The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of ChristianityDINESH D'SOUZA
God has come back to life. The world is witnessing a huge explosion of religious conversion and growth, and Christianity is growing faster than any other religion. Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead” is now proven false. Nietzsche is dead.
The ranks of the unbelievers are shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population. Secularism has lost its identification with progress and modernity, and consequently it has lost the main source of its appeal. God is very much alive, and His future prospects look to be excellent. This is the biggest comeback story of the twenty-first century.
If God is back, why don’t we see it? The reason is that many of us live in the wrong neighborhood. “Visit a church at random next Sunday,” Brent Staples writes in the New York Times, “ and you will probably encounter a few dozen people sprinkled thinly over a sanctuary that was built to accommodate hundreds or even thousands.” Yes, I’ve seen the “empty pews and white-haired congregants” that Staples describes.2 But then, Staples lives in New York and I live in California. We live among people who are practically atheist.
Of course my neighbors do not think of themselves as atheist. Very few of them belong to atheist organizations or subscribe to atheist literature. Some of them who are highly educated like to think of themselves as agnostic: they haven’t made up their minds because the evidence simply isn’t in yet. Others even consider themselves Christian, either because they were born that way or because they attend church occasionally. The distinguishing characteristic of these people is that they live as if God did not exist. God makes no difference in their lives. This is “practical atheism.” We all know people like this. Some of us hardly know anyone not like this. And sometimes we live this way ourselves.
If we live in the wrong neighborhood, we risk missing the most important development of our time: the global revival of religion. It’s happening on every continent. In my native country of India, Hinduism is undergoing a resurgence. So is Islam. As I have written about Islamic radicalism and terrorism I am often asked, “When will the Muslims understand the importance of secularism? When will we see an Islamic Reformation?” My answer is that Muslims will never understand the importance of secularism. Nor do they need to, because as we shall see, secularism is increasingly unimportant as a global phenomenon. Moreover, Islam is in the middle of a reformation. We see a resurgence of Muslim piety not just in the Middle East but also in Indonesia , Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and East Africa. At one time Turkey provided a model of Islamic secularism, but not any longer. No Muslim country is going the way of Turkey, and in recent years even Turkey has stopped going the way of Turkey.
Some Western analysts describe the religious revivals around the world in terms of the growth of “fundamentalism.” This is the fallacy of ethnocentrism, of seeing the world through the lens of our own homegrown prejudices. Remember that fundamentalism is a term drawn from Protestant Christianity. It is an American coinage that refers to a group of early twentieth-century Protestant activists who organized against Darwinian evolution and who championed the literal reading of the Bible. Fundamentalism is a meaningless term outside this context.
There are, of course, Hindu militants and Islamic radicals of the bin Laden stripe, and they are indeed a menace to the world. But the growth of religious militancy and the growth of religion are very different. One may seek to benefit from the other, but the two should not he confused. The resurgence I am talking about is the global revitalization of traditional religion. This means traditional Hinduism, traditional Islam, and traditional Christianity. By “traditional” I mean religion as it has been understood and practiced over the centuries. This is the type of religion that is booming.
Traditional religion is the mainstream, but it is not the only form in which religion appears today. There is also liberal religion. One can hardly speak of liberal Islam, as liberalism is essentially a nonexistent force in the Muslim world. But there are liberal Jews, whose Jewishness seems largely a matter of historical memory and cultural habits. Here in the West, there are lots of liberal Christians. Some of them have assumed a kind of reverse mission: instead of being the church’s missionaries to the world, they have become the world’s missionaries to the church. They devote their moral energies to trying to make the church more democratic, to assure equal rights for women, to legitimize homosexual marriage, and so on. A small but influential segment of liberal Christianity rejects all the central doctrines of Christianity. H. Richard Niebuhr famously summed up their credo: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”3
I have met liberal Christians who are good and sincere people. But their version of Christianity is retreating, in two senses. Liberal Christians are distinguished by how much intellectual and moral ground they concede to the adversaries of Christianity. “Granted, no rational person today can believe in miracles, but....” “True, the Old Testament God seems a mighty vengeful fellow, but....” “Admittedly religion is responsible for most of the conflict and oppression in history, but....”
