Feb 2, 2010

the waning of the dyed-in-the-wool faith-head society?

I can't be bothered searching for statistical analyses, so I shall rely on anecdotal evidence. A favourite quote of mine (which I just invented) is "anecdotes beat statistics." This would seem to be true in that word-of-mouth travels faster than those facilitating the NZ Census etcetera.

Let us accept that the Church (say, for example my home-by-choice of the Anglican Church) has declined significantly in the West, including NZ. Apparently this has "implications, no?" I write this in response to a request; let me know how I fare.

Let us break it down.

Maybe if the Church is God's people on earth it should always be visibly growing. This is not a biblical claim and I don't see much reason to believe it, but it would not be a problem if it happened! Well, a problem for some perhaps; like those engaged in trafficking children, warmongers, those who exploit the environment, those who rely on secular humanism (yet also God) for selling their blasphemous books and those who like their sins to be acceptable. Anyway, a claim I do see in the good book is that the Church shall always exist. No sign of it dying completely yet, so all good so far. Perhaps in the next few decades, the Church will though die in the West and the primitives in other countries shall gratefully inbibe our medicine of hopeful hopelessness as well. Perhaps.

The signs aren't good so long as passionate evangelical and charismatic Christianity continues to explode (in a good way) in places like Nigeria; while the Chinese middle classes and academics convert to the point where Jesus is bigger than The Party; and signs-and-wonders show up in South America such that the God of Christianity is given the glory.

But am I not just distracting you from where the real wisdom is to be found - secular New Zealand and perhaps Europe (the States; economic and scientific superpower, is an aberration clearly not worthy of mention)? Yes and no. In Europe (& North Africa and S-E Asia) Islam is doing pretty well, partially through high birth rates (as well as, in a different place, conversions in US prisons; but perhaps that particular phenomenon has decreased.) OK, sarcastic/ironic asides aside, obviously I'm still just trying to hide that my Church/religion is dying and isn't worthy of your time (catch my little rhyme?) Well, the pentecostals and non-denominational evangelicals are actually doing pretty well numerically (e.g. Life, Arise, Harbourside, GCC, WCCC.) In the Anglican Church in Auckland, a number of my friends' churches aren't doin too bad either IMHO, most clearly St Pauls, having increased about 10fold (or more) in 6-ish years to a roll of ~1000. We do have issues with theological liberalism, which can kill churches. The Presbyterians at least, I have heard, have managed to turn around to a significant extent wrt this and there is hope yet! More obviously problematic are our demographics - apparently the average age at churches in the UK (I assume the CofE) is 61 and I guess we're in a similar boat. There is a baby boomer bubble in the population-at-large and so as this ages and deceases, a bit of reduction is to be expected in churches which aren't able to engage more recently formed generations.

There is also a general decline of the prominence of the established churches in society; I suppose the growth of the state in providing welfare may have something to do with it as the instigator of this post suggested, but in recent years it seems more attributable to growth in immigrant populations and consequently, adherence to other faiths. Christianity also loses many young people, often in their 20s - sometimes they come back to a church when they have children. Clearly Christianity is not inherited like the wrinkly trait in peas (note: actually, since the trait is recessive (and most churchgoers are wrinkly) maybe there are some similarities!) A cultural shift away from taking Jesus seriously is truly concerning for someone who cares about people - but is not necessarily any kind of defeater for religious belief. The Church has continued to see many conversions in recent years. I can think of a couple of handfuls of friends and associated hoi polloi who've left the non-faith or luke-warmish-agnosticism of their parents; long may it continue! Even in the small youth network of the Anglican Church, perhaps even more so than elsewhere, I have met a few such critters. Academics too retain, accept, or return to faith; even on these skeptical shores. As our culture's media and other structures are secularised (not sense of becoming completely atheistic, just less Church-friendly), Christianity polarises as it did not so much in the 50s. Nominal adherence drops (surprise!), but does the number who actually believe in the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus and live accordingly? Atm for me, that's an open question. It will be affected by; amongst others; you, the readers of this blog!

The Church is an unpopular minority force in our culture, but it continues to impact lives for good. Good does in fact exist, as God does - and His people, for better or worse, remain the Church.


