The Decline and Fall of Christianity: Religious and Belief Indicators
Changes in Christian beliefs
Over time the Christianity of the West has become less fundamentalist, less rigid and more open. This is a major indicator of the declining influence of traditional Christianity in the modern world.
Through me you enter into the city of woes. Through me you enter into eternal pain, through me you enter the population of loss... Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
Faith activates God - Fear activates the Enemy.
--Pastor Joel Osteen
The kind of God that people believe in has changed significantly through the ages. In the medieval period, God was often thought of as a threatening, punishing force. Disease, which was rife in the medieval world, was usually identified as a punishment from God for personal or collective sins.
Today God's loving and forgiving qualities are emphasized. Modern Christians are steeped in a tradition of a loving God who is only nice to people, whereas the actual roots of Biblical Christianity point to a more mixed and darker deity.
Although belief in heaven, hell and other religious concepts has increased in recent years, in 2004 there was a notable gap in belief: about 81% of Americans believed in heaven, but about 70% believed in hell.
In the 1990s, while three quarters of Americans believed in hell, only about one third of British did. Even British Christians were largely optimistic on the afterlife: only 40% believed in hell. About half of both Canadians and Britons do not believe in the devil.
Literalism and fundamentalism
Literalism and fundamentalism have plummeted in the western Christian world. In the past, the Bible was seen as the only definitive account of world history. It was the first and last source of all knowledge--from the political to the personal, from the scientific to the spiritual.
Today few people have a literal interpretation of the Bible. And even most literalists still do not really apply the Bible to every single aspect of their lives. They visit doctors who studied at secular medical schools, and learn about nature from scientists whose training had no religious content.
Only about a third of Americans are literalist, saying the Bible is the word of God and literally true. Large numbers of Mainline Protestants (28%), Catholics (27%) and Orthodox (29%) believe the Bible is the word of men, not God.
Violence and fanaticism
Fanaticism and radicalism among Christians has declined massively. The Christian west launched numerous religious wars and campaigns of persecution against non-Christians (especially Jews) for centuries, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to witch hunts.
Those days are long gone. Occasionally there is a murderous anti-abortion activist, but widespread Christian fanaticism is simply nonexistent in the rich world. Fundamentalism still exists. But while this fundamentalism would have been quick to participate in or openly support violence in the past, today's fundamentalists are overwhelmingly nonviolent. They are not willing to die for Christ.
If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospels you believe, but yourself.
The US, the most religiously dynamic country in the rich world, has seen a notable decline in religiosity. Its spiritual free market has also resulted in a loose and individual-centered attitude to religion.
Some studies indicate that the majority of Americans have changed religions at least once in their lives. Even for many devout believers, religion is more a fashion that one "tries on" to experiment, rather than a hard objective truth they must accept whether they like it or not.
Religious inclusivity, unthinkable in the medieval era of persecutions of Jews and wars with Muslims, is now the norm. Americans today are likely to believe that many different religions can lead to eternal life. This is extraordinary, because one of traditional Christianity's core claims is that faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ is the only path to eternal life.
Overall, 70% of Americans agree that "many religions can lead to eternal life." The most inclusive Christian groups are Mainline Protestants (83%), Catholics (79%), and "other Christians" (83%). The only groups with a majority claiming exclusive access to eternal life are Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, has called for the introduction of Sharia law for British Muslims, arguing that a limited application of religious customs can exist side-by-side with secular state law, as with the Orthodox Jewish community. Among most Christians, the violent absolutism of centuries ago has given way to an undercurrent of relativism, pluralism and even apathy.