Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.
It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.
Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?
The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.
There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.
1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise
This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.
What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.
However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.
Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.
This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.
Here’s an excerpt:
[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25; Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.
Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!