A fresh wind is blowing through church steeples and minarets. It's got the archbishops, pastors, rabbis and imams of Old Time Religion in a reactionary rage. And no wonder. As Bob Dylan sang a generation ago, it'll soon shake their windows and rattle their walls, for the times they are a-changin'.
I'm speaking of the wind of freedom, the kind that howls when ordinary people break free of the ancient, oppressive, us-against-them, woman-despising theologies heaped upon them for so many centuries. The trend of liberation holds great promise, but it's also dangerous as all hell. Here's why.
Christianity remains America's largest religion, but membership has fallen to about 80 percent of the population. Among those who remain, less than half attend church regularly. It's not for lack of room: of the 225 seats in the average American church, only 105 are filled each week. A similar situation faces American Judaism. Astoundingly, a majority of American Jews are now nonbelievers.
The departed souls are wandering into all sorts of fresh territory, from angry atheism to anxious agnosticism to disaffiliated believers to the merely apathetic. Taken together, the "Nones" form the second-largest "faith" group in America. At 16 percent, they have nearly four times the numbers of all other religions put together.
But those who have broken with the old regime are unorganized, unfocused and fractious -- not to say ideologically fratricidal. A loss of belief in the authority and credibility of religious institutions seems to be the primary motivation for leaving. What the new "Nones," along with the religious liberals and tolerant Mainstreamers, fail to recognize is that they need new allies and goals, or they will soon lose much of their hard-won freedom.
How bad is it? Mainline churches such as the United Methodists have become deeply disunited over gay marriage, liberal religion has its internal squabbles over varying shades of political correctness toward Islam, and the New Atheists have decided to make any and all religion their sworn enemy.
"Perhaps you're a moderate, you support good science, education, and the environment, you just love Jesus or Mohammed, too," writes biologist and atheist blogger P.Z. Myers. "I'm sorry, but I don't like you."
There's not much of the ancient wisdom of the Middle East that speaks to modern times, but one old saw surely rings true today: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Nevertheless, arrogance, self-congratulation, and self-induced idiocy continue to fracture the secular and religious left.
Meantime, as those who have a, um, vested interest in Old Time Religion grow more desperate to preserve their power, they are making unholy alliances to tear at every stitch of progress made in the last 50 years. I do not exaggerate when I say the entire fabric of our society is at risk.
Despite the efforts of the GOP to put a few black faces before the cameras, racism has had a big resurgence on the right. After President Obama's election, UCLA research psychologist Eric Knowles did careful work to bring it to light.
Today, he wouldn't have to. Race-baiting comes through loud and clear in the right's election rhetoric. You may believe that Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) just accidentally called President Obama a "tar baby," but it's not just the big guns that are doing it, and it's not just Obama who is targeted. Think of the savage stereotyping of Trevon Martin in the last weeks.
And it's not just in the media. As I was driving home from work recently, I came to a stoplight behind a muscular SUV that had an Obama 2012 bumper sticker on its rear hatch. Oh, I thought, that's surprising. Then I saw the homemade sticker under it. "Got Rope?" it said. No longer merely surprised, I was stunned. Really? Lynching? We're gonna bring back lynching?
Well, it would fit with the tenor of the times. Meantime, the simply mind-boggling assault on women's rights continues apace. We're not just talking about Rush's rants or the right to choose embodied in Roe v. Wade -- crucial though that is.
We're talking about bills to mandate shoving instruments into women's bodies against their will if they attempt to exercise that right. We're talking about the conservative men on the Supreme Court banding together to give states the power to discriminate against those who take family leave. We're talking about the Vatican slapping down American nuns for having the temerity to support healthcare reform and to support gender equity. And, if you've been out of the country for awhile, brace yourself; you're not going to believe this one, but, yes, we're talking about women being forced to the back of the bus in New York City!
We haven't even mentioned Islam's treatment of women. Well, Islam is going to get a free pass today. Not because it doesn't include some the worst, vilest reactionaries in the world -- it does -- but because we all know of them. Instead, I want to talk about what unites, or rather should unite, people of good faith who stand outside the shadow of Old Time Religion.
Can it be done? Do mainstream Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists and assorted others have enough common ground to stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of a reasonable and compassionate society? In my short new book, "Free God Now! How to Liberate Yourself from Old Time Religion & Just Maybe Save the World," I make the case that we do.
If you lived through 9/11, you may doubt that. You may think, "Christians and Jews, yeah; Jews and atheists, sure; but Islam? It just won't work." In the dreadful days after 9/11, historian Bernard Lewis, an elder statesman among Middle East specialists, published an gloomy book whose title alone tells its story: "What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East." (Full disclosure: my father, Thomas Naff, also a Middle East historian, was a graduate student under Lewis long years ago.)
But in the decade since, Christianity, Judaism and, yes, Islam, have all undergone rapid evolution. As in life, they have experienced the kind of branching that leads to speciation. On the liberal branch, Muslims are striding toward the same kinds of humane values held by Christians, Jews and nonbelievers. I see this for myself every day in the people I work with. But don't take my word for it.
In his book "Islam and Liberal Citizenship," the rising young political scientist Andrew March, while noting that on its face liberal, secular society appears contrary to Islam, goes on to write that for liberal Muslims what's important is not the specifics of sharia, but rather that the Quran demands "a general attitude of treating all persons (including non-Muslims) with 'justice' or 'equity' ... What is crucial about this approach [which I take to be characteristic of a generally held Islamic attitude] is that the recognition of the rights of non-Muslims in a given country is not based merely on a specific promise or contract but rather on a general, divinely ordained attitude of recognition and respect for the dignity of the other."
The real divide today is not between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East, but between the reactionary forces of Old Time Religion and the rest of us. If we don't see that in time, in November we will have our second straight historic election -- but this time it will be for all the wrong reasons. People of good faith, we have just a few months to recognize, rally and unite. This, I have faith we can do.