Religion in Crisis


By Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Lynch

Presented at Biblioteca, August 6 and 13, 2009

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, Mexico


Religion today is in crisis. I am not talking about any one religion, as I am addressing religion in general. What I mean by crisis is that increasingly it is difficult for a thoughtful person of reason to be also a person of faith. I am sure what I have to say will offend some and please understand that is not my intension. Rather my intension is to raise what I believe are important questions about religion, which are uncomfortable and therefore often ignored rather than confronted directly.

Let me stress that I approach this subject as a person of faith, but I do believe the atheists of the world have strong arguments. People of faith need to consider their arguments and those of church reformers such as Episcopal Bishop Spong. Then, they need to reconsider their thoughts about religions based upon the crisis that is at hand. Episcopal Bishop Spong focused his critical observations only on the Christian church, but I believe many of his views apply to religion in general. He argues that Christianity is in crisis and we need to reassess our approach and understand it in light of that crisis.


Before I discuss the crisis, I am going to briefly review the evolution of religion and its functional roles in society using very broad strokes. For thousands of years in what scholars call pre-history, hunter gathers groups lived and worked together in family and tribal units that mutually supported and defended each other. Commonly, one or more in the group became the religious leader and that person or persons would specialize in caring for the sick, praying to what the group felt were superior beings to help them in the challenges of their lives, and taking charge of key social ceremonies such as becoming an adult, births, weddings, and deaths. Today, those religious leaders among indigenous peoples are often called shamans.

Probably about 7,000 years ago some of these hunter gathers groups settled near rivers and lakes and domesticated some animals and developed agriculture. This anchored them to one place and because of the success of agriculture their population and the density of that population grew. Eventually, the first small cities came into being. Typically, the political leader of these small cities would be closely allied with their religious leader. The political leader would require everyone in their group to worship as directed by the religious leader. In return, the religious leader or leaders politically supported the secular leader and in some cases the secular leader was also the supreme religious leader.

Thus, religion continued all the functions it had with hunter gathers but a new function was added. Essentially, the religious leaders helped the group to function as a cohesive people and nation. Religion became the glue or at least part of the glue that held the now larger group together under the leadership of the political leader. Often in such groups, the political leader was considered a god or a direct descendant of the gods. This added title gave the political leader even more credible authority over the society and placed him above any laws or rules the group might have. Many if not most political leaders of various peoples around the world used the concept of God to their political advantage. Clearly, this arrangement worked remarkably and still can be seen in the world today.

Because of the intellectual curiosity of human beings and the need to have concert answers to questions that were not easily answered, each religion developed their own myth stories to address the big questions of humankind such as where did we come from, how should we behave within our group, and what roles and behaviors are appropriate and not appropriate for us in our society. Religion was not only the glue for society but also the place where most of the big and often unanswerable questions were addressed before science came into existence.

In summary, the functionality of religion from its beginning was to provide a social means to celebrate and observe major times in our lives, provide medical assistance to the people, be the glue that helped political leaders maintain power and control a large group of people as a society, and answer the big questions that seemed beyond human understanding. Of course the rise of science and philosophy has greatly mitigated the last role, particularly medicine has changed some of the previous functions of religion. Nevertheless, to some extent those roles continue to this day.


To return to my theme, at some point in pre-history humans started believing that there was a god or a group of gods. This was the First Religious Awakening and it was vital to human evolution. With it, humankind was able to move from the hunter gather stage of social evolution to our complex modern civilization. At this point, my many atheist friends might say that my analysis might be correct but it does not prove that God exists or that religions should continue to exist. Let me stress that I am not trying to prove that God exists. However, I am trying to demonstrate that religion in the past was functional to human social evolution and that there are functional social roles for religions in the present and future. However, some of those roles urgently need to be updated given the realities of globalization and science. I will address that topic later.

Typically, an important role for the gods after the First Awakening was to be a higher power that could and would help them in their daily challenges such as making their spear fly straight so that the animal could be killed and the family would eat that night. As the First Awakening continued over thousands of years, humans evolved into what we call civilizations and another important role for god and the gods was added. Later, religion helped the secular leader hold the larger group together as a nation and an empire. Typically, the priest class created a myth structure that assisted the political leader with legitimacy and provided a set of rules in which society could better work as a political and social unit.


