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Ditchin' Religion

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, recently kicked off an interesting advertising campaign in metro Detroit — and I, for one, am hoping people pay attention.

Forgive me for saying this, but, as much as I love this town, we put too much faith in these ministers, their big churches and the feel-good rhetoric they sell on Sundays. (And yes, I do mean "sell.") Personally, I stopped believing in the supernatural long ago — the Lions' minor miracle notwithstanding — but this isn't about personal philosophy. Indeed, were it just that, I wouldn't see nearly as much need for the billboard campaign.

But in Detroit, we often pride ourselves on our narrow-minded and overzealous embrace of religious dogma. We let religion deter us from common-sense decisions, such as teaching our children science instead of creationist nonsense or truly respecting the separation of church and state. We too easily give a pass to anyone who hides behind the language of Christianity or Islam, and ne'er-do-well political and business hucksters who know this too often play us like fools for it.

For instance, when former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finally decided Detroiters deserved to hear him publicly discuss the sex-and-perjury allegations against him, he didn't speak from the mayor's office. Instead, he holed up in a church, just him, his wife and a lone TV camera, and spoke unchallenged about his desire for voters' forgiveness. Even through the subsequent efforts to oust him, he was constantly seeking cover behind assorted "ministerial alliances" to provide him with the veneer of respectability. And too often, the preachers were more than willing to give him that cover if it meant greater political access.

You can't walk two city blocks here without passing somebody's church, most of them open just long enough for Sunday services, choir rehearsals and the occasional gospel brunch. (As as kid, I used to hear even church-goers compare the many churches in town to the many liquor stores and wonder aloud what good either really did for us.) Meanwhile, in almost every neighborhood where these churches abound and thrive, the rest of community continues to crumble.

I don't blame the churches for the structural problems in Detroit, of course. But I can't help but wonder how much better our communities could be if we put even half the energy that we invest in keeping these pastors well-heeled into our public schools, politics, finances or businesses. Like the people behind the billboard campaign, I can't help but imagine a Detroit without the false faith.

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  • 1

    I think you're using too broad of a brush here. Yes, there are some problematic Elmer Gantry inspired institutions (there are con men in every field of society, aren't there?) but there are also many doing good work. Take down the culprits if you feel you must but avoid collateral damage, please. We need those who follow their faith honestly with open hearts and love, and especially those who serve the community well (Detroit Rescue Mission, the Capuchins, and some others like these folks ~ )

    • 1.2

      I also think it's important to not confuse faith/religion/spirituality with the dogmatic and very human organizations that are the churches, mosques, temples, etc. Whatever you want to call whatever it is that serves as the basis for your moral code in society, it probably fits closely with some type of what's commonly called religion.

      I read an interesting book entitled "Faith Under Fire" recently. It's the memoir of an Army chaplain, named Roger Benimoff, who did two tours of duty in Iraq. I had often wondered how military clergy reconcile their positions and found his story an enlightening read:

      The thing I have learned over the years is that those who have the deepest faith are those who have done a lot of questioning and struggled with doubts. They are truly humble people, not rabid evangelicals or prosperity preachers.

      Another great read is "Telling Secrets" by Frederick Buechner:

  • 2

    I just wanted to let you know that my teacher showed us this blog in class today and it really inspired me. I live near Detroit and had no idea that the literacy was so poor, I'm going to start volenteering in Detroit reading with disadvantaged kids.

  • 3

    Preach on!

    I've personally wondered where all the money goes for these "Life Detroit up in Prayer" bumper stickers. Detroit needs more than a prayer to lift it up, trust me.

    When I first moved here, I kept thinking ... the only things that alive in Detroit are: 1. liquor stores and 2. churches.

  • 4

    I don't think it's religion per se that's the problem. If Detroit had half the faith-based social service orgs of uber-religious Grand Rapids on the other side of the state, maybe they could have helped stem the bleeding a bit.

    But yeah, the prosperity gospel isn't so useful.

    I'm just not sure the Freedom From Religion Foundation would distinguish between the two types of religion.

