(Written for Prof. Glen’s Advanced Composition [ENGL302] class at George Mason University.)
Christianity as a religion has been a huge part of the human existence to varying degrees over the past two thousand years. While many still consider the religion to be a fundamental part of their life, the raw numbers have declared that church attendance has plummeted in the latter half of the past decade.
After so many years as a driving force behind world events, the tide of control has shifted out of the spiritual realms and into those of science and politics. In my research I have investigated how Christianity has adjusted to function in this “post-Christian culture”—as Rudolph Binion (1986) put it—and what the religion’s role is in today’s undeniably secular world.
I have investigated this matter from various angles, including a dissection of the sociological theory of secularization and of Christianity’s supposed decline. I also expanded beyond this into the realms of popular press, pro-secularization materials, and also into those who practice and preach the Christian faith itself. This myriad of views provides a true insight into the state and place of the Christian religion.
This research adds to the sociological understanding of how Christianity functions in a world that has overwhelmingly moved away from it. The subject of this religion and its relevancy today is one that often ignites passions on either side, and a fuller understanding of the pressures and influences Christianity has upon society and vice-versa helps to unravel this complicated issue and its attached passions.
The logical beginning of this investigation is the beginning of Christianity itself, which finds itself roughly at ‘the beginning of time’ as we measure it – the year 0. An examination of where Christianity has been will contribute strongly to our view of where it is today, and more importantly where it is headed.
Overview of the Foundations and Early History of Christianity
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” begins the book that forms the ‘manual’ for today’s Christianity (Holy Bible, The 1997). This basic doctrine – an almighty, singular God created everything and still exists – forms the fundamentals of the Jewish religion, from which Christianity originates. The basic theology behind the Christian religion is that Jesus, a Jewish carpenter who was apparently born of a virgin mother, was the “messiah” or savior that Jews had been awaiting according to their doctrine (Schoeps 1966).
The mostly positive message of the Christian religion – that all were promised eternal life, and that all should do good to others – resonated with many people of the time, much to the chagrin of the Roman government which ruled much of Eurasia at the time. In fact, from the year 284 to 305 under the rule of Emperor Diocletian, edicts were issued calling for the destruction of Christian property and houses of worship, as well as the imprisonment and/or torture of Christians. Despite this, Christianity grew and by 380 had become the sole religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius (Schoeps 1966).
This strange meshing of the world’s most powerful empire and a growing religion proved to be one of the most influential parts of Christian history. Now, an empire that stretched from England to the middle-east was imposing – often by the point of the sword – the Christian religion on all of its citizenry.1
Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance Decline
In medieval times after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church formed the only wide framework of law and order aside from a network of Feudal Lords. Viewed by many as the ultimate authority, for some time the church and the Pope who led it became the only true government over the ‘western’ world (Schoeps 1966).
From 1095 to 1291, the Papal desire for effective world denomination led to a continual push to conquer the Holy Land – the middle east – in what became known as the Crusades (Schoeps 1966). This Christian intervention in the lives of non-Christians has helped lead to a mistrust in Christians among non-Christians in the region.
The decline evident today in Christianity is not a new phenomenon, in fact beginning in the Renaissance period. This period – referred to as the Reformation in Christian history – started specifically in 1517 when a monk named Martin Luther publicized nearly 100 complaints about the practices of the Catholic Church on a German church (Schoeps 1966). He had unwittingly split the church into the seemingly fractured array of denominations still evident today.
By the 1700s, this fracturing had spread to the point that many were simply no longer interested in the religion at all. ‘Defections’ from the Christian faith became widespread in France around 1750, and began to spread like wildfire to neighboring European nations and has seemingly continued this spread (Binion 1986).2
In the 1800s and even more so today, it has not been uncommon to find people in large numbers who are Humanists – considering themselves non-religious people who, nevertheless, apply to their lives a moral code. This post-Christian culture – one where non-religious individuals are no longer rare, but completely expected – is what we see evident in our society today (Binion 1986).
Christianity today is in an undeniable state of decline. We will look into what trends have effected the religion in the past century, and how those trends fit into the sociological theory of Secularization.
