Good times, bad times

you know I’ve had my share. Alright, this isn’t really about Led Zeppelin (although the economy is sinking like one). But apparently bad times in the economy translate into good times for evangelists. A recent article in the NY Times reports how evangelicals seem to be actually happy about this economic downturn as it means more addition to their flocks. From the article:

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

So we may have a ratcheting effect causing the more evangelical (and possibly more fundamentalist) churches to grow possibly at the expense of more moderate churches. It is simple to figure out why, but I’ll let someone from the article explain it in his own words.

Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”

Of course, we atheists realize that this reliance on a god gives only a false sense of security based on wishful thinking. We also realize that the market does have periodic ups and downs and so, in all likelihood, there will be an eventual recovery (though it may take a while in this case). We also know that there will be some who will likely see a “divine hand” in the recovery in spite of all the hardship and suffering preceding and that the recovery was likely anyway based on the evidence of history.

But simple logic and reason, for many people, does lack the emotional impact of having a special connection with the creator of the cosmos. To have a feeling that you are part of something bigger than all this and that this creator guy is watching out personally for you. It gives one a sense of hope in dark times. It is quite easy to defeat this spirituality with reason, but what constructive approach can we humanists and atheists offer as an emotionally positive alternative in times like this?

I don’t have any ready answers for this. I can see why saying “There is no god, rely on yourself and society.” may not seem like an emotionally satisfying alternative to someone like Frank O’Neill. But perhaps I can relate something from my own personal experience.

When I was laid off for a short time during the tech bubble crash, I saw this as an opportunity for growth. I took advantage of the time to learn new things, some of which turned out to be useful in the next step in my evolving career. One should be able to, amidst the ruin, evaluate and lay the foundation of a stronger structure, having learned from the experience. There was also time to further nurture personal relationships. To me, this seems much more useful than developing a “relationship” with something that doesn’t exist. One thing mentioned in the article was that people also are more able to contribute personal time to charitable functions, such as soup kitchens. I agree that is a worthwhile cause, and I’ve mentioned previously there are a number of notable secular charities and causes to which one can contribute as well. By doing so, we can do the groundwork for making a more progressive society where the needs of all can hopefully be met. I realize that the concept of humanity as a whole might, to some people, seem more abstract than some concrete cosmic entity looking out for everybody. But if we can help people to think at this higher level, I think society will be on a much more solid footing with more opportunity for success when the recovery finally takes effect.

I would be interested to see what anybody else thinks are positive things we, as humanists and atheists, can offer.


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