Library Learnings: Church: more than meets the eye, part 6

Why is “much of the old Christianity dying”?

Arising out of The Great Courses DVD set, The World’s Greatest Churcheswhich is available in SSUC’s Library—this sixth instalment in what is a multi-part essay about “Church,” seeks an answer to the question, Why? Why is religiosity…or, more specifically, why is Christianity in the West…waning? Because the evidence is mounting that it is.

“[F]aith itself faces sober times.” Mary Eberstadt continues, mincing no words: “[S]ecularization is now galloping at a pace that even the most prescient observers might not have foreseen.” Why, “Christianity, once the West’s cornerstone, is now a public monument open to defacing and attack.” If anything, the situation is even worse among younger generations: “[A]cquaintance with Christian rituals and stories is fast receding among the increasingly atomized and disconnected Western young.” 

In so saying, Eberstadt echoes—this in the National Review’s December 30, 2022, edition—what she affirmed a decade ago, both in an interview in that same magazine, and in her then new book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. 

What she claims will be familiar to you, if you have been following the reporting in this series of Library Learnings essays: they seek to answer the question, Whither the church? And no end of books and articles—there have been lots, just in the last little while—attest to the decline of religion and church, Christian faith and belief, certainly in the West, and notably in the United States. Consider:

 “Sociologists are amazed by the swift disintegration of Christianity in America. It’s a stunning cultural transformation, confirmed by dozens of surveys and studies. […] Now, a brand-new finding by the Barna religious polling service says that Christianity is being erased by ‘Dont’s—people who say they don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe in God.’ Chief George Barna calls the church wipeout ‘the most rapid and radical cultural upheaval our nation has experienced.’” (“Christianity is Collapsing,” by James Haught, senior editor of Free Thought magazine, in the Daylight Atheism blog, July 12, 2021.) 

Elsewhere, and more recently, Haught quotes Will Durant who wrote, 60 years ago, in The Age of Reason Begins: “‘Is Christianity dying? Is the religion that gave morals, courage, and art to Western civilization suffering slow decay through the spread of knowledge, the widening of astronomic, geographical, and historic horizons, the realization of evil in history and the soul, the decline of faith in an afterlife and of a trust in the benevolent guidance of the world? If this is so, it is the basic event of modern times.’”

 “[T]here has been a shocking rise in the number of people ditching Christianity…. Pew Research Center estimates that Christians will be a minority of Americans by 2070, if current trends continue. …It’s a kind of ‘cultural whiplash’ from religion to secularism that’s hit the United States much faster than it has other parts of the world….” (“A mass exodus from Christianity is underway in America. Here’s Why,” by Suzette Lohmeyer, senior editor, & Anna Deen, data visualization reporter, Grid magazine, December 17, 2022.)

 Even The New York Times columnist Roth Douthat, a practicing and stalwart Roman Catholic layperson, writes of “the dissolution of the old order of American religion—the decline of churches and denominations, and the rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality.” Ours—he’s referring to America—has become “a culture where people are reacting against the Christian past….” (“Be open to spiritual experience. Also, be really careful,” by Ross Douthat, The New York Times, February 1, 2023.)


Worship said to have only an “archaic place” in today’s UK

Keep calm, Brits advise, and carry on. But they’re not, not those aged 40 or under, not when it comes to their religious life. 

“More people under 40 in England and Wales now declare ‘no religion’ than profess to be Christian—the first time the UK’s dominant religion has been pushed into second place in any age group,” The Guardian declared on January 30, 2023. In previous decades, “Christianity came out on top as a proportion of every single age group. But in an almost complete reversal of the picture…there are now 9.8 million Christians aged under 40, and 13.6 million with no religion.” This state of affairs is reported in new data from the UK’s census figures released in December.

If anything, the Church of England may be exacerbating the flight from faith: its recent rejection “of demands to allow clergy to conduct same-sex marriages is likely to further the trend, said Abby Day, a professor of race, faith, and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, who said the church continued to show itself as ‘radically out of step. Christianity is fading fast because of generational change,’ she said. ‘The baby boomers, the millennials, and generation Z are all turning away from Christianity.’” 

Secularists, the news account mentioned, contend that these figures “make plain that the UK faces a non-religious future,” and so they’re calling on the government to “renegotiate the place of religion or belief in today’s society.” Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, argued that “’collective worship and faith-based discrimination’” have only an “’archaic place’” in today’s Britain. 


 “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every congregation in the United States shut down, at least for a while. For some…, that was the push they needed to never come back to church. A new report, which looked at in-person worship attendance patterns before the beginning of the pandemic and in 2022, found that a third of those surveyed never attend worship services. That’s up from 25% before the start of the pandemic.” (“More Americans stay away from church as pandemic nears year three,” by Bob Smietana, Religion News Service, January 5, 2023.)

Speaking of those who no longer participate, Smietana turns to Dan Cox of the American Enterprise Institute: “The folks who rarely attend services are also at risk of disappearing completely. If that happens, churches and denominations would be in big trouble, Cox said. ’There are millions of people in that category,’ he said. ‘If they go, I think it’s going to cripple a lot of denominations, and a lot of congregations are going to have to fold.’”

 “With the pandemic speeding up a broader trend of Americans turning away from Christianity, researchers say the [church] closings will only have accelerated.” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, is quoted as saying, “‘[A]ll signs are pointing to a continued pace of closures, as there’s been a really rapid rise in American individuals who say they’re not religious.’” (“Losing their religion: why US churches are on the decline,” by Adam Gabbatt, in Great Britain’s The Guardian, January 22, 2023.)

Gabbatt goes on to quote John Muzyka of Church Realty, a Texas company that specializes in church sales: “[C]losures are often due to a failure of churches to adapt. ‘A church will go through a life cycle. At some point, maybe the congregation ages out, maybe they stop reaching young families. …that church ends up closing. Yes, there’s financial pressures that will close a church, but oftentimes it’s more that they didn’t figure out how to change when the community changed, or they didn’t have enough young people to continue the congregation for the next generation.’”

 “[A]mong young adults…church attendance took a major hit.” Here, the writer continues, citing a study released January 5, 2023, the work of American Enterprise Institute and the University of Chicago: “‘Young people, [notably] those who are single, and self-identified as liberal, ceased attending religious services at all at much higher rates than other Americans. Even before the pandemic, these groups were experiencing the most dramatic declines in religious membership, practice, and identity.’ […] Thirty percent of young adults dropped attendance after the pandemic.” (“Church attendance dropped among young people, singles, liberals,” by David Roach, in Christianity Today, January 6, 2023.)

 “American denominationalism is fading. ‘Non-denominational’ is now the largest non-Catholic religious group in America. Nearly all denominations are declining. Liberal ones are declining faster than conservative ones. Nearly all growing congregations are non-denominational. […] [M]any denominations will survive on a much smaller scale, with very lean structures, and often deemphasizing their denominational brands.” (“Post-denominational America,” by Mark Tooley, in The Institute on Religion & Democracy blog, January 9, 2023.)

 “It was a dramatic year for the United Methodist Church.” In 2022, America’s largest Protestant denomination experienced “an exodus of conservative churches,” this due to “[d]isagreements over church policy and theological beliefs”: 1,827 congregations departed or were disaffiliated from the denomination, with large numbers of them joining “a new traditionalist denomination, the Global Methodist Church. Although churches leaving the UMC represented less than 10% of the total churches in the UMC, the departures…left the UMC with major questions about future revenue.” (“With a historic number of churches leaving, why 2022 was so dramatic for United Methodists,” by Liam Adams, in USA Today, December 22, 2022.)


Quebec: where religion matters least to its citizens

On a visit to Montreal, Mark Twain “marvelled at the sheer number of church tops he could spot from his hotel room.” Or so Konrad Yakabuski attests in his December 24, 2022, column for The Globe and Mail. It’s so, even now: “The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal today counts 214 churches,” he notes, then adds, “but most of them sit eerily empty. 

“The Journal de Québec recently reported that only five churches in Montreal plan to celebrate midnight mass [on Christmas Eve] this year, a development that speaks volumes about the decline of Catholicism, and the rise of secularism in modern Quebec. Midnight mass was long as much a part of Québécois tradition and identity as the French language itself.”

Indeed, the province “has gone from having the country’s largest proportion of active churchgoers to the province where religion matters least in the lives of average citizens,” the columnist observes. In recent years, the number of Quebeckers who report attending religious services on a weekly basis dropped to 14%, “by far the lowest rate in Canada. […] Francophone Quebeckers have embraced secularism with the same fervour with which they once practised Catholicism.”


All of this…this glum, perplexing news…raises a question: Why? Why, in the words of Mark Tooley, writing for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, is “[m]uch of the old Christianity dying”?  

The writers cited above, and scads more, offer answers, mostly in passing. But at least two authors delve more deeply into the issue. Including the one quoted at the beginning of this essay, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt, for whom—this is how she herself puts it—“the fate and aspirations of post-modern man” are central: in her interview with the National Review, she argues, “The West’s increasing rejection of traditional family life undermines attachment to Christianity….” 

Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, she, in delivering last October the Ramsay Lecture in Sydney, Australia, voiced it again: “[T]he biggest cause of religious decline,” the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization reported her as saying, “was the breakdown of the family unit, flowing on from the sexual revolution of the 1960s. ‘Everyone looking at this puzzle sees the same thing: belief and practice across the West enter a steep decline between 1963 and 1966.’”

She acknowledged that “the idea that something about modernity will ultimately cause Christianity to wither away has been axiomatic among modern, sophisticated Westerners,” but suggests that “this widely accepted ‘secularization thesis’ misses something crucial.” She disputes, among other explanations, “what she claimed is the dominant theory, ‘that material prosperity drives out God’.” No, it’s “‘not prosperity that makes God harder to see, it’s not science—it’s the increasing absence of familial figures who serve to sharpen the human vision of the divine.’” 

Actually, she finds hope in this circumstance. In her address, Eberstadt, since 2021 a distinguished fellow of the PM Glynn Institute at Australian Catholic University, the largest Catholic university in the English-speaking world, “argued Christianity may not be in permanent decline,” which would be so “because societal problems, such as loneliness and mental illness, could eventually drive people to question their way of life, and see a return to communities built more around families and faith.” 

In another lecture she delivered, also in October, but in Melbourne, she warranted, “The ascendancy of secularization has done humanity no favours. Its scanting of human grandeur cheapens everyone. […] [L]iving without God and family is, and remains, a net loss across the West. It is tearing apart institutions and individuals alike.” She described “today’s troubled voices” as “a howl of separation from a world that many have never known, one more ordered than this one to principles of mercy, community, and redemption.”


“I wonder if it isn’t people finally being honest”

Could the decrease in folks who identify as Christian prove to be good news for society? Maybe yes, a Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota has told Fox News. 

Father Mike Schmitz “is hopeful that youth today still believe in religious principles, even if they’re less likely to identify with any specific organized religion,” Jon Raasch and Teny Sahakian report. Speaking of the inclination of young people to distance themselves from organized religion, Schmitz remarked, “’I wonder if it isn’t people being honest. It’s them finally saying, my parents checked the box—I’m Lutheran, I’m Evangelical, I’m Catholic—but they didn’t do anything about it.’”

In their January 22, 2023, posting, the reporters recount the priest’s profession: “‘Religion is not meant to keep people in line, it’s meant to give them freedom. But not freedom to do what I want, freedom to do what I ought.’” They go on to tell how Schmitz “rose to prominence in 2021 with the release of his podcast, ‘The Bible in a Year,’ which consistently ranks at the top of Apple’s religion and spirituality charts.” 


Stephen Bullivant has other ideas. It’s not “shifting cultural values,” as Ebrerstadt has it. This is something that’s “overemphasized when it comes to explaining why people leave the church,” Grid News reports Bullivant as stressing. What’s more, this rampant exodus is happening really only in the last couple of decades, not back in the 1960s, as per Eberstadt.  “[T]he increase in Christians dropping the faith didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the early 2000s,” Grid staffers report him as saying.

With doctorates in both theology and sociology, Bullivant, who holds professorial positions at St. Mary’s University, London, and the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, is the author of the book, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, which Oxford University Press published just last year [“nonverts” are folks who once identified with a religion, but now say they have no religion]. [This volume, which is to be had in the SSUC Library, was recently pointed up as a “Featured Book” in this church’s newsletter and on the Library’s webpage.]

For Religious News Service, Jana Riess explains how the author came to write his book: “As a researcher, Bullivant wanted to know why Americans, once considered the exception to the secularization that has happened in Europe and elsewhere, are suddenly losing their religion. And it is sudden, he notes.” Their defection has come about “‘within the space of one, or perhaps two generations,’” he told Riess. In the book, Bullivant reckons, “over the last two decades, the rate of nones has more than doubled.” 

By his account, this shift is mostly “caused by people actively leaving the religion of their childhood,” Reiss writes. In his book, Bullivant puts it this way: “[T]he rise of the nones is…primarily due to a vast, wholly unprecedented ‘mass nonversion’ of millions upon millions of Americans who were raised religious.” There are now 59 million of them, the book’s publisher reckons. 

Reiss pressed the author: why didn’t this falling away happen earlier? “Why did this change start, not in the 1960s, when American culture was in a state of upheaval, but in the ‘90s?” Rebecca Foster, in her critique of the book for Foreword Reviews, sums up Bullivant’s arguments—he spreads them over many pages—in a few words:

“Bullivant proposes convincing explanations for why the proportion of ‘nones’ has soared since the 1990s: the waning Cold War connection of atheism with communism, paired with the intensifying demonization of Islam; generational weakening of religious affiliations; readiness to speak out about non-belief, thanks to public atheists like Richard Dawkins; and the expansion of the internet, where likeminded people congregate for ‘free therapy’.” 

“Here’s the thing,” Bullivant declares in Nonverts: “Having no religion is no longer the preserve of nonconformists or self-consciously quirky enclaves…. With each passing year, being a none is rapidly becoming less socially and culturally odd. …non-religiosity is now thoroughly normal. It is now a perfectly established and respectable ‘live’ option for most people.”


Ken Fredrick


To be continued: the seventh instalment in this essay about “Church” will be posted to the SSUC Library’s website [] on March 31st. It will attempt to say, Where we go from here. don’t