Our crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
– Antonio Gramsci
The predominant cultural influence of Judeo-Christianity for the past 1700 or so years has been waning for decades, even centuries, and this is becoming increasingly visible. Yes, the residue of Judeo-Christian moral insights remains, but weakening is widespread, explicit identity with the mythic narratives and participation in the rituals and practices of Judaism and Christianity. These traditions are being displaced by other forms of spirituality as well as various secularisms and ideologies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we live in a post-Judeo-Christian age.
Our current religious situation is one of declining institutions and congregations, declining financial support, declining participation, and declining relevance and even interest. Entire denominations are on a trajectory to vanish within a decade or two. More than a third of Americans are no longer affiliated with a synagogue or church, the pace of change and effects of this transition are seen even more strongly in Europe. (See the Pew Research Center or Barna Research for studies and figures, and read the latest Gallup poll.)
Those who argue that their particular church or denomination is growing or that Christianity is alive and well in their specific region or community are failing to see the broader reality. The pervasive, negative trends do not appear to be temporary detours or anomalies. They have been going on for decades, if not longer, and show no sign of slowing or reversing. Still, anything is possible, Christianity has revived before – but a careful analysis of the situation seems to show that the current prognosis is potentially terminal and the changes set in motion cannot be addressed by simple reversal, but will require a wholesale revisioning of the Christian tradition.
Let us tour the current landscape (as of early 2021). The United Methodist Church was once one of the largest denominations in the US. In 2000 it counted just under 10 million members, in 2021 it counted 5.7 million. According to the denominations own estimates, at the current rate of decline, the denomination will be unsustainable by the mid-2040s.
Or consider the Roman Catholic Church in the US. While immigration has kept the overall numbers in only a modest decline (a loss of 2.4 million members since 2010) slightly over a third of all white Catholics have stopped attending or left. Diocese across the nation are consolidating parishes and closing schools. Baptisms are down 34% from just 2010. Catholic weddings have declined 38% in the same period.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group, has declined 30% since 2000. The Episcopal Church has experienced roughly the same rate of decline. The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has lost 40% of its members and closed 15.4% of its churches since 2000.
Overall, in 2016 73.7% of the population publicly identified as Christian. In 2020 that number fell to 63.1%, and the rate of decrease is accelerating. The trends in Europe are even more stark. In Ireland, 85% of the population attended weekly Mass at least 3 out 4 Sundays in 1990. In 2020, 31% attended on any given Sunday. Attendance rates are even lower for most other European nations.
Where are all these people going, one might ask? No where. The vast majority of people leaving active church membership or rejecting Christianity outright do not join another denomination or religious group. This growing group has been called the Nones, referencing the answer they give when asked on the census and various polls and studies to state their religious affiliation: None.
The personal religious views of the Nones is being carefully studied. The only discernible trends is that the group is predominantly younger and strongly and clearly reject the form, tone, and mindset of traditional religious institutions. Again, read the Pew Report on Religion in America or Barna Research Studies or any of the dozens of other reliable, carefully conducted studies. (See also, Decline of Christianity on Wikipedia for an overview and references for the above statistics.)
Those who study the situation closely have begun to accept the possibility that the shift is really not so much decline as collapse. Christianity isn’t so much being attacked or persecuted, as much as being ignored, put aside, and rejected. At the deepest level, this seems to be the result of the fruition of centuries of ideas of humanism, reason, naturalism, pluralism, and science within the broader culture.
The practical aspects of the decline are different than before, too. Tracking the loss of denominational membership merely shows the loss of people attending. What is now becoming evident is that large numbers of Nones are second or even third generation secular, meaning unchurched. Therefore, increasing numbers of people are completely unchurched, without any theological or religious education, and without any traditional religious formation or previous identity. The likelihood of these individuals returning to a religion they never were part of in the first place is extremely low.