This yes-but Christianity is in full intellectual withdrawal, and it is also becoming less relevant. The liberal churches are losing members in droves. Once these churches welcomed one in six Americans; now they see one in thirty. In 1960 the Presbyterian church had 4.2 million members; now it has 2.4 million. The Episcopal church had 3.4 million; now it has 2.3 million. The United Church of Christ had 2.2 million; now it has 1.3 million.4 Traditional Christians who remain within liberal churches become increasingly alienated. Some have become so disgusted that they have put themselves under the authority of more traditional clerics based in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
Unfortunately the central themes of some of the liberal churches have become indistinguishable from those of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women, and the homo sexual rights movement. Why listen to Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong drone on when you can get the same message and much more interesting visuals at San Francisco’s gay pride parade? The traditional churches, not the liberal churches, are growing in America. In 1960, for example, the churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention had 8.7 million members. Now they have 16.4 million.5
The growth of traditional religion and the decline of liberal religion pose a serious problem for a conventional way of understanding religious trends. This is the way of secularization: the idea that as an inevitable result of science, reason, progress, and modernization, the West will continue to grow more secular, followed by the rest of the world. The more confident exponents of secularization believe, as Peter Berger puts it, that “eventually Iranian mullahs, Pentecostal preachers, and Tibetan lamas will all think and act like professors of literature at American universities.”6
For a good part of the last century, this secularization narrative seemed plausible. Secular people believed it and reveled in it, while religious people believed it and bemoaned it. But now we see a problem with the thesis. If secularization were proceeding inexorably, then religious people should be getting less religious, and so conservative churches should be shrinking and liberal churches growing. In fact, the opposite is the case.
Some scholars put this down to “backlash” against secularization, but this only begs the question: what is causing this backlash? The secularization thesis was based on the presumption that science and modernity would satisfy the impulses and needs once met by religion. But a rebellion against secularization suggests that perhaps important needs are still unmet, and so people are seeking a revival of religion — perhaps in a new form — to address their specific concerns within a secular society.
Of course the secularization thesis is not entirely invalid. In Europe, Australia, and Canada, religion has been expunged from the cultural mainstream. It has been largely relegated to a tourist phenomenon; when you go to Chartres and Canterbury, the guides tell you about architecture and art history and little about what the people who created those masterpieces actually believed. According to the European Values Survey, regular churchgoers number, depending on the country, between 10 and 25 percent of the population. Only one in five Europeans says that religion is important in life. Czech president Vaclav Havel has rightly described Europe as “the first atheistic civilization in the history of mankind.”7
The religious picture in Europe is not unremittingly bleak. Ninety percent of Greeks acknowledge the existence of God, and only 5 per cent of Greeks are atheists. Ireland still has church attendance figures of around 45 percent, twice as high as the Continent as a whole, although Irish Catholicism has also weakened in recent decades. Along with Ireland, Poland and Slovakia are two of the most religious countries in Europe.8 And some commentators have noted that even Europeans who are not religious continue to describe themselves as “spiritual.” These analysts argue that Europe has not abandoned religion in general but only “organized” religion.
But if Europe generally supports the secularization thesis, the United States presents a much more problematic case. America has not gone the way of Europe. True, church attendance in the United States has declined in the past three decades. Still, some 40 percent of Americans say they attend church on Sundays. More than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and 60 percent say their faith is important to them. Surveying the data on religion, Paul Bloom writes in the Atlantic Monthly that “well over half of Americans believe in miracles, the devil, and angels. Most Americans believe that after death they will actually reunite with relatives and get to meet God.”9 All of this is a serious difficulty for the secularization thesis, because America is at the forefront of modernity. The thesis would predict that America would be the most secular society in the world. In fact, America is the most religious country in the Western world.
Perhaps the greatest problem for the secularization theory is that in an era of increasing globalization and modernization, the world as a whole is becoming more religious, not less. In a recent survey, Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart sum up the evidence. Despite the advance of secularization in the West, they write, “The world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before, and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population.” Consequently, the West is more secular but “the world as a whole is becoming more religious.”10
Even more remarkable is that the religious revival is occurring in places that are rapidly modernizing. China and India today have the fastest growth rates in the world, and religion is thriving in both places. Turkey is one of the most modern of the Muslim countries, and Islam has steadily gained strength there. In Central and South America, the upwardly mobile classes are embracing Pentecostal Christianity.