  1. So to paraphrase (mainly for my own benefit): NZ churches have been doing pretty decently of late, immigration dilutes the faith-pool, plenty of clever people are (re)converting, and the Church has become more polarizing. Plus God/Good definitely, without-a-doubt exist (just in case I had any doubts over your thoughts on the matter).

    I didn't know that NZ churches were doing so well (except those pansy liberal ones). Wikipedia informs me that the number of NZers describing themselves as Christian has dropped by quite a bit since the early 90s. Tis a curious juxtaposition. I suppose it raises the follow up question why/how has the church become more polarizing (and for that matter why an "unpopular minority force")? And you're not allowed to cheat and say it's all my fault again (flattering as that may be).

    As an aside, although there probably isn't a recessive gene for Christianity (what a terrifying thought - you could breed jesus-freaks!), there's good reason to believe that religiosity is to some extent heritable (along with political affiliation funnily enough). I really must lend you Pinker sometime.

    Anyway thanks very much for going to the trouble - it was a bit of a vague question I'm afraid.

    Oh one more thing:
    Not directly related but a bit interesting/amusing/shocking/ironic?

  2. Oh; but Jesus Freaks are good at breeding! No sex outside of marriage means marry young and produce a litter, plus we actually like babies here.

    Fight - I like. “We’ve raised a generation of little boys.” Amen. Little boys with no brains, what is more. Of course, the stereotype is a bit out sometimes, but that's the nature of the stereotyping business.

  3. I admitted that nominal adherence has dropped - I haven't looked at the statistics recently, but have seen many of them - church related organisations are quite keen on these kinds of things, as am I. Does this mean that actual belief drops? Nowadays, I suggest, if someone says they are a Christian they are more likely to actually mean it rather than something like "um, um, well I guess I'm a Christian as I'm clearly not a Muslim - and I was even baptised a Catholic/Anglican (etc) as a baby..." If this is the case, which seems plausible, then the actual drop in belief will be less and may even not be particularly significant, when we take into account other demographic changes as well. Conversions are important, as they buck the supposed trend and they keep on happening - I can point you to a few intelligent people in churches whose parents are not Christians; furthermore, as identifying as a Christian now requires more of a positive choice than prev, even ppl like me raised (mostly) in Christian homes can make a claim to a legitimate faith even to those obsessed with choosing for oneself from a position of "religious neutrality", as if this actually existed.

  4. Two more points:
    *Immigration - in our kind of democratic society, is likely to reduce the influence of established churches. I don't see conversions to other faiths, just Christianity is taken a bit less seriously and is less likely to be automatically ticked when there are other options - those who never go to church will be more comfy in our society ticking "no religion" or "I Love Steven Pinker" etc
    *I know a number of atheists with evangelical parents and even more so, grandparents - the conversion thing goes both ways. I'd be happy to take a look at Pinker anyway. I realise his kind of psychology is a weak area for Christians at the moment; there are more Chr. social psychologists it seems - a pity, but in the next few years this may change! I certainly don't claim Christianity dominates everywhere atm, but that it is prominent anywhere would be bizarre to many proclaiming the death of God in the 19th C; but there are a few other stories leading from there!

  5. That all seems pretty plausible and commonsensical. It'd be interesting to see data on conversation rates, but apparently that's hard to do properly. I'll just have to take your word for it (and your word is generally pretty good :P). Though just to throw in a counter-anecdote: my Mum still ticks Anglican on the census even though she hasn't stepped foot in a Church for quite a while...

    In the interests of a wrinkly pea reference: individuals with recessive alleles may express traits that were not present in either parent (wait... that would make atheism recessive - that can't be right). Identical twin studies tend to show the heritability coefficient of religiosity is remarkably high (in adulthood at least). This means that all Dawkins' stuff about dangerous religious memes is a bit silly - in fact only about 18% of the (adulthood) variation in religiosity is due to parental environment. The results are completely reversed when you look at the heritablility coefficient of religiosity in adolescents (i.e. it's all parental environment and hardly any genes)*. I suspect that this change has a lot to do with conversions in both directions.

    But really? You people actually like babies? They just cry and make mess and don't do anything interesting (curse evolution's big brain vs born underdevloped trade-off).

    *It just occured to me that Dawkins' meme stuff might not be useless afterall since a significant fraction of insane fanatics blow themselves up in adolescence.