More on why religion is declining

If the BBC, rather than asking Rod Dreher and David Ellis Dickerson, had asked me to give reasons for the global decline in religion, I would have pointed to two things: the rise in acceptance of science in popular culture, and the internet (and of course bacon). I would have agreed with Dickerson that the increasing acceptance of homosexuality by the general public has put traditional religion in a bind and is speeding up the process but I disagree with Dreher that the fault lies with mainstream Christianity abandoning orthodoxy.

My first reason (the increased acceptance of science) may seem counter-intuitive, especially in the US, where there seems to be a strong anti-science sentiment manifested by persistent opposition to well-established scientific theories like evolution, and a denial of the scientific case being made for global warming, accompanied by a vociferous form of general anti-science know-nothing religiosity. But those are just surface phenomena. The deeper conflict is between modernity (that is inextricably linked with science) and what can best be described as misplaced nostalgia, where people yearn for a golden past that never existed where truths about the world were unchanging and congruent with what their religions told them, and were unperturbed by scientific advances.

Although accommodationists and sophisticated religious apologists may think that the knowledge world of science and the knowledge world of religion can continue to be kept separate and not come into conflict, they must know deep down that this is not the case. Since the Enlightenment, scientific ways of understanding the world have expanded and now have entered every part of our thinking. Conflict between religion and modernity is inevitable and can only end with a victory for modernity, though religious extremists can win political skirmishes in the short term.

Science has taken deep root because modern society is built upon it. Some people may not like evolution as a theory but it is the same science that gives them modern medicine and they are stuck with it. New discoveries challenge religious beliefs every day, such as the recent discovery of 230-million year old mites preserved in amber. This routine article in the mainstream media about this discovery did not even bother to pay lip service to religious beliefs. The article not only ignored the fact that many people believe the world is only 6,000 years old, it was also riddled with evolutionary language to explain the implications of the discovery.

Young religious people these days cannot be prevented from coming across articles like these that are clearly seen by the writer and the publication as not being about religion at all, yet contain information that contradicts the very core of their beliefs and treats it as if that were uncontroversial. What are they to think? The experiences of the former Hasidim are being played out in the homes of many young religious people of all faiths.

It is inevitable that they will realize that they are way outside the mainstream. It is this routine acceptance of the basic premises of science by the more educated segments of the community is what will undermine religion, not a frontal attack on it. The frontal attacks on religion by new atheists are like violent thunderstorms that cause religious beliefs to severely buffeted and weakened. But they can still be weathered and the edifice patched up to cover the holes. Creeping modernity, on the other hand, is like a slowly rising flood that comes from all directions and strikes at the very foundations of the religious edifice and causes it to crumble from within. You cannot hold back that tide.

However much religious leaders might try to shield them, young people are going to experience a world in which facts that contradict their religious beliefs are seen as the norm among educated people. And that has to be deeply unsettling.


  1. says

    I disagree with Dreher that the fault lies with mainstream Christianity abandoning orthodoxy

    I absolutely agree with you. Orthodoxy is a gigantic millstone around religion’s neck and the religions that survive will be the ones that retreat to a touchy-feely “god of the woo” spirituality.

    The internet is a big part of it. Because whenever religions make objective claims about something (generally the more orthodoxy, the more objective claims) they are easily shown to be bogus with just a click or two on google. Savanarola’s strategy was good; it was the only way religion could survive: extend the dark ages and destroy the philosophy of ancient Greece. From the invention of the printing press (which religion originally, foolishly, hailed since it allowed duplication and dissemination of their books of lies…) it’s just been a matter of time.

    It doesn’t matter what they do, at this point. Anything short of deism is trivially falsifiable and once orthodoxy breaks down then the ability to also control the discussion goes out the window. When that happens, google is there to answer every query.

  2. says

    I think if a given religion wants to persist, it needs to beat a hasty retreat on doctrinal claims which impact the world (and I’m not just talking about Creationism, even things like overt miracles, or even the Resurrection, they need to couch that as a metaphor, etc., just as the “sophisticated” theologians are wont to do when speaking to their own, except that it needs to come from all levels and to all levels), it needs to be extremely humble when it comes to moral claims, and it needs to re-emphasize the tradition/ritual/identity aspects. Although Judaism is perhaps a bad example because it is such a small religion, it does seem (at least from my anecdotal experience) that Judaism is better at retaining de facto atheists than a lot of other religions, and I think it’s because you can be a Reform Jew and not believe a damn thing 😀 other than that Passover is awesome and you identify as a Jew.

  3. stonyground says

    I am sure that information is the enemy of religion. I was born in England in 1958. When I was growing up, Christianity was a part of life, but by the time that I was a teenager, people who still took it in any way seriously were regarded as being a bit strange. I was in my late teens before I even became aware that there were religions other than Christianity. The generation growing up now are fully aware, from the start, that other religions exist. Other people believe in their, obviously false, religions for exactly the same reasons that I believe in my obviously true religion. Oh wait…

  4. raven says

    The eneny of religions isn’t science or the new atheists.

    It is reality.

    Reality doesn’t care how many heretics and scientists you burn at the stake. It is what it is.

  5. stonyground says

    I have read all the arguments for the truth claims of Christianity, none of them stand up to critical analysis. The truth claims of other religions differ but the self deluding methods for supporting belief in them are the same. For almost every Christian who ever existed, the main reason that they are a Christian rather than a Hindu or a Muslim is the time and place where they were born and raised. The case for those Hindus and Muslims is precisely the same.

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