Empty Cathedrals and the Myth of Religious Decline


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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