More than half of all Americans say religion is “very important” to them, according to Pew Research’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. For some groups, religion is a primary factor that orders daily life, informs decisions, shapes ethics, and marks milestones. But nationwide, the importance of religion declined 3 percentage points from 2007 to 2014.
The drop didn’t register among Christian faiths, which actually became slightly more devout. Instead, non-Christians and the unaffiliated seemed to put more distance between their daily lives and their faith. With the exception of Judaism, devotion among adherents of every other non-Christian faith declined by up to four percentage points.
The story of Americans’ relationship with religion is shifting at the very same time that the nation is experiencing its most consequential ethnic demographic shift, along with corresponding political lurches — to both the far right, which is focused on securing white supremacy, and the far left, intent on attaining utopian equality for all. Meanwhile, religious extremism is providing powerful frameworks for terrorist organizations’ quest for geopolitical power.
Deep shifts bring uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear stokes division and violence.
Against this backdrop, National Geographic Channel and actor Morgan Freeman’s Revelation Entertainment teamed up to produce The Story of God, a six-week series launching on April 3.
The series does not address issues of poverty, patriarchy, racism, or justice — all central themes in most major religions. Executive producer Lori McCreary acknowledged the series’ lack of focus on these integral topics.
“That’s for The Story of God 2,” McCreary joked, at an early viewing of the film for faith leaders.
The producers’ intent with this series was to go beyond the things that divide us and investigate the biggest questions — ones that unite the human experience.
The series dives deep into the big questions that cut across cultures, continents, and religions:
What happens when we die?
Will there be an apocalypse? If so, what should we expect?
How was the world created?
Who is God?
What is evil and how is it determined?
Are miracles real?
I caught up with executive producers McCreary, James Younger, and Morgan Freeman on the red carpet premiere of The Story of God in New York City.
“People don’t see the commonalities between religions,” Younger explained.
“They just think of their faith as being the one that has the answers. Other faiths? They don’t know two things about them.”
When asked how his experience on the project influenced how he interprets the national and global context within which The Story of God will air, Younger said,
“So much of what’s going on in the world is based on that ignorance and the ability of some people to manipulate the people that follow them to say, ‘These guys are bad. We’ve got to wipe them out.’”
As executive producer of Invictus and the current TV hit Madam Secretary, Lori McCreary is known for producing works that touch the heart and speak to social issues of the day.
“God and religion are really the question of our generation and the generation coming up behind us,” McCreary explained.
“There is so little dialogue and understanding of each other. We live in a sound bite world. So, oftentimes you turn on the news and you see people in strife and struggle. If we go deeper into the conversation with each other, then we’ll ultimately realize that we have much more in common with each other than we do different.”
When I asked McCreary, who has invested her life in making films, why she believes film can make a difference, she started to cry.
“I grew up in theater,” McCreary explained.
“I saw that watching another person’s story could actually help you understand them more. Theater had such a small audience, so when I had the chance to work in film … millions of people can see one film. If all or one of them was touched and it could make that big of a difference, then I wanted to be doing that.”
Morgan Freeman shared one of the biggest ah-ha moments he gained on his pilgrimage.
“I thought that reincarnation was an end unto itself for Hindus. Not so,” Freeman said.
“They’re not all that thrilled about the idea. … They’d rather just get it done and move on.”
There were a lot of these ah-ha moments in the episode I watched. Most of the time, my mouth hung open taking in the first episode’s stories, like the story of the Christian man who died and came back to life or the Egyptian king who carved his name in stone again and again so that every time his name was spoken his life would be recalled — and thus he would be given eternal life. Or the stories of Mayan sacrifice or Hindu’s pilgrimage to the Ganges to complete the journey of life for their deceased loved ones.
As I walked in the footsteps of people across the world, listening to their stories of God, I began to see our shared humanity — the shared image of that God in all of us.
Perhaps if millions of us take time out to walk in others’ shoes over the next few weeks, perhaps then our uncertain future might breed less fear and more curiosity, more compassion — and perhaps less violence.
Watch this Sunday and let me know your thoughts on Twitter @lisasharper. I’ll be watching, too.