Is Religion in Decline?

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. There are more than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, for which I apologize.


The first reading was an excerpt from “The Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi” by William Meredith.

The second reading is from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone To Talk:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Sermon — “Is Religion in Decline?”

I love the second reading, the one by Annie Dillard. Although she addresses her comments to Christians, I feel they apply to anyone who goes to regular religious services. Here we all are, contemplating the huge and awful mysteries of life; we should all be wearing crash helmets. And I love the first reading, too. We may not be followers of Jainism, and we may not run a bird hospital in Delhi. But we are like them every time we attempt to live out our values among the seemingly inconsequential events of life.

Keep those thoughts in mind. But now I’m going to turn to the subject of Daoist priests. To help answer the question of whether religion is in decline, I’m going to tell you about a modern-day Daoist priest named Li Bin. Journalist Ian Johnson met Mr. Li in 2009 in New York City, and then renewed their acquaintance in 2015 when Johnson went to China for an extended stay. Johnson tells Li Bin’s story in “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.”

Li Bin is a ninth generation “yinyang” man, or daoshin, a Daoist priest. He grew up in the countryside. There he learned how to be a yinyang man from his father, Li Manshan, who had learned it from his father, Li Qing, and so on back through ninth generations. Li Qing had kept the daoshin tradition alive through Mao ze Dong’s Cultural Revolution, hiding their ritual texts and ritual objects from the Red Guards. Then in the 1990s, the Chinese government began to see Chinese religion as a cultural asset. And so the Li family can now work openly as yinyang men.

Li Bin did not set out to be a yinyang man. But after he failed the test to get into high school, Li Bin joined his father and his grandfather in the family business. The main money-making business for yinyang men (and they are all men) is conducting traditional funeral services. When someone dies, the family will call in the yinyang men to organize and conduct a funeral which usually lasts for two days.

So here’s what happens when Li Bin and his father are called to conduct a funeral. First, they negotiate a fee with the family. A portion of the fee goes towards subcontractors, such as the musicians who play during the two-day service; families with more money can afford more musicians for their funerals. Li Bin and his father are both excellent musicians, but when they can they add up to four other musicians to their ensemble.

The yinyang men and the other musicians arrive at eight in the morning on the first day. One of the yinyang men writes a formal announcement of the death. This announcement is worded as if it is told by the eldest son of the deceased. The announcement is written in classical Chinese, so the yinyang men must both know classical Chinese characters (which is difficult in of itself) and must be excellent calligraphers (which is perhaps more difficult).

After the announcement has been written, they all put on the robes of Daoist priests, along with hats with the sun on the front and the moon on the back. Together they process to the family’s house, where they proceed to play music and sing Daoist scriptures. In the breaks between playing music, the yinyang men write magical symbols on pieces of paper. These strips of red paper will be used to seal the coffin. The first day is punctuated with other small ceremonies, such as burning strips of paper that represent the material goods of the deceased person, who will need those things when they arrive in the world of the dead.

The yinyang men calculate the most auspicious place for the grave. They prepare the coffin using the strips of paper they made earlier. The family bow to the coffin, while a picture of the deceased person looks down at them. After the coffin is lowered into the ground, the children of the deceased person sweep the grave.

There’s much more to it than this; I’m leaving out many details. But you get the idea. The Daoist priest must be a good musician, and a good calligrapher — so he must be something of an artist. The Daoist priest must also be skilled in geomancy and fortune-telling and other mystical arts — so he is also like what we in the West think of as a priest, a person in tune with the mystical parts of the universe. And the Daoist priest must know the traditional death rituals of his culture — so he is also what folklorists call a “tradition bearer.”

In the past, generations of yinyang men lived and worked in the same village for generations, where they knew pretty much everyone. But Li Bin realized the villages were quickly disappearing. Everyone who could was moving to the cities for economic opportunity, and for that matter the cities were expanding and taking over the villages. As a result, Li Bin decided to move to the city. He still works with his father back in his home village, but much of his business now comes from city people.

The city people are detached from tradition. They don’t know proper funeral traditions. Educated people are the worst. Not only does Li Bin have to tell them the correct things to do, they don’t want to pay for the full ritual. Because the city people don’t want to pay, Li Bin has to bring in cheaper musicians (who are not very good, but who cost less). As a result, the younger people at funerals may ignore the traditional music, and instead listen to pop music or do karaoke.

Despite the cultural changes that come with urbanization, Li Bin can still make a good living as an urban yinyang man. But when he considers his teenaged son, he does not want his son to become a yinyang man.

