As millennials continue to be dissatisfied with religion, leaving churches in greater numbers every year, I have become at times defensive. I’ve wanted to defend my own religious convictions as well as point out how Christianity has colored, beautified, and created the world we’ve inherited. So even if we turn a blind eye to Christianity, we can never really leave it, nor should we want to.
In my experience, the most cited reason my generation offers for their exodus is “hypocrisy.” If a religion that teaches moral principles doesn’t create morally principled people, what good is it? To them, what religion preaches correctly it administers poorly, such as kindness, love, and generosity. And what it believes incorrectly it administers effectively, beliefs around Proposition 8 and most recently the election of Donald Trump who was most fervently supported by white, evangelical men.
So what good is religion?
This is a question I believe we must answer and a question I faced the week before Christmas two years ago. In this case, the question began as something quite a bit more personal: I asked myself if I would ever commit adultery. As a writer, I ask similar questions of my characters all the time. What would it take for them to do this thing or that? The question felt not only natural but crucial in understanding myself. Before marriage I would have imagined adultery to be impossible. Unloyalty is a sin I find particularly repugnant and I could not conjure a situation that didn’t end in me refusing to engage. I would be loyal even if my wife had been disloyal to me and even if we, as they say, “fell out of love.”
But the week before Christmas I was alone in North Carolina working while my wife was away with her family. We had not left on the best of terms and she had only called or texted a handful of times. I was hurt and so perhaps out of spite I imagined myself making a trip to the bar (a place I know little about because I’m a Mormon who abstains from alcohol), sitting next to a beautiful woman, and the question presented itself: Was there a scenario that would end in me committing adultery?
My answer was immediate: yes. There were hundreds of scenarios. But to my relief, none of them seemed likely for a simple reason: They all required me to ignore some social custom, customs I had always followed. I suddenly saw how silently these customs instructed my life. They dictated where I sat at a dinner table. How I filed my taxes. Whether or not I shook hands with or hugged a colleague.
In some cases, custom turned into policy forbade me to enter the house of a single woman alone. There were rules I somehow understood about what sort of frankness was allowed in what context, what laughter was appropriate, what casualness acceptable.
Going to the bathroom, working, sleeping, playing, all seemed influenced by a complex set of customs that now, though only because of my dilemma, seemed to have a singular purpose of keeping men in bed with their own wife. An intricate web hindered the actualization of hundreds, millions of scenarios that, at least in my case, would end in adultery.
The experience began in me a new theory of morality and ultimately religion. Before marriage, I imagined that religion was to morality like the gym was to health. You practiced religion and grew in moral fortitude. You grew morality within yourself like a garden. Carrots to fight lechery, tomatoes to fight jealousy, and zucchini to fight lethargy. Someone well practiced in religion had been productive in their garden and possessed what we call “moral character.”
From this perspective, a moral society was a society of morally strong individuals nearly impervious to sin. Moral character was gained like stamina through the practice of morality. And the place most suited for that sort of practice and instruction was church. The more you resist sin, the less vulnerable you are. The better choices you make, the easier it becomes. Someone who has developed an exquisite moral character could never be coaxed into something as degrading as adultery. They might occasionally be fooled by smaller and more wily sins of pride but never something so large and obvious as lying with another man’s wife.
It is perhaps this concept that has been at the heart of my insecurities regarding my own moral character and my own practice of religion. I am someone who has been religous my whole life. I’ve attended church weekly, done service projects, helped widows, and avoided pornography, drugs, and alcohol. And yet at the relatively minor annoyance of my wife being out of town, I’m pondering what it would take for me to commit adultery, something that suddenly seems possible.
That’s what’s haunting. At my core I wonder if I’m not very different, if indeed different at all, from the people who do not go to church, who do not organize service projects or regularly help widows. People who view pornography, experiment with drugs and alcohol. After all the practice I’ve done, you’d think my weaknesses would have abated somewhat. That I’d be able to avoid what “they” cannot.
