Much has been made recently of research that shows the world becoming both more secular and more religious. The growth of the secular or rise of the nones is expected to continue in Western Europe, America and Australia.
The growth of the faithful is expected pretty much everywhere else. What are we to make of such developments and where are the promising lines of enquiry for the church?
David Voas of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex says,
“The culture of the West is going to become increasingly nonreligious at the same time the culture in the Global South persists in being religious. Repercussions will be global.”
This has led some to argue that this century will be dominated by religious issues. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that,
“Religion has been the most intense worldview-shaping phenomenon in history, and it will continue to be the most important worldview-shaping phenomenon of the 21st century.”
Yet for the faithful in the West the data is both confusing, disconcerting & discouraging. Whatever the growth elsewhere, the decline (especially in Europe) of religion (and Christianity in particular) in the West continues apace.
The angst has been greatest in America where Christianity has dominated the faith landscape and is rapidly losing its social influence. Arthur Farnsley sees the loss of religion and the secularizing of society as a result of individualism.
“The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.”
This insight better explains why it is not just religion that is losing out all across Europe. As Caroline Wyatt says in her article for the BBC,
“That increasing lack of belief is not confined to religion alone, but appears to be affecting almost every other sphere of authority – while new technology allows individuals to access more knowledge than ever before about the world around us, while apparently leaving us no happier.”
What we should see then is in countries where individualism combined with secularism has taken hold a greater decline in religion. Certainly this is true for Europe. Sweden, for example is arguably the ‘least religious nation in the Western world’ and it is also highly individualistic.
Gunnar Sjöberg of the Church of Sweden is quoted as saying,
“In Sweden compared to other countries, religious beliefs are very personal, people don’t talk about religion a lot in everyday life. But when we speak to people about whether or not they pray, they often say ‘yes'”.
The outlier has always been America but perhaps that is to miss the strong community bonds that the church has, and still does, play. Think of the strong presence of the church in the black communities or in rural America and you continue to see the strength of the church. Where has Christianity lost the most gruond? In the cities and cities almost by design weaken community bonds and force a greater individualism as a means of survival. Something Harvey Cox spotted in his classic, The Secular City.
So while the BBC can ask ‘Is the UK still a Christian country?’ In that article Professor Grace Davie makes the point that,
“There’s no room for complacency, but there will be a future for Christianity. It will just be a different future. But you have to be very cautious about predictions. In the 1960s, many thought the world would become more secular, and that hasn’t happened. Europe is so distinctive from the rest of the world, and that is to be pondered – bearing in mind that it’s a tiny and shrinking bit of the world.”
Yet as the sons of nones lose their religion, their remains plenty of opportunities for the church. Dominic Bouck, writing for First Things says,
“As the children of nones reject the non-faith of their parents, either Christians must offer them a real, coherent system, or expect to lose them to other, more radical systems of belief.”
I believe that the churches that make a difference, that buck the trend so to speak, will not necessarily fall into the simple traditional/liberal analysis but much more likely to be whether a local church offers an alternative to the rampant consumer oriented individualism that pervades society. The church, of whatever flavour, that offers strong community with strong bonds of common life, faith and praxis will thrive while churches that fail to offer that (or at least are perceived as not to offer that) will continue to wither and die.