The cultural changes Li Bin is confronting in China remind me of some of the cultural changes I’m seeing as a Unitarian Universalist minister in the United States. Let me explain.

Over my twenty years as a minister, I have noticed that fewer and fewer people turn to clergy based in congregations for their memorial services. A whole cottage industry of memorial service officiants has grown up, ranging from trained clergy who specialize solely in rites of passage, to people who have no formal training but who feel deeply called to this kind of work. (The same is true, by the way, of marriages — increasingly, couples are asking professional officiants or even friends to officiate at their weddings.)

Even those people who do ask me to officiate at a memorial service are doing more and more of the service themselves. Twenty years ago, a family would come to me for a memorial service, and I’d tell them what to do. Now I’m more likely to act as a sort of consultant to support families in creating their own service. I consider this to be a good thing. A memorial service should be something that comforts the family of the person who has died. It should not be a rigid religious rite. I like that families want to be the ones deciding what to do and how to do it. I like my new role of telling families what works best from a pragmatic standpoint, helping them achieve whatever vision they have for their memorial service. The only downside I see is that sometimes families take on a lot of work, and it causes them a bit too much stress. On the other hand, families mostly like being able to come up with creative and moving ways to personalize their memorial services.

It would be nice to give you some examples, to tell you about some of the beautiful memorial services I’ve helped families arrange. But those are not my stories, and to preserve confidentiality I’m not going to talk about them. However, I can tell you what Carol and I did for her father Ed’s memorial service last March. When Ed died, he was living in a retirement community, and we knew that many of his friends were tired out from attending memorial services. So we announced that we were going to have a celebration of Ed’s life. We invited people to come to one of the community rooms, help drink up Ed’s wine cellar, have snacks, and share any memories of Ed that they liked. We didn’t want the celebration of Ed’s life to go on forever, and we scheduled it an hour and a half before the dinner hour so it would end naturally after about an hour. And we made sure people understood that we wanted to keep it positive — yes, there were tears, but everyone was grateful to keep the focus on Ed’s life.

This was a non-traditional memorial service — if for no other reason than you usually don’t drink wine and eat snacks during a memorial service. Twenty years ago, I don’t think we could have gotten away with something like that. But urbanization has changed everything. Very few people live their whole lives in the same town; most people have moved from where they were born, and we are no longer restricted to unquestioned rituals into which we were born.

Drawing again from my own family’s experiences — because it would be inappropriate for me to share some other family’s experience — I’ll give you an example of how we are no longer restricted to the old ways of doing things. When my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she made clear what she wanted when she died. Her ethnic and religious tradition called for a church service led by the minister, and burial in the family plot in a coffin without embalming. Since my mother’s family came from Nantucket, this entailed some logistical difficulties — after she died, her body had to be flown to Nantucket within a couple of days. On the island we had a Unitarian graveside service conducted by the Unitarian minister on Nantucket, who read a standard graveside service — we had no input into what he said or did. Then we returned to the mainland, where the minister led her memorial service in her Unitarian church a week after she had died.

Contrast that with what happened when my mother’s twin sister died some two decades later. My mother’s twin was cremated. The memorial service was held when it was convenient for her children and others to fly to her retirement home — and the service was not held in a Unitarian church but at the retirement home. Those who could not attend the service in person, including one of her daughters, participated via videoconference. In the memorial service itself, the Unitarian minister played a much smaller role. The old rituals no longer bound us.

These examples from my family are just a couple of specific examples of the increasing diversity of today’s memorial services. American death rituals have changed considerably just in the past twenty years. And they’re continuing to change. Even if you’ve lived your entire life here in Cohasset, even then you’re no longer bound to the rituals of the town and ethnic tradition in which you grew up. And fewer and fewer people feel restricted to the rituals of any formal religious affiliation. This does not mean that religion is in decline — this simply means that our rituals are changing.

Yet even as our religious lives change, we can still choose to find support in a congregation, in this congregation. As a part of this congregation, you can ask fellow congregants for help and support, you can draw on the minister’s experience and training, you still have a community behind you. But these are our choices; religion is not dictated to us from on high.

So it is that we can choose to have our religious life be deeply embedded in a chosen community, supported by people we know and like. And when we come to major life-changing events, the presence of this chosen community can make death and new life feel less like a mystery and more like something that’s a natural part of life and of living. Rather than being unknowable and remote, religion is now what we do together, as we live life from day to day, as we confront mystery and difficulty and sadness and joy and death and beauty.