With the number of non-religious rising around the world, Clifford Goldstein explains why the Christian faith won't disappear.
A madman runs through a marketplace carrying a lantern. He shouts, “I seek God, I seek God!”
The shoppers in the market mock him: “Why? Did He get lost? Did He lose his way, like a child? Or is He hiding? Is He afraid of us? Has He gone on a voyage or emigrated?”
The madman screams back: “Where is God? I shall tell you. We have killed Him—you and I. All of us are His murderers.”
This scene, exhumed from a work by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche written more than 100 years ago, expressed Nietzsche’s premonition about the decline of religious faith in the Western world, the decline of belief in anything transcendent, otherworldly or divine.
Nietzsche was, it seems, on to something. If recent statistics and news reports are to be believed, religious faith has been dwindling, not just in Europe and Australia—where the downward movement has been obvious for quite some time—but even in the United States, the one industrialised nation of our time that has long defied the trend toward secularism.
No longer. Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since tracking began in the 1930s. The trend is remarkable, not only because of the direction but because of its speed. One in five Americans last year claimed no religious affiliation—more than twice that of 1990.
Though the number of Americans who call themselves “atheists” is still low (only about 3 per cent, compared to Sweden, where it is 23 per cent), it’s the number of those who don’t consider themselves part of any religious group that has risen so dramatically. Indeed, evidence suggests that the fastest-growing religious status in the United States is “no religion.”
The 2011 census results for religion also showed that the number of Australians nominating “no religion” on their census form has increased substantially, to become the number two option nationally and the number one option in five of eight states and capital cities.
The reasons for this increase in “no religion” are, no doubt, varied. The media tends to be more non-religious than the population in general, and its secular and sometimes even overtly anti-religious bias has made an impact.
Public schools, often in an overzealous attempt to abide by the principles of church-state separation, have sought to keep public education as religion-free as possible. In New Zealand, more than 50 state schools have cancelled Bible-based education in school hours since 2011, with a lack of teaching volunteers and decline in parental support for it cited as the main reasons.
The scandals involving high profile Christian evangelicals have tarnished not just the reputation of those said evangelicals but also institutional churches and even faith as a whole. Also, despite the excitement at the recent election of Pope Francis, the parade of paedophiliac priests hasn’t helped the cause of religious faith anywhere.
Another contributing factor is that scientists are among the most irreligious of all Westerners, some estimates stating that as many as 60 per cent in the United States are either atheists or agnostics. Given the powerful influence of science and technology, as well as the high esteem that science enjoys in the West (it’s often portrayed as the most reliable source of knowledge), the downward trends in religious faith in many advanced scientific and technological societies isn’t all that surprising.
Then, too, there’s been a spate of highly publicised, anti-religious books by the so called “New Atheists,” the most prominent of which is the bestselling The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Despite the faulty reasoning behind many of the arguments of the New Atheists, they have helped to convince many that religious faith is unreasonable and unjustified.
To Be Expected
However complicated and varied the reasons for this decline may be, such a state of mind was predicted by the very One the atheists seek to deny. Jesus Himself said that in the days right before His return, “Many will turn away from the faith” (Matthew 24:10).
And the apostle Peter warned that “scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation’ ” (2 Peter 3:3, 4, NKJV).*
That last verse captures the prevailing materialistic presuppositions of modern secularism: that there’s nothing special about the world we live in, nothing divine or supernatural, but that it all arose from purely materialist forces that are continuing on “as they were from the beginning of creation.”
However, despite the recent trend, religious faith will not disappear. The demise of Christianity has been predicted before. Right after the American Revolution, for instance, deist Tom Paine said that “Christianity will be forgotten in 30 years.” That was more than 200 years ago.
Nietzsche’s madman might have overstated the point: God is not dead, nor is belief in Him. Nevertheless, the steady decline in faith in the West is important. Faith might be waning, but basic human needs—the need for answers to pain and suffering, the need for hope, the need for meaning and purpose—remain the same as always.
However poorly practised at times, religious faith can satisfy these needs in ways that nothing else can. Thus, when things are going well, those who claim “no religion” today might wake up tomorrow during a tragedy and find that they still need the faith they thought they’d given up.
The good news is that God still cares for them and will help them. All they have to do is ask.
* Scriptures quoted from NKJV are from The New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.