Douthat: Dark cloud of Christianity’s implosion may hide silver lining

Douthat: Dark cloud of Christianity’s implosion may hide silver lining November 6, 2019

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic and fervent, longtime religion apologist, in a column this week didn’t mention what should be among the first facts confirmed in any faith debate: What concrete evidence proves invisible beings of any kind, much less omnipotent deities, actually exist in reality?

religious decline douthat christianity secularism
The sky opens in storm clouds above a London Anglican cathedral, 2017. (Andrew, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

As the faithful tend to do, he just assumed the reality of such beings in his piece, titled “The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity,” in supporting what he believes is the essentiality of religion in society.

So, without acknowledging the very compelling absence-of-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence argument regarding divinities and their ilk, Douthat instead spent most of his words and energy trying to argue that the very evident and relentless collapse of Christianity in America may actually be a hopeful sign for faith in the future.

Like religious imaginings, this idea seems infinitely more wishful than real.

Yet Douthat is not to be ignored. He is not only a smart guy, but an exceptionally smart guy and first-rate communicator of ideas, which only makes him more hazardous to truth — and more effective in helping conservative believers retain their religious delusions comfortably, without having to do any challenging personal analysis. In 2009 Douthat became the Times’ youngest-ever conservative staff op-ed contributor.

Douthat opines that the fortunes of American Christianity are cyclical, so we shouldn’t necessarily place too much stock in the current downturn in U.S. piety.

“Fifty years ago, many observers of American religion assumed that secularization would gradually wash traditional Christianity away,” Douthat wrote in his piece. “Twenty years ago, Christianity looked surprisingly resilient, and so the smart thinking changed: Maybe there was an American exception to secularizing trends, or maybe a secularized Europe was the exception and the modernity-equals-secularization thesis was altogether wrong.”

He reports a new consensus has now arisen holding that “secularization was actually just delayed, and … a more European destination for American religiosity has belated arrived,” referencing a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion. The headline on the Pew report about the center’s latest survey read, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

But it seems that to Douthat the sag in religiosity is just an unsurprising part of the historical demographic ebb and flow of Christianity in America, of no corrosive consequence to the core doctrines and fervid faith of believers.

In fact, he sees the current downturn as an opportunity to reiterate religion’s profound and overarching importance to American sensibilities — suggesting that “we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.”

He even believes one effect of the latest slide in religiosity in the U.S. “may be clearing space for post-Christian spiritualities — pantheistic, gnostic, syncretist, pagan — rather than a New Atheist sort of godlessness.”

Believers like Douthat seem to view atheists as a kind of irrational, outlier group, different from regular people who prefer to think divinities abound. Referencing a New Yorker article about millennial astrology, he proposes that it suggests a possibly “un-secular” American future.

The present religious decline, Douthat also argues, is not as bad as proponents say it is. Referencing a recent Gallup poll, he reports that the proportion of church-going faithful only “edged down” during 2008-2017 (from 42 percent to 38 percent), which he says is “milder than the steep decline” in the 1960s and similar to the rate in 1930s and ’40s America before the postwar revivalist boom.


But the slide has been inexorably advancing for decades, especially among young people. Community congregations these days tend to be largely comprised of fewer and fewer seniors, and even fewer families. Churches have been increasingly shuttering or merging with other denominations in recent years — or being taken over by non-Christian faiths.

One article several years ago in Charisma News, a Christian e-zine, entitled “Study: Thousands of Churches Closing Every Year, but There Is a Silver Lining,” shared Douthat’s optimism.

Still, Douthat insists on proposing that things aren’t all that bad. He refers to a 2017 paper, by sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion,” which urges optimism. He says the paper indicates that “the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely,” but that the “strongly affiliated … just over a third of the American population” have been going as strong as ever over decades.

Yet, the total numbers of believers and church-goers is relentlessly eroding in the U.S.

Douthat is rational in that he sees this trend actually could be a bad thing for Christianity going forward, making faith “permanently embattled” and turning U.S. cultural in an anti-clerical direction like the 19th century when secular liberals tried to “batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.” For the moment, though, he says the “resilience” of Christian faith promises to help limit how much damage secular Americans can do to the faith program.

Unsurprisingly, as a Catholic, Douthat sees his own faith as central to what comes next, after the church resolves its global clergy-sex scandal and wrestles with various doctrinal tussles.

“Exactly how our descendants divide, and exactly how many Americans leave Christianity entirely, will depend above all on what happens in the Church of Rome,” he writes.

I disagree. I think it depends above all on whether Americans choose to more purposefully value fact over fiction in the nation’s affairs.


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