(If you'd like to see what I did today, you can visit my Foursquare stream, or this list: Church Exploration.)
It seems to me that a week does not go by without someone accusing someone else of waging a War on... something. The War on Religion, the War on Women, the War on Life, the War on Choice... they almost make you forget that we're winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flirting with war in Iran and Syria.
There are many voices repeating the idea that religion in America is "under attack" - particularly Christianity. Two of the GOP candidates insist that this is true, and every belief-tainted issue seems to draw that remark from believers. The often-voiced meme that "this country is driving God out" bothers me for a number of reasons. For one thing, I've been hearing it my whole life. From my earliest days in Southern Baptist Sunday School, we've been admonished not to let "them" (the "them" implied can vary based on the issue of the day) lure you away from Jesus.
If I didn't know better, I would think from listening to these people that churches have been driven out of the community altogether. Despite the reality being quite the opposite - I can't actually escape religion at all. It follows me everywhere, no matter how I try to ignore it. From the phrase "Under God" in our pledge, to the "In God We Trust" on our money; from the tracts left in our door, to the Gideon bibles in our hotel rooms. And every day, driving down my street - there is religion everywhere.
So, to prove that point, I had an idea. I called up Lydiandude, and asked if he wanted to go on a FourSquare tour of the churches in our neighborhood. He lives about 6 miles from me on Harford Road. I had to pick up my Boy Scout from the church at Putty Hill and Harford Road - almost 7 miles from his house - so we figured we'd just check in from every church we could see along that route, with a slight detour along the street my house is on, so we could catch the 3 churches there.
I kind of figured there would be more than a dozen - I counted 15 on the way down to pick him up, but I wasn't really looking. If you follow the link at the top of this post, you should be able to see how many we caught: 33 of them! And that's not counting the 3 Christian bookstores and the "Christian Soldier Gun Shop" - or the psychics, New Age stores, etc. I tried to stick to just churches - places of worship - and just the ones on the two roads in question. There were several we "missed" because they were off on a side street, though I could have added another half dozen just using my guilty knowledge of the neighborhood.
But really: more than two dozen halls of worship in a 7 mile stretch? Think about how many people are supporting each of them. These are all tax-exempt businesses collecting donations and returning something - supposedly - to the community. How much do you suppose it costs to operate - rent or mortgage on a large, old building; power and HVAC; maintenance; worship materials like hymnals? And what do they return to the community? Community service projects?
The first thing most people will say in defense of churches is that they do charitable works - running soup kitchens, hospices, etc. I didn't see any of these things along our road. We didn't pick the road that St. Joseph's hospital was on, so I didn't have to decide whether it qualified for our project today. I ignored all of the schools - though several of the churches we checked in at today operate private schools. Do those count as a business or a "benefit" to the community? It's not something I've seriously questioned before, but what is the appropriate way to look at a church's impact on the neighborhood around it? Do they make themselves "worth" the tax exemption, or are they essentially just an economically dodgy way to justify propping up neat-looking old buildings?
One thing you may or may not have noticed is the absence of worship centers OTHER than the Christian variety. That's because there weren't any - at least not visible ones. I did find a Hebrew congregation (by moving one mile out of our chosen route), but no mosques, temples, ashrams, or secular centers. There were VFW and American Legion halls - one each, actually - and a few Recreation centers, but there is no atheist church, so I wouldn't have looked for that. Where are all of the encroaching non-Christians who are supposedly waging warfare with the faithful? (Maybe they were at Red Emma's Coffee House?)
It all makes me wonder, if religion is under such a relentless attack, how do all of these places survive? How can you run the two Baptist churches I found next door to each other in a nation that has "lost god"? How do you claim to be an oppressed minority when you are everywhere, and your opposition is no where? Or do I need to do this again, only focusing on the real competition - the strip clubs, the bars, the liquor stores, the golf courses... is even that comparison fair?
At the end of the day, this atheist didn't find anywhere to go comparable to the 33 churches that are here for the faithful, other than my home. And yet I am expected to continue to ignore that, and accept the notion that the poor Christians are "under attack" when I refuse to say "Under God" or insist that they not force my children to pray in the classroom. Judging by the behavior of Christians online, in politics, and in general, it's everyone else who is under attack. But that couldn't be right, because all of these faithful people are supposed to be preaching love and peace, aren't they?
That was my adventure, though. Take whatever lesson you like; it was a lot of work, but worth hanging out with Lydiandude for an afternoon.
Oh, and the other thing I didn't see on this journey? Jesus. I think he was probably home watching basketball.