But then why do deeply religious people who supposedly spend their lives building moral character often fail to avoid not only small sins but even sins as large and reproachable as adultery? The “hypocrisy,” as it is usually described of priests who molest children, seems to be the nail in the coffin of this theory of moral character. If religion builds moral character, then what would have happened if these priests had not gone into the ministry? Would they have become serial killers? How much worse could they have been?
Of course it can be argued that religion doesn’t inherently make you better just as a gym doesn’t inherently make you stronger. You have to exert yourself. While I don’t know that it’s correct to suggest that priests who molest children were not exerting themselves in the ministry, there are other examples of ministers who we admire who have also fallen for obvious transgressions.
Martin Luther King Jr. is well respected and loved because he exhibited unimaginable moral fortitude in the face of violence, injustice, and defamation. He lived his beliefs and yet there was a thorn in even his flesh, one that caused him deep guilt. He, of all people, committed adultery numerous times. His explanation, according to David Garrow, was that it was “a form of anxiety reduction.”
The story is an old trope found in the Bible itself. David, the king of Jerusalem, steward of the holy city, leader of the people of God, took to himself Bathsheba. From the concept of moral strength as individual stamina, how was David bested? David who as a boy was capable of defeating Goliath should have as a man been invincible. How can we explain his two great sins: adultery and then murder?
Even those who are not naturally disposed, if they attend the gym and give even a mediocre effort will soon become stronger than their counterparts. So how does Martin Luther King Jr. or David fail to lift the bar? These are people who did far more than merely attend the gym.
Morality, unlike our biceps, is something that we work out everyday all day. Most of our time is made up of how we think about or interact with other people. There is no need to attend a gym for it. It would be like training to breathe. Everyone breathes. You’re not going to become a better breather by practicing because you can’t practice more than you already do. The fact that when we get a little tired and hungry we become sullen or snappy suggests that we live at the edge of our moral fortitude—always on the brink of fatigue. We can’t push much past where we already are.
I do not believe that describing religion as a gym for individuals to build their personal moral physique will convince millennials of anything more than its outdatedness. Instead, to appeal to millennials we should focus instead on how religion is and has always been a communal experience. That’s what we’re all looking for. It’s not a place for the elite to tone themselves but a place of confession. A place where we admit together where we are weak. A place we don’t primarily build stronger individuals but, first and foremost, stronger communities.
The purpose of religion is not to create perfect people but to help imperfect people live more perfectly through community. We teach commandments, we see other’s weaknesses, we warn each other of our own failures and shortcomings so that we can avoid foreseeable tragedy by implementing customs and rituals that keep us in the right way. I don’t know that I am morally advantaged to have been born in a religious home. I don’t believe I would be fundamentally altered as a person had my father been an atheist but my situation would have been altered all the way down to my day to day customs. And the result might just be enormous.
That’s what we do in religion, we build customs. And if we do it well, I believe we can build a moral society which is not hindered by inane and outdated traditions, but secured, reinforced, and defended by timely, honest, and honored customs.
If we suggest to our friends (or to ourselves) that religion overcomes moral failures by creating morally strong individuals, we will be judged by the strength of the individuals who participate. And if we do that, I don’t know that the religious will fare much better than any other swath of people. Hypocrisy will always stand between the millennial and conversion. But if instead we suggest that religion overcomes moral failures by creating stronger societies with customs that warn, protect, and treat participants who are vulnerable or bitten, then we might come across a bit better.
Of course, someone is bound to say, we can have all that without religion. We do not need religion to develop customs, delineate stigma, or create communal exchange. And they would be correct, though there is nothing so successful in the modern age as religion has been for eons. But religion believes one thing more, not only that we can help each other live better lives, but that God can help. That is the great difference and the reason Grace has been a catchword of Christianity for two thousand years.
Grace is the presence of God which shows us our weakness, which sees through the generations, which instructs beyond our knowledge and foresight. To believe in religion is to believe that we live better lives when we are not our own authors, when we follow the hand and delve into the grace of him who knows more about love, about perfection, about goodness then we’ve yet imagined. To go to church is not to gain a leg up on non-believers but to admit that we too need help, that we know very little about all of this. It’s an act foremost of humility. And I do not believe millennials or any group will ever be impervious to the strange allure of the humble.