The Fading of the Church

The growth of atheism is coming at the expense of religion. As freethought makes gains in society, it will inevitably start by appealing to those who are religious only by default – the people who go to church because they’ve never known an alternative, those who are receptive to our message and easily persuaded. And as their members join us or simply drift away, the larger, established churches are bound to begin feeling the sting of declining membership. There are encouraging signs that this process is already underway, especially with the single largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic church.

The decline of the Catholic church in Europe has long been noted by many observers – even Catholic observers, as in this article from the Catholic magazine America. As a 2005 USA Today article said:

Every major religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. The drop is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than 10% in some areas.

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the weakening of churches in Europe, Australia and the USA. “There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ,” he told Italian priests. “The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”

Even in traditionally Catholic countries like France, Spain and Ireland, the decline is apparent:

In Spain, where 81 percent of the population is Catholic, two-thirds of respondents in a 2002 survey said they rarely or never attend services. (source)

In the 1970s, more than 90% of Irish Catholics said they went to Mass once a week. Now the number is 44%, according to a recent survey.

…Last year, 15 men were ordained as Catholic priests for the entire island, with 5.6 million people. (source)

In 2006, 39 percent of babies were baptized, according to figures from state statistics institute Insee and the Conference of French Bishops. In 1996, it was 55 percent.

About a third of marriages were celebrated with a Catholic Mass in 2006, down from 44 percent 10 years earlier. (source)

America, too, has seen its Catholic population dropping steadily. As many as 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics, and churches and parishes are closing across the country because there are neither enough priests to run them nor people to attend them:

The “most damaging change in Catholic life is the precipitous decline in Mass attendance. It’s the sign of a church collapsing,” says Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio, co-author of statistical studies of American Catholics.

Nationally, attendance slid from 44% in 1987 to 37% in 1999.

…”Each generation starts with a lower attendance rating. People don’t grow into attending Mass,” he says. (source)

Hispanic immigrants are one of the church’s few bright spots, but even they tend to secularize after one or two generations.

There are several reasons for the steadily dwindling attendance and influence of the Catholic church. One of them, I feel certain, is that young Catholics feel increasingly disconnected from a church that continues to bash gays, exclude women from the priesthood, and preach against contraception. As society becomes increasingly liberal and tolerant, the Catholic church continues to cling obstinately to its irrational rules, and is accordingly being left in the dust. Another is the devastating sex-abuse scandal which has severely damaged the church’s reputation and weakened people’s trust in its hierarchy. A third is probably that people in increasingly prosperous and educated societies see less need for the consolations of religion. And all these factors operate in a positive-feedback loop, making people less willing to attend church or become priests, which contributes to further declines in the church’s wealth and power.

Similar to what’s happened with Judaism, we’re seeing more and more evidence of “cultural Catholicism,” where people identify with the church as part of their heritage and culture, not out of a sense of religious obligation. As the West becomes more secular, Catholicism and other churches are likely to shift their focus to the Third World to survive – yet even that can be at most a temporary refuge. As humanity as a whole makes progress, the churches fade, and freethought grows.

What will become of a post-church world? Articles like this one, “From a Divine Order to the Public Good“, give a hopeful glimpse: as religious orders die out, their land is being bought up for conservation and public use, turned into nature preserves or acquired by schools and nonprofits. I have to say that it echoes a passage of mine from the Ebon Musings essay “Looking Ahead“:

I see a world where the churches have become libraries and schools and museums, institutions dedicated to the preservation and expansion of knowledge, where reason is enshrined rather than faith.

For the good of humanity, I hope that the churches continue to fade, so that a new enlightenment may arise in their place.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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