January 2, 2006
Predictions and Predicaments
-- Martin E. Marty
Predicting Religion is a book comprising papers by sociologists of religion who were asked to predict "Christian, Secular and Alternative Futures." Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead edited chapters, many of them growing out of a 2001 conference. I finally had a chance to read the book during a quiet week, late enough in the game that the outcome of some of the predictions might be testable already! The notable authors disagree with each other as to whether we will see more secular or more religious, more Christian or more other-than-Christian futures in various places.
Europeans are bemused when they confront the many evidences of "salvational" Christian vitality in the U.S.—and U.S. citizens, upon visiting Europe, come back with reports of empty chapels and cathedrals, casual participation by the few, and indifference and even disdain for faith communities.
When I read about or visit Europe, I come back to reality with this question: Can it happen here? Christian decline in Britain was a long, slow process, followed by sudden downturns. I used to teach about Irish Catholic history and about times when the seminary at Maynooth had many hundreds of seminarians. Today almost none graduate and proceed to ordination. (Closer to home, visitors to Quebec used to find full churches and huge outdoor festivals. Now decline is precipitous.) Why the European fate? Some blame tired and corrupt establishments, clerical sexual scandals, or new prosperity and materialism in Ireland as distractions. But why does consumerism boost American religious institutions—and more? To the point:
Steve Bruce writes on "The Demise [not decline] of Christianity in Britain." Church attendance saw decline to 8 percent by 1999; in the 1980s the Church of England lost one-fourth of its attenders. The over-65 set makes up about one-fifth of Anglican attendance figures, and other churches run toward 40 percent. Membership? About 10 percent remain "members." In 1900, half of British kids were in Sunday school; now it is less than 4 percent. And in 1900 there were 45,400 clerics but, while population has since doubled, clerical numbers have fallen over 25 percent. Beliefs? Most serious decline is in "belief in a personal God and belief in Jesus as the Son of God." Politics: very little, very residual influence. Indifference reigns.
Liberal Christians used to trade on those persons shaped by intense religion but who rejected much of it as they grew. Today there is too little intensity left for adults to use to help shape the young. Bruce predicts: 1) "The church form of religion cannot return"; 2) "The sect form ... will decline slowly"; 3) "The cultic religion of New Age Spirituality will become ever more diffuse and ever less significant"; 4) "Three decades from now, Christianity in Britain will have largely disappeared." If help is to come, it has to be of a trickle-up sort, in which vitalities of sub-Saharan, Latin American, and Asian Christianity "go north." The Christianity that "went south" prospers, and selectively influences Christianity "up north."
Were this weekly electronic op-ed based in Europe, Sightings would have to be called Squintings. Are the predictors using the wrong spectacles, or is their vision clear? Again, regarding demise: Can it happen here?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.