Now, Religion in the News, a report and comment on religious trends and events being covered by the media. This week’s item is from the latimes.com, November 16, 2005, with the headline: “Doubt Is Their Co-Pilot. Birmingham, AL. It takes a certain amount of audacity to found a religion.
Ford Vox does not look audacious.
A tall, slightly stooped medical student, Vox speaks in a mumble and rarely lifts his eyes. But if he lacks confidence, that only makes him all the more qualified to lead his flock because Vox, 28, has created a religion for people who know only that they know nothing.
Universists might believe in God, or might not. (Personally, Vox thinks he does.)The only dogma they must accept is uncertainty.
Relinquishing any hope of cosmic truth, Universists worship by wondering how we got here, and why, and what lies ahead.
From his base here in the Bible Belt, Vox has built an online congregation of more than 8,000 in the last two years. They meet in cafes and living rooms across the nation; they join online chats with scientists and theologians; they find profundity in admitting their confusion.
‘We want to rework religion from within,’ Vox said.
It is a surprisingly common impulse these days.
In vast numbers, Americans are turning away from traditional religions. They're not giving up on God, but they are casting aside the rituals and labels they grew up with.
Conventional churches still have enormous pull. There are more than 300,000 Protestant congregations in the United States, and mega-churches can easily attract 8,000 worshipers on any given Sunday.
But the number of Americans who claim no religion has more than doubled in a decade. More than 27 million adults—nearly one in seven—reject all religious labels, according to the City University of New York's respected American Religious Identification Survey.
Even among committed Christians, restlessness is growing. Pollster George Barna, who works for Christian ministries, estimates that 20 million Christians have largely forsaken their local church in favor of discussion groups with friends, Bible study with colleagues or spiritual questing online.
‘They want less of a programmed process and more of a genuine relationship with God,’ said Barna, who describes the shift in his new book Revolution.
Vox hopes to offer one possible path in Universism.
Instead of hierarchy and ritual, his religion offers rambling chats about the meaning of life. Instead of a holy text, members put their faith in the world around them, trying to figure out the universe by studying it.
The go-it-your-own-way philosophy at the heart of Universism troubles Douglas E. Cowan, an expert in emerging religions at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. As he put it: ‘One guy worshipping a potato in a hotel room in New Jersey is not a religion.’
True religion, Cowan said, gives structure and meaning to people's lives and elevates them above the humdrum of their daily chores.
He can't quite see how uncertainty does the trick.
Universists respond that he's missing the point. They're trying to build a religion that lets people find their own structure and meaning. Universists know they're on their own in the great journey of life—but they take comfort in meeting every few weeks to talk through what they've discovered along the way.”
Tom: Dave, I think this will probably go over, seeing as where everything’s going. But…
Dave: Well, he’s got a congregation of 8,000 on the internet.
Tom: Yeah, but this young man, he’s a medical student. I wonder how that applies, this idea of uncertainty…I don’t think I’d want to sign up or make an appointment with this guy to deal with my physical problems!
Dave: Tom, that’s a very good point, and I have made that point sometimes in the hospital where I was a patient, trying to get them to talk about God. And then when they say, “Well, you can believe any god, you know. That doesn’t matter.”
I say, “Wait a minute, let me out of this place! You don’t have any procedures? You don’t have any rules? You think anything goes?”
Oh, well, not when it comes to the body, of course.
“Well, but isn’t the spirit eternal? Wouldn’t it be far more important to know where you will spend eternity than to take care of your body here on this earth?” It doesn’t make any sense, Tom. I wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who, after he examines me, I say, “Doc, what’s the diagnosis and prognosis?”
He says, “Well, I wouldn’t be so narrow-minded and dogmatic as to presume to come up with a definite diagnosis! What would you like? Open heart surgery has been very popular lately. I could transplant your kidney. I think everyone’s entitled to the operation of his choice. I think it’s up to everybody to have their own opinion about this.”
Tom, this is so stupid, and yet, you see, people recognize that in every area of life. But when it comes to God, when it comes to knowing where we will spend eternity, then they think God doesn’t have any rules! They think they can make it up as they go along, and it just is folly, absolute folly.
Tom: But, Dave, what do you think about this quote from George Barna that 20 million Christians have largely forsaken their local church in favor of “discussion groups with friends, Bible studies with colleagues, or spiritual questing online”? What do you think about that?
Dave: Well, Tom, I think it probably reflects the actual opinion of people out there. You remember Rick Warren, when he made a survey to find out why don’t people go to church, he said, basically, there were three reasons: Number one, the people weren’t friendly; number two, the sermons were boring and didn’t apply to life; number three, all they wanted was your money. So these 20 million people are staying home. “We’ll have our own discussion. Why should we look to this pastor, whoever he is, as the authority? Why can’t we read our Bibles for ourselves?”
I think probably home Bible study groups is a growing trend. It does make some sense, because the churches—well, when we say the churches, they’re not giving them what they want. We’ve got to go there prepared to offer your worship, your love and devotion to the Lord, but very often there’s no room for that in a church. You sing what they want you to sing, and somebody else is in charge, and so forth. I can understand why people would begin to rebel against that.
Tom: But the bottom line is truth, the Word of God, doing things God’s way—there are some churches that certainly do that, and there are others for drawing a crowd, for making people feel better about themselves, and so on. Earlier, before we went on this segment, you mentioned Joel Osteen—certainly there’s some confusion in his ministry with regard to what’s right and what’s true and so on.
So I agree with you, Dave: if people really have a heart for truth, want to do what’s right, but that may work well in a church setting. And for others, depending on where they are, what their circumstances are—I mean, most of the letters that we receive here at The Berean Call are concerns: “Can you direct me to a church? We want a place that really preaches and teaches the Word of God, churches that are not into what the world is into, but into what God’s Word says.”
Dave: I think this medical student—Ford Vox, is his name—he should turn his 8,000 online followers over to Joel Osteen, because that’s what he says: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Tom, it’s like in university today—not in the sciences, but in philosophy or psychology, they will say, “But you can’t know. You can’t know.” Well, then if you can’t know, forget it! Let’s just shut the whole thing down. There is no truth, something isn’t right and something else wrong. Well, I think there is. If not, then what’s the point? So these guys love to have no point, apparently. And, Tom, it’s something to think about very seriously, and perhaps it will give a little basis for conversation for our listeners with some of their friends.