As populations and densities of peoples increased over time, a Second Religious Awakening occurred throughout the world. However, it did not in all circumstances replace or even modifying the First Awakening. Nevertheless, it was a significant change for many religions. As more city and nation states appeared, brutal wars and conflicts among peoples became more common, especially as humans discovered how to make better tools of war, such as stronger metals for their weapons.

To address this brutal aspect of humankind that focused on the ego desire to dominate others, key religious leaders in various places in the world reformed their religions to stress the value we commonly call the Golden Rule. That is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This value, using similar but not the exact wording, spread around the world until today it is found in almost all of the world’s religions. In some cases, religious leaders created whole new religions such as Buddhism and Christianity that stressed this value as central to their teachings. In other cases, older religions, such as Hinduism and Judaism, adopted this value and it can easily be seen in their teaching today.

This Second Religious Awakening also focused on the concept of Oneness. This religious reform changed our understanding of the deity from seeing God as an entity that lived some place else such as in the sky to seeing God in us and in all places at the same time. Thus, God was not in any one place but was everywhere. With the Second Awakening, instead of God being a big man with a beard that lived in the sky and threw thunder bolts down on people, God became a great mystery or unknown that humans could never totally understand because of the infinite nature of God.

The world’s religions did not adopt this Oneness aspect of the Second Awakening as much as the Golden Rule. Some religions, such as Christianity, had Oneness at its core in its beginning as can be seen in the New Testament, which quotes Jesus on the subject. However, soon after Jesus’ passing from the scene, the influence of the Roman and Jewish faiths prevailed. The new revised Christian faith adopted the first awakening belief that said that God existed in a place called Heaven. Other religions, such as Hinduism, strongly committed itself to this Oneness belief as it evolved over the centuries. Increasingly, as this reform came into being, their multiple gods melted into the Oneness and were redefined as really being just infinite aspects of the Oneness.

With the Second Awakening and its stress on Oneness, God continued to have the same major roles as before but a new role was added. Now, God also helped us as individuals grow spiritually, which included growing with spiritual wisdom and ethics. Thus, the role of religion changed to include teaching spirituality and ethics. In some religions such as Christianity, the Golden Rule with its ethical implications was stressed but the notion of Oneness with its stress on teaching spirituality was lost. In other religions such as Buddhism, the primary stress was on spirituality often using meditation as the means to grow the individual’s spirituality.

In summary, the Second Religious Awakening influenced the beliefs within each of the world’s religious traditions but not all the groups within each tradition incorporated either or both aspects of the Second Religious Awakening into their belief systems. There are segments of almost all religions (often called mystics) that have totally adopted the Second Awakening reforms. There are also segments (often called fundamentalists) that have maintained the First Awakening totally and have not accepted any of the Second Awakening reforms.

One interesting impact of the Golden Rule value is that it led some to challenge the very notion or existence of God. Many in this set of people prayed to God and asked God to save the life of an innocent loved one. Their heartfelt prayers were not answered affirmatively. Having embraced the values of the Golden Rule, they critically reasoned that a loving caring God could not let one or more individuals suffer needlessly. To them, such an indifferent God could not exist and in any case certainly should not be worshipped. Therefore, a belief in God was foolish.

For those people that embraced both the Golden Rule and Oneness aspects of the Second Awakening, the logical necessity for atheism was not so obvious. In fact, few from this segment of each religion reached the conclusion that God was dead. Their understanding of God, as being within them and outside them, brought them to understand suffering as something that is primarily a state of mind and that life should be merely considered as a long set of experiences that a wiser person uses to learn and grow. Even the so-called worst of experiences, such as a death camp, is merely an opportunity for a person to learn and grow spiritually. Thus, the fact that bad things happen to good people is not a reason to declare God dead but rather an opportunity to look deeper inside and search for how a person can positively learn and grow from the experience.

