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The Decline of Christianity?

Is Christianity in Decline?

This question has been posed, in one way or another, many times over the past three hundred years, and it is often taken for granted that Christianity is either in decline or as good as dead. In the mid-eighteenth century Montesquieu famously remarked ‘point de religion en Angleterre’ — no religion in England. If anyone spoke of religion, he continued, everyone would laugh. There was apparently also a committee of Parliament struck to investigate the state of religion at the time and it was publicly regarded as ridiculous. Are attitudes significantly different now?

From the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century to about the middle of the eighteenth, Christianity was undoubtedly the principal force animating all western art, literature, and morality. Obviously, Christianity survived the eighteenth century, but it ceased there to exert any force over the minds of the intellectual classes of Europe and America. Something akin to the worship of nature took hold, and Rousseau was the most extreme, and the most hypocritical, exponent of this new religion. Its symbols were rugged mountains, pastoral scenery involving shepherds and idyllic picnics, and of course ruined abbeys and churches of the middle ages. Perhaps the most moving example of the worship of nature is Wordworth’s poem about the ruins of Tintern Abbey. By far the silliest was Marie Antoinette’s fake hobby farm outside the palace of Versailles where she could milk cows and pretend to be a peasant.

The new religion found political expression in a profound and serious emphasis on liberty. This doctrine led to the establishment of the American republic: a state founded on supposedly self-evident truths ordained by the god of nature, not by the triune God of Christianity. The French, who had originated these ideas were not slow to imitate and exaggerate the American example. Apart from all the killing and bombastic rhetoric of Robespierre and St-Juste, the result was that the deism of Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson was taken to its illogical conclusion. Christianity was briefly overthrown and replaced by the absurd Cult of the Supreme Being who was worshipped in the so-called Temple of Reason. The fact that none of this lasted very long is perhaps a testament to the natural strength and appeal of Christianity.

But after the Enlightenment, western states began to maintain a benign indifference to religion and began to invoke ‘God’ in official documents as nothing more than a cypher for something like ‘the natural order of things’, not as an endorsement of the truth of Christianity. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a case in point here.

However, no system of thought which evolved after the Enlightenment offered any convincing or even useful alternative to Christianity’s moral teachings. So in the broadest sense of the word, Christian values endured, even where their origin and theological justification have been forgotten. Marxism and all its horrendous off-shoots, Hitlerism, free-market capitalism in its most extreme form, and even the beliefs of hippies and hedonists did little to destroy Christianity; and they usually tried to disguise their odious doctrines in Christian garb. One of the most common (and most absurd) claims made in favour of socialism, for example, is that Jesus would have approved of it — even though it is clear in the New Testament that Jesus took no position on earthly government, apart from advising people to pay tax to the Roman Emperor, and that he spoke of the ‘kingdom’ (a better translation might be empire) of God, not the ‘people’s republic’ of God.

And yet a disturbing new trend emerged in the twentieth century which has all but destroyed the supremacy of Christian moral doctrine. It is now commonly assumed amongst western intellectual classes that all cultures, religions, values, art, literature, and so forth are equally good or equally bad. This is the moral relativism that grew out of twentieth-century disillusionment with the horrors of the two Great Wars, and the homicidal failure of communism to usher in the workers’ utopia promised by Marx. In his Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis inveighed against the eclipse of Christian values in the period between the wars, and complained elsewhere of the ‘mocking, sneering intelligentsia’ who were preaching the subjectivity of values.

It is as though a large part of western civilisation decided, wrongly, that mankind’s lowest acts were perpetrated not in spite of Christianity but because of it. Recently, this sneering attitude seemed implicit in Obama’s proclamation of moral equivalence between Muslim terrorism and mediaeval Christianity. Intellectual position of this kind only get stronger in the face of evidence to the contrary. In this vein, the 1990s orthodoxy of reflexive liberalism and cultural relativism can be understood as cognitive dissonance and a Freudian reaction-formation against such catastrophic failures of multiculturalism as the Rwandan and Balkan genocides, as well as the horrific massacres of minorities by Saddam Hussein.

More recent manifestations of moral relativism involve some very strange intellectual contortions. The last Archbishop of Canterbury announced confidently that it was inevitable that Great Britain would have to accommodate the sharia. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals in Ontario flirted with introducing the sharia also. Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau refused to identify forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and polygamy as ‘barbaric cultural practices’. Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin explained the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a natural consequence of American foreign policy, and declared that we needed to see things from the terrorists’ perspective. Justin Trudeau took up the same vapid talking point when discussing the Boston marathon bombing of 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people took to Twitter in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in early 2015 not to condemn it, but to declare that Charlie Hebdo has deserved it. And President Obama has flippantly referred to the Islamic State as ‘the JV team’.

Most telling of all, perhaps, is that western liberal intellectuals always assert the sanctity of human life and the necessity of compassion, as when the British intelligentsia demanded the release of the Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. But such people do nothing to stop the millions of abortions performed annually, and figures of the New Left (such as Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama) are plainly determined to promote that form of murder.

What does this all mean? In my view there can be no question that a great portion of westerners have turned their back on Christianity and its values. ‘Decline’ is a perfectly good description of what has happened, and the future looks very bleak indeed.