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Tintern Abbey Inside“What will it be like when Christianity joins the list of dead religions, and is taught in universities as part of the folklore syllabus?” asks atheist writer Julian Barnes. What will it be like “when blasphemy becomes not legal or illegal but simply impossible?”

For the naturalist like Barnes, religion is a throwback to a past era of superstition, a “supreme fiction” whose absence may be felt by even the most enlightened, just like one grieves upon “closing a great novel.”

But alas, the day will come when humans will enter empty cathedrals and stare at religious iconography just like we walk around Athens today and examine the marble figurines of Greek deities of the past. Distant relics representing ancient myths.

The progressive view of history, built on Enlightenment philosophy and a naturalistic view of the world’s origins, is that humanity will eventually outgrow its febrile seizures of religiosity, leaving the cooler heads of rationalism to prevail.

(Interestingly enough, one can find educated people today who do not share the atheism of men like Julian Barnes, but who have adopted a similar view of history’s trajectory. In this case, we are not outgrowing religiosity itself, but the kind of religious fervor that rises from the idea that one religion may be objectively, historically true.)

The problem with this view of history is that it is more mythical than the religions it claims to surpass. We may be witnessing the rise and establishment of secularity, but this does not necessarily entail the decrease or demise of religiosity.

On the contrary, the case can be made that religious observance is simultaneously surging and declining, depending on location. Consider these statistics from sociologist Rodney Stark:

It is a very religious world, far more religious than it was 50 years ago.

— 81 percent claim to belong to an organized religious faith, and most of the rest report engaging in religious activities such as prayer or making offerings to the gods in various “folk religion” temples.

— 74 percent say religion is an important part of their daily lives.

— 50 percent report they have attended a place of worship or religious service in the past seven days.

In very few nations do as many as five percent claim to be atheists, and only in China, Vietnam, and South Korea do they exceed 20 percent.

Furthermore, in every nook and cranny left by organized faiths, all manner of unconventional spiritual and mystical practices are booming. There are more occult healers than medical doctors in Russia, 38 percent of the French believe in astrology, 35 percent of the Swiss agree that “some fortune tellers really can foresee the future,” and nearly everyone in Japan is careful to have their new car blessed by a Shinto priest.

Well, you might say, that’s the rest of the world. Here in the United States, Christianity is dying! The only way someone can arrive at such a conclusion is to assume that a couple generations ago, the vast majority of Americans were religiously observant. But that assumption is as wrong as the conclusion that Christianity is dead. Statistics show that Americans today are about as religious as they were in the 1940’s. Tobin Grant comments:

The Great Decline may be a recent change, but our current level of religiosity isn’t new. In 2005, the level of religiosity was about the same as it was in 1945. We have since continued to see lower and lower levels of religiosity, but we’re not that much less religious than we were eight decades ago. The rise of religion in the 1950s has skewed our perception of the past — things have changed but not in a straight decline.

What next? There is nothing inherently cyclical about the change in religiosity; what goes down does not always go up again. The 1950s had some unique events that helped spur religiosity. The long-run trend should be toward less and less religiosity (because of increased wealth). That said, there’s no reason that we cannot see another up-tick in religiosity in the future.

The dogmatic rationalist will see these trends and see them as religion’s last convulsions, the spiking of a fever before the onset of death and religious rigor mortis. But it’s ironic that a naturalist peering into the future must rely on a speculative view of progress rather than “proof” that such an interpretation is most likely.

What if the future plays out differently than Barnes imagines?

What if, in a thousand years, believers are gathered in cathedrals perusing ancient books of unbelief, at a loss to explain how in the name of free-thinking one could become a biological determinist, or how under the guise of open-mindedness one could be so dogmatically closed to a supernatural explanation for the unexplainable?

I don’t claim to know the future, but based on the religiosity of the world today, there’s always the possibility that for our descendants, atheism will be the artifact.

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10 thoughts on “Empty Cathedrals and the Myth of Religious Decline”

  1. Ken Abbott says:

    In the early part of the 18th century in Great Britain and her American colonies, Christian observance was in strong decline. Orthodox commentators bemoaned the deplorable state of public morals and the general apathy toward matters of faith.

    And then along came the Great Awakening.