Because segments of almost all the major religions have embraced the Second Awakening reforms, there is a spectrum of beliefs in which some accept all the Second Awakening reforms and some accept none of them. Often, the segments that adopted all the second reforms are called mystics or spiritual. When asked if they are religious, they tend to answer that they are not so much “religious as they are spiritual.” When pressed to explain, many of them often say they dislike and even distrust organized religion.

Among the mystical or spiritual wing of religions, there is a remarkable parallel in their beliefs and values. For example, they each have a spiritual wisdom literature, which is remarkably similar to that parallel literature found in almost all other religions. The rituals tend to differ among the various mystical and spiritual wings, but they all tend to demonstrate joy and awe as they practice their rituals.

To me, each religion is merely an attempt to understand God from a particular set of perspectives that a cultural, political and social reality of various eras and places has influenced. For all religions, our very humanness, which we cannot escape, colors our attempt to understand God and spirituality. By looking at many religions and looking for what they have in common, I believe that someone can arrive at a clearer understanding of what it means to be a person of faith.

As an Interfaith Minister, I find this spiritual wing of each religion to be particularly interesting as this is where I find affirmation for my beliefs. For example, I believe that God loves all of us and there is not one religious path to what some call salvation. I believe that by looking at what religions have in common that one can better answer difficult religious questions or at least have a better insight into what the answer might be. In other words, I believe one is wiser to triangulate using many religions rather than trying to understand god using just one religion.


At this point, I am returning to my central theme of religion in crisis. Many very intelligent people argue that God is a human creation, meaning that God is merely a shared social concept that we project and is therefore an illusion. I do agree with them that much of what we say about God is a human creation, but nevertheless I also believe that God exists. I think that many of our misunderstanding and actions about or concerning God directly flow from those very same human creations. Thus, a better understanding of them will help us get past the illusions and help us become more spiritual persons.

My atheist friends point to the many religious traditions and stress how they differ significantly. From this, some conclude that God does not exist and religion is mere foolishness. In contrast, I point to the mystical and spiritual wing of all the faith traditions and note how they are remarkably similar. From this, I conclude that God does exist.

Some of my atheist friends argue that humankind can and should declare God dead by merely getting past our own created illusions. In contrast, I argue that just because many understandings of God are based on human imagination does not mean that God does not exist. The fact that humans have believed in God since pre-history tells me that many humans feel a need for God in their lives. Yes, I agree that some of religion consists of or is based on illusion, but nevertheless many aspects of religion are still quite functional to society, especially its spiritually uplifting aspect.

With increasing globalization and rapidly advancing scientific advances, some atheists challenge my argument for the functionality of religion. With globalization, they argue that the peoples of the world are experiencing a clash of cultures. For example, they note the Judo Christian Western culture is clashing with Islamic culture with the result of war and attacks on innocent civilians. Some in Islamic cultures perceive that Judo Christian Culture demands that all the peoples of the world must adopt some Western culture beliefs such as women’s rights and this would prohibits them from being good Muslims. In order to resist and push back, some elements of Islamic culture resort to violence.

Although I agree that some view this clash in cultures as a reason for violence, I think the clash is not as serious as they have decided. One of the core values of Western culture is freedom of religion and there exists in Western culture a large tolerance for the customs and religions of others. In addition, many in the Islamic religion note that their Holy Scriptures specifically teaches religious tolerance toward Jews and Christians. Of course there are limits to the tolerance of each religion, but there is reason to hope for peace and active cooperation among at least the more liberal and moderate segments of each of these religions in the world today.

Nevertheless, these culture clashes do inspire radical Islam, radical Christianity, radical Judaism, and radical Hinduism to violence against other religious groups. This is particularly true if there is not an established history of practicing tolerance among the groups. The result of such cultural clashes is hatred with each group easily rationalizing the use of violence, such as the use of bombs against civilian populations.

Those who make a globalization / culture clash argument note that religions may have been a uniting force in some circumstances in the past, but today religions are the major motivation for wars among peoples. To them, the fact that religions are based on faith becomes particularly important. They argue that “people of faith” follow their religious leaders without critical thought. If those leaders call for violence, then “people of faith” respond with violence against those of the other religion.