The global spread of American culture, with the secular values it carries, seems not to have arrested or even slowed the religious upsurge. The reason is that many non-Western cultures are actively resisting secularism. A common slogan in Asia today is “modernization without Westernization.” Many people want American prosperity and American technology, but they want to use these to preserve and strengthen their traditional way of life. They want to live in a world of multiple modernities.
We often read that Islam is the fastest-growing religion. Not true. Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world today. Islam is second. While Islam grows mainly through reproduction — which is to say by Muslims having large families — Christianity spreads through rapid conversion as well as natural increase. Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in Europe, which for more than a thousand years has been the home of Christianity. Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc wrote in 1920 that “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” Belloc was convinced that the future of Christianity lay in Europe.
Ironically, while Europe has moved away from Christianity, the Christian religion has been expanding its influence in Central and South America, in Africa, and in Asia. For the first time in history, Christianity has become a universal religion. It is in fact the only religion with a global reach. Buddhism and Islam, like Christianity, are religions with global aspirations, but these aspirations have not been realized. Buddhism never established itself even in the land of its founding, India, although it found adherents in the cultures of Southern and Eastern Asia. Even though it has a few followers in the West, Buddhism remains a religion with, at best, a regional impact. Islam is vastly stronger, but even Islam is regional, with little or no sway in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, or Australia. By contrast, Christianity is a force on every continent and in every major region of the world, with the sole exception of the heartland of Islam, the Middle East.
The new face of Christianity is no longer white and blond but yellow, black, and brown. “If we want to visualize a typical contemporary Christian, Philip Jenkins writes in The Next Christendom, “we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela.” The vital centers of Christianity today are no longer Geneva, Rome, Paris, or London. They are Buenos Aires, Manila, Kinshasa, and Addis Ababa. “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes,” Jenkins observes, “and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning.”11
In 1900, more than 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and America. Today 60 percent live in the developing world. More than two out of three evangelical Christians now live in Asia, Africa, and South America. Here are some numbers Jenkins provides: Europe today has 560 million Christians and America has 260 million, yet many of these are Christian in name only. In comparison, there are 480 million Christians in South America, 313 million in Asia, and 360 million in Africa. The vast majority of these are practicing Christians. There are more churchgoing Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland.
Oddly enough, this Christian growth occurred after the period of European conquest and colonialism ended. The old boys in pith helmets are long gone, but the faith that first came with them has endured and now thrives without them. It’s just like the early times of Christianity. After Constantine converted and Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the state religion toward the end of the fourth century, Christianity was carried by the Roman empire. Yet the faith spread fastest after the collapse of that empire, and soon all of Europe was Christian. We’re witnessing a comparable pace of growth for Christianity in the rest of the world.
A century ago, less than 10 percent of Africa was Christian. Today it’s nearly 50 percent. That’s an increase from 10 million people in 1900 to more than 350 million today. Uganda alone has nearly 20 million Christians and is projected to have 50 million by the middle of the century.12 Some African congregations have grown so big that their churches are running out of space. While Western preachers routinely implore people to come every Sunday to fill the pews, some African preachers ask their members to limit their attendance to every second or third Sunday to give others a chance to hear the message.
Central and South America are witnessing the explosive growth of Pentecostalism. As David Martin shows in his study Tongues of Fire, partly this is a shift within Christianity: millions of South American Catholics have become evangelical Protestants.13 In Brazil, for example, there are now 50 million evangelical Protestants whereas a few decades ago there weren’t enough to count. The movement of Catholics into Protestant evangelicalism should not be considered purely lateral, however, as the conversion of lackadaisical nominal Catholics to an active, energized evangelicalism can perhaps he considered a net gain for Christianity. Even within Catholicism there is an expanding charismatic movement that has grown in response to the success of the Protestant evangelicals. This charismatic Catholicism emphasizes many of the same themes as “born again” Christianity, including a personal relationship with Christ. And the Catholic numbers remain huge: Brazil had 50 million Catholics in 1950, but now it has 120 million.
Despite the limitations imposed by the Chinese government, it is estimated that there are now 100 million Christians in China who worship in underground evangelical and Catholic churches. At current growth rates, David Aikman observes in his book Jesus in Beijing, China will in a few decades become the largest Christian country in the world.14 In Korea, where Christians already outnumber Buddhists, there are numerous mega-churches with more than 10,000 members each. The Yoido Full Gospel Church reports 750,000 members. The Catholic church in the Philippines reports 60 million members, and is projected to have 120 million by mid-century.
