Thursday, April 26, 2012

I Told You So!

Yep, I did.  I've been saying this for some time now.  It's on - one third of Americans aren't religious.  ...and these are the ones that will admit to Gallup that religion isn't important in their lives.  How many more feel that way, but just won't admit it to a pollster?

A few years ago, I first wrote an essay about the changing morality of the US, and it touched on the declining membership of churches, too, so I'm going to post it again:

An Essay on Changing Morality
First, let's look at a little history.

When most people talk of the Christian Church, they assume that its influence on the Western world has been firmly established for two thousand, one hundred years.

In fact, that influence has only been firm for perhaps seven hundred of those years.

No matter which history you accept - official church history or that of current critical biblical scholars - the church didn't cement its control over Western Europe until the 7th century.  Its first four centuries were spent in defining itself and just maintaining its existence until Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire in 324 CE.  It took another three centuries, at least, until one could really say that it had established firm moral and political control over the population of Europe.  In fact, there were still outposts of old way religions as recent as the 16th century in the British Isles.  But the majority of Europe was subdued by the 12th century, once Russia was converted.

That control lasted, in various states of firmness, until the onset of the Renaissance in the 14th century.

With the Renaissance, there began a resurgence of interest in classical thought and philosophy, fueled by classical documents newly found and translated through Arabic sources where they had been protected from church repressive pogroms against pagan religious and philosophical culture prior to the eighth century.

Also, in the centuries since the 7th, the nobility in Europe had begun a process of retrenchment from its early thuggish beginnings, slowly increasing its education levels in response to the increasingly complex demands in administering the more complex cultures of the Middle Ages.  Along with that increase in sophistication came a lessening of control from Rome.  While Papal politics remained a force for another three or four centuries beyond the twelfth century, Vatican control over the major fiefdoms of Europe had begun to wane.

It is a process that is still going on today.

It is said that the fall of the Roman Empire wasn't an event, but a process.  It took, scholars now feel, over three hundred years before the social fabric that had once been firmly Roman became, slowly, something different.  That something was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church;  in fact, it was the Church that was largely responsible for that change.

Beginning with the conversion of Constantine in 312 CE, the RCC became the official church of the Empire, both East and West after Constantine consolidated his control.  The conversion, however, wasn't instantaneous, as most people today assume.  It took until the 7th century for that process to be complete, and it was only that fast because the church used the power of the Empire to forcibly destroy the culture of the old Greek and Roman religions.  Temples were burned, priests were killed.  The church 'borrowed' old way holidays and substituted their own rites of celebration in their places.  Anything in writing that extolled the old ways were burned, engravings were broken to pieces and sacred places razed to the ground, and Christian Churches built over top of them.

And in spite of that power and brutality, it still took over three hundred years for the full moral conversion of the people of Europe to Christianity to be complete.  Records exist detailing the ordered burnings of temples and executions of priests as late as the eighth and ninth centuries, so the old ways took a long time to die.

So what does that have to do with morality and the social struggles in the US today?


One hears a lot of complaints about the moral degeneration of the US in the last hundred years from Christian groups.  The subject of sex is usually a major point of contention, so let's focus in on that.

How did the RCC view the old Roman and Greek moral characters?  What were the differences?

The Roman and Greek classical religions (not the mysteries, they were different) were not particularly religions of moral theology.  Their gods were very human in character, vain, selfish, mercurial and prone to jealousy.  The religious authorities were, in the main charged with obtaining the favor of the gods through worship and sacrifice.  One could be singled out by the gods through simple bad luck, so sacrifice and worship to head off such was the reason one paid attention to these rituals.  One could obtain good luck by paying close attention to a particular god for a specific purpose, but, in the main, one simply tried to appease the gods to get through life without too much bad luck.

There wasn't a clear, revealed moral code to live by that resulted in a happy afterlife.  Everybody ended up in the same place, so morality was something that the ancients found through philosophy, not religion.

Old way religions, including the classics, regarded sex as something that was glorified as befitted something that propagated the human race.  It was recognized by the ancients as important to the society, because from sex came the next generation.  Every ancient religion had its female and male aspects and their gods reflected that duality.

But another aspect of sex was that many religions regarded human sexuality as representing another kind of fertility - that of the earth from which their food came.   Some ancient rites included sexual intercourse as a symbolic ritual to invoke or transfer that fertility to the earth for the purpose of having a plentiful harvest, upon which the group's future survival depended.

The doctrines of Christianity, however, see sex differently.  It is looked at as sinful outside of the procreative process.  (I know that isn't necessarily true in some Protestant denominations, but we're talking centuries 1-4 here.) There is no symbolic fertility rite. 

So as the RCC gained power and influence, it demonized sex outside of that process, and made it sinful.

