Religion on the Wane? NatGeo’s The Story of God Says Otherwise.


It’s said that we’re living in a post-Christian society these days. Church attendance is declining. The number of Americans who claim no formal religious affiliation is growing.

But does that mean that religion’s influence is fading? Not according to Morgan Freeman.

“I’m not sure it’s correct to say that religion is on the wane in this country,” Freeman told me during a recent interview. “You only have to visit one of the megachurches to see that, no, we’re very strongly after whatever it is that we’re looking for when we seek God’s help.”

Freeman is a perhaps unlikely expert on religion these days­­—­and not because he played God twice in the movies (Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty). Since 2016, the Oscar-winning actor has hosted The Story of God with Morgan Freeman on the National Geographic Channel, a globe-trotting exploration of religion and faith in all its myriad forms. During its third season (which starts tonight), Freeman is blessed by a little girl reputed to be the living incarnation of a Hindu goddess, he watches as Buddhist monks offer beer to appease evil spirits, and he visits ruins in Megiddo that perhaps offer the earliest archeological evidence of Jesus being thought of as God.

Though Freeman says that he’s “not at all” religious, he also says he’s always been intrigued by the big questions faith tries to answer: where we come from; why we’re here; where we’re headed after death. “I guess when the opportunity came along for us to get into the depth of religious belief, I’m just fascinated by it.”

I am, too.

Before I came to Plugged In, I was a religion reporter for the local newspaper in Colorado Springs. And while I certainly covered a lot of stories related to my own Christian faith, I also wrote stories related to other religion expressions, too. I watched as a rabbi, fresh off several days of prayer, restored a Torah scroll for a local synagogue. I talked with Muslims about the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. I interviewed Hindus and pagans and Buddhists and atheists, along with every stripe of Christian imaginable. In my own small way, I was doing what Freeman does in The Story of God­­—learning a little something about the dizzying breadth of religious belief.

It was my favorite part of the gig.

Part of that’s because I’m naturally a curious (some would say nosy) person. I’d like to know as much as I can about everything, and if I had 500 years to live and an unlimited income, I’m pretty sure I’d spend a good 480 of those years in college.  My job as a religion reporter allowed me to be as nosy as I wanted to be—asking questions that you’d never ask at, say, an office party.

But in our increasingly pluralistic world, I think understanding what other people believe is important, because that belief shapes who we are and what we do.

“It’s hard not to be affected by or hear stories about somebody who has a different belief system than we do, Lori McCreary, one of the executive producers of The Story of God, told me. “And I think it’s more important that we understand our fellow humans across the globe, especially as it comes to their personal beliefs, because that’s often what’s called out about how different we are.”

I grow frustrated watching how Christians are regularly portrayed in movies and television. Sometimes it seems as if these shows’ makers have never even met, say, an evangelical Christian. Instead, they just ball up a whole bunch of stereotypes and biases, throw them on screen and call it a follower of Christ.

But it’s not just Hollywood moviemakers that fall into that trap. We all can. We make some pretty broad assumptions about other faiths and their adherents without knowing much about them. Not only does that do them a disservice, but it gives those folks a disinclination to consider our beliefs seriously as well.

But one of the most surprising aspects of the job—learning about those other faiths—was how it informed and deepened my own Christian convictions.

A quick for instance: Several years ago, a Christian organization decided to give away a free copy of the Bible to every newspaper subscriber in the city. They worked out a deal where the Bible would be included in the daily paper, landing in maybe 100,000 driveways. As a reporter, I found the story really interesting. As a Christian, I found the drive kind of inspiring.

And then I talked with a local rabbi who was horrified by the plan.

See, both Christians and Jews see their shared parts of the Bible as sacred­—the very word of God. But in Judaism, that sense of the sacred takes on heightened importance. The Sefer Torah—a ceremonial, handwritten scroll made up of the first five books of the Bible—is written on special parchment using a special quill. It’s stored in the holiest part of the synagogue. The reverence Jewish adherents show to God’s holy word is deep and, for me, quite moving. And for this rabbi, the idea of that sacred text sitting out in someone’s driveway, to be rained on or driven over, was almost painful.

I don’t think the organization that decided to distribute the Bible in such a way was wrong. But listening to the rabbi talk about how her faith tradition treats its scriptures made me think more deeply about how seriously I treat Scripture in my own life and walk with God. And I’ve never looked at the Bible in quite the same way since then.

Religion is inherently a complex topic, and when you’re talking about the world’s countless religions, it becomes even more so. And, it must be said, the show is respectful, but skeptical, too. When Freeman visits the Megiddo site mentioned earlier, he talks about the point in history when Jesus, “the carpenter, the rabbi,” became “God.” If you’re not a Christian, that might seem like a reasonable question. But if you are a Christian, you know the question itself misses the point with regard to Jesus’ own fully-human, fully-divine nature. He was God not just from birth, but from the beginning of time.

That said, The Story of God isn’t really designed to spiritually undergird one particular faith as much as it aims to open a small window into many of them.  And for people who, like me, want to get a bit more insight into some of that complexity—to better understand other religions and the people around us—The Story of God offers a great conversation catalyst for those who are engaging intentionally and thoughtfully with the religious ideas this show presents.  

Just remember that it’s a virtual classroom, not a church.  

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

charitysplace More than 1 year ago
I am usually disappointed in how Christians are portrayed also; one of my favorite secular depictions of Christians is in Call the Midwife. It treats Christianity respectfully. And it's thought provoking without being preachy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hahaha! First Comment again!!

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For some reason, my other comment that was under moderation got deleted.
What I had said previously was:

When I first read the title and saw Morgan Freeman. I misread wane for Wayne. And I got my hopes up for Batman! I was, sadly, disappointed.

Also, that's pretty cool @AsayPaul got to meet Morgan Freeman.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse