Decline of the 21st Century Religion

Heschel placed blame for religion’s apparent declining influence in relation to science and secularism in his time on religion itself. “Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid,” he said, suggesting that religion in its current form is a pale imitation of the real thing. 

Do you agree with Heschel’s assessment that the influence of religion declined in the twentieth century? Do you agree that religion itself contributed to that decline? 

***Intersting point made – figured it’s worth talking about. 

(from ‘The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel’ pdf – pg 3)

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12 thoughts on “Decline of the 21st Century Religion

  1. This question is important for a varietry of reasons – 2 being the strong movement away from faith in society (becoming quite common now) and maybe it can help us determine what mistakes are being made by faith(s) (and have been made) and what possible solutions may be.

    I like the idea ‘religion in its current form is a pale imitation of the real thing’ – begging the question…what does the real thing look like?

  2. I will be coming at this from a Christian angle of course and can only speak to why Christianity is declining.

    Jack Good (author of “The Dishonest Church) contends that mainline churches are not honest about certain realities. Churches are deliberately vague on many concepts, as clergy members do not wish to offend. This has created an “EX” factor of ex-Christians who leave the church all together, or seek other sources for spirituality. I agree with this assessment. I see the church being divided into two camps.

    The first camp is very relevant to people but it perpetuates a lie—it does not challenge people. This is the camp of the conservatives, mega-churches and televangelists. The other camp is truthful and accurate and looks into the socio-historical settings and literary and rhetorical methods of the Bible, but fails to show how this is relevant in people’s lives. This is the camp of academia.

    I would also add that the church has long been defined through specific traditionalisms (in worship, doctrine, or practice), hierarchy, and exclusion. Denominations have formed based on their having “The Truth” over and against their fellow Christians. I would claim that each of the 350 or so Christian denominations carries truth but does not contain it. Truth transcends and is separate from its container. Plus, if Christ is at the head of the church, as the UCC claims and I believe, there is a deeper problem to the traditional characteristics of the church. Jesus never requested “worship me.” His challenge was to “follow me.” He gave no systematic description of the nature of God. The church can no longer be concerned with traditionalism although it must have a sense of tradition. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, tradition is the living faith of the dead.

    For too long the church has had no purpose and has been content to rest on its old answers. It felt that if it challenged too much, it would alienate people, lose its members, and die. It has done the opposite, and this has alienated people, lost the children and grandchildren of its members, and started the downfall of the church.

    The institution as it is cannot stand, and it must be resurrected into something new. The church should become a new institution that is localized and flexible. The church should be controlled by its members and guided by its pastor. This model is a side by side model, not a top down nor a pastor leading and people following. If someone stumbles, the best position to be in to help is at the person’s side. A top down model is not the model Jesus used. He never brandished his power, he led by serving.

    *Off soapbox. thank you.

  3. If I could sit down for coffee and conversation with Heschel I would ask him about this quote which I once had on the sidebar of a blog. What did he see religion declining from? Was is really a decline or just a needed change? Could it be just another example of Mt Eval and Mt Gerazim, where you might see blessings or you might see curses depending on which way you chose to look?

    Is religion today really a pale imitation of the real thing or it is just finally being stripped of all the facade of universalism and allowed to be what it was actually meant to be, just one way of finding meaning in life for those who are so inclined; a needed piece in the whole which was never meant to be the whole; something that was meant to have a subtle influence on the world, but never meant to bring the whole world under its purview?

  4. Churches and religions (mainly Christian) are falling apart because the foundations they have been built upon are both fallible and erroneous. Humanity is finally overcoming the churches vague superstitions and fear tactics; upon which all religions are built. The fear of “hell fire” can only be believed for so long and the eventual return of a 2000 year old male-deity (that may never have existed) is finally recognized as being false by many believers. Why wait for the second coming if it is not really true? Not to mention all the distinct separations between church doctrines and actual practices. Sexism is rampant in church doctrines, racism is rampant in church doctrines, and sexist and racist practice are rampant in church actions and practices. This only scratches the surface as to why religion is irrelevant.