What distinguishes these Christians, Philip Jenkins writes, is that they immerse themselves in the world of the Bible to a degree that even devout Western Christians do not. For poor people around the world, the social landscape of the Bible is quite familiar. They, too, live in a world of hardship, poverty, money-lenders, and lepers. The themes of exile and persecution resonate with them. Supernatural evil seems quite real to them, and they have little problem in understanding the concept of hell.15 Some of them even expect the miracles of ancient times to be witnessed in their own lifetimes. I remember an African preacher who visited a church I used to attend in Northern Virginia. He insisted that through God’s grace he had performed innumerable healings. When one of the assistant pastors looked at him a bit doubtfully, he pointed to the Bible and said, “Young man, there is a big difference between you and me. You see this book right here? We believe it.”
This Third World Christianity is coming our way. South Korea has become the world’s second-largest source of Christian missionaries, with 12,000 preaching the faith abroad. Only the United States sends more missionaries to other countries.16 We may be seeing the beginning of a startling reversal. At one point Christian missionaries went to the far continents of Africa and Asia, where white priests in robes proclaimed the Bible to wide-eyed and uncomprehending brown and black people. In the future, we may well see black and brown missionaries proclaim the Bible to wide-eyed and uncomprehending white people in the West. We might think that this preaching will fall on unreceptive ears. But I’m not so sure. The Washington Post reports that there are 150 churches in Denmark and more than 250 in Britain run by foreigners as “part of a growing trend of preachers from developing nations coming to Western Europe:” Stendor Johansen, a Danish sea captain, seems to reflect the sentiments of many Europeans who are joining the new congregations. “The Danish church is boring,” he says. “I feel energized when I leave one of these services.”17 If more people come to share these sentiments then secularization may ultimately be reversed even in Europe.
Peter Berger writes about what he calls the “myth of secularization”. He means that the thesis of inevitable secularization has now lost its credibility. In fact, it is going the way of Zeus and Baal. Berger’s work points to the reason for this. Ultimately secularization may be reversed even in Europe.
Berger argues that modernization helps people triumph over necessity but it also produces a profound crisis of purpose in modern life. The greater the effects of modernization, the stronger the social anxiety and the striving for “something more.” As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it, “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion.”18 This may not be religion in the same form in which it is imbibed in Nigeria or Korea, but it is traditional religion all the same, no less vital for having adapted to new circumstances. It is quite possible that a renewed Christianity can improve modern life by correcting some of the deficiencies and curbing some of the excesses of modernity.
I have found this to be true in my own life. I am a native of India. I and my ancestors were converted to Christianity by Portuguese missionaries. As this was the era of the Portuguese Inquisition, some force and bludgeoning may also have been involved. When I came to America as a student in 1978, my Christianity was largely a matter of birth and habit. But even as I plunged myself into modern life in the United States, my faith slowly deepened. G. K. Chesterton calls this the “revolt into orthodoxy. Like Chesterton, I find myself rebelling against extreme secularism and finding in Christianity some remarkable answers to both intellectual and practical concerns. So I am grateful to those stern inquisitors for bringing me into the orbit of Christianity, even though I am sure my ancestors would not have shared my enthusiasm. Mine is a Christianity that is countercultural in the sense that it opposes powerful trends in modern Western culture. Yet it is thoroughly modern in that it addresses questions and needs raised by life in that culture. I don’t know how I could live well without it.
In the end, though, my story doesn’t matter very much, and neither does it matter whether the West returns to Christianity. Perhaps the non-Western Christians will convert the Western unbelievers, and perhaps they won’t. Either way, they are the future, they know it, and now we know it too. Christianity may come in a different garb than it has for the past several centuries, but Christianity is winning, and secularism is losing. The future is always unpredictable, but one trend seems clear. God is the future, and atheism is on its way out.
Dinesh D'Souza. "The Twilight of Atheism: The Global Triumph of Christianity." chapter one from What's So Great About Christianity (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2007): 1-12.
From the book What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza. Copyright © 2007. Published by Regnery Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by special permission of Regnery Publishing Inc., Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2007 Regnery Publishing, Inc.
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