Modern Trends in Christianity
The 1900s saw an amazing decline in Christian practice in the United States. While the 1950s did see some short-lived gains in church attendance and other indicators of Christian practice, the years since have been consistently negative for the religion. For example, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 21 and 29 attending church weekly declined from above fifty percent to below thirty percent between 1958 and the early 1970s (Wuthnow 1976).
Despite this marked decline in younger age groups, from age 30 and up age groups saw little comparative decline in church attendance. This would seem to point to a disconnect with the younger part of society, but to continued relevancy among older groups.3
Backing up this concept, it is interesting to note that the same poll found that only about 42 percent of responders between age 16 and 35 said they “definitely believe in God,” while those numbers jump above 64 percent for every older age group (Wuthnow 1976).
These trends in various forms seem to have continued to this day. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of people self-identifying themselves as Christian declined from 86.7 percent to 77 percent. Between 1963 and 1981, belief that the Bible is the ‘actual word of God’ declined from 65 percent to 37 percent (Kurtz 2002).
The recent trends in Christianity would seem to back up a sociological theory called ‘Secularization.’ Secularization is considered to be the decline of influence and practice of religion and religious groups. The idea is that as society and humanity develops, the population has less and less of a need for religious belief structures as other entities – such as non-religious governments – become more prevalent. Most sociologists agree that this theory explains the recent and long-term changes in attitudes toward religion and Christianity, although there is some debate.
Charges against the theory of secularization complain mostly about issues of semantics – whether it can actually be a ‘theory’ and how history is interpreted – and for these reasons some have begun to doubt whether there actually are long-term patterns of societal movement away from religion (Lechner 1991).
One of the growing views among sociological communities is that to say society is becoming increasingly secular, one must assume that it was ever notably religious. Proponents of this view will say that there is no evidence that any high level of spirituality has ever been attained by the mass of society in history, despite the seemingly overwhelming presence of religion in their lives at various times (Lechner 1991).
But despite sometimes-strong arguments to the contrary, many of the concepts expressed in secularization theory have indeed been coming to fruition. It is however difficult to quantify the level of ‘religiousness’ in a society, and therefore it is difficult to judge the accuracy of theory.4
The true focus of this paper is the conflict between conflicting views. First, that Christianity still forms a valid and important part of society and that its influence should be stronger upon society. Second, that Christianity has essentially ‘outlived its usefulness’ and no longer provides a valid or important service to society. These views, in perpetual conflict, conveniently overlook their opposing strong points and stab harshly at their weak ones.
The Minimal Role
A growing number of people would seem to believe that Christianity, and religion in general, should play a minimal role in societal functions (government, etc.). These Secular Humanists and other non-religious individuals generally consider Christianity and other organized religion to be little more than superstition, or a product of human imagination (Johnson 1994).
People who fall into this category often find it puzzling that religions – or ‘superstitions’ – are so prevalent in modern society, viewing such belief as an impediment to scientific advancement and intelligent thought. “Allowing a doctrine of faith to decide a key scientific issue . . . demonstrates the egregious error of permitting religion, on alleged moral grounds, to censor science,” said Paul Kurtz, a secularist author. “It is clear that those of us who believe in a secular society need constantly to argue against the intrusion of religion in all areas of life, and to ask for some form of secular liberation for science, morality politics, and human behavior” (Kurtz 2002).
This sentiment is echoed increasingly in the United States court system, where anything resembling religion in public discourse is nearly immediately slapped with a lawsuit. Take, for example, the case of Brown v. Gilmore which was brought here in Virginia in an attempt to eliminate the morning ‘minute of silence’ in public schools and the grounds that it reintroduced religion. While the case was decided in favor of the state, the case and the controversy surrounding it demonstrate the vehement belief among some parts of society that religion should play no role in public life (‘Virginia Moment of Silence’ 2001).
People who share a belief the Christianity should ideally be in a minimal societal role overlook some of the benefits of religious structure. While most agree that religion should not be imposed on people, there are benefits to having a religious structure – whether Christian or not. Persons with religious structure are generally less stressed and healthier. The Secular Humanists and other anti-religious groups have tended to avoid the issues regarding positive societal and/or personal impacts of religious belief, and instead focus primarily on the factuality of religious belief and the seeming obstructionism of ethical beliefs on scientific advancement.
