Imagine No Religion

“Imagine there’s no heaven,” John Lennon sang in 1971. “It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky.” Well, one does not need much imagination in Albania — it’s pretty much everyday reality. According to one recent reckoning, three-quarters of the nation’s residents are self-professed atheists, and only a small number of those who identify as Muslim or Christian actually participate in any religious community.

For a largely atheistic country, Albania has an incredibly rich religious history. St. Paul came to this region, once part of the Roman province of Illyricum, and preached (Rom. 15:19), and a Christian community is known to have existed as early as A.D. 58. By the late 11th century, a Byzantine document described Albanians as “entirely Christian,” with only those in the far north owing allegiance to Rome.

The arrival of Ottoman-Turkish rule in the 15th century saw Islam begin to chip away at the Christian population. Some became Muslim through pure pragmatism: since Islam was the faith of the new ruling class, embracing it could be a path to personal advancement. Others were undoubtedly convinced of the truth of Islam by powerful Muslim preaching. Many more changed religion as a result of strong peer pressure. By the time of independence in 1912, Albania was mostly Muslim, with about a quarter to the population practicing Christianity. Animosity was largely lacking between adherents of the two faiths. Intermarriage was common, and interfaith families freely participated in each other’s religious celebrations.

Overt religious conflict dates only from the Italian occupation of 1939-44. Roman Catholics, still numerous in the north and present in tiny numbers elsewhere, came quickly to be perceived as fascist collaborators by Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike. Many were treated shamefully and even martyred.

Enter tobacconist turned Communist activist Enver Hoxha, coming to power at the end of Italian rule. Taking full financial advantage of new religious division, he first seized Catholic property and assets, followed in 1946 by seizing most other Christian and Muslim properties. By the mid-1960s, all places of public worship had been converted to “productive” use. But the loss of property and money hardly kills faith, as the Episcopal Church’s wide application of the Dennis Canon has demonstrated.

A new national constitution in 1976 made it clear that the state supported “implant[ing] a scientific materialistic world outlook in the people,” and the next year the state outlawed “religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature,” including Bibles and Qur’ans. Penalties for religious “propagandizing” became so severe that even the most ardent Christian and Muslim believers declined to pass on their faith to their children, lest the children tell others and the parents be imprisoned. The result was an entire generation lost to religion altogether.

A lifting of the ban on religion and the subsequent collapse of Communism in the early 1990s brought an influx of foreign funds to build new churches and mosques, and a few of these stand in sharp contrast to the drab functionality of Hoxha-era architecture. The trouble is that few people worship in them. A generation never nurtured in spirituality and “no religion too,” in Lennon’s words, apparently has no interest in such things. In fact, most who attend worship services today were born before the eclipse of religion.

The current religious situation in Albania shows just how quickly ancient and noble religious traditions can disappear. All it took was a single generation not passing on its faith to the next, and so the new generation has no faith to pass on — no grace, no redemption, no hope of eternal life. “I’ll worry about sickness and suffering and dying when they happen,” a young man in a Tirana coffee shop told me. And one senses a widespread amorality, particularly in business affairs. Shady get rich quick schemes abound; pirated, counterfeit, and obviously stolen goods are on offer in the markets. “Imagine all the people living for today,” sang Lennon, though it could have been Vladimir Lenin. Many appear to have lives as functional and soulless as Tirana’s post-war housing blocks.

It’s frequently been pointed out that traditional religion in the developed world is losing a whole generation of young people. This is particularly apparent among Anglicans. Why this is has been widely debated, but the reasons really do not matter. It’s happening, and whatever we have done wrong has already been done. A lost generation has no faith story to pass on to the next, and that’s how religions die.

While many Episcopal congregations have no young people or young families anymore, a few are blessed with plenty of both and many others still have at least some. If our faith means enough to us that we want our church to continue into the future, we might do well to focus on sharing our faith story with the young. We can do this not only in formal church school settings, but also through equipping and encouraging parents to share faith stories at home. Only our youngest members, after all, can pass on that sustaining faith to the generation that follows. Otherwise, Albania gives a hint of what our future holds.

The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle, Tempe, Arizona.

Imagine No Religion

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