. I did not go looking for it, either, and sometimes I have found my faith inconvenient and uncomfortable. If it was just belief, I'd have shuffled it off, but I can no more deny knowing God than I can deny knowing myself. Not any more. Not after thirty-five years of a relationship. It doesn't matter if I can't explain it. I live it.

O of M, two of what plus two of what makes four of what? On either side of faith the mathematics is the same, but what is added is different. Logic is a thought structure and a tool of reason. How I reason about things is different on this side of faith than it was on the other, but I still reason. What is reasonable and what is not reasonable is different if you presume God is or presume God isn't. If God is, there are rules and patterns for life and natural law has a founder greater than man and therefore truly is of Nature and of the nature of things. If God isn't, then everything is my choice and good is what I say it is.

But, no, we don't think like God thinks and we aren't of the same stuff as he is, though we must be something like and mathematics and logic must relate to how God thinks, somehow. So things that are mysterious and miraculous to us maybe aren't to him. Why should they be?

Kate,

I especially like your sentence, "What is reasonable and what is not reasonable is different if you presume God is or presume God isn't."

I guess the point of my posting was to jar some of the contributors here out of their cozy, not to say lazy, ideas about how faith and reason easily reconcile and all the riddles on earth are solved.

What I meant with my 2+2=4 example is that I can use the faculty of reason to affirm mathematics. I'm not sure that I can do the same with God. The only things I can *know* about God are those He reveals in Scripture. And even then, it does require a good amount of *faith.*

You say that what is reasonable depends upon what presumption you are making. I guess that is the thing -- we are working with presumptions here, not absolutely provable facts. If God was absolutely provable nobody would need faith.

I may be speaking from a more Jewish point of view. If you bring in the New Testament, more support can be marshaled on behalf of reason. BUT that does not mean everything. The "role-models" of the Christian faith are saint -- not philosophers.

Both saints and philosophers are human and have the same human faculties. Among those are reason.

And faithful Jews are not unreasonable, are they?

I was thinking about what you said about the word "nature" in the OT. Was there such a word that would translate into English? I was thinking about the debate over whether language forms us or we form language. I am not just talking about the lack of vowels and separation between words that had to make early translation so difficult. Hebrew scripture must have had to be learned in an oral tradition; could anyone understand what was written without knowing what was there?

What I mean is, If the Jews had no word for "nature" in the way the Greeks used it, did the lack of the word mean a lack of thinking about the concept? Or did they just not think that way and therefore had no such word? I don't know and may be extrapolating too much from what you wrote.

There is some truth to the notion that the premise (God/No God) makes an enormous difference in the operation of reason, but the difference is that such a premise is not open to objective critique. As I said before, this is what makes faith (or religion) valuable by providing a bedrock of authority. Yet this excludes it from being "reasonable." That which cannot be examined via logic and empirical observation is, by definition, beyond/above the realm of reason.

Now, of course, you could argue that God-augmented "reason" is superior to raw (I'll believe it when I see it) reason, but I doubt you can demonstrate that. The peoples of the world have a plethora of religious views, and yet they manage because, very occasionally, they employ plain old reason to their affairs. The fact is, you don't need a theological starting point to make reason valuable.

But I am arguing against rather than to the choir here. I learned long ago (and somehow keep forgetting) that people just aren't reasonable when their cardinal values (such as faith in divinity) are on the line. My bad.

Redwald, I don't really disagree, see above. I say that reason is a tool. Not everyone, neither those of faith nor those without faith, use the tool or use it all the time.

Can you agree that atheism or agnosticism or humanism of any variety is capable of un-reason, even drawn from their "cardinal values" or principles or premises?

Kate, what I meant was this: sure, both saints and philosophers are human beings with the same faculties, but have they developed the same ones to the same extent? Isn't there in both a distinct form of excellence -- though excellence nonetheless?

Justin, we wandered away from your post. I am not altogether sorry, but am sorry enough to need to say so.

O of M, to your first question, it depends on the saint and on the philosopher. Yes, but that raises the question, what is the standard?

Beautiful conversation, Kate. Happy to have been a part of it.

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