It is no exaggeration to say that Christianity is in nearly existential crisis in the West. It is perverse that the West is trending atheist as the rest of the world is trending religious.
Australia is about to become, if it has not already become, a majority atheist nation. This is something unprecedented in all the long Aboriginal and European and modern multicultural history of our land. It is worth pausing to remark. It is worth considering what we stand to lose, wondering if perhaps still there is a way we might recover this Christianity, or some of it, if we want to.
Our approaching atheism is a perverse position in the history of humanity. It is perverse even by today’s standards, because the West—meaning for the moment Western Europe, North America and Australia and New Zealand—is trending atheist as the rest of the world is trending religious. For Australia there is an especially acute irony. Every progressive instinct in our body politic tells us we need deeper engagement with Asia, yet Asian cultures are profoundly religious. Even as our culture seeks to consign the idea of God to the dustbin of history, as we engage with the contemporary societies of our near Asian neighbours, we must engage with their idea of God.
For our society, the figures don’t lie. We will be joining our cousins in Britain, already an atheist nation, and we will be a little ahead of the trend in the US, which, despite its reputation for being God’s country, is headed down the same road as we are, just a little behind us.
The 2016 census disclosed a startlingly abrupt change in patterns of belief in Australia. Just five years before, in 2011, 61 per cent of Australians identified themselves in the census as Christians. In 2016 this number had dropped dramatically to 52 per cent. In 2006 the figure had been 64 per cent, so in the half decade after 2006 there was a gentle decline. In the half decade after 2011 there was a radical decline. Nearly one in ten fewer Australians identified as Christian than five years earlier. One in ten! The rate of decline accelerated sharply and there is, sadly, little reason to think that trend won’t continue.
For a long time, religious believers in any part of the West could take consolation in the US, even if there were substantial parts of American culture they didn’t like. Whatever was happening in the rest of the West, believers could say: look at the biggest, most powerful, most populous, most successful nation the West, or the world, has ever known—it is deeply religious and as religious as any nation you could name.
If that was ever true, it’s no longer true. Religious belief in the US is stronger than it is in Australia or the UK, but the trend of decline is just the same. According to the authoritative Pew Research organisation, in 2007 some 78 per cent of Americans identified themselves as Christian. By 2014 this had dropped startlingly to 70 per cent. In 2007 the group identifying as having no religious belief was 16 per cent; by 2014 it had jumped to 23 per cent. The corresponding figure in 1992 was just 6 per cent. The age breakdown is similar to the UK and Australia. Religious belief both represents a smaller percentage, and is held less intensely, the younger the age group. The same with regular church attendance: it’s dominated by older folks.
In America, the secular view of life has won the elites on both coasts, in Hollywood and television and in most of academe. Typically, where the elites lead, the public ultimately follows, because the elites supervise education and create most of the public culture.
That’s true across the West.
How did we get to this strange and at times deluded cul-de-sac of history at the present moment in the West?
The processes have been very long. You can trace over the last two centuries the evolution of ideas, a catastrophic sequence of wars, the atomising effects of technology and affluence, the many psychological and spiritual temptations of unprecedented prosperity, the movement of culture broadly, the establishment in Marxism of the world’s first ideology of atheism—which became a mass movement—the advances of science and their misinterpretation by some scientists and some Christians as well, the sexual revolution, and the many mistakes of Christians and their leaders.
Perhaps the most important challenge was sustained affluence. It contains an especially alluring falsehood—the idea that some people don’t need God’s mercy. Every human being, and the universe they create, stands always on the brink of extinction. And every human being is in need of mercy. But widespread affluence, with all the good things that it brings, helps disguise death and hide it in nursing homes and hospitals, and keep people distracted, ever more distracted.
The lack of purpose and meaning, the lack of any ultimate standards that come with the exile of God from our culture lead to savage polarisations and sudden outbursts of hysterical sentiments. There is a disorientation which is alternately enervated and frenzied. There is no ground below us, and above us only darkness. For without God, human beings are no longer unique and universal, no longer special in nature. They are just one more chancy outcrop of the planet and its biosphere, ultimately no more worthy of consideration than a cockroach. If we lose God, we lose something essential of our humanity.
Greg Sheridan AO FAIIA is Foreign Editor of The Australian and a highly regarded journalist.
Greg will be discussing his book at AIIA VIC on 20 September 2018.