Ian Boyne, Contributor
With Jamaica having reputedly more churches per square mile than any other country in the world, why is this not translating into a peaceful, productive and harmonious nation? Why is crime, and peculiarly savage and gruesome murders such as that of 14-year-old Shariefa Saddler, such a big problem in this highly religious society?
Pastor Al Miller assures us in a recent Gleaner article that "the Church and its representatives who have a relationship with Christ are still the primary carriers of the mind of Christ in the world and it is through them" that "all men(?) need to be guided".
So are they doing such an abysmal job in Jamaica? Some Christians will say it's because more people are not listening to the Church why we are so wicked and awful. But that only leads us to ask, why are people not listening? Why are they not finding the Church's message appealing? What is lacking?
The recent census not only showed the decline of traditional churches like the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Moravians, but the decline in religious affiliation, too. Yes, newer churches like the Seventh-day Adventists are picking up a number of people falling off the traditional church train, but many are falling by the wayside, going to no church. And those who remain in the churches are not exhibiting the kind of transformation and life change that one would expect. Is the problem with the Church as an institution or with the message of Christianity itself?
Is religion generally good for us? Does it promote good mental health and societal well-being? There are a number of leading social scientists who don't think so. In a 2005 edition of the Journal of Religion and Society (Vol 7), Gregory Paul, in an article titled 'Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity in Prosperous Democracies', says, "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a Creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early-mortality STI infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in prosperous democracies."
In that same issue, there is an empirically rich article from Gary Jensen titled 'Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates Among Nations', which points out that "recent research on homicide among cities in the United States reports findings quite compatible" with the view that "religious passion is linked to high homicide rates". And this was before several mass-murder tragedies in the United States (US).
The Sandy Hook murders in the US have galvanised an entire nation and provoked an intense debate on gun control. But one issue that must be discussed is why we don't see these dastardly kinds of mass shootings taking place in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan, which are intensely secular societies? Why do these nations in which religion is largely absent seem to be more peaceful, harmonious and certainly boast a greater quality-of-life index in many indices than the most religious society in the developed world, namely the US?
So Jamaica and America, which are both very religious societies, unlike Scandinavia and even Western Europe, manifest levels of disharmony not seen in those nations. What's happening here?
Religious people usually say societies would grow wicked and heartless if people stop believing in God. But we in Jamaica are increasingly wicked and heartless - notice our gruesome murders - with churches springing up all over the place and crusades and fasting services galore.
Yvonne Coke, bless her soul, is carrying out a 60-day fast of food and conversation to bring the nation back to Christ. She has sealed her lips and is walking up and down as a witness to this nation. All she will accomplish is to lose some weight and save some breath. It will have absolutely no effect on the wickedness of this nation.
The sickening murder of Shariefa and that four-year-old boy Rushaun Burford last Thursday have all taken place since Sister Coke has gone on her fasting, a day for each year of her 60 years. She might as well eat her food and chat with her friends on BB. There continue to be many prayer services, praying for healing of the nation, and for God to stop the wickedness and change the hearts of evil, vicious, "senseless" criminals. Those prayers have not been answered.
Our criminals get more and more vicious, more and more ruthless. They kill little girls and toss them out of speeding cars like juice boxes. They shoot little boys because they have disputes with their mothers over non-functioning pipes and manholes in the tenement yards. They rape little girls and dismember them. Carnal abuse is almost cultural, with a lot of it perpetrated by religious men who are gospel grinders.
We hold prayer breakfasts, including a national one every third Thursday in January, but if they have any perceptible effect on the moral climate of the country, or, in the case of the National Prayer Breakfast, on most of the leaders gathered to eat, pray and talk about love, nobody has informed me. But I am still open - and listening.
The Church is not only failing to impact the society meaningfully and potently, it is also increasingly losing a number of its thinking people. I am getting more enquiries from thinking Christians who are actively contemplating abandoning their religion and becoming agnostics and atheists. Some have been asking me to direct them to books and sources which can help retain what is a rapidly slipping faith in God and the Bible. It's not just the Church they have a problem with, but with the Bible and its claims of infallibility.
One man wrote me recently, "At present, I would consider myself agnostic at best, and borderline atheistic at worst. This coming from someone who was once active in church is worrying. I watch your show ('Religious Hardtalk'), read as much as I can, but still feel like the religion of my birth, Christianity, is a waste of time. I now find myself sympathising with (the well-known atheists) (Christopher) Hitchens and (Richard) Dawkins. I wrestle constantly with where I am and how I got here."
He made one request before I answered his plea for help: "I do want to believe in something. I have but one request: Please don't send me one of those preachers who tell people God works in mysterious ways and I need to have more faith; or who answers my questions by quoting the Bible. I have had my fill of those."
So I could not send him my friend Al Miller or ask him to read his recent In Focus article. Al was willing to chauffeur sceptic Gordon Robinson to Christ, with better results than he had with Dudus, hopefully.
My enquirer wrote me again recently making what seems to me a poignant point: "One thing dawned on me the other day. If the God I believed in at one point was to come today, someone like me would be hell bound, despite the fact that I have been trying to find the truth. This seems ridiculous, that a person who is trying to find truth goes to hell despite not being able to get the answers."
It's what the philosophers call inculpable or non-resistant non-belief. Here is a sincere man, once a devout Christian, who is now plagued with doubts, searching for answers to those doubts, but having preachers quote the same book he has doubts about to clear up his doubts! Then the God who gives him a brain and endows him with reason would damn him for having these doubts which, unresolved, lead to agnosticism or atheism?
But Al Miller and others would probably say he has some sin battling with, perhaps sexual lust; perhaps he has been watching too much pornography or falling into adultery and he wants to appease his conscience. Perhaps he has homosexual desires and wants to release himself from a God and a book, the Bible, that would condemn him. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Many Christians are leaving the Church because of too many perhapses. One just wrote me this past week to say, "I am a young woman in my 20s who is embarking on a spiritual journey of sorts due to the myriad of questions and different perspectives that bombard today's society. I was raised in a rural Apostolic church but I have increasingly had questions about God, the purpose of religion, and how the Church represented itself locally.
"I write as someone who is trying to decipher between theistic versus agnostic versus atheistic perspectives. What advice would you give someone who feels that the Church brings more division than hope in today's society or who questions the existence of a higher power?" I have not replied yet. Perhaps you could write a letter to this paper or online to help me to rescue this young girl's soul from hell.
What is clear is that this whole society needs rescuing, and that the Church has not been doing a very good job of it. But, then, perhaps the Church itself needs rescuing.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.