When it comes to Christianity’s decline, you’d think everyone would be well in line. Like Zoolander’s nemesis said, The results are in, amigo! What’s left to ponder? And yet somehow, some Christians stick out their widdle lower lips and screech that NO, they can’t be in decline! Today, let’s meet some of them–and maybe look at why they seem so dead-set against reality.
(Please consult a doctor if your giddy schadenfreude lasts more than four hours.)
Some More Recent News About Christianity’s Decline.
Just to whisk through some of the more recent news stories:
- Ryan Burge writing for Barna Group notes that the traditional wisdom about young adults returning to church later in life isn’t true at all. I could have told him that was the case by the 90s or early 00s. I was already noticing it by then in my own life, though preachers in my direct experience crowed about the reverse.
- Pew Research released a new study indicating that yes indeedy, Christianity continues to decline at “a rapid pace.” They base this assertion on research for their next Religious Landscape Survey, due out in 2021. In turn, this research consists of 88 surveys conducted over the past 10 years. They couldn’t wait to release this bit of their research, and I can see why. This is a bombshell. Americans attend church less often than they did 10 years ago and claim Christian affiliation way less often as well. It’s an incredible finding.
- Ryan Burge also writes the blog Religion in Public. There, he released some speculation about Christianity’s decline. He thinks Nones will become the largest “religious” group in America by 2023. (h/t Friendly Atheist)
Most importantly, however, is this simple, stark truth:
In six years of blogging, I have not once seen a single reputable survey house or scholar suggest that Christianity has a ghost of a chance of recapturing its former dominance. We’ll talk soon about some of the comeback options these scholars offer–and how they might look in lived experience.
For now, I’ll simply note that nobody credible seriously thinks Christianity will even bottom out any time soon!
A Satisfying Comeuppance.
All I know is, I noticed the decline very early in my blogging career. Years before the Pew Religious Landscape Study knocked sense into Christians at last, hints of Christianity’s decline could be glimpsed through smaller-scale surveys and studies. These hints felt to me like breadcrumbs making a path through a dark, dangerous forest.
Just a couple of months after starting Roll to Disbelieve, I wrote:
Christian leaders don’t have the luxury of time for self-indulgent self-deception. The clock’s ticking, the lightning’s about to strike the tower, and they’re idling in the car fooling around with the stereo and arguing about what music to play.
As well, I noted even back then that a lot of Christian leaders and adherents couldn’t “engage honestly” with the reasons for their religion’s decline. I should know: I got into a lot of fights online with them!
Their sheer inability to recognize a growing problem blew my mind. I didn’t understand–then–why they were in such serious denial.
A History of Denial.
By 2015, though, Christians finally recognized that yes, they were declining in both membership and credibility. They just couldn’t engage with why that was happening.
In response to their decline, their Dear Leaders lobbed a great many accusations against the fervor and sincerity of those who were leaving, trash-talking them and pandering to those who remained. “Cultural Christianity” entered their lexicons. They took as read that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never, ever leave. So therefore, Christians who left were really never TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
And that blew my mind all over again. If I had a business losing customers, I’d want to know exactly why so I could address the problem. At the time, I didn’t understand how a business could survive mired in denial like that.
That’s been where Christians have rested since 2015. They accept that yes, a decline is in fact happening. However, they can’t engage with why. So their solutions to the problem always sound completely surreal and bizarre.
Now Let’s Meet A Christian So Deep in Denial He’s Drowning.
Nobody will ever accuse the so-called American Family Association (AFA) of living in reality. They’re a hateful, ignorant bunch of spuds even on their best days. But this guy represents a bridge too far even for them!
Bryan Fischer, a onetime leader in this group, runs some radio shows that fundagelicals like. He opposes literally everything to do with progress and human rights. He’s never yet met a culture war he couldn’t embrace, nor a fundagelical talking point he couldn’t parrot with full conviction.
Somehow, Jesus refuses to inform him that he’s Jesus-ing all wrong. I don’t think he’d care if that happened, though. Jesus is suspiciously brown-skinned, after all, and Fischer’s on record as being a stone-cold racist.
This guy’s so hateful and nasty that his own organization had to officially repudiate him and his views. They did it to avoid getting categorized as an official hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2010. They ended up firing him at the end of 2014 over various remarks he made (among which are assertions that gay people are dangerous to children and gave rise to the Nazis). Now he’s just a radio host, but he still enjoys a lot of power within the group–and within the fundagelical tribe as a whole.
So Bryan Fischer is the real fundagelical deal. He’s the epitome of their system’s teachings, the fullest flower and expression of their ideology taken to its lived extreme.
Ugh, What Has This Hateful Tedious Bigoted Nutbar Done Now?
Over on the AFA’s website, you’d never know that they officially repudiated him in a formal lawyer-letter just a few years ago. He’s obviously back in their good graces!
Recently, Fischer published a post there regarding Christianity’s decline. Specifically, he’s added his religion’s decline to the long, exhaustive list of real things he doesn’t believe are real.
See, Ross Douthat–a windbag who writes right-wing Christian screeds for The New York Times—wrote something recently that flattered Fischer’s sense of dominance. It’s just the usual blather about cultural Christians. But it adds in a dose of denial about Christianity’s decline that we haven’t really seen out of any big Christian thought leaders since 2015.
Douthat publicizes few specifics about his education. RationalWiki tells us that he has an bachelor’s in history and literature–not anything related to statistics. (Enjoy a related link: “When Ross Douthat was ‘That Guy’ at Harvard.”) He’s another non-expert blathering about stuff he doesn’t understand.
Fischer either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that Douthat’s a raging Catholic hardliner.
Teaming Up in Denial.
All in all, Douthat represents the perfect person, in Bryan Fischer’s eyes, to reject a decline considered a foregone conclusion for almost five years.
Hilariously, Fischer’s post on AFA.net begins with that old quote from Mark Twain:
Twain told White that “I (myself) have heard on good authority that I was dead.” However, he explained, the rumors began in connection with the illness of a cousin of his who had recovered. “The report of my illness,” Twain said, “grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.” This statement gradually morphed into, “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” which, of course, is what he should have said.
This paragraph functions well as a statement of how fundagelicals operate. That’s not the actual quote from Mark Twain. But it’s “what he should have said.” Yes. “Of course.” Fischer thinks he can improve on a past master of the English language.
Mark Twain also stands as a famous opponent of religion. So that makes two authoritative sources who oppose Fischer’s viewpoints.
Forget it. He’s rollin’.
What Denial Looks Like.
Now I present, for your consideration, Fischer’s actual arguments–and my refutations of them.
- He think churchgoing hasn’t declined that much. He bases this opinion on a Gallup poll–but all it measures is how often Christians report attending church. Attendance figures inflate through the magic of self-reporting. Those numbers also inflate through some wizardry around definitions. (Surveyors loosened the requirements to fit the label of “frequent churchgoer.”) The real figures appear to range around 17% of Americans attending. And churches shutter their doors constantly.
- He asserts that evangelicals aren’t in decline. Really, he insists, only mainline churches decline. And he thinks they decline because they lack Jesus Power. However, evangelicals lose plenty of people. Simply put, Christians increasingly squabble over slices of an ever-shrinking pie. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) regularly panics over this exact situation.
- Fischer cites Douthat citing Ryan Burge, who writes Religion in Public. Burge thinks that young adults today attend church more often than similarly-aged young adults did in the 1990s. Douthat sources this assertion from a tweet Ryan Burge wrote recently. Burge himself clearly doesn’t see this information as a source of comfort or optimism–he’s the one who wrote the “young people” post on Barna! Nobody credible disputes that Christian churches age steadily as the years roll onward. Nor do they deny that young adults around the world grow less religious by the generation. Even evangelicals understand this point.
- Blah blah Protestants totally founded America and ran it for years. Blah blah fundies totally wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (LOL NO, but Fischer’s a huuuuge fan of David Barton’s brand of pseudohistory). Fundies once wielded enormous power. So obviously, they can’t be in decline now. Nope!
- Interestingly, Fischer denies Douthat’s conclusions regarding the Catholic Church. Douthat thinks the path of Christianity’s decline depends “above all on what happens in the Church of Rome.” Fischer flat denies this idea and sees Protestants as more important. His bro-crush only extends so far.
All in all, it’s an amazing post for exactly how many alternative facts he crams into it!
Fischer’s Bizarro World.
Bryan Fischer really and truly believes that all the news about his religion’s decline represent fake news from the mean ole liberal journalistic world. They want his religion to die, so they’re painting it as dying. In his world, that’s how reality works. He knows that his tribemates always want to be on the winning team. It’s definitely what he himself desires most!
In this worldview, pessimistic predictions bear inevitable and catastrophic effects all on their own. In effect, to Christians like Bryan Fischer, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the situation worsens even more for authoritarians. Questions about decline really represent some very hard observations about how relevant Christianity is to Americans. And the people talking about decline know exactly how much it riles up TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like Bryan Fischer.
So he fights against the reporting of any declines at all within his tribe.
He knows exactly what it represents: growing dissatisfaction with his tribe’s control-grabs, not to mention increasing disrespect and disregard for the opinions of King Him and his pals.
And the Real World.
But I wonder just how many Christians will accept Fischer’s denials of reality. They attend church at least sporadically. So they see just how empty these churches grow year by year. They see their churches closing and congregations shrinking.
All these actual experts (not non-experts acting expert, like the tiresome Ross Douthat) report what we see in reality–and explain it. That’s all that’s happening here.
But for years, reality has been no friend at all to toxic Christians. Their disconnect from the reality of their decline speaks volumes about exactly how good their group is for its members. As I’ve said as well: the truth doesn’t damn Christianity anywhere near as much as how so many Christians engage with it.
Adversity and bad news bring out a person’s true character like nothing else can. It also displays all the shortcomings of a business–and as much as Christians might despise this characterization, that’s what they’re running here. It’s a really abysmally terribly-run business, but it is a business all the same.
I just hope that more Christians will see the shenanigans of their thought leaders and recognize exactly what it means. The news sure won’t be getting better for them any time soon!
NEXT UP: We look at the popular Christian notion of planting seeds. Oh, I know some of us are really looking forward to this one! See you next time for it.
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