Is the Decline of Religion Inevitable?
Dr. Craig responds to Daniel Dennett's six predictions on the decline of religion
Is the Decline of Religion Inevitable?
KEVIN HARRIS: Daniel Dennett has co-authored an article “The Inevitable Growth of Atheism,” and he makes six predictions. This is all over the ‘net. People have been sending it to me. The subtitle is, “The question is not if religion is declining, but what shape the decline is taking and how it will play out.” I thought we’d look at these six predictions and get your comments.
DR. CRAIG: We’ve heard these kind of predictions before. For centuries in fact, atheists have been predicting that mankind will outgrow its infantile addiction to religion, and that just hasn't happened. The world is more religious today than it's ever been on a global scale. I would question whether or not these authors are qualified to be making predictions of this sort rather than just expressing their own wishes of what would happen. They are not sociologists as are, for example, people like Rodney Stark and his colleagues at Baylor who have documented how healthy and robust religion is today in American society. I think that these predictions are based on an uncritical and naive interpretation of the recent Pew study of the religious profile of the United States. It is not at all clear, I think, when you look at the data through the eyes of a sociologist that America is becoming less religious. But let's go ahead and look at these predictions and see what we can say about them.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says,
1) The internet will continue to influence falling way from religion, and it will snowball, since the new transparency penetrates almost all firewalls. For instance, the Mormons are confronted by DNA evidence challenging their 19th-century claims of the lost tribes of Israel being American Indians and the Roman Catholic Church can no longer bury its secrets. The internet also enables new institutions, such as The Clergy Project, offering a private meeting place for non-believing clergy no matter where they live.
DR. CRAIG: I think that the Internet is a mixed bag. It certainly is a force for unbelief and for secularism, but it's also perhaps the most powerful tool for evangelism that the church has today.
KEVIN HARRIS: How many would know about the kalam argument if it were not for the Internet?
DR. CRAIG: You look just at our two YouTube channels with Reasonable Faith and literally millions of views every year just for these YouTube videos that are available, not to mention the website traffic and these podcasts and other things of that sort that the Internet has made possible. As a web-based ministry Reasonable Faith is built upon the Internet and the access that it gives us worldwide to people to proclaim and defend the Gospel. Particularly in the Muslim world or other closed countries, the Internet is probably the most subversive tool available for getting the Gospel into these countries where in the privacy of a person's home he can be reading something on a Reasonable Faith website or watching a YouTube video. And we get emails like this from all around the world from people encouraging us for what we're doing. I had an email or Facebook message come the other day from a pair of doctors in Iran who had both become Christians and were writing to thank us for the material available on Reasonable Faith and sustaining them in their new Christian faith. The Internet is very much a mixed picture, and I think we need to be as proactive as possible in using the Internet as a means of reaching this generation.
KEVIN HARRIS: The second prediction is:
2) Humanist communities will continue to grow. [By that he would mean secular humanist.] There is plenty of pressing work for local communities to do, especially as "lifeboats" to turn to if the internet (and the power grid) ever collapse, as many experts predict.
DR. CRAIG: I was surprised at this. Does Dennett really believe these doomsday predictions that the power-grid is going to collapse and we are going to need to turn to lifeboats? I wonder if he is keeping stores at home – water, and canned food, and things like that?
KEVIN HARRIS: He says, “well-prepared humanist groups could lead the way, keeping their neighbors informed and calm and sheltered” until technicians figure out a way to get the grid back on. I just read an article about this awareness of a secular apocalypse. The secularists are also fearing some kind of an apocalypse. Everything is very apocalyptic. I don't know if you saw the new Star Wars movie. There were seven trailers (movie previews) before Star Wars. Every upcoming movie this year is about the end of the world and the apocalypