The pews are emptying virtually everywhere in the higher-income world. The Catholic Church is divided and enmeshed in scandal, unable to prevent even historically cleric-dominated Ireland from liberalizing abortion. The once vibrant evangelical movement is losing momentum in the developed world while the more established Protestant and Jewish congregations are shrinking, some at a rapid rate.
Yet rather than an end to faith, this fading of religion may presage the radical re-invention of spiritualism. Just as Christianity replaced paganism at the end of the Roman Empire, rising new faiths—built around notions of social justice, the environment, and technology to extend life or even achieve immortality—may supplant the old ones.
The decline of organized religion is clear. In 24 of 42 traditionally Christian countries, many of them in Europe, the Christian population is already shrinking, deaths among Christians already exceed births—a trend that Pew predicts (PDF) will accelerate. Only in Africa, where faith has tended towards fundamentalism, do Christian births seem likely to continue outnumber births. The Jewish population in Europe, meanwhile, is less than half of what it was in 1960.
White Christians now comprise less than half of the American population, with the relative size of white evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic populations all declining rapidly in the latest Public Religion Research Institute poll. Overall, the percentage of Catholics attending church weekly has plunged 50 percent from 1970, to barely 20 percent today; infant baptisms are down by nearly 40 percent since 2000.
The departure from traditional houses of religion has been most pronounced among the young. While 24 percent of Americans overall say they are unaffiliated with a religion, 38 percent of young adults (aged 19 to 29) say so—and they are leaving religious institutions at a rate four times that of their counterparts three decades ago. (In Europe, over 50 percent of Europeans under 30 do not identify with any religion at all.)
As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explained in 2010’s sweeping American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, the young and churchless mostly “reject conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings.”
The key here for the future of religion lies in the perhaps ironic fact that many of those who resist affiliation still consider themselves “spiritual”; two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans say that they believe in God or a universal spirit. The Pew poll shows that the share of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" shot up by half, from 19 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2017, while the share of those who call themselves "religious and spiritual" slumped from 59 percent to 48 percent.
Increasingly, the young see religious commitment less a matter of belonging to a particular community, and instead one of pledging oneself, as an individual, to a particular spiritual viewpoint. Among the “upwardly mobile class,” we have entered, in the words of Wayne Clark Roof, author of the Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, “the church of the solitary individual.”
As that try to manage and mitigate decline, increasingly politicized mainstream sects—the Jesuits, reform Jews and various mainstream Protestant faiths—are shifting away from the strictures, rituals and teachings of religion to embrace the new spirituality of redemption through social justice activism.
Much of this stems from religious education on campuses; a recent survey of tenured faculty at top colleges found 70 liberal religion professors for every one conservative one. Today’s “woke,”progressive churches would have much in common with the “awakened” who left the pagan world to join the church, notes social theorist Mary Eberstadt.
There are at least two big problems with politicized religion. First, almost all the religious institutions most committed to this course are also those in the most serious decline; mainstream Protestants have lost five million members in the past decade. They now make up barely 10 percent of the population, one-third their percentage in 1972. The newly politicized churches seem to increasingly put all their “faith” not in the Gospels, but in joining the strident memes of the anti-Trump resistance even at the cost of their own heritage. Recently, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia pulled down a memorial of one of its founders, George Washington, because it was seen as potentially offensive to politically correct potential parishioners.
The bigger threat, though, may be long-term demographics, as members of the progressive faiths have fewer children than adherents of evangelical Christianity, orthodox Judaism or fundamentalist Islam, as Eric Kaufmann, professor at Birkbeck College, the University of London, explains in his important book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? By 2050, for example, Islam may constitute a larger faith community in Britain than the Church of England, the state-sanctioned Christian denomination. One place where the birth rates among the less religious are not declining is in Israel, where even the secular embrace many traditional social beliefs.
In America, secular Jews are fading; the Orthodox already constitute the majority of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan region. Given the reform branch’s increasingly strident politicization, it is likely to alienate many middle-of-the-road and conservative Jews. Much the same dynamic is playing out in Britain, where Orthodox Jews, historically a small sub-group, are projected to outnumber their more moderate counterparts in a few decades.
Europe’s Christian churches also seem on the path to self-destruction. The Roman Catholics seem increasingly weakened, with a pope who has signed away the right to name Bishops in China and whose closest advisers appear to be liberal bishops in Germany—where the church is now losing nearly 170,000 adherents annually. The same pope largely ignores the more traditionalist views of African bishops, who enjoy the fastest growth among congregants and whose flocks could account for 40 percent of all Christians worldwide by 2060.
Secondly, the politicization trend brings back the intolerance and witch-hunting that so characterized medieval religion. Practitioners of the progressive dogma of “intersectionality”, notes atheist philosopher James Lindsay, resemble the old churchmen in anathematizing those who disagree with their dogma. These practitioners, he suggests, “tend to focus on moral purity for the in-group. They tend to demonize the out-group. They especially demonize heretics or blasphemers or anyone who goes too far outside that dogmatic structure of belief and threatens it. Those people are often excommunicated.”
Finally, the new social justice crusaders often find themselves with strange, and even discordant allies. Reform Jewish activists, for example, identify with “resistance” groups like the Women’s March which is led by people who support banning Israeli goods and embrace open anti-Semites like Minister Louis Farrakhan. Catholic activists find themselves allied with politicians like Dianne Feinstein, who openly attack their faith’s basic dogma as disqualifying for federal court appointments.
Sometimes the linkages are ironic, to say the least. Faith in Public Life, a strident “religious” group advocating a progressive anti-Trump line, gets much of its funding from George Soros, perhaps the world’s most well-heeled and active promoter of atheism.
