Though religion is absent, the universe is far from being philosophically united as atheists now fall into one of three camps: the UAL (Unified Atheist League), AAA (Allied Atheist Alliance), and the UAA (United Atheist Alliance). This episode, like many others by Parker and Stone, offers a biting satire that suggests it is not religion or the absence thereof that leads us to tribalism, but instead it is humanity’s own perpetual tendency to define the boundaries of otherness.
This episode also highlights an important demographic shift that has been taking place for decades: people are leaving the church. Census data shows that a majority of mainline Christian denominations are shrinking especially against the overall population increase. Much more, the category “no religion” has increased by over 130% in under 20 years. That is not to say that the people who are leaving the church are joining another religious/nonreligious tradition (or that the universe will be comprised of three separate atheist camps in 2546), but it certainly does suggest a change is taking place.
We talk about this change all of the time in the Lutheran church. In fact, any student seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America this year was asked to write an essay describing a time when she was a part of a ministry setting affected by said demographic changes. Much more, the change is not simply that people are leaving the church. The change is also occurring within the church itself. One of my senior seminary capstone courses emphasized the fact that there is a general loss of familiarity with biblical stories and imagination, even among those who attend worship services regularly. In other words, even those who are nominally affiliated with a religion may not be as familiar or informed about the creeds and traditions of that faith as past generations were. Luther Seminary recently hosted a mid-winter convocation that focused on these very topics, recognizing that “the church seems to exercise less and less influence in the way we see the world.”
These changes also directly pertain to the interreligious work we do at State of Formation. In the fall of 1990, Dr. Diana Eck began her work that eventually became the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Eck’s work pioneered the use of interreligious dialogue as a helpful tool for navigating the difficulties posed by an increasingly interdependent and theologically diverse world, a model that we readily adapt and use. Two of the basic determiners of the effectiveness of interreligious dialogue, however, are that participants first affiliate with a religious tradition, and second, those participants have a certain level of familiarity with their own religious traditions.
If it’s true that more and more of us are no longer affiliating with a religion, and even those of us who do have limited knowledge of that tradition, how long will interreligious dialogue remain a helpful, relevant tool? Interreligious dialogue is only as strong as the pillars that it stands on, and it appears as if those pillars may be crumbling. So while interreligious dialogue may serve key purposes now by helping to reduce bias, bridge communities, and mobilize disparate groups, what purpose will it serve in the future?
Perhaps the answer lies in what Parker and Stone point out in their episode of South Park: it is not religion or the absence thereof that leads us to tribalism, but instead it is humanity’s own perpetual tendency to define the boundaries of otherness.
There will most likely always be the need for work around understanding difference by sharing narrative. Whether or not that difference is defined by religious affiliation will undoubtedly affect the content of the conversation, but the need for the conversation to take place will always remain.