  • 5

    All you have to back up your insanely broad strokes is the small anecdotal evidence of Kilpatrick holing up in a church? That indicates a city-wide "sale" of religion and misunderstanding of the separation of church and state?

    I sure am glad Time picked an intellectual giant to provide thoughtless content.

    • 5.2

      Some generalize about religion, some generalize about race, some generalize about socio-economic status, some generalize about ethnic origin - generalizations are dangerous. Generalizations lead to the identifying of groups of "others" in a way that can be too easily manipulated for divisive purposes.

    • 5.4

      Pardon the pun, but you come off rather "holier than thou" in this piece.

      As I tried to post above (awaiting moderation I see, possibly due to the Amazon links included):

      I also think it's important to not confuse faith/religion/spirituality with the dogmatic and very human organizations that are the churches, mosques, temples, etc. Whatever you want to call whatever it is that serves as the basis for your moral code in society, it probably fits closely with some type of what's commonly called religion.

  • 6

    Darrell, Thank you for a thoughtful, at times cutting post. As a christian I initally took exception to your claims however, in the the end your post really challanged me. I wrote a response on my blog that explains why, despite your broad strokes, I agree with many of your points.

  • 7

    Darrell, I appreciate you for crafting this piece and for your courage to respond to critics and others who have commented on your entry. Writing rather than speaking about a subject easily lends itself to criticism because the writer in most cases writes the piece and is then done with it. It is much easier to take a shot at a writer without allowing he or she to continue in a two-way conversation as in other forms of media (tv, radio, etc.). Thank you for taking the time to respond to comments, but I would like to add a bit of constructive criticism and mention that while responding with sarcasm often may seem like the best way to get a point across, I believe acting with more professionalism and class will allow you to gain more respect from your audience. Just a thought. Please do keep up the good work, we appreciate everything that is being written about Detroit as it truly is a city in need of all the help it can get.

  • 8

    AMEN and preach it, Brother! (Forgive the irony here.) It's about time someone tells it like it is and takes on those religious hucksters. They poison the minds of good people with their magical-thinking, sky-god palliatives.

  • 9

    I wonder why you ask to be forgiven in your second paragraph. Is it because you actually KNOW there is a God who will not be too pleased with your article?

    I can not force my faith on you hence, the least I would plead from you and others is not to force your unbelief on me.

    Faith is belief in things not seen. It defies logic. Logic is faith in things you can see. Let's just respect each other's opinions. I agree there are charlatans on both sides of the fence, but do not give a wholesale solution to problems. Identify the bad preachers and deal with them individually. Enough of the Jesus bashing.

  • 10

    Darrell. Thank you for such a poignant piece. People, for centuries, have used religion as an excuse to ignore day to day problems. I have been an atheist since about 5th grade. God was Santa Clause to me, or the Easter Bunny. To me religion was something to worry about, that I didn't need. Its like having an imaginary babysitter running your life. The people in Detroit are a very religious group. Church is their social life. Church is a meeting place. Church is somewhere they go on Sunday, and give money away that they cant afford to lose because it looks good in God's eye. The only problem is that the billboards aren't going to change the minds of the religious, and the Atheists already agree. In a perfect world, those billboards would get the people to look outside of their current beliefs, but I just don't think its going to happen. Once again, GREAT PIECE!

    • 10.1

      I know I'm replying sort of late...sorry about that. But I'd like to say this...

      I agree...churches have become such a social thing that it's not even about Jesus and what He did for us. And I want to apologize to all of you for that. And I also want all of the athiests to know that I do not judge or thing wrong of you. I do believe in God and Jesus, but the church thing, I admit, has gotten so messed up. I'm so sorry about that you guys, seriously. I want you to know that I totally accept you all the way that you are, and I hope that you'd accept me the way I am too.

      Here's what I've gotta let you guys know....Jesus accepts you the way you are too. I know some of you might think that I'm preaching and shoving it in your face....I promise, that's the last thing I'd ever do. But church and religious people have made Jesus and God into something they're not. The thing about them is that when you believe in God, He makes you complete and whole. He's full of love and grace...not stuck up crap that you see in churches today. Grace=something we don't deserve. Mercy=not getting what we do deserve.

