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Pyle: Religion replaced by civil society

Published October 12, 2012 5:57 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Four shivering tourists looking for a warm attraction saw a line outside London's Westminster Abbey. So we stood in it.

The slim bit of information we had about the Abbey didn't mention a tour at that time of day, so we wondered how much it would cost and how long we'd have to wait.

We didn't wait long. It didn't cost anything. And it wasn't a tour. It was a regular church service.

No, an Easter Sunday church service. Performed in one of the most famous houses of worship in all the world. In front of maybe 100-odd passersby who, judging by their attire and their accents (American and French) were, like us, there more as gawkers than as worshipers.

That was the spring before — or maybe the spring after — Mitt Romney, seeking the Republican nomination for president the last time, made a don't-hate-me-for-my-religion speech that flopped because it reasonably argued that his Mormon faith should be considered equal to others' religions as it unreasonably claimed that religion was superior to a lack thereof.

"Freedom requires religion," Romney said, before he went on to lament the emptiness of churches all over "enlightened" Europe, where so many great cathedrals had become mere tourist attractions.

As I experienced, Romney was clearly right about the picture-postcard role religion has fallen into across much of Europe. He was also quite correct to note that the nominal merger of church and state in many European nations had done nothing to make religion popular.

But he was clearly wrong to argue that secular societies are not free societies, as proven by his own example of a thoroughly democratic Europe where organized religion has dwindled so significantly that the pope thinks about little else.

Now comes news that the United States is again following trends set by European-style freedom, the kind that spooks American conservatives no end.

A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey puts the number of Americans who follow no organized religion at nearly 20 percent of the adult population, and growing. For the first time in American history, mainline Protestant churches claim the loyalty of less than half of us.

Following no organized religion does not mean that individuals do not believe in God, or a higher power. It just means they are compelled to define and follow that power on their own, being responsible for their own decisions, not outsourcing their thinking to any Earthly leader. And that should make democracy easier, not harder.

When no single religion is in a superior position of power, participants in a democracy must find another common language, the language of civil society, in which to converse. Preferred policies must be argued in terms of rational facts, because no one can simply claim it is God's will and shut down the conversation.

Think it won't work? It worked for Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., best known for his I Have A Dream Speech, 99 percent of which could have been embraced, even delivered, by the staunchest of atheists. Because it was all about America's civil creed of equality and freedom. Because it was about man's laws, not God's. Because we, not our religions, are responsible for the choices we make. Or, in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, the little girls we shoot.

That doesn't mean that people who do follow an organized religion shouldn't spread its word and sing its praises.

After all, if you truly believed that you had discovered the way, the truth and the light, what kind of creep would you be if you kept it a secret?

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is still finding ways to thank his family for dragging him to Great Britain and France. Email him at gpyle@sltrib.com, or follow @debatestate on Twitter.