According to new census data religion is about to become extinct – at least in the Western world. Looking at figures from nine Western countries, a New Zealand academic says current trends could spell the end of religion. Here is how one news service reports the story:
“A US study using census data shows that religion here and in eight other Western world countries is set for extinction. Census data was taken from as far back as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
“The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries. In New Zealand, it’s thought around half of all Kiwis claim no religious affiliation.
“Massey University Associate Professor of History Peter Lineham says in the 1950s, around 10% of New Zealanders had no religious affiliation. He says that increased to 45% in the 2006 census. ‘Hopefully the 2011 Census will take place at some point next year and we’ll know the latest figures, but it surely will have gone up to over 50%,’ he told Newstalk ZB.”
So what is one to make of all this? Is this really the end of religion as we know it? Are we headed for a completely secular future? Four thoughts come to mind. First, trends are often far from ironclad. While the secularisation of the West seems to show no signs of stopping, this may not last.
Indeed, a study of history will reveal similar periods where religion seemed to be in steep decline. But these trends do go back and forth. A decline in religion is often followed by a new surge, so an ebb and flow picture tends to describe the way things go here.
There have been dark periods before, and will undoubtedly again. But so too will there be periods of religious renewal and resurgence. In fact, periods of secularism tends to result in backlashes, where the emptiness of a barren naturalism is replaced by more vital supernaturalism.
Second, this study of course just looks at the West. Things are much different elsewhere. Indeed, the professor does concede this point: “Professor Lineham says the study would have very different results if the study looked at other countries. ‘If they took any countries beyond the western countries they’ve named, they would actually have the opposite phenomenon of religion getting larger’.”
There is a huge growth in religion in the South. If religion is dying out in the North, it is blazing in places like Africa, Latin America, and Asia. So we are very far from a religion-less future, even though such a phrase makes for a neat headline.
And many of these developing world Christians are now coming back to the West to re-evangelise it. When I lived in Amsterdam three decades ago it was certainly a very bleak, secular and sensualist culture, with hardly any thriving churches and bodies of believers.
When I returned there a few years ago, I was amazed to see mega-churches in Amsterdam and throughout Holland. Christianity is now growing and thriving there, and many of these big churches are led by overseas Christians, for example, from Africa or South Korea.
Third, many leading thinkers today are in fact refuting the earlier secularisation theories. American sociologist Peter Berger for example has had a long-standing interest in religion and earlier on had himself been a part of this secularisation school.
But he came to realise that he was wrong, and in 1999 he edited a book called The Desecularization of the World. In it he said this: “My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that the whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.”
Or as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, “History is not turning out the way many of the brightest and best expected. It seems the modern world is becoming more, not less, religious.” Indeed, if God exists this is not at all surprising. We have a hunger for the transcendent built into us.
We all have a God-ward bent. Our souls are empty without God. Even with increased material goods, prosperity and life spans, we still remain spiritual orphans in this world, and we all have a deep-down desire to find and know God. No amount of atheist crusades of secular indoctrination will remove that inner vacuum in the human heart which only God can fill.
Fourth, if religion dies out altogether, that is a good thing. Yes you heard me right. I am all in favour of seeing religion disappear. This is the view that all born-again Christians hold to. While it is true that Christianity is a major world religion, it is quite distinct from religion.
Generally stated, one can describe religion as man’s attempt to find God, to please God, and to placate God. Christianity on the other hand is God’s effort at finding us in our lost condition, and making the way for us to return to fellowship with him.
In human religions it is all one-way traffic: man seeking God and trying human efforts to please this God. In Christianity it is the other way around, with God taking the initiative, since we are spiritually dead and unable by ourselves to even desire the true God, let alone please him.
So he has graciously taken the first step, and has revealed himself to us, both through the written word, the Bible, and the living word, his Son Jesus. But he has not just told us about himself and what he demands, but he has done what we could not do for ourselves, so that forgiveness and new life can be obtained when we accept what Christ has done for us as he hung on that cross in Calvary.
So if religion does disappear, good riddance. It has for the most part been unhelpful and destructive. But Christianity will never disappear, because the living God has promised to be with us until the end of time, and he has promised to empower his people as they share the good news of Christ crucified – not religion – with a fallen and needy world.