Financial and institutional concerns also aren’t fully reflected by simply looking at affiliation numbers. Most parishes or congregations require a critical mass of attenders and donors to support the maintenance of the building(s) and salaries for the staff and clergy. The percentage of individual communities falling below critical mass is increasing. Staffing cuts and cost saving measures can only go so far before a church or community has to close. This plays out as well across denominational institutions – central offices, educational structures, and seminaries are also closing in growing numbers due to the same dynamic.
Briefly looking at the above, the question presents itself – what is causing all this?
THE DYNAMICS OF THE SITUATION
In general, Judeo-Christianity is being passed over by the mainstream culture not because the culture is corrupt or immoral, but because growing majorities within the culture have looked intently at the claims, actions, statements, and behavior of these traditions, and found them wanting and of decreasing value and relevance – more and more people are rejecting what they see and are moving on.
Some the decline is due to disappointment in institutional community.
Religious communities are feeling the effects of decades of overreach, unjustified theologies, arrogance, smugness, and abuse inflicted in the name of God and religion. Religion has too often been used to justify the marginalization and control of others.
Much of contemporary Christian theology fosters a spirituality that amounts to magical thinking, wish fulfillment, and ego-projection. Most clergy are poorly trained by ideologically driven seminaries. And the quality of religious education for the layperson is abysmal.
Banal music, liturgies, rituals, shallow or irrelevant teaching, and moralizing have taken their toll. People are yearning for communal experience, teachings and ritual grounded in reason and reality and that convey spiritual gravitas once again. When Sunday morning is more entertainment than it is reflection, when it’s more political message than exploring communal meaning, it comes at the expense of mystical experience however understood. The failure to convey the mystical and the sacred erodes lasting, authentic commitment.
When churches spend tens of thousands of dollars installing coffee bars and fellowship lounges, but do little for the poor, when religious leaders align with the powerful and offer no voice for the powerless, and when church communities promote marginalization – when our churches are merely partisans of the popular culture – many recognize such as serious, corrupting circumstances.
When asked by researchers and polling professionals for reasons for leaving a religious institution, one of the most frequently reported was the impersonal and superficial social environment. Report after report talks about how people in many churches are nice, but remote. Many people look to a religious community to find friends or even a spouse. Study after study shows that many individuals who leave, and even those who stay, form few if any lasting relationships with the people they attend services with, and that the community rarely engages one another outside of religious functions.
At it’s best, religion is about meaning, not control. At it’s best, religion should facilitate authentic community. At it’s best, religious thinking and practice must align with the truth as understood through reason and experience. Religion rooted in control and supernatural fantasies will ultimately, necessarily, disappoint. Increasing numbers of people are finding meaning, community, and even mystical experience outside of traditional religious institutions and systems.
Some of the decline is due to intellectual changes.
Much of the decline is also strongly rooted in the playing out of pivotal intellectual trends, the rise of science and the fruition of ideas inherent in biblical tradition itself (As mentioned, see the work of Canadian Catholic professor, Charles Taylor and Anglican priest-Oxford professor, Don Cuppit for more on this theme.)
More people are learning about evolution, astrophysics, philosophy, and the social sciences. Many religious assumptions are being challenged and probed using science, reliable research, and above all logic. Such challenges have narrowed or even eliminated many of the gaps which were once filled by God and supernatural claims, and have shown the weakness of many theological assumptions.
Reason recognizes that one can live a good, meaningful, rich, and full life without Jesus, Torah, the New Testament, or belonging to a particular denomination. Further, we’ve grown aware that claims of human dignity, compassion, and social justice are rooted in reason, not revelation. Christianity’s claims make less and less sense today and the answers it provides to many existential questions are being rejected.
Let’s go deeper into the broader cultural context for these developments and trace their roots in the evolution of Western culture.
THE LARGER CONTEXT – THE EVOLUTION OF WESTERN CULTURE
The root of the word culture relates to the soil. To cultivate is to grow. Our understanding of culture originates in agricultural metaphor. Cicero was one the first to employ and popularize the word, writing about the intellectual, political, moral, and religious soil needed to cultivate a virtuous people.