      I love you guys no matter who or what you do or don't believe in. And I learned how to do that from my best friend Jesus. I hope you don't mind that I pray for you guys.

      And please know that I don't judge you.

      Thanks for reading. Please reply

  • 11

    Thank you for being willing to express your opinion on the state of religion or non-religion in Detroit. I agree with many statements of the problems, but certainly not the solution. As a Baptist, I definitely agree to the need for separation of church and state. The mixture of politics and pulpits in the city has corrupted rather than helped both. The problem is well stated, that people have put their faith in "ministers, their big churches and the feel-good rhetoric they sell on Sundays," rather than in the gospel, the Bible, and the selfless and righteous person of Jesus Christ.

    However, your solution is not entirely helpful. What benefit would an evolutionary, atheistic mentality give to the city? It already thrives on a "survival of the fittest" mentality. It already puts its hope in man. It already puts its stock in pragmatics. I don't see a real change in your solution other than in semantics.

    Your final word is poignantly stated, and I agree. "I can't help but imagine a Detroit without the false faith." I can't help but imagine a Detroit that stops putting its faith in preachers or politicians, but instead puts its faith in the Person of Jesus Christ. I can't stop imagining a Detroit without the false faith in people's opinions, but with the true faith in God which is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen... [without which] it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists, and that He is a rewards those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:1,6. ESV). Let's pray that true change will come to our city through the planting and renewal of churches that humbly preach the truth of God's Word and the Gospel.

    • 11.1

      "What benefit would an evolutionary, atheistic mentality give to the city?"

      As someone who (I assume) believes in gravity and doesn't believe in leprechauns, what benefit would your gravityist, aleprechaunist mentality give to the city?

      Does your belief in gravity mean you support the idea people falling to their deaths?

      Do you see now how that's a ridiculous, and rather prejudiced, question?

    • 11.2

      Not at all, James. As a gravityist, I would promote railings on balconies and strong windows in office buildings. Belief in gravity has implications. I gladly say chasing gold at the end of a rainbow will benefit no one. Belief in evolution and non-belief in God have implications.

      My question is prejudiced somewhat (i.e. I don't think an evolutionary or atheistic mentality will benefit Detroit), but genuine (i.e. explain to us how it will if you would like to). Darrel answered the question thoughtfully--he promotes putting Detroit's hope in science, reason, and logic (with some underlying morality borrowed from a biblical worldview, I hope). I opine that the only hope we have is in God, the gospel and Jesus Christ.

    • 11.3

      Railings and the like though are fighting against the consequences of gravity, not viewing gravity as some sort of moral force. Likewise anyone who understands evolution sees it as a similar disinterested force, not a source of morality and not a guide to behavior other than taking a few sensible precautions. You seemed to rather clearly recognize that belief in gravity does not make someone a gravity worshiper. Why can't you come to the same realization with respect to evolution?

      As to the difference between aleprechaunism and atheism. It might make a world of difference to someone who believes in leprechauns or gods, but from the perspective of a non-believer it makes no difference at all. Atheism defines the worldview of an atheist in exactly the same way that aleprechaunism defines your worldview (i.e. it doesn't).

      The problem with your question isn't the assertion that these things wouldn't make much of a difference, but rather it's in the implication that people who believe in evolution and atheists (not the same thing b.t.w, and you'll insult quite a lot of Christians if you keep implying that they are) are defined solely by these traits. These people are far more than the sum of two random unrelated labels which you have chosen to see them as.

    • 11.4

      Keep my statements and question in context of the original blog post, if you will.

      To say "the problem" with my question is "the implication that people who believe in evolution and atheists ... are defined solely by these traits" is not true. The question, I say again, gives the opportunity to express other traits. Feel free to express what other traits one (you if both are true of you) is defined by that are consistent with your atheism and/or naturalism (hardly random labels, and definitely not unrelated) that will help move our city forward.

