What Christians Should Do To Confront The Decline In Organized Religion

What Christians Should Do To Confront The Decline In Organized Religion December 30, 2021

Nikolai Yaroshenko: Vladimir Solovyov / Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovoyov began his Lectures on Godmanhood by stating that he would discuss the truths of positive religion. That was the purpose of his lectures. But, he also noted, he did not want to dismiss what religious critics were saying about religion. Rather, he said that they were right; religion was no longer as it should be:

I will not dispute those who at the present time maintain a negative attitude toward the religious principle. I shall not argue with the contemporary opponents of religion – because they are right. I say that those who at the present time refuse religion are right, because religion appears in reality not to be what it ought to be.[1]

After mentioning the way religion is meant to connect humanity, the world, and all creation with the “unconditional beginning, which is the focus of all that exists,” [2] he once again pointed out the problem of religion in his time:

Contemporary religion represents a very pitiful thing: properly speaking, religions as the dominating principle, as the centre of spiritual attraction, does not exist today; instead, there is the so-called religiosity as a personal mood, a personal taste; some people have this taste, others do not, just as some people like music and others do not. [3]

What Solovyov said concerning his 19th century Russian religious experience could be said about religion today. Religion has lost its place in world; it is no longer where people go to try to seek to find answers to ultimate questions. We constantly hear of  the decline of organized religion, that is, of an increase of those who claim to hold no particular religious adherence (which is not to say they have no belief in God). Nonetheless, many continue to be religious, indeed, many have some form of external piety, one which fits their aesthetic preference. Because religious people realize religion should help people find answers to ultimate questions, they take their religiosity, and their religious aesthetic preferences in public forms of worship, and try to impose them upon others, saying that only their form of religious adherence, their form of religious expression is valid.  It is as if they think that if they can universalize their preference, then religion would once again have a central place in the world. But what they don’t understand, and yet what Solovyov understood, is that this is all external. The decline in religions is not based upon the way public worship is performed, but due to the way religious adherents, and especially the leaders of religious traditions,  live out their faith. Thus, in the present age, religious leaders, ignoring the concerns of the time (COVID19, the environment, racism, poverty, immigration, et. el.), push people away from the faith. Indeed, this is exactly the problem we see in Christianity and the way many of its leaders have undermined those safety protocols which were put in place to bring the COVID19 pandemic to a proper end. Does this not highlight the way Christianity no longer is as it ought to be?

It is true, religious adherence waxes and wanes over time, and so when we see in the past a rather unusual example of religious adherence (such as during World War II), it is easy to misconstrue what comes afterward as being a decline in religion and an indication that religious belief is dying out. This is not the case. Even many of those who do not follow a particular organized religion often have their own personal, private religious sentiment, and this is how and why organized religions are able to grow back after having been in a period of decline. But for this to happen, religious leaders have to acknowledge the reasons why people became disillusioned with their faith. Even though religion has often experienced declines in the past does not mean they will be able to gain back adherents in the future unless they realize the value of their critics and deal with the problems which led people to leave organized religion. Promoting external forms of piety with some aesthetical form of religious adherence is not enough – putting on a show is just putting on a show, and though it might attract people temporarily, in the long run, the artificial nature of such a show will leave people wanting and believe their initial hesitancy against religion was correct.

This is exactly what Pope Francis has understood; Christianity needs to be as it should be, and that means, living out the dictates of Christ, putting the Sermon of the Mount into practice. Christians should be concerned about others, showing them love, promoting them while working for and promoting the common good. The problems of the age such as the environment or COVID19 must not be ignored, but positively addressed and engaged, showing that the people who are concerned about them are right. This is how the Christian faith first found its footing in the world: Christians engaged social welfare in the Roman Empire, which led people to feel cherished and wanted, and so they wanted to be a part of the Christian faith. This is how Christianity should once again be in the future. This is why, when addressing the youth, helping in their religious formation, Pope Francis says we must be like Jesus, helping those who are in need (while making room for Jesus in ourselves):

Dear friends, in the face of Jesus who makes himself our neighbour, let us also learn to be “beside”, beside others: beside family members, friends, peers, those in need. We can always do something for others without waiting for others to do something for us. We can always be missionaries of the Gospel, and be so everywhere, starting from the environments in which we live: in the family, at school, in the parish, in sports and entertainment venues. But to do this, to take on the style of Jesus, to be his witnesses, you must first be with him, make room for him in your day. And I ask each one of you, boys and girls: do you make room for Jesus in your day, in your work, in your study, in your rest, in your sport? Does Jesus enter there? Do not be afraid to devote time to him in prayer, that is, to talk to him – with Jesus – about your friends, to ask him for help in difficult times, to tell him when you are happy and when you are sad. And Jesus will make you grow in that nobility that a person has when they take upon themselves their own measure. [4]

We need an active faith, one which engages our neighbor as well as God; we must not disassociate them from each other, but rather, we must see how they work together and form one whole. We cannot ignore the plight of the world by spiritual retreats, for that will not satisfy, even as being in the world without a spiritual connection with God will not satisfy. Christianity is the religion of the incarnation, of the immanent eschaton. It realizes the two must go together; for Christianity to appeal to the world, it must truly embrace the radical nature of the incarnation and not deny the world nor the spirit, but unite them and show how the two together truly brings about the transformation which we need in order to fix the problems of our age, how to find our own personal satisfaction in life, and how to attain eternal beatitude. The earliest Christians, such as Origen, understood this, which is why he emphasized Christians must do more than speak good words, but rather act on the teachings of the faith:

He seeks rightly who does not so do in mere words, but in deeds. For thus God is sought: through justice God is sought, so that through temperance, he is found; through courage and sound thinking God is sought, so that he may be comprehended; through wisdom God is sought so that God may be found by the one seeking with wisdom. [5]

Christianity grew in the early centuries because people truly lived out their faith; they put it into practice, working for the common good. Those in need experienced the love of Christ coming to them from Christians. This has been lost today as Christianity is  often seen, not as the religion of love and affirmation, but the religion of legalism and denial. Christians have truly lost the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, and in doing so, it is no wonder Christian adherence is in the decline. Pope Francis is right in his pastoral concerns. What he is promoting is exactly what is necessary for Christianity today. If we do not want to lose more adherents, but rather, regain those we have lost, we will listen and begin to truly make Christianity as it ought to be.

[1] Vladimir Solovyev, Lectures on Godmanhood. Trans. Peter Peter Zouboff (London: Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1948), 67.

[2] Vladimir Solovyev, Lectures on Godmanhood, 67.

[3] Vladimir Solovyev, Lectures on Godmanhood, 67.

[4] Pope Francis, “Address To The Young People Of Italian Catholic Action” (12-18-2021).

[5] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020), 243 [Homily 1 on Psalm 76].


Stay in touch! Like A Little Bit of Nothing on Facebook.
If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it with your friends and family!

Browse Our Archives