In the broadest sense, the term culture implies the social behavior and norms found in human societies, including the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, and habits of the individuals within these groups. Culture influences and shapes both the philosophical self understanding and outlook of a people as well as coloring the minutiae of life, including how we dress, eat, and even greet one another.
Culture arises from the people, it is embodied and engendered. The relationship between a culture and its people is mutually constitutive, with individuals being formed by the culture in which they live and then, through their actions (individually and collectively), shaping the culture. Therefore, culture is always dynamic.
Culture is narrative. Much of cultural narrative is mythic, meaning foundational, underlying plots, metaphors, and stories that help people make sense of their world.
Culture is also multivalent, consisting of entwined and interwoven subcultures of ethnicity, religion, region, nationality, and place. As such, systems theory is often an apt approach to understanding cultural dynamics.
Anthropology, history, and philosophy speak generally of Eastern and Western cultures. By the East, we mean the cultures of the great civilizations of China, India, Japan, Korea, and their surrounding areas. By the West, we mean the cultures of European civilizations and those nations and regions where its influence was established through immigration, expansion, trade, and colonization (Europe, North America, Australia-New Zealand, and to lesser extents much of Africa and South America.)
Again, such distinctions always suffer from inexactitude and ambiguity. Is Russia Western or Eastern or something else? How would we culturally describe the Middle East and it’s rich history? Is Japan today Western or Eastern? Given the complexity, scope, and richness of culture, we must be careful not to over generalize, recognizing our inability to fully describe or explain a particular culture.
The foundations of Western culture are a hybrid of the influences of the classical world (mostly Hellenism and Roman influences), the religious worldview of Judeo-Christianity, and the pre-Christian influences of the Celts, Gauls, Germanic, Slavic peoples, and others. Each of these sets of influences engaged, clashed, and changed one another.
Our purpose here is to understand, even if only superficially, the underlying worldview of the West, its core ideas and narratives. For the sake of our efforts here, we will concentrate on the West’s general transitions from classical culture to Judeo-Christian culture, now shifting into more secular expressions. The following overview is quite generalized for the sake of brevity.
The Transition from Classical to Christian Imperium
The classical world of Greece and Rome gave us the origins of democracy, philosophy, the rule of law, and the notion of the human individual as person. It’s religious outlook was polytheistic, animist, and pagan. The classical world’s achievements are impressive. Yet that same classical world also gave us slavery, fierce tribalism, frequent military conquest, and forms of dehumanizing imperialism.
Despite the erudition and achievements of the Greco-Roman world, the culture it helped spread was violent, abusive, and in many ways, harsh. Women were viewed as inherently inferior. Many peoples of the world were viewed as being naturally slaves. We today, living in the contemporary Western world, often overlook and fail to see that the same peoples who brought us the foundations of justice, democracy, and law, also practiced infanticide, the subjugation of women, and slavery. The same peoples who gave us early notions of human dignity also engaged in public forms of entertainment that included the bloodsoaked barbarism of gladiatorial combat and the public execution (various forms of torture and feeding to wild animals) of criminals and the marginalized. In the classical world, the poor and lowly mattered little, sex was often used as an expression of power, and life for the average citizen was harsh.
The ancient Greco-Roman world was a very harsh slave society with little interest in humanitarian considerations. Is there a single case of humanitarian prison-visiting in the whole of pagan antiquity? Did anyone organize relief for the survivors of Pompeii? In a largely pitiless age, it is scarcely surprising that Christianity had appeal.
– Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West
The Romans adopted and then adapted earlier Hellenism, spreading it far and wide through its empire. With imperial armies, governors, and law also came imperial ways, values, and ideas, the totality of which is sometimes called the imperium.
Civilizations and cultures change, and few, if any, empires or imperiums last forever. The Roman Empire mostly decayed from within, collapsing due to the inner rot of corruption, economic inequality, military overreach, and violent grind of its daily life. Those who sacked Rome merely hastened the inevitable decline.
In the classical world, Christianity started as a marginal faction of religious rebels who were seen as subversive by the imperial elites. The Christian sect, mostly comprised of the lowly and committed to the ideas of an itinerant Jewish rabbi cultural revolutionary, was considered dangerous because it directly challenged the imperium of Greco-Roman culture.
