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.


Was the Real Adam historical or a convenient fiction in a Mosaic fantasy?

New Zealand blogger and Anglican priest Peter Carrell gives an absolutely superb account of a reading of Genesis 1-3 which takes science seriously as well as continuing to see the Scriptures as a revelation from God. I am 100% in agreement with what Peter has to say here, in fact, I find it difficult to adequately express my enthusiasm for the quality of his thought and the clarity of his writing. Here’s an excerpt.

In fact, the problem of whether or not we are to read Genesis 1 as ‘literal’ or ‘scientific’ truth is readily solved by reading Genesis 2 as well! In Genesis 1:1–2:3 we have an account of the creation of the world which is spread over seven days (strictly speaking six days, since God rests on the seventh day) and describes two stages of creation. In stage one, with the heavens and the earth and water already created, during the first three days, God creates light (and darkness), sky and rain clouds, sea and land and vegetation. In stage two, over the next three days, God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, fish and birds, land based animals and human beings together, male and female. The creation of humanity is specifically described as being ‘in God’s image’.

In Genesis 2:4-25 we have another account of creation (that it is another account is made clear by 2:4-5).[1] In this account the emphasis falls on one single day of creation (‘in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens’). On that day, after the making of the earth and the heavens, and before either plants were made or rain fell, there was a mist which watered the land. The first living creature of any kind is man, made separately (and definitely not simultaneously) from woman. Then man is placed in a garden in which plants grow and a river flowed. After which the man is deemed to be in need of companionship and so land based animals, and birds (no mention of fish) are made for the man. When none of these proves a fit helper for the man, a woman is formed from the man and brought to him. The creation of humanity is specifically linked to marriage (2:24).

There is simply no question of both accounts being compatible and non-contradictory if read literally. One day does not equal six (or seven) days. Humanity cannot be created both before and after plants and animals. Thus Genesis 1 – 2 tells the story of creation in a non-literal manner via the medium of two accounts told sequentially. Common to both stories is the conviction that it is God who created the world and that humanity is the most important part of creation (being the culmination of the acts of creation in the first story and the first act of creation within the created world in the second story). Alternatively, we could say that in the first story humanity is the goal of creation and in the second story humanity is the centre of creation. That is, the messages of the accounts are compatible and non-contradictory. The first emphasizes that God deemed creation to be good, an emphasis lacking in the second. The second account emphasiszes that God gave the man the task of ‘working and keeping’ the garden, the first account tells us that God commanded humanity to ‘have dominion’ over the earth and the life on it.

I strongly encourage you to go and read the rest.