    • 11.5

      There are a lot of other, far more important, traits I define myself by. Caring, rational, skeptical, sane-libertarian (to distinguish myself from anarchist-libertarians). Why would the other traits have to be "consistent with" my atheism? As if they were even slightly important.

      The point I'm trying to make is that you immediately zeroed out those two points as if they said something significant about the person. It's a sign that you see atheists and science believers (again, two different things) as being defined by these traits.

      When you think of an atheist, you don't think of your coworkers, friends, neighbors, and even fellow churchgoers who just happen to be atheist, you think of the stereotype.

      If it were any different you could never have asked that question.

      And you still conflate atheism (and now naturalism) with acceptance of the scientific fact of evolution. Personally, I don't particularly care if you continue to do so, since I have no interest in seeing your religion survive, but the majority of people who accept evolution are believers, and the majority of believers accept evolution. If you wish to continue insulting and alienating those people then go right ahead.

    • 11.6

      Well, it is good to know some atheists and evolutionists are not defined by the traits of their atheism or adherence to the theory of evolution. You make my point.

  • 12

    I agree with the point that you make about the lack of mission to those that need help the most many churches have. I can also agree to the statement that compare many houses of worship with their neighboring liquor stores. I can also agree that people of good conscience should be able to do good without organized religion. However I am not aware of instances of where they DO IT. I would be interested in knowing the community resources that groups of nonbelievers/atheists are funding and volunteering at that deliver direct service to those that need help with no support from any sort of organized religion at all. There is much bad in this world that has been done in the name of God, but there is also much good work that gets done too.

    • 12.1

      I do it. I'm atheist, I'm not involved with any group of nonbelievers or atheists, but I'm extremely involved in my community. I am quite offended that you would imply that church-going types are the only ones who do good in the world.

      One issue that I run into as a nonbeliever is that as soon as religious type hear the "A" word, they tend to jump to conclusions about me and the type of person I am. They seem to think I'm a sinner and need saving. Therefore, to save everyone the trouble, I just don't talk about it. I go about doing my work without anyone knowing about my beliefs regarding the non-existence of a higher power.

      So when you look for groups of atheists, you're unlikely to find them. There are a lot more of us than you know, so please don't jump to conclusions about us.

  • 14

    I find points of agreement with your post, regarding things like the problems of putting “faith in these ministers, their big churches and the feel-good rhetoric they sell on Sundays” and of politicians or businesspeople who simply put up a false show of religion when it is convenient. It is an unfortunate reality that many people blindly follow deceptive slogans and movements, or endeavor to place themselves within the group that seems most likely to win them support and ease without ever truly committing themselves to truth.

    However, I disagree with your ultimate conclusion, mainly because you have not identified the true problem. The problem is not religion per se but hypocrisy and sinful human nature. The reason people use religion to promote their own agenda is not the fault of religion but of the sinfulness of people. Therefore, the solution is not abandoning religion or even seeking moral reform but a transformation of individuals through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Your solution (proposed in one of your subsequent comments) of putting “our hope in science, reason, and logic” is an interesting solution, especially because none of those things are opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and I would ultimately argue that all three are borrowed from a worldview that is based on the Bible, which, ironically enough, includes the “creationism” you seem to disdain.) You mentioned that you “don't buy the argument that we need religion to motivate good people.” So I ask, what do you think (from science, reason, and logic) would motivate others to do good?

  • 15

    So does this mean no Noel Nights or Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village for you, too?

  • 16

    Amen Mr. Dawsey...many of the churches throughout Detroit are located in close geographic proximity to a school....and I can assure you...the schools in this city are in need of much more than what Robert Bobb will leave behind. There are, without a doubt, many more churches than there are school buildings in Detroit. Sadly, many of those who frequent Sunday Service are awaiting who knows what to stand up for young people and demand that they receive a high quality education. I guess the faithful have forgotten that "God helps those who help themselves."