  5. “just one way of finding meaning in life for those who are so inclined; a needed piece in the whole which was never meant to be the whole; something that was meant to have a subtle influence on the world, but never meant to bring the whole world under its purview?” (Yael)

    I like that. I know in First Nations culture ‘spirituality’ is 1/4th of the person – but part of the complete health of a person (including physical, emotional, and mental aspects also). So without spirituality a person will feel a lacking in their total healthiness – oddly enough what they are lacking is life is mysterious and we need to leave room for stuff we just cannot control nor have a total handle of.

  6. “Humanity is finally overcoming the churches vague superstitions and fear tactics; upon which all religions are built.” (Johnny)

    I think religions have allowed their own downfall and I agree with you on this – like practices of sexism, racism, and no to forget – anti-civility within society.

    Churches have lost any real reason they existed and what they were supposed to be offering – and became a ‘one trick pony’ (ie: salvation). Once the trick is over – we find nothing is left but a stageshow.

    The truest decline of church faith (ie: Christianity) happened within this last decade – and will likely be the nail in the coffin – it’s absolute inability to mean anything when faced with chances to help change the world. Christianity failed at the worst times – and those times are not easily forgotten. The holocaust, Indian Residential Schools, India and South Africa freedoms, Civil rights movements in the 50-60’s, support of war, etc. Christianity failed in times when it could not – and proved what it was – an arm of the ruling class (in most of these cases Post-Colonial British roots).

    Irregardless – with failures like that – it’s hard to believe anything positive about such a faith – and not to believe it is an insitution controlled by the country it resides in is quite obvious…I really see little difference between a church in China (Communist) and one in America (Capitalist)…they are both state controlled.

  7. “The holocaust, Indian Residential Schools, India and South Africa freedoms, Civil rights movements in the 50-60’s, support of war, etc. Christianity failed in times when it could not – and proved what it was – an arm of the ruling class (in most of these cases Post-Colonial British roots). ”

    and yet it was also the tool in which South African, Civil Rights, and Post-Colonialism are fueled and sustained by. the tool used by the racists, classist, and colonial powers came back to bite ’em.

  8. Hey John!

    well… i think belief influences action. so this goes to show you that most people care about getting power or maintaining the status quo, not about the change and challenge faith has… well at least a Judeo-Christian faith anyways.

  9. Luke touched on why I think that Christianity is suffering. It has to deal with the idea of truth. Most denominations of which I am familiar, present their particular theology and doctrine as the finely tuned correct way to think about God and that it is the final truth. My retired pastor father correct me and say that HE was never taught this in school and never proclaimed it to his congregants. However, I would counter this with the idea that there is a difference between what a church writes down on paper as its belief and the culture that exists within the community of that church. While the paper may say one thing, the culture says another, and it is this culture within the church that only this church or denomination knows and believes ultimate truth that I believe is the reason for the exodus from traditional religion and church. My generation, GenX, and those younger than me are too skeptical to believe anyone who claims to have the marked cornered on ultimate truth. That is a rather sure sign of someone thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. Take for example a portion of the statement of “expected student spiritual outcomes” from the Christian school that we pulled out boys out of just last fall:

    “The Bible is presented to students as the only inspired Word of God, the final authority for all truth and knowledge.”

    In this case I think what is on paper and the culture match fairly well. This says to me, and is in the culture of the school, that God has not said anything and is not saying anything anywhere else than within the bible; that it is unlikely that there is any truth present outside of the bible; that there is no knowledge outside of the bible which leads us to read the bible as a science text and necessitates crazy ideas that go against good science such as young earth creationsism.

