What will it mean, when God is dead? Australia is about to become an atheist nation. The census shows us that barely half the population identifies as Christian while nearly a third nominates no religion. The numbers of believers will be bolstered by immigration but the trend is unmistakable. The old beliefs are dying out.
Our trek to radical unbelief follows much of western Europe. The same trends are evident in the US. Though religious belief is stronger there, it has lost the elites and over time elite opinion leads public opinion.
The eclipse of Christianity will be like the eclipse of the sun. Darkness will be the result. Will it be a temporary darkness or a long night of the Western soul?
In abandoning God, we are about to embark on one of the most radical social experiments in Western history. It is nothing short of the reordering of human nature. Short of war, nothing is as consequential.
Human beings create themselves inside a culture. A culture without God will create different human beings. This is a much bigger shift than everything implied by the rise of digital technology, though this is involved in the revolution of the person we are now embarking on. When our culture has exiled God, there will be a radical change to the human personality and all our social institutions and relations.
For a time we will continue to live off the declining ethical and cultural capital of our heritage of 2000 years of Christianity and more than 3000 years of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But as British writer Arnold Lunn once remarked, we are living off the scent of an empty vase. As we cut ourselves off ever more comprehensively from the roots of our civilisation, our civilisation will be damaged.
[W]e should at least pause for a second to consider how much we are losing as a society by rejecting this Christian tradition. Virtually everything we like in our current society, and in our political culture, derives from Christianity, and before that from the tradition of the Old Testament.
The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, might have been written 2500 or more years ago. It begins with what was the most radical statement in favour of human rights to enter the ancient world. It was that God, one God, created human beings in his own image. That is the beginning of the story of human dignity in the Western tradition.
A case of course can be made for ancient Athens and other ancient civilisations. But in Athens human dignity applied only to men in the ruling elite. The franchise never went beyond 10 per cent of the people. Women, slaves and foreigners had no rights. And people were not conceived of as individuals but as members of families.
The unfolding revelation of the character of God, and the developing conception of the character of humanity, as the Old Testament progresses, is one of the central elements of cultural and indeed political development in Western civilisation.
But it was in the New Testament that the bases for human rights and human dignity were most explicitly developed.
But liberalism today is unravelling. The loss of faith in God has been accompanied in the West by the collapse of faith in institutions, and indeed in humanity itself. Is it entirely a coincidence that the decline of religious belief is accompanied by a decline in belief in democracy, as evident in Australia in successive Lowy polls? Indeed the least religious cohort is also the cohort with the least faith in democracy.
In his definitive study, Coming Apart, Charles Murray charts the growth of the white underclass in America. The last force that holds a disintegrating community together is the churches, he reports. When they collapse, the community collapses too.
Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil.
This leads, as surely as night follows day (though Dawkins denies it), ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake.
This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is an antisocial self-absorption. The metaphysical development of identity across the centuries has ended in a dry gulch. Slaves became souls under the influence of Christianity.
But the soul — the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny — gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief.
Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being.
Liberalism remains in furious rebellion against Christianity, long after Christianity’s power to constrain it in any way has disappeared. A certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism impels liberalism to a new authoritarianism. Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.
There is a regression too as liberalism works its way away from the universalism of Christianity to create a new series of tribal identities. Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics.
This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.
Part of the Donald Trump phenomenon is a reaction by some American whites who feel marginalised by their exclusion from minority identity politics. They want an identity politics too.
This abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.
The Christian churches have been slow to understand and respond to all this. But a serious dialogue is under way. American writer Rod Dreher argues that many mainline Christian churches are in danger of descending into what he calls moralistic therapeutic deism, a bland version of the prevailing zeitgeist with the merest thin treacle of lowest-common-denominator deist beliefs over the top.
In his bold and high-selling new book The Benedict Option, Dreher suggests the churches have to rethink their social roles. Politics offers them nothing, the culture is everything. Their main political battle, he argues, should be to secure their own freedoms.
He thinks they need to re-conceive of themselves as minorities. This would give them some advantages. They need, too, to reconsider the seriousness of their purposes, so that even if they no longer represent a consensus, they can at least continue to offer an alternative.
