What should we do with all of those empty churches?

Between 6,000-10,000 churches are left behind every year in America.

  • With many churches only being operational for a few hours each week, thousands of churches are shutting down.
  • Church attendance is down nationwide, adding to the problem of what to do with so much real estate.
  • Inventive uses for abandoned churches include co-working spaces, Airbnbs, and bookstores.

Earlier this year I was amazed walking around the 110 acres that is Vatican City while visiting Rome for the first time. I'm not especially "touristy", yet as a former student of religion it was one landmark I had to witness. I suppose I just needed to know if Jude Law's voice could really emit such gravity.

The sheer size of that property is dwarfed by the Catholic Church's total real estate holdings, which comes in at 177 million acres worldwide. Only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and British Royalty own more land. The Pope might never control as much land as the Queen, but still, not shabby.

That doesn't mean all is well in religious real estate. An estimated 6,000-10,000 churches are abandoned every single year in America. Citylab explains:

As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are only in use a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. None of these trends show signs of slowing, so the United States's struggling congregations face a choice: start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat.

Though churches have great financial (e.g. tax-free) perks, operational costs can be taxing. Strangely, some take issue with converting these properties into multi-use spaces. One of the best ideas is to host multi-religious gatherings: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism—all religions congregate in one form or another. Even atheists congregate. Plus, as one Atlantic reader notes, maybe the religious shouldn't think so highly of their constructions:

There's nothing in the Bible that requires ornate houses of worship. Centuries of church leaders building ornate monuments to ego instead of using the funds to care for the poor are not something to be celebrated. Followers of a man who said to give your second coat to the poor shouldn't be obsessed with buildings.

Yet churches are beautiful; even an atheist like myself can love gorgeous architecture. Regardless of your feelings on religion, anyone can appreciate what humans build in attempts of servicing higher ideals. Certain businesses are hip to this fact. Some churches are being sold to become hotels and Airbnbs. One Roman Catholic church in Troy, New York became a fraternity, which might seem a strange transubstantiation at first, though the Greeks are known for rituals as well.

One Methodist location in Dallas decided to open up their doors as a creative co-working space, which I find to be a perfect repurposing of space. Numerous artisans now work out of the location, including a florist and stained-glass-window artist, as well as a group teaching African refugees language and business skills. Even a yoga and community dance center was added. If Saddleback can have a coffee shop and mall on its campus, why not?

Another Methodist location in North Carolina worked in conjunction with that Dallas church to greatly expand their offerings:

In addition to coworking space, they retrofitted the building with a textile and woodworking shop, meeting rooms that are used by local business and AA groups, a retreat space that can sleep up to nine, and a commercial kitchen in the basement for local bakers and chefs. Outside, Missional Wisdom constructed a community garden, food forest, beehives for the Haw Creek Bee Club, a greenhouse, and a playground for the children who attend the school next door.

These ideas are more in the spirit of church architecture (and mission) than selling off the land for a luxury hotel to be installed. Not that all capitalist endeavors are bad. An epic Catholic Church in the Netherlands was shuttered by Napoleon in 1794; today it is an incredible bookstore. And it would be hard to get tired of an alien nativity scene housed in an old Portland church, complete with a "shaman Santa Claus".

Perhaps the greatest use case is in Atlanta, where a 140-year-old Baptist Church was saved by the Atlanta Freethought Society. As the chairman of the AFS activism task force describes the group:

Freethinker is kind of the broadest most general term. There are people who would never call themselves atheists, but they call themselves Freethinkers. To an Orthodox Christian they will appear to be atheists because they live without a belief, don't act on any belief in God.

But really, isn't the "church within" the point anyway? Real estate is just space; its value depends on a confluence of details. Wineries, pubs, skateparks—the list of uses for churches is endless. I'm just glad the Laser Tag Park in a former Harrisburg church didn't make it either. Bad ideas are simply that.

Or perhaps local governments can move and repurpose the space for public good. The previous landowners were beneficiaries of old and outdated tax laws that often only helped those in specific groups. Expanding that outward to help the community-at-large might be the greatest potential use. Imagine that, using our tax dollars for something that helps everyone?

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.