The Decline and Fall of Christianity
Christianity in the modern world
Christianity, as a label, is the largest religion in the world. Over 2 billion people can be counted as "Christians." Their actual practices, beliefs and lifestyles are another matter entirely. The west is responsible for Christianity's expansion around the world since the late medieval period. Ironically, it was the scientific and industrial advancements of the west that enabled the label of Christianity to spread, while nevertheless causing the substantive religion to shrink in significance.
This series of articles will explore the various elements of Christianity's decline into irrelevance on the global scale. There are five major elements that will be considered:
- Indicators of popular religiosity
- Cultural indicators
- Political and legal indicators
- Scientific, intellectual and academic indicators
- Indicators of changing religious beliefs
Each set of indicators represents a unique aspect of Christianity's decline. This article will address the first: indicators of popular religiosity in the western and westernized world.
For the purpose of this study, "Christianity" is defined as the major world religion that includes beliefs such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a personal God, the second coming of Christ, and the need to accept Jesus as one's personal savior for salvation. This will also be referred to as "traditional Christianity" to distinguish it from newer sects and denominations.
Decline of Christianity in America
The United States is among the most religious societies in the western, developed world. Yet the hold of traditional Christianity on people's lives has been significantly eroded, even among people who call themselves "Christian."
Belief in God is down: General belief in God has remained high and stable in the US since World War II, ranging from 92 to 98%. However, depending on the poll's question wording, belief in God declines notably. In 2010, 80% of people said they believe in God, while 12% believed in a "universal spirit." In 2006, seventy-three percent of Americans said they were "convinced God exists," and nineteen percent said God probably exists, but they have some doubt.
Self-reported Christians are down: From 1948 to 2008, the self-reported Christian population of America fell from 92% to 78% and the nonreligious population rose from two percent to between thirteen and fifteen percent. Nonbelievers have mostly come from the ranks of Christian defectors.
Church attendance is down: Over the last 40 years, Americans have attended church less and less frequently. In 1972, the majority of people attended religious services once a month or more frequently. In 2008, a majority attended several times a year or less often.
When asked, 40 to 45% of Americans claim they attend church weekly. However, actual weekly church attendance is estimated at somewhere between 17 and 30%. The majority of Americans do not attend church weekly.
General importance of religion has fallen: The percentage of Americans claiming that religion is "very important" in their lives declined significantly from three-quarters in 1952, to just over half in 2008. Meanwhile, those saying it is "not very important" rose from five to nineteen.
Authority given to religion is down: The percentage of people saying that religion is old-fashioned and out of date rose from 7% in 1957 to 29% in 2009. In the 1950s 82% believed religion was relevant to modern questions; by 2009 the number had fallen significantly to 57%.
Decline of Christianity in the West
Among developed nations, a median of only 38% of people say that religion is important in their daily lives. In 2007 and 2008, eight of the eleven least religious countries in the world were located in Europe, and all but one (Mongolia) were within the western sphere:
- Estonia: 14% said religion is important in their daily lives
- Sweden: 17%
- Denmark: 18%
- Norway: 20%
- Czech Republic: 21%
- Azerbaijan: 21%
- Hong Kong: 22%
- Japan: 25%
- France: 25%
- Mongolia: 27%
- Belarus: 27%
In the 1960s, 79% of the British believed in God; thirty years later, it was 68%. Meanwhile, from the 1950s to the 1990s, those saying they did not believe in God rose from around 2% to 27%.
Eight in ten Swedes believed in God in 1947; in the early 1990s, it was down to 4 in 10. In recent years, the majority of people do not believe in God (between 50% to 85% depending on the study).
In France, the trend toward non-theism began much earlier, with the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Today about a third of French people state a non-belief in God, and far more can be considered agnostic or irreligious.
Modern Europe is generally considered to be "Post-Christian," insofar as private beliefs and public policy are far less influenced by traditional Christianity than in the past. Christianity itself has also become secularized and modernized. An example of this is Christmas, which is celebrated by many Non-Christians in the west, and for many Christians is the only time of year they engage in any serious worship, prayer or religious ceremony.
Weekly church attendance rates are low across Europe: roughly 30% in Italy and 12% in France. Less than 50% of Irish people attend mass even once a month. Weekly Church of England attendance is predicted to fall by 90% by 2050.
In 2004, only one priest was ordained in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
- The Decline and Fall of Christianity: Cultural Indicators
- The Decline and Fall of Christianity: Political and Legal Indicators
- The Decline and Fall of Christianity: Scientific and Intellectual Indicators
- The Decline and Fall of Christianity: Religious and Belief Indicators
- Humanist's Guide to Religion: Christianity
- America: A Christian Nation?
- Religion, Atheism and Wealth