The answer to this globalization / clash of cultures is not putting down what atheists call the God illusion. Even if religion is the primary excuse for violence in the world, it is not realistic to think that religious groups will give up their religions and peace will then dominate the world. Since pre-history, some peoples wish to take advantage over others and they find some reasons to visit violence upon them. Religion is only one of the many excuses that some use to rationalize violence against others. If we had no religions, some would merely create other reasons to justify violence.

Religions, especially those that adopted the Second Religious Awakening, have and do play a positive role in fostering peace in the world. In fact, as has been noted here, their existence has permitted human society to evolve into increasing more complex groupings. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist and radical wings of each religion do not embrace the Second Awakening reforms and that remains the problem.

One contemporary example of religions being a social instrument for peace in the world is the Parliament of Religions. They meet every four years for the purpose of encouraging religious tolerance and understanding in the world. One of their efforts is to focus on the reality that there are many versions of ethics in the world today. This makes resolving disputes among groups in the world much more difficult. Their suggested reform is that the religions of the world needed to get behind a single global ethic and advocate its use in resolving conflicts in the world.

Another cause of crisis in religion is science. It tells us that our religious myths, which are cited in Holy Scriptures, are wrong. For the more literal fundamentalist religious people among us, science is an attack on their religion. For example, to them the creation story in the first book of the Old Testament (Torah) must be accurate because it is in the Bible. For them, teaching otherwise in public schools is an attack on God’s Holy Word.

A brief note of irony is the inconsistent use of science by many fundamentalists. Besides challenging literal interpretations of Holy Scriptures, science over time also creates more and more ways for people to kill others at an ever-increasing massive scale. Many of these fundamentalists fight against science when it challenges their myth stories but they quickly embrace the use of the more sophisticated weapon systems that science creates. One use of science is incorrect but another is correct. Their logic is difficult to understand.

Segments of religions that have not progressed beyond the First Religions Awakening have beliefs that often include a strong bias against the civil rights of women. For example, fundamentalists of all religions look at women as inferior to men because of their understanding of their Holy Scriptures. Some even believe that having women attend school is clearly an act against God.

Many of these same segments argue against teaching critical thinking in schools and universities. For example, in religious studies courses in college, professors use critical examination of religious texts and then point out the serious logical inconsistent that exists within and among the texts. To those that think Holy Scriptures cannot be in error, inconsistency is impossible; but yet it exists. For fundamentalist believers, the answer is to ignore critical thinkers, who dare point out the inconsistencies.

Globalization, science, and critical thinking are causing the current crisis in religion. Globalization, if done properly, should result in increasing the standard of living and quality of life for most people in the world. Science, if done properly, should mean advancing what we know and that should help in improving our quality of life. Critical thinking, if used properly, should help humankind avoid stupid mistakes. Given their joint likely positive impact on society, one can safely assume that each will continue to exist as will religion.

In all likelihood, the fundamentalist wing of the various religions will continue to resist globalization, science, and critical thinking. Probably, they will be successful in some places in the world. Also probably, those places in the world will fall further and further behind economically and socially. As time passes, the resistance of the fundamentalist will be increasingly difficult to maintain unless they have absolute control over those places.

The more radical elements of the fundamentalist wings of religion may not survive this crisis in religion if they resort to violent attacks against the larger societies. Societies will defend themselves from attacks by fundamentalists. The larger societies will isolate and remove the dysfunctional elements of religion because the larger societies have the economic and military advantage and they really have no choice but to do so. Therefore, globalization, science, and critical thinking will have an impact of what elements of religion survive or change.


I believe that some current or former functions of religions will have to change. For example, many nations in the world have adopted the American innovation of separating church and state. I suspect that it will continue to be adopted as a reform. Thus, the existence of established state financed religion is likely to diminish. Religious leaders will continue to speak out on political and social issues, but I suspect that increasingly the religions will be disestablished as the required state religion and will cease being subsidized by the taxpayers. Why? Because in time religious leaders will grow to appreciate that separation of church and state actually strengthens religions.