    Historically speaking, African Americans as a group received a great deal of their formal education within the walls of the church. In fact, the black church was the most dominant institution that black people had when we won our freedom from the institution of slavery. While the churches in this area are full of those who profess to deeply believe, those same folks seem to be applying blind faith as it relates to the education of our children and the future of Detroit. echo Mr. Dawsey....What would it really mean to ditch the religion?

  • 17

    Thank you for your kind words and for reading my blog response.

    Yes, we will have to agree to disagree on the broader philosophical issues of faith and that's ok. I appreciate that you acknowledged that the faith community has made countless contributions to the social welfare of Detroit and other cities around the world. For my part, I can also say that public and non-faith based organizations have also added valuable programs and services to meet the needs of urban America.

    Now, here's the million dollar question: When will we all start to get along. If more of us in the faith community can start to work together with non-religious organizations - or interfaith, non-evangelical organizations for that matter! - maybe we can start getting things done. Imagine what it would look like if we put those religious differences behind us and pooled our resources and energy for a shared vision. Personally, I think Jesus would approve ;)

    In all seriousness, thank you again for your kind words. I hope our paths cross at some time.

  • 18

    [...] Religion in Detroit. Nothing much to say here, I just thought it’s somewhat [...]

  • 19

    Charecteristics of a cult:

    1. Promising goodies to would-be-followers, like an easy access to heaven just by joing the cult
    2. Threatening those who might choose to leave the cult, like telling them that they are going to hell because they don't belong to this cult.

    Just because there are a lot of members, does not mean that this is not a cult.

  • 20

    I realize that I'm a couple of days late on this comment, but I wanted to share it nonetheless because I think it's significant for this discussion. Unless I'm mistaking you, you're belief is that Detroit would be better without religion. You think that church leaders and those who follow them have done many wrong things that have ultimately hurt the city of Detroit.

    I'm left to wonder, though, on what basis you would determine what is "better" for the city of Detroit, or even whether or not followers of religion have done "wrong" things. (I recognize those are my words, but I think they convey your ideas.) Who determines right or wrong? Is there such a thing as evil, and how do you know what it is? I've never seen a cogent explanation for categories of right or wrong within an atheistic worldview. What atheists are forced to do is borrow morality from religion to then turn around and denounce it. So, apart from an objective standard of morality, how would we even know if Detroit is "better" without religion?

  • 21

    Folks, Darrell is an atheist, so if you're a believer, I don't think you need to put much stock in what he has to say here.

    However, if you did read his post, you'll see that he wrote both, "this isn't about personal philosophy" and that the rest of us are guilty of having a "narrow-minded and overzealous embrace of religious dogma".

    Since his denigration of our beliefs is clearly his personal philosophy (remember, he gave up on the "supernatural" a long time ago), his opinion holds no sway over us.

    Darrell, if you care, there is nothing about Christian faith that tells us, or tells you, that anyone is without sin. We are all sinners. It is what you do in the face of that sin that matters. Do you seek forgiveness and try to do better, or do you run from any shred of being accountable for your actions? Clearly, Detroit has seen its share of the latter, but I think most of us rise to the former. That you can't, or won't, see that is your problem, not Detroit's.

  • 22

    [...] you already know I'm a card-carrying atheist who thinks we give too much credibility to these "men of the cloth." But I'm also realistic when it [...]

  • 23

    Darrell, can I ask you a question? I'm merely curious. Maybe you can help me....can you tell me specifically WHY you gave up on "the supernatural"? What's your reason?

  • 24

    Darrell...Detroit has another great publicity campaign scheduled to launch 2/22/10!

    We've recently formed the Detroit Area Coalition of Reason (, joining other local coalitions all over the country and United Coalition of Reason (, to raise public awareness about local resources available to reason based Metro Detroiters. Detroit CoR is a one stop shopping place for secular people to find what they've been looking for. We want to spread the word that nonbelievers are not alone!

    Watch for our bus displays soon to be adorning Detroit and Oakland County buses!

    Please keep in touch so that you can write an article about DetroitCoR's outreach campaign!


    PS: Check out our FFRF billboard group photos here ->

  • 25

    [...] since we all love controversy, I want all my fellow Detroit Lions football fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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