08 April 2009

An illusion which has no future

Newsweek posts a most interesting discussion of the decline of Christianity in the United States and what it means. The measure of that decline is stark: from 1990 to the present the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has fallen by 10 points, from 86% to 76%. That is, for all the noisy Christian Right activism of the 1990s and the faith-based Bush administration, the number of Americans who call themselves Christian decreased by tens of millions. 24% of the US population, or 72 million people, is no longer even "Christian in name only".

At the same time, those who are "unaffiliated with any particular faith" (a group including not only atheists, but also those who simply aren't concerned enough to decide what religion to call themselves) has doubled to 16% over roughly the same period -- that is, the decline in Christianity reflects mostly an increase in irreligion, not a defection of Christians to some other religion. In the US, the state has always been secular; now society itself is inexorably becoming so too.

Nor do hard times drive people back to religion any more; church attendance has not increased during the current recession.

This trend manifests itself in other, less tangible ways as well. As Andrew Sullivan points out, atheism has become respectable, and a force to be reckoned with; there have always been atheists in this country, but the widely-read books and essays of thinkers like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris have popularized atheism and de-stigmatized it. Most Americans are still religious, or "spiritual" in some vague sense, but far fewer of them now dismiss those of us who are not as some bizarre and evil aberration.

As the Newsweek report notes, the hard-core, fundamentalist minority within Christianity is growing even as the overall number of Christians shrinks. But this is typical of declining ideologies; as the less committed abandon the faith entirely, what remains is the true believers, and some who have long been uncomfortably on the fence will jump into the hard core rather than outward. But this, too, can only weaken Christianity in the long run. The more Christianity becomes identified with cranky and anachronistic rants against secularism, abortion, and gays, the more it will seem alien and repulsive to the secular majority. This effect is already stigmatizing the "Christian" label among young people, to whom the Christian Right's hostility to homosexuals merely seems pointlessly cruel.

Indeed, it seems obvious to me that the decline of religion is rooted in a profound truth which has been at work for centuries: religion is based on a false premise, and the advancement and spread of human knowledge is simply making this more and more obvious to more and more people. For example, in assessing what we are "losing", the Newsweek article states: "Roughly put, the Christian narrative is the story of humankind as chronicled in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the drama of creation, fall and redemption." But this "narrative" is wrong in its essence. It is perfectly contrary to what we now know is the real "story of humankind" -- the gradual emergence from a purely animal state and the steadily-accelerating rise toward higher civilization, greater knowledge, greater freedom, more humane values, and (through technology) increased power. There was no Garden of Eden, no "creation", no fall, and thus nothing to be redeemed from. The "Christian narrative" is totally wrong in every claim it makes, not just in its surface details but also in its deeper significance. Which makes Christianity itself wholly pointless. In the long run, nothing can save an idea whose time has passed.


Blogger mendip said...

Bravo! Great commentary!

08 April, 2009 13:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...


08 April, 2009 14:56  
Anonymous rita said...

Great article. I'd LOVE to see a letter to the Editor of my paper like that. I bet she'd print it. *hint*

09 April, 2009 06:35  

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