Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.

 

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Friday miscellany

First, a few pieces of absurdity for you this morning.

Driving.ca has a piece called ‘Eight Cheap Cars for the Cash Strapped Student‘. Hey, folks, if you can afford a cheap car, you’re not a cash-strapped student! Cash strapped students used to ride the bus or the train. When I was a student, the only one in my class to own a car was the son of the wealthy businessman. The rest of us walked or took the bus (or sponged rides off our friends!).

Over the Europe there’s a huge and complex refugee problem caused mainly by a lengthy civil war in Syria. Reading the Old Testament and the New Testament, it would seem that God might be concerned about this – in fact, that it would be high on his list of priorities. Meanwhile, over at ‘Thinking Anglicans’, a joyful post about the appointment of Christine Hardman as the next Bishop of Newcastle has turned into a long discussion in the comments about whether or not Conservative Evangelicals in Newcastle will be able to accept her ministry. Note: so far, no Conservative Evangelicals are taking part in this discussion.

By the way, if you want to read some stories about the real human beings who are refugees, check out this post on the Christian Peacemaker Teams website.

Over in Kentucky, of course, there’s an ongoing controversy about a devout Christian county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because it violates her conscience; she believes that God’s plan is for marriage to be a union between one man and one woman (note: she has now gone to jail over this issue). I’m sympathetic to her view; I have reservations about same-sex marriage myself, and I’m also mindful of the fact that the government appears to have unilaterally changed the terms of her contract after hiring her. On the other hand, as has been pointed out on the internet, if a Quaker clerk refused to issue a gun licence on the grounds that it violated his or her conscientious objection to guns, I suspect that the conservative Christian community wouldn’t be jumping up and down in support. I also suspect they won’t be donating money for the legal bills of Christians who are prosecuted for war tax resistance.

Interestingly, some of the folks involved in the fight to legalize same sex marriage in the US seem to have a good sense of perspective on this incident:

“I think this is a tempest in a teapot,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, which was active in the push for same-sex marriages to be recognized. “If the big backlash and the mass resistance that our opponents promised is one clerk from a county of under 25,000 people, I think we’re in very good shape.”

Now, a serious issue.

Jesus told his critics that the reason he spent time with ‘sinners’ was that it wasn’t the healthy folks that needed a doctor, but the sick. Christianity believes in grace, which is God’s love poured out generously and without reservation on all who need it, whether they deserve it or not. So Christianity isn’t supposed to be a club for those who are doing well; it’s meant to be a community for imperfect people who help each other and share the love of God with each other.

So I’m saddened by the continual realization that when some people start having struggles, they stop going to church. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons for this, and I’m not in any way wanting to judge these folks. I simply think that we in the church need to do a better job of being obviously, in the sight of the world, a community for the broken, not a club for people who have their lives all together.

Speaking of brokenness and how we deal with it, many of my friends will know how much I enjoy the CBC program ‘Heartland’. A couple of years ago Graham Wardle, who plays Ty Borden on the show, got together with another motorcycling friend to start the annual ‘Cruise with a Cause‘, a motor cycle trip to raise money for good causes. Their 2015 ride is ending in High River today, and their cause this year is the Canadian Mental Health Association. ‘Heartland’ stars Graham Wardle, Amber Marshall, Shaun Johnston and Alisha Newton are all taking part. I think that’s a great cause; mental health issues affect millions of people, and often they’re afraid to talk about it or ask for help. Anything that raises the profile of this subject is a good thing in my books.

And while we’re talking about mental health issues, I should mention the World Suicide Prevention Day ‘Cycle Around the Globe Initiative‘ on September 10th, sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Here in Edmonton my good friends Bill and Betty Jo Werthmann and the ‘Hillary’s Ride’ initiative are sponsoring a ride at Hawrelak Park, one of several events happening in Edmonton as part of ‘Lift the Silence’ suicide awareness week.

And finally, getting back to the refugee crisis, there is of course a lot of excellent noise going on out there. However, we also need to do something. I have a rather small house and I doubt if a refugee family would fit into it. So the best I can do is to give my financial support to one of the excellent organizations that are doing something about it. Here are a few:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank

World Vision

Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund

Mennonite Central Committee

Oxfam Canada

Carry on!

Which enemies?

As a Christian pacifist, I regularly get asked, “So what should we do about ISIS, then?” Years ago the question was “What should we have done about Hitler, then?” but it’s basically the same issue.

I’m sure those are very important questions, but I think there are more urgent ones for most Christian pacifists to consider.

We have this human tendency to jump straight to the huge issues. and they are huge, but the thing is, I don’t face them every day (well, actually, I don’t face ISIS any day, but I understand that if I lived in the Middle East I’d have more of a sense of urgency about the question). And it’s not that the huge issues aren’t important; it’s that sometimes they can be a tempting distraction from the slightly smaller issues, that I do face every day.

For me, making decisions about ISIS isn’t a daily occurrence. But every day, I have to decide what to do about the family member who ignores me. About the driver who cuts me off in traffic. About the work colleague who seems to think it’s their calling to make life difficult for me. About the church member who talks about me behind my back.

When I think about what “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you” means, maybe I should start a little closer to home. And maybe Matthew 18:21-35 would be a good scripture passage to meditate on.

Is it just about rewards and punishments?

The other day I was having lunch with an agnostic friend. He’s the kind of agnostic friend who pushes me to give honest answers to real questions, and I like that.

We’re both quite involved in trying to make things better for the least fortunate people on the planet, and somehow (I can’t quite remember how), we got to talking about why we do that. And then he said something that completely floored me. He said, “I can see how being religious would be a real help there, because you believe that after you die, you’re going to be rewarded for the good you’ve done. That would be a really effective motivator”.

The reason those words surprised me so much is because I can’t honestly remember the last time this entered my mind. If the truth be told, I never think about eternal rewards when I’m contemplating doing some good deed. And conversely, when I’m being tempted, I never motivate myself to avoid temptation by thinking about potential eternal punishments. To be honest, I actually don’t find that to be a very effective deterrent.

So what do I think about? Why do Christians try to put the teaching of Jesus into practice, if it’s not out of a desire for heaven or out of fear of hell?

I can’t speak for all Christians, but for myself, I can say this with some certainty: it’s because I genuinely believe that Jesus is right. I believe that the way of life he taught and demonstrated – love of God and neighbour, not storing up too many possessions, forgiving and being reconciled, caring for the poor, speaking the truth, faithfulness in marriage and so on – is the best and most rewarding way to live. And I believe that as more of us follow Jesus and learn that way of life, then life will get better for everyone and everything on planet earth.

Jesus taught us a short way of expressing that, in the form of a prayer. It goes like this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

That’s why I follow Jesus. It’s not because of rewards and punishments. It’s because I’m convinced that on the day that prayer is fully answered, life on God’s green earth will be a dream come true. And I want to be one of the ones who helps make that happen.