This is not the end of days. But it is the end of that long period when the West has known Christianity, even if it has often honoured the faith in the breach.
Our culture, our people, not to mention our poor and our sick, will miss Christianity more than they can possibly know.
Read the whole thing. Trust me, there is much more to this essay than I’ve been able to show you here. The fact that it was written not by an archbishop or a professor, but by a foreign editor of a major Australian newspaper, somehow gives it more impact, at least to me.
I know that regular readers of this blog get tired of hearing this from me. But I am tired of living with the lies that we Christians tell ourselves about the situation. I live in a city where Christianity is still mainstream. If people don’t go to church, or go to church that often, Christianity is still the paradigm by which they understand themselves, and understand the world. But that is rapidly slipping away. So many people around here don’t see it, because they can’t imagine a Western society without Christianity dominating. If you’ve ever gone to Europe and spent any time off the tourist trail, you will have seen that world. It is impossible to be confident that It Can’t Happen Here, when it has happened in Europe, and it certainly is happening here. Two of the leading sociologists of religion released a study last year showing that the US is now undeniably on the same path of religious decline as Europe. Pastors, religious teachers, and laity who believe that things are fundamentally solid are lying to themselves. As the Canadian Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”
Meanwhile, the Catholic literary scholar Anthony Esolen observes the collapse in the faith in Newfoundland, where he spends every summer, and the pathetic bureaucratic response of the local Catholic archdiocese to the crisis. Excerpt from Esolen’s piece:
It is as if the situation in Newfoundland were merely a matter of shuffling in a business concern. We see the tired old “strategy” of blurring the distinction between the laity and the clergy, and indeed we hear that some voices were raised against the term “lay minister,” not because it made the layman so denominated appear as if he or she were a priest or priestess, but because every Christian by baptism is a priest of God. It is a strange heterogeneity: suspicion of order and hierarchy, rendered institutional. The word “obedience” does not appear in the document.
Nor does the name of Jesus, or the word “repentance.” John the Baptist, if he were to take his stand on the lichen-crusted crags of that rugged island, wearing a sealskin jacket and trousers, and eating mackerel and cloudberries, would cry out that people should mend their ways. What difference can it possibly make, if you write up “strategic plans” and carve out “leadership teams” and clump fishing boats together in “piscatory zones,” when your nets are full of holes? What is going to be renewed, when your skippers are drunk and your men are lazy and filch half of the catch for their own sale on the side?
I do not mean to hurt the feelings of the people of the province. But let us speak the truth to one another. We have not been faithful, and so the Spirit has abandoned us to our purposes. We get the preachers we deserve. This is as true in Newfoundland as it is in New Hampshire, where I am going to live during the other seasons of the year. Committees are busy without minding the business, and the business at hand is repentance. How to get contemporary man even to consider that he has something to repent of, when his mind has been made as shallow as a puddle—when he abuses his body with as much forethought as he pushes a button on an electronic slot machine—when he has neither the health-making struggle with nature that his forefathers knew, nor the bracing wisdom that comes from old books, nor the encounter with mystery and beauty that people once demanded in the art and music of their churches—that is the question, and no committee can possibly address it.
In The Benedict Option, I use the metaphor of a catastrophic flood that cannot be escaped or denied, only ridden out. This is a flood called liquid modernity. Look what’s happening to Houston right now, and consider that what’s happening to all of us in the West spiritually and culturally is the like this. You can sit there and live on hope that the water (spiritually speaking) will not wash your house away. Or you can settle your anxieties by saying that Surely Somebody Will Do Something to keep the worst from happening.
Or you can get busy building arks. Nobody is going to build them for you and your family and your church community. We’ve got to do this for ourselves. We are not helpless here. The archdiocese (or whatever your church’s bureaucratic office is called) is going to be making strategic action plans and issuing happy-claptrappy press releases even as the alligators and water moccasins poke their reptilian noses into the conference rooms at Church HQ.
It is indeed a new epoch, and we cannot afford to pretend otherwise. If you want you children and your children’s children to keep the faith, then prepare, while there is still time. Yes, the Western world will miss Christianity more than it can possibly know, but it is also true that Christians in the West don’t understand how fragile Christianity is here.