    When this is what is preached and taught in our churches, people when they finally wake up to reality, are going to abandon it, and some abandon it right into atheism. In the end I like what a good friend of mine, Dr. Paul Fitzgerald (http://pauldfitzgerald.typepad.com/graceconnexion/), wrote to me once: “I believe that there is such a thing as ultimate truth but that none of us is really sure what it is.”

  10. “and yet it was also the tool in which South African, Civil Rights, and Post-Colonialism are fueled and sustained by. the tool used by the racists, classist, and colonial powers came back to bite ‘em.” (Luke)

    So would it be safe to say – the church fought against itself? Maybe this is the reason for the decline of the church as we know it.

    However, if what Luke says is ‘true’ – then the church needs to be fought againts for its own sanity and morality to be preserved in some legit fashion. I tend to think Luke is kind of wrong – the church supported and backed some of those most ‘evil’ endeavors proving to me it was a product of the country it resided in and was in essence, controlled by it. It may very well have taken movements outside the church to change the churches mode of thinking (ie: Aboriginal groups and outsiders to the mainstream society).

    Not saying Christian values were not an influence in some of the cases mentioned – but explain to me something – if the church supported some of these horrible endeavors (including Rwanda) – then why did it change it’s mind all of a sudden? Did the church grow a conscience and if so – how and from where? I have a really tough time believing the people that benefited from the autracities mentioned who sat in pews turned around and fought against themselves (also – that’s usually not the pattern of how these events change).

    The church is in serious decline of the stuff aforementioned IMO – because it means nothing to anyone that matters (and those that matter need it the most in their situations). Church in an inner city does what to change society exactly? Church on a First Nations reserve does what to help conditions there? Churches in South Africa did what during apartheid? Churches during a holocaust in Germany and genocide in Rwanda did what to support the hurt and broken? Yet Gandhi – a Hindu – drove the British Imperialists (same ones in South Africa) out of his country without using the church whatsoever.

    I think the church has to start facing it – it was run by some very mundane people for a very long time – and this is the decline of its influence. The church has come to mean a lot of things recently – but one of them isn’t meaningful.

  11. yeah.. that’s the problem with institutions is that they end up adopting the culture rather than doing it’s mission of freeing the oppressed, healing the sick, and feeding the poor. there is a tribe in New Zealand called the Maori who were criticised by the English colonialists for being too free with their money. as soon as they were paid they ran out and bought stuff (food, gifts, soda, etc) for their neighbors and shared all things in common. the irony is that the colonialists stated that this behavior was irresponsible and unChristian… even though the Maori were living straight out of the book of Acts.

    the Church has long been speaking out of both sides of it’s mouth. Kirkegaard (who i’m reading this summer) talks about the two conflicting natures of the church, both of which are found in scripture, which are the Status Quo and the Liberation tendencies. has the church been used as a tool by colonial powers? absolutely. has the church thrown off those colonial powers and established a new way of life? absolutely. so the church is both liberator and oppresor.

    take Gandhi… he cites Christ as a massive influence and even quotes the Gospels in many of his writings. he had the great quote “I like your Christ but not your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” which sums it up. there are those who seek to wield power and those who seek to share it. there are those who believe in a zero-sum game strategy, and there are those who don’t. i’m of the group that believes “if you win, i win.” that’s why i have many friends of different faiths and walks of life and we’re in understanding and coexistence. i will never seek their conversion because it’s not a zero-sum game. i only seek to represent my faith in my action.. that whole “judge a tree by the fruit” thing we were talking about this time last year…

    now i LOVE this quote “I think the church has to start facing it – it was run by some very mundane people for a very long time – and this is the decline of its influence. The church has come to mean a lot of things recently – but one of them isn’t meaningful.”

    it’s incredibly insightful and right on the money… this is the question that drives me, how to make the church relevant? it is my question i ask when i wake up and lie down when i write sermons and when i pray publically and privately. i think there’s an incredible network and institution established that one can use to get people to a meaningful place… but it must be done by a non-zero sum player and those are few and far between.

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