View from Brussels: We need the presence of more science in our churches

This week saw the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. How do you bring religion up to date for a secular and technology-oriented 21st century public?

This week saw the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, an event that launched an all-out assault on the authority of the Catholic church, which led to the separation of Christianity into Protestantism and Catholicism. Luther’s grievance was the church’s sale of indulgences which could reduce the period after death in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven or going down to Hell. Luther was obsessed with death and eternity and at one point in his youth went to confession so often his priest got bored with him. The young monk did little else with his time, but he wanted to maximise his chances of going to heaven.

Luther seized upon certain passages of the Bible to reconfigure Christianity. I know I am likely to make mistakes in this very brief summary, but if I understand things correctly, Luther argues that you receive divine grace not through a mixture of good works and confession, but through the grace of God only. God loves you whatever you do, not through your good deeds.

I’ve often thought that the Scandinavian welfare states and their generosity to everyone owe something to the Lutheran heritage. I’ve also thought that it goes against human nature to reward lassitude and even wickedness. When I told a priest here that people respond to incentives, he looked puzzled and said he’d go and think about it.

The other thing about Lutheranism was that it coincided with the invention of the printing press, so many of the new religious movement’s activists were able to spread their message about corruption in the Catholic Church very widely and very quickly. I’m not the first person to compare the destruction of traditional authorities back then to the revolutionary potential of the Internet today. Although the Bible didn’t come into general use among the common people until the 19th century, the distribution of Luther’s catechism (a sort of short course in the Christian faith) was widespread and in the Nordic countries where reading this became compulsory, it increased literacy enormously and ensured the rapid growth of modern society as well as democracy. The emphasis on going back to the words of the Bible did away with the powers vested in the hierarchies of the Catholic Church; it turned religion into a more private affair and perhaps stimulated both notions of individualism as well as creativity and imagination, all of which have been important for the growth of science and technology.

The Lutheran Swedish Church seems to be a loss as how to promote itself in a secular technological era, in spite of Sweden being famous for adapting quickly to new technology. I have some knowledge of this because my girlfriend works for the Swedish Church as a journalist and social media strategist. As far as I can tell, despite enormous effort, they haven’t discovered anything that can promote an institution whose popularity is declining.

Membership of the Swedish Church is falling by about 1 per cent a year and it is just a matter of time before the organisation hits a stable minimum, maybe 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the Swedish population. About 25 years ago it was at 90 per cent and there was a church tax on income. It's still a rich church, though, and through the wise investments in property and forestry, the institution manages to maintain all church buildings to a very high standard. It will run out of members before it runs out of money.

My girlfriend used Facebook to livestream the 500th anniversary Wittenberg event when the local Bishop, her boss, nailed the theses onto a specially constructed door situated in the local cathedral. She noted gloomily this morning that it has had only a handful of views. I know that all the different dioceses in Sweden have large social media budgets. They produce videos on YouTube, but none of them seem to have had any huge reach.

Although confirmed as a Lutheran, I seldom attend church. I thought the 500th anniversary mass was a touching one. I think the problem is the stories of the Bible are not unifying in the way they used to be because people are much more educated and have much broader references.

I’m not sure the sermon was an entirely coherent talk from an analytical point of view either. It was just repeated incantations using phrases that are not meant to be intellectually analysed, but I suppose the main message, that God loves you regardless, came through. It was a bit boring, but strangely soothing, and maybe the more one attends church, the more one hears and learns to appreciate the subtleties, as is the case with anything really.

This rare visit to the House of God left me thinking. How could traditional churches expand their popularity in the 21st century using modern media? What scientific and technological issues could churches pick up on to make themselves more relevant? My personal gripe is that the Swedish Church doesn’t talk about oppression of Christians in the Middle East. Enormously politically correct, the Swedish Church (and not just the Swedish Church) hugely exaggerates Christianity's doctrinal compatibility with Islam, in my humble view.

Turning to science and technology issues, I also think their support for the battle against climate change is badly worked out. By all means have sentiments, but what are they going to do and what practical role could churches play? It is all a bit boilerplate. Environmental NGOs carry out the same activism, but more professionally. Just reading a popular science magazine makes you realise there are plenty of ethical issues that the church could get involved in. Within a decade, technology will become available that will allow us to create babies by mating with ourselves: stem cells can be turned into eggs which will allow men to be both father and mother of their babies. I have seen nothing to suggest the church is at the cutting edge of science, to have a view on these developments before they become reality.

Later that night I had another thought. If you were to construct a religion today, what would it look like? Suppose we psychologically deconstructed the elements that have made religions successful in the past: their ability to mobilise people; the way they offer security; the way religions offer meaning, provide a social structure, an artistic and aesthetic experience; solace in the face of the death, and then reformulate it somehow.

Of course, you might say that constructing a better religion misses the point. The events in the New Testament were all supposed to have happened. Since the construction of a new religion is not going to be a secret affair, you are tearing away the veil of illusion.

I am not sure whether Christianity has a future, but I am convinced religion will never go away.

Part of me has had it with the Bible. I left the Reformation anniversary service thinking: enough of all this focus on the wit and wisdom of peasants and fishermen living in Palestine 2000 years ago. Let us hear more about the humility before existence that staring through a telescope at the formation of a galaxy gives. Science is not incompatible with a belief in God. In fact, surprisingly many scientists are religious.

Even if the universe obeys physical laws, there is nothing to prove or disprove the claim that God created this universe, complete with all these physical laws and the amazing phenomena we see. Bring in the scientists to tell their stories about how they found God. That would honour the traditions of ‘foward looking-ness’ and friendliness to new ideas that Sweden is famous for.

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