Sound familiar?  It should be, it is the same thing we hear from Christian churches now.  Sex outside of procreation, much less marriage, is sinful.  True, some moderate denominations don't carry it that far, but still look at sex with a jaundiced eye, even sometimes in marriage.  Somehow, sex has become evil.

But in the 20th century, things have changed.  With the increased education levels and sophistication of the general population has come a loosening of those values.   The divorce rate has climbed to over 50%, rates of cohabitation have skyrocketed - even some retired couples cohabit today - for tax purposes!  The number of single parents, never married, is higher than ever before.

Twelve Surprising Fact About the American Church

  1. The percentage of people that attend a Christian church each weekend is far below what pollsters report.
  2. The percentage of people attending a Christian church each weekend decreased significantly from 1990-2000. 
  3. Christian church attendance is between 1 ½ and 2 times higher in the South and the Midwest than it is in the West and the Northeast. 
  4. Only one state [Hawaii] saw an increase in the percentage attending church from 1990-2000. [California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington were close to keeping up with population growth.] 
  5. The percentage that attends church on any given weekend is declining in over two thirds of the counties in the United States. [Among the states with the highest percentages of declining counties were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.] 
  6. Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics are strongest in very different regions of the country. 
  7. Churches with 50–299 people in attendance are shrinking, while the smallest churches and larger churches are growing. 
  8. Established churches, from 40–180 years old, on average decline in attendance. 
  9. The increase in the number of churches is about one eighth of what is needed to keep up with population growth. 
  10. The church-planting rate has been declining throughout the history of our country. 
  11. Existing churches are plateauing and new church growth provides less than half of the growth necessary to keep up with population growth. 
  12. If the present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 will be almost half of what it is today. 

So what does this trend mean?   To be sure, these facts, while probably accurate within the limits of the surveys used, do not cover enough time to delineate whether a long term trend is occurring.  Certainly not one sure to take over a hundred years to work itself out.  But look at the point that is noted at the end.  It does cover a projection of up to fifty years, and that trend fits the general direction of the decline of church influence since the 14th century.

Sources of morality

According to Christian teachings, God is the source of human morals.  The Ten Commandments are most often cited as the source of Christian morality.  For the period from roughly 800 CE through the 14th century, at least in the Western world, Christian values governed the social fabric.  Strict control of secular nobility through church decrees and threats of excommunication enforced Vatican rule.  In many countries, the secular head of state also claimed the role of church protector.  Church authorities such as bishops and cardinals wielded considerable secular influence, and continued to have authority to condemn to death as recently as the seventeenth century in some countries.

However, beginning in the 12th century, with the discovery and translation of an increasing number of ancient scrolls brought a broad awakening of interest in classical subjects, among them philosophy and study of the natural world.  Philosophical treatises on morality and the nature of man  were found and translated, resulting in a greater grounding of the nobility in ancient ideas, and loosening the bonds of religious control.

Further development during the Age of Reason, culminating in the founding of the United States on secular documents based upon Enlightenment principles has brought the influence of the church to new lows of public influence.  A balance to that has been the relative flourishing of religious organizations in the US due to the First Amendment.  While this seems to be a contradiction, the moderation of religious belief into less fundamental forms has actually decreased the dependence of modern churches in America upon Biblical morality by taking basic moral values straight out of Enlightenment principles, as most Americans have right up to the current period.

I would argue that the current apparent influence of the evangelical movement on American politics is the result of a backlash of concern on the part of evangelical leadership about the statistics mentioned in the above list of twelve surprising facts.  It is an attempt to stretch out their period of influence as much as possible, and the attack on US education by Creationists is part of a strategy to keep education levels low and Christian oriented to slow the adoption of scientific education that threatens to steal the very future of the Christian community - their children!

However, the backlash from the last eight years of the Bush Presidency on the part of a large number of Americans, both on the political left and the center as well, has a chance of curbing that influence, even given the current crazy religiosity of the Republican Primary.  In spite of the tendency of all of the Presidential hopefuls to pander to the religious right, if one reads a wide enough selection of media, there is an increasing concern about religious influence in politics being expressed in even national publications.  

In the end, it is the long term trend that matters, and it is clear that the influence of the Christian religion on Western society has been on the wane for a very long time.  It may be a slow erosion, but if current trends continue, left to themselves, people will continue to desert Christianity in a steady stream, and by the middle of this century, religious influence in this country should approach European levels of today.


I am not an historian, and do not attempt to claim any special knowledge here.  My statements are meant to illustrate general trends, and therefore, dates and such may be off by a bit.  This essay is meant to show a general historic trend, and is of course, my own opinion, based upon my own knowledge of history and current affairs.

1 comment:

Peachythings said...

Hey, how do I subscribe to this?