For those who have ever called the Capital Region a godforsaken place, you might be surprised to learn that a recent survey by the Barna Group, a leading research organization that focuses on faith and culture, provides support for your statement.
Actually, the survey results don’t show that God has forsaken the Capital Region, but that the Capital Region has forsaken God. The survey, which is based on interviews with 42,855 people across the country over the past several years, also ranks 96 metropolitan areas by how post-Christian or irreligious they are, and the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area came in first place as the most post-Christian and irreligious metro area in the country.
I don’t think I have read an article about an area church closing — and there have been many of them in the past thirty years — in which church officials didn’t cite demographics to explain the closure. They usually cite statistics showing the decline in population of a municipality or in a particular ethnic group associated with a particular church to explain the church’s demise.
While changes in a city or ethnic group’s population might help explain some church closures, they ignore the newer religions and churches that have sprung up in the area — some of them overflowing with worshippers. The move from traditional to non-traditional churches, where the guitar has replaced the organ, the PowerPoint presentation has replaced the sermon and the minister preaches in blue jeans, has played a role in the closure of mainline churches.
But the Barna Group survey points out clearly that America as a whole, and the Capital Region in particular, is turning away from religion, especially Christianity, and from a belief in God. That fact, more than anything else, explains the wholesale closure of churches in the area.
But I am not sure I needed the survey to tell me that. One would have to be living under a rock not to notice all the churches that have closed in the area. One of the saddest closings was that of St. Patrick’s Church in Watervliet. It seems to me that the demolition last month of St. Patrick’s, a magnificent neo-Gothic structure, and its replacement by a shopping plaza is symbolic of our region’s movement away from faith.
In 1900, Henry Adams privately published “The Education of Henry Adams,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1919. In it he attempted to deal with the many changes that had taken place during his lifetime. One of the most famous chapters is called “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” in which he references Lourdes, whose Cathedral provided the model for St. Patrick’s. Adams’ essential argument is that the dynamo or electric generator, and all it represents, was to the 20th century what the Virgin Mary or religious faith had been to previous generations.
God of consumption
If he were alive today and had witnessed the destruction of St. Patrick’s, Adams might have titled the chapter, “The Shopping Plaza and the Virgin.” While Barna focuses on people turning away from faith to atheism and agnosticism, it seems to me that what people are turning to is the god of consumption — the god of the shopping plaza.
There is a tremendous spiritual, moral, ethical and intellectual vacuum in America that we try to fill with money and material things. Religious people are not immune from worshipping this insatiable god. In fact, sometimes they are the worst offenders, especially those who belong to religious groups that believe that material prosperity is a sign of God’s approval.
According to worldwatch.org, “The United States, with less than 5 percent of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources,” and “new houses in the U.S. were 38 percent bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average.” We operate one-third of the world’s cars, and each American is responsible for the consumption of 25 tons of raw material a year.
But more is never enough. From the superintendent of Amsterdam’s schools, who can’t live on $131,030 a year so he had to have a 2 percent raise this year, to the CEOs of corporations who can’t live on several million dollars a year, we all want more. If it is not more money, then we want more toys.
And it is this pursuit of more stuff that is a major cause of environmental disaster. It is the one ingredient missing from the fracking debate. Greed, not need, is driving the fracking agenda — not just the greed of energy companies, but the greed of all of us who aren’t satisfied with what we have and who want more and more to fill the vacuum in our lives.
It’s a change of lifestyle that will save us from the economic and environmental ruin that our pursuit of material gain will inevitably lead to. The Barna Group’s survey is important in that it shows us what we are turning away from. But, to me, the destruction of St. Patrick’s Church and its replacement by a commercial plaza shows us what we are turning to.
(To see what we have lost go to https://www.facebook.com/pages/St-Patricks-Watervliet-NY/188166424576066).
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.