The Maximum Role
The opposing view is that the decrease of Christian influence is detrimental and it would be ideal for the religion to have a maximized influence in political and other societal functions. This view is one typically expressed by conservative and/or traditionalist Christian groups, such as the ‘religious right’.
Some more moderate individuals also take this view, however, arguing that there are significant benefits to a Christian involvement in society. Proponents of this viewpoint consider the loss of religious faith a dangerous thing, feeling that it opens the door to a dark-ages like descent into paganism and superstition (Gladhill 2001).
According to this viewpoint, in direct opposition to the argument of religious minimalists, religion doesn’t inhibit free thought and advancement but rather develops it further by providing a solid framework in which human activity can occur. “If nothing else, religion, taught properly, encourages thought . . . If we don’t think about why we do things, we take moral and other precepts for granted. That is when we begin not only to live off the moral capital of the past, but to take on board superstitious or magical belief systems which place society in permanent jeopardy of self-destruction” (Gladhill 2001).
Some who prefer a strong societal influence of religion feel that Christianity is losing relevance not because they are out of touch with society, but rather because they have been corrupted by society. For example, some would argue that by internalizing societal doctrines of ‘political correctness’ some Christian groups have been unable to make controversial faith statements – for example, those dealing with homosexuality – which have proven divisive ethical issues in both religion and society as a whole (Gottfried 2000).
Fascinatingly, proponents of this view have completely avoided the issue of whether or not their religious beliefs are based on fact or fiction. This shifting of the issue – from whether the religion is based in reality to what positive effects it has in society – cleverly skirts the primary attacks of the minimalists, must as the minimalists cleverly skirt the attacks on their ideas in the opposite direction.
The Middle Road and the Ubiquitous Grey Area
As with most things, not everything is flawlessly cut-and-dry clear between the two major opposing views. Within each opposing narrative about the place of Christianity in the world, there are a million minor variations.
A notable recent example is President Bush’s faith-based charities initiative. This initiative was intended to allow religious charity organizations to compete with completely secular groups for federal funding assistance, and was heralded by many supporters of the “more-religion” side as a drastic step in the right direction (“Bush Promotes Support for . . . ” 2002). Many viewed the preexisting moratorium on this practice as discrimination against religious groups, which were often viewed as more effective in some cases than secular groups and often kept their religious and secular practices intentionally separated (Brown 2001).
But even among some Christian groups, this development was met with hesitation. According to one Christian author, “Even charities that have the best of intentions will be tempted to shift the emphasis of their missions subtly to comply with the grant criteria” (Tanner 2001).
Also, the aforementioned moment of silence issue has brought an interesting inconsistency on the religious minimalist side. While many Christian groups view this as a compromise that is, in fact, preferable to actual school prayer, Secular Humanist and Atheist still view moments of silence as threats to their freedom to be educated free of religious overtones (Carter 2002).
The middle-road is, of course, the concept that Christianity and secular elements can coexist in this modern society, and that there is indeed a place for both. According to this concept, Christianity and other religious groups would help mediate the unbridled aspirations of science, while the non-religious would help to mediate society away from pure mysticism.5
Through all the discussed and other controversies in the debate over where Christianity belongs in our society, most people seem to recognize the validity of different belief structures – whether they be merely superstition or not. Still, a majority of Americans do identify themselves as believers in a deity – despite their apparent disdain for religious services.
To find actual conclusions in this mess of differing opinion is a daunting task, and one that can hardly be tackled in a paper of this length. All that can be decided clearly is that the issue of Christianity and where it belongs is one that ignites passion on all sides, and no matter how passionately each side makes their arguments they will likely never convince the other of their validity.
Those who support a more-Christian society fail to address very real issues about the origins of their faith, the validity and truth of it, and why anybody should believe the doctrines of the Christian religion over any other set of beliefs, or ‘superstitions’ as some would call them. Skirting over that issue by simply declaring the Christianity does good for society fails to convince skeptics.
Likewise, religious minimalists focus entirely on the validity of Christian beliefs and never address the quantifiable good to individuals and society that such religious belief entails. Dismissing their influence as superstitions and mysticism that effects only the weak-minded fails to address these clear benefits, and their vision of a religion-free society fails to address where these benefits may come from instead.
