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Monday, March 16, 2009

Religion on the decline? Maybe, but then again maybe not

Recently, the American Religious Identification Survey showed an apparent decline in churches, prompting some to prophesy doom. For example, Robert Spencer writes in Christian Science Monitor:
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
Others are not so sure: Allen Hunt, a radio host who pastors a megachurch comments:
... nearly all of the decline in Christian “market share” came from the slowly collapsing ranks of mainline Protestant churches ... Forty years in a row of creeping death. These highly bureaucratized, often theologically relativistic and liberal, groups await their own funeral. Americans simply have chosen to find spiritual meaning and growth outside the mainline churches.
I think Hunt has a point here. It's not that these mainline churches' causes are necessarily bad. Many - like fighting poverty and domestic abuse - are highly commendable.

The problem is that - if that is what you want to do - join a political party rather than a church. A political party can form a government and a church can't. That is doubtless a conclusion many people have reached, and surely one reason for the decline in these churches' numbers.

The churches that survive will continue to cultivate spirituality, though it probably will be more eclectic than in the past: Hunt, again:
In fact, a number of those who classified themselves as having no religious affiliation (“None”) actually claim to be Christian but with no organizational affiliation. These people simply claim to be “followers of Jesus.”
Yes, that is another thing. People who say None often just mean, "I don't want to be bugged by long jaws about God and Religion." But if you involve them in a conversation, they often turn out to have ideas on the subject. There is a striking incident of this very type in the New Testament - Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria.

While we are here, Spencer writes,
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Okay, well, that anti-God crusade is happening already, but not, I think, for the reasons Spencer believes. (He blames it on cultural and political conservatism, but the authors of anti-God books are mostly promoters of materialism, period. Opposition to Christian moral beliefs are only a part of the story.)

Two other things to note: First, the viewpoint of traditional Christians on many currently contentious issues has been widely held until fairly recently over much of the world, and still is in a great many places. The traditional Christians didn't move; others did.

Second, if Canadian experience is any indicator, many activists against Christians are highly illiberal and have little respect for civil rights. So catering to their demands would be as unwise for non-traditionalists as for traditionalists - and can be opposed on those grounds.

In fact, a pushback is setting in here in Canada already, and it is not necessarily being led by reactionaries, but rather - in many cases - by liberal groups. A number of gay rights activists, for example, have been quite outspoken in saying, essentially, "We're not asking you to persecute pastors and priests who preach that the gay lifestyle is not acceptable to their church. We just want to be left alone to live the way we want."

Significant civil rights victories are now being won here as a result of concerted action by people who agree on little else.

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