Other more openly “post-Christian” substitutes for religion find their inspiration elsewhere. Perhaps the largest is the environmental movement, whose rhetoric and preferences echo those of the medieval Christian church. With its own pieties, roster of saints and sinners, the climate movement, notes author Joel Garreau, is becoming “the religion of choice for urban atheists. ”
They may see themselves as avant-garde, but the greens have perhaps more in common with feudal clerics than they might suspect. Feudalism developed in an economic environment of extreme scarcity, something also embraced by greens. Rather than celebrate opportunity, the “green” religion emphasizes the dangers of economic growth, a critical element in breaking down the old structures of feudalism.
Like the medieval church, the green movements benefits from enormous support from the wealthiest and most well-established elements in society. No surprise then that what is preached for the masses—for example tough restrictions on driving or energy consumption—rarely apply to or impact the well off and well-connected. Like the aristocrats who bought themselves indulgences, our elites get off by purchasing “carbon offsets” that few middle-class people could afford.
But nothing so resembles the bad old days of religion than the green movement’s apocalyptic and authoritarian approach. For all its unquestioned good in pointing out real environmental issues, greens have often embraced hyperbole—the “population bomb”, predictions of imminent crises of “global cooling,” imminent resource depletion and ever worse pollution—as their primary marketing tactic. Although many of these predictions proved not only exaggerated but often plain wrong, true believers rarely stop and contemplate their misstatements.
Like messianic preachers from the old religions, many climate activists, like medieval clerics, see human greed as the root of evil. They also look to impose penance through such things as not eating meat, something both older Catholics and aging hippies could recall with nostalgia. Perhaps less appealing, climate activists often follow procedures common to the Inquisition, from taking dissenters to court to seeking to banish different ideas even by legal means. They have also managed to ban even the mildly skeptical views from much of the press, including the BBC and The Los Angeles Times.
Many greens have as little use for democracy or impartiality as would the Catholic Church of the 11th century; many see authoritarian regimes, like China, as better suited to meeting climate change than our querulous democracy. Acting like Torquemada in a business suit, the former Jesuit-turned-climate crusader Jerry Brown even openly called for the “brainwashing” of the sinful, uncomprehending masses when visiting Rome. Significantly, the green religion is increasingly hostile towards making families. If the medieval mentality attacked sex—15 percent of the population was permanently celibate—the green one focuses on preventing the traditional result from the proverbial role in the hay. Like the millenarians who feared the imminence of the “Final Judgement,” many greens oppose baby-making as a way to mitigate the evil of human existence.
The third of the new religions, and arguably the most extreme, is “trans-humanism” which seeks to gain eternal life through technology, a distinctly secular means for achieving the long cherished religious goal. There are even fledgling attempts in Silicon Valley to construct a religion, based on artificial intelligence, to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.”
This may sound like another crazy California cult, but trans-humanism has long exercised a strong hold on the elites of Silicon Valley. It has attracted such luminaries as Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil of Google to Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Y Combinator founder Sam Altman. This new faith—backed by the oligarchs' billions— ignores the message of almost all the monotheistic religions about the essential equality and dignity of all people. Instead transhumanism, notes Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, offers a future where “a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans” gains control of society. The new quest for the oligarchy will not be to follow God’s laws, but how to become “new godlings, who might be different from us Sapiens as we are different from Homo Erectus.”
Yet for all its divergences from traditional religion, the focus on immorality recalls one of its enduring memes . In his book To Be a Machine Mark O’Connell describes transhuman ambition as “an expression of the profound human longing to transcend the confusion and desire and impotence and sickness of the body, cowering in the darkening shadow of its own decay. This longing had historically been the domain of religion and was now the increasingly fertile terrain of technology.” With advancing technology, we will no longer need the old religions, having replaced God with a machine.
The decline of older, organized religion is not entirely negative. Traditional faiths have a fairly poor record on issues, notably on gender and gay rights, and even now sometimes respond to the calls of divisive figures like President Trump, who is far from anyone’s idea of a “godly” person, something that is dividing evangelicals.
Yet those empty seats at churches and synagogues also reflect a deeper malaise in a society increasingly alienated and polarized. Organized faiths were unique in their ability to bring together disparate people, and at their best serve as powerful instruments of social improvement. Anyone who has worked in post-Katrina New Orleans or Houston after Harvey knows organized evangelicals played an outsized role in recovery and relief. As Wallace Stenger once noted, if you must suffer a disaster, it is best to have the Mormon church around. Nor is it easy to see how our health system could work without the networks of Catholic, Jewish and Methodist hospitals.
Seeing the decline of faith around them, some religious people have all but abandoned hopes for civil society. Traditionally oriented Christians like Ron Dreher, are now adopting the “Benedict option” as a means of insulating the faithful from threats not only from the state but also “from the culture in general, and from internal collapse.”
The loss here would not only be for the faithful but the entire society. Religious institutions rooted in the past also serve as ideal transmitters of traditional culture and identity; the new ones see themselves largely as warriors of the future, based on perceived social and scientific truths. Trans-humanists, for their part, seek to reduce reality to data, rejecting much of what makes us different not only from other animals, but machines.
Ultimately, the new religions, seeking to fill the void left behind by traditional faiths, offer little to families in search of moral instruction or guidance for how different kinds of people can get along. They have no answers for addressing the reality that almost all of us alive today, despite the scheming of the trans-humanists, eventually will die. A world without the old faiths may still be spiritually engaged, even hysterically so, but we may lose the lessons of community, sacrifice, discipline and faith that the old religions taught to bind our societies together.