So long as both sides fail to directly address one another’s arguments, no true conclusion can be reached because there is no true debate on which to base that conclusion. The discussion is so consumed by emotion and misguided attacks that the facts and data are difficult to discern, and the answers are impossible to find.
1 It would be very interesting to investigate the long-term effects that Christianity’s sometimes-violent spread has had upon its popularity and success in today’s world. This could easily be expanded to discuss the Crusades and other violent, conquering behaviors in the Christian past. Whether or not these have had an impact on the decline of the religion, or on its practices, cannot be fully examined in this paper but would make for an interesting discussion on their own.
2 A fuller examination of the initial impetus to the 1700s religious decline would help to paint a fuller picture of the issues effecting Christianity today, however due to space constraints and the nature of this paper it would be nearly impossible to give it the time required. Was this brought on primarily by scientific advancement, dissatisfaction with Christian doctrine, dissatisfaction with Christian institutions, or some combination of those and possible other factors? The answer is elusive in this merely cursory glance, and would be a fascinating investigation to pursue.
3 The concept that perhaps the issues of religion deal with specific age groups is an interesting one. Wuthnow’s sociological paper deals specifically with this issue, while I have only dealt with it and his work in the periphery. It would be most intriguing, I think, to track church attendance and other factors by age group to determine if a propensity to ‘avoid’ church follows a group as they age (ie. The 21-29 year olds in the 70’s become the 30-38 year olds in the 80’s). Alternatively, it might prove to be limited to certain age groups in a permanent sense (ie. 21-29 year olds are always less likely to attend church than older people). This would imply that church doesn’t appeal to young people, while the first possibility would imply that a certain generation was soured on church and it may not be a repeating trend.
4 I could go on for hours and hours about secularization theory. In fact, it could have formed an entire paper unto itself. The debate rages in sociological circles about the validity of the theory, what it really means, and how accurate the historical content in relation to it is. I have been very limited in how much I can delve into the issue, as the true focus of this paper is elsewhere. Secularization, however, could easily form the basis of a very interesting paper all on its own.
5 The prospects for coexistence between these views are myriad, and due to space constraints they could not be properly treated. The assumption of this paper is that they can coexist, however only as diametrically opposed factors pulling in separate directions on society. There are intriguing works available by other authors which examine conceptually whether or not non-religious groups (science) and religion could actually come to respect one another and work together toward societal advancement in both social and scientific realms. To treat this topic properly would require volumes, and that it why it is only dealt with in passing.
Binion, Rudolph. (1986). After Christianity: Christian Survivals in a Post-Christian Culture. Durango: Logbridge-Rhodes, Inc.
Brown, Jennifer. (2001, February 15). Churches could get big benefits from federal support for faith-based charity. The Associated Press Newswire.
(2002 May). Bush promotes support for ‘all religions under the Almighty God’. Church & State, 55 (5), 15.
Carter, Stephen L. (2002, February 4). A Quiet Compromise: why a moment of silence is better than school prayer. Christianity Today, 46 (2), 82.
Gledhill, Ruth. (2001, February 21). Our New Dark Age. The Times of London.
Gottfried, Paul. (2000, July 31). PC Stealth Religion Gets Boost from Liberal Clergy. Insight on the News, 16 (28), 44-45.
(1997). Holy Bible, The: New Revised Standard Version. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers.
Johnson, Phillip E. (1997, October). Shouting ‘heresay’ in the temple of Darwin. Christianity Today, 38 (12), 22-27.
Kurtz, Paul. (2002, Summer). Bravo! Secularism growing in the U.S. (Editorial). Free Inquiry, 22 (3), 5-8.
Lechner, Frank J. (1991, June). The Case Against Secularization: A Rebuttal. Social Forces, 69 (4), 1103-1119.
Schoeps, Hans-Joachim. (1966). The Religions of Mankind: Their Origin and Development. New York: Doubleday & Company.
Tanner, Michael. (2001, September). Corrupting Charity. USA Today (Magazine), 130 (2676), 16-20
(2001, December). Virginia Moment of Silence Survives Court Test. Church & State, 54 (11), 3.
Wuthnow, Robert. (1976). Recent Pattern of Secularization: A Problem of Generations? American Sociological Review, 41 (5), 850-867.