    The marvelous thing about the Holy Spirit: He seems to lack any respect for the opinions of secular theorists or pessimistic preachers.

    1. Steve says:

      Reality shows that ideas take hold, live and die when better ideas come along. Religion is threatened by good ideas because they rarely adapt, sticking to outdated beliefs that are replaced by more modern beliefs. Eventually religion stops fighting and acting like fanatics, and adopt those beliefs.
      Religion will take centuries to fade, but with information exchange better ideas are presenting themselves to quick for traditional religions to adapt and recover. Progressive faiths (key difference with faith and religion) will spread, just like the progressive faiths of early America (Progressive compared to European ones anyways). With over 30000 views on a single god, and 1000s of other gods to compete with, religions can no longer foster local beliefs when the internet allows people to see so much. Like early America, Deism, non-affiliated beliefs, agnostics, and atheism will become the majority. The only question is when organized religion finally adapts and makes a come back what will it actually look like?

  2. Arthur Sido says:

    Those proclaiming an end to Christianity based on the emptying out of religious edifices make the same mistake that many Christians do, namely equating public religious observation with a healthy church.

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Yes! If we believe the Bible the increase of His government will have no end.

  4. EqualTime says:

    Time will tell, but a religious institution which does not adapt to modern times and evolving needs of its congregants, would seem to be destined for attrition. If adaptation is inherently against its beliefs, then attrition would seem to be a forgone conclusion.

    1. Thomas says:

      To: Equal Time – Christians believe the Word of God is everlasting and unchanging – just like God. Churches that teach this are thriving in the United States. Churches that are bending their doctrine to be “modern” are typically dying. I don’t know what you mean by “adapt to modern times”, but hollowing out the Word to prevent offending non-believers or seekers of an abridged Christianity, is a recipe for death of Christianity. I can’t speak for the health of the other 4 major religions.

      1. EqualTime says:

        Thanks for your response, Thomas. But hasn’t the word of God evolved to, as man became more civilized, even over the course of the Bible? How did “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.” (Lev. 24:19–21) become “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
        40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJ If the Word could evolve then, why can it not now? And if not, time will tell.

        1. Thomas says:

          Christ came to end the old covenant (law of the Old Testament) and provide the new covenant – salvation thru Christ alone. Gone is The Law such as you see in Leviticus, replaced by Grace and Mercy as seen in Matthew. The only thing that comes after the New Testament is Heaven and that is not a place in a pew that can be adapted for modern times. So, nothing in the Word – which is complete – will change between now and the time believers go to heaven.

          1. EqualTime says:

            I totally agree, my friend, that Chirstians have not recognized a change since the Bible was adopted. But the Law did change significantly, from the time of Leviticus til Christ. It is therefore, by it’s own inerrant Word, not unchanging. That is my point. Perhaps if it evolved from the time of Moses to Christ, it could evolve from the time of Christ to now. It doesn’t have to – it may not be able to – but if it doesn’t, more people who believe, for example, that being gay is not a choice – it is the way God made some people, or that every woman should be able to choose to have, or not to have, the potential to become pregnant every time she engages in sexual relations, may determine that such an unchanging institution is not for them.

            1. Thomas says:

              The law did not change “from the time of Leviticus til Christ.” It changed WITH Christ. In other words, there was no evolution – it happened all at once and it hasn’t changed since. Regarding the subject that being Gay is not a choice, I believe that I was born a liar, a thief and an adulterer. God’s word tells me to resist those sins and I do. We are all born sinful in some way. We may ask forgiveness with a remorseful heart, but true believers in Christ do not openly flaunt a lifestyle in conflict with God’s word.

              Unwanted pregnancy is another issue. Assuming you are talking about premarital relations, the sin begins with sex. Killing the baby compounds the sin. Assuming this is not rape, women have the CHOICE to refuse a man’s advance, choose to say no to sex and even choose to use birth control. Those all deal with “the potential to become pregnant” as you say. “Potential” comes before she gets pregnant.

              No Christian should expect a doctrinal change to accommodate, nurture or enable a sinful lifestyle. A church should help the lost or sinful become more Christ like. Many want to see the Church become more like the sinful. Let’s just resist that parade.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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