I hope and I suspect that the Golden Rule element of the Second Religious Awakening will gain momentum and become a standard for human behavior. With increasing globalization of commerce and information exchange, active partners in globalization will increasingly help peoples realize that one group “doing unto another group before anything can be done unto them” is functional and needed. To reap the maximum benefits of globalization over long periods of time, fairness to all participants will almost have to be the common value associated with globalization. The Golden Rule, which is common to almost all religions, is an excellent general value and one in which almost everyone would consider will result in fair agreements among globalization partners.

I also hope and I suspect that the Oneness element of the Second Religious Awakening will also gain momentum due to the importance of the value called “doubt” that exists in science. Science and the use of the scientific method have meant that “doubt,” as a value, is stage center in our world. As noted earlier, science is in conflict with many aspects of the First Religious Awakening such as the myth stories of religion. In addition, the First Awakening requires people not to doubt (that is have faith) on all matters concerning religion.

Significantly, science is not in conflict with the Oneness element of Second Religious Awakening. The spiritual and mystical wing of religion embraces doubt as a core value. The very first lesson of spiritual wisdom is that a person must always be a seeker and that means he or she must always be questioning. As in science, Oneness requires a person to accept that there are always unknowns and each person is to seek to learn more. For a spiritual person, doubt with its careful questioning is vital to learning more, challenging what is thought to be known, and to push back the frontier of the unknown.


I argue here that every religion and every person of faith needs to address the crisis identified here. As an Interfaith Minister, I think an interfaith approach is one of many means to address and resolve this crisis, which the existence of globalization and science and the use of critical thinking induced. As an Interfaith Minister, I believe that there is not one acceptable approach to learning about God and moving toward what some call salvation. Instead, I believe there are many approaches or paths. My values tell me that each person should be the best that they can be and wish to be. In my mind, the best includes being a spiritual person and that means growing their spirituality including following the Golden Rule and applying Oneness to their lives.

To foster greater spiritual growth, a person needs to learn more about their religion and other religions. With that knowledge, they are better equipped to ask the tough religious questions and better discern the difference between weak and strong answers to those spiritually related questions. In the past few decades, there has been a remarkable improvement in the religious studies literature from outstanding scholars. In addition, there has been a great growth in the literature concerning atheism. To be better spiritually, a person needs to read and understand both sets of literature. A useful approach is to find what the various religions have in common rather than how are they different because learning what religions have in common provides important clues for growing spiritually.

As an Interfaith Minister, I argue that the Second Religious Awakening, started by religious leaders from almost every religious tradition, needs to continue until it successfully changes the religions of the world. For example, people, especially people of faith, need to accept the Golden Rule and apply it to their daily lives, as part of their core values. In addition, people of faith need to accept the concept of Oneness, including embracing the use of doubt and understanding that religious knowledge also grows and evolves, as does science.

Religions have critical functions to perform in society. They should continue to help people who wish to celebrate and observe major events in their lives, provide physical and mental medical assistance in cooperation with other professionals such as medical doctors, offer political and social commentary on the issues of the day, and help communities address their social concerns such as with their charities. As an Interfaith Minister, I also believe that an additional function for religion in society is to help individuals to grow spiritually, if they wish to do so, through helping them ask and address the tough questions rather than just accepting the religious dogma of the past.


The religions of the world are in crisis because many of their more thoughtful followers are increasingly leaving their religions. This is due to at least three realities. First, globalization and its resulting clash of cultures are fostering violent conflicts among the religious peoples of the world. Secondly, science is challenging religious myth stories and thus fundamental beliefs of many religions. Thirdly, critical thought is showing the religious that there are many critical inconsistencies in their Holy Scriptures and this calls into question the foundation of their religious faith. Certainly, religions have and do serve important functions in society, but this crisis remains serious and needs to be addressed rather than ignored.

Religions must move beyond their First Religious Awakening and embrace fully the Second Religious Awakening. If they do that, then each religion can resolve the challenges brought on by globalization, science, and critical thinking. If they accomplish those reforms, religion will be fully functional in the world including being a force for peace in our world rather than an excuse for violence. One approach to getting acceptance of the Second Religions Awakening is through Interfaith Studies. It teaches what religions have in common and this knowledge helps foster greater religious tolerance and positively helps people embrace and grow their spirituality.

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