Christians refused to offer ritual homage to the emperor or participate in public-pagan sacrificial meals. Christian values stood in critique of those of the empire. Justice through peace, not war or violence. Concern and care for the poor, lowly, and marginalized. A sense of the dignity and value of all persons, not just some. Mercy, love, kindness, compassion and mutual care as a way of daily life – the witness of the early Christian communities slowly won it converts and aided its growth and endurance.
Eventually the outsiders became insiders. Whether Christianity would have developed into a global force without Constantine is hard to say, but probably unlikely. Constantine cemented the eventual integration of Christianity in the empire as well as its eventual dominance.
The dominant cultural narrative of Imperial Rome, condensed in the epics of the Iliad and Aeneid, was gradually replaced by the narrative(s) of the gospels and biblical writings. Christianity, at least as understood in those periods, become the underlying source of the new imperium.
Christianity supplanted Greco-Roman paganism and Christians moved up in the ranks and eventually took the administrative reigns within the crumbling empire. The Empire of Rome was now co opted by the Kingdom of God. However, with power and influence often comes corruption, and Christianity would feel the corrupting effects of imperialism, too. Roman Empire gave way to Christendom and both changed each other.
The Transition from Christendom to Secularism
Much happened on the long way home from the coliseum. Christianity became the dominant Western cultural influence for the next 1,000 years. While Christendom wasn’t always faithful to the vision of its founder, it did produce, overall, a more humane culture. And despite the crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, and persecutions, offered the world a more compassionate vision rooted in love, mercy, and kindness. This moral vision remains, albeit imperfectly, influential today.
Culture is never static. Within the blending of the classical world and the Christian worldview were the seeds for today’s secular West.
The Christian West (influenced by the classical vision) developed the humanism of the Renaissance, the focused reason of the Enlightenment, and the later emergence of science, technology, and industrialization. Within these massive cultural shifts were the hallmark ideas of human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, market-based economy, and liberalism. While many of these notions took time to reach fruition, and are still developing, they remain the hallmarks of the better aspects of the West as understood today.
Within the same cultural movements and transitions also were the notions of freedom of conscience, tolerance, pluralism, individualism, and various forms of relativism. Naturally entwined in Western Christianity were the seeds of the secular world to come.
You may consider yourself secular, but the modern Western secular world is itself a Christian creation. Nobody in the West can be wholly non-Christian.
– Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West
What we assume to be the very modern vision of a universal humanity, of love for all, of breaking down tribal and cultural barriers is present in the Christian notion that there is no longer the divisions of “gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female” bur rather a fundamental unity in our humanity and in Jesus, according to Paul.
The Enlightenment motivated the drive to hermeneutics, critical textual theory, and other philosophical ideas that undergird today’s biblical scholarship – the same scholarship that opposes the array of literalisms and fundamentalisms prevalent today.
With notions of freedom of conscience, inquiry, and speech nascent in Christian and classical influences, came the Reformation, the dismantling of State-Churches and stripping the secular power of religious control. As an expansive view of freedom and rights developed, so did the recognition of the freedom to choose one’s own religion or no religion.
After the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, primarily with the work of Darwin, comes the growing acceptance of evolution as causal narrative and a naturalist mindset. Naturalism, at least in it’s soft, methodological form, is an application of the principles of scientific method to assertions, essentially the notion that our factual claims require justification. A result of naturalism has been the realization that our claims of supernatural realities typically lack evidence and justification. When presented with claims of miracles or divine action or message, individuals operating from a naturalist mindset will be inclined to ask for proof – evidence, repeatability, explanation – they will seek to verify the truth of the claims. This inclination is not ideological or inherently anti-religious, it’s simply how evidential reasoning functions.
Additionally, along with the Enlightenment, scientific method, and evidential reasoning comes the decline in forms of mythopoetic thinking and understanding. The modern mindset leans toward the factual, the literal, and the logical explanations for things. We moderns explain and tell our history differently than our ancient ancestors. We see the world through these lenses.
The result is secularization of the culture. Although there continue to be important disagreements among scholars, many begin with the premise that secularism is not simply the absence of religion, but rather an intellectual and political category that itself needs to be understood as a historical construction woven from many strands. Taylor and Cupitt, as well as others, argues against the view that secularity in society is solely caused by the rise of science and reason – such a view is far too simplistic and does not fully explain the subtle contours of our present culture.
Taylor, in particular, argues that the transformation from Christendom to secularism was accomplished through three major thrusts motivated by various forces: one, an anthropocentric shift in now conceiving of nature as human’s proper dwelling place, that the world is not a temporary home before arriving at an eternal destination; two, the idea that God relates to us primarily through the impersonal order that God established – namely, the natural world; and three, the idea that religion is to be understood from by reason alone.
For Taylor, a hallmark difference between a religious worldview and a secular worldview has to do with their understanding of the human capacity to experience fullness – his term for various forms of self-actualization, fulfillment, and flourishing.
For those who are religious in the Judeo-Christian sense, the source and cause of fullness is God. For unbelievers, it is within the power of reason (Enlightenment) or nature and our inner responses to it (Romanticism.)
But let us not forget this essential point. There remains an ongoing controversy between those who believe that Christianity and its institutions are the guardians of the distinctive beliefs and values of the West and those who believe that the Enlightenment granted the West it’s more fuller understanding of reason, which peeled away the supernatural superstitions of faith and which then birthed science, liberalism, freedom and eventually leads to today’s secular culture.
There are reasons to be wary of mainline narratives of simple, cost-free supersession, whether narrated by Christians or by protagonists of the enlightenment. Both sides believe they hold the key to genuine progress, a humane culture, and the truth. Yet both positions are ultimately untenable and flawed. The truth is that the Christian tradition planted the seeds and cultivated the soil that produced the enlightenment and related movements.
The official Enlightenment story is that people started using reason and science, instead of myth and superstition to explain the world. But the motivating force behind this development were reforms within Christianity itself toward a more rational, Deist conception of a designer God in the early modern period.
Taylor and Cupitt disagree on the way forward. Taylor finds secularism, while a natural outgrowth of Christianity, too limited and stunted, unable to point humans toward genuine and authentic forms and sources of fullness. Cupitt, on the other hand, finds secularism not only a natural outgrowth of Christianity, but still shaped by its fundamental anthropological and moral vision, and therefore, to be embraced and further cultivated.
The meaning of the West is therefore a highly creative, multivalent, Christian humanism that loves life, finds secondariness utterly beautiful, and accepts transience. The secular creed is love your neighbor, live as affirmatively as you can, and accept there is nothing after this life.
Christian supernatural doctrine and mythology has not been public truth or explicitly culturally dominant for centuries. Many still look back nostalgically (and with hopeful eyes) to religions whether Jewish or Catholic whose ways of thinking are by now at least three centuries out of date.
The truth is the secular culture was created by Christianity and in turn has demythologized it and rendered its supernatural worldview null and void. What remains is the indelible anthropological and moral vision that formed in Judeo-Christianity of human dignity, the sacred value of each person, the centrality of empathy, compassion, and love as the proper response to that dignity and value, and the essential nature of freedom and justice and equality under law as our social-political vision.
The secular culture – science, the enlightenment, our social justice movements, liberalism are the natural fruits of Christianity. Acknowledging that evolution and progression is vital for understanding the West and for charting our way forward. Yet at the end of day, the truth remains that we are all post-Christian now.
As a result of all of the above, and more, Western culture is becoming increasingly secular, humanist, and naturalist. If Christianity hopes to survive, it needs to align and reformulate its theology according to forms of reasoning that dominant the culture and human learning in general. In terms of religion and spirituality, it’s time for some necessary upgrades.
A Secular Age – Charles Taylor
The Meaning of the West – Don Cuppit
Betrayal – The Staff of the Boston Globe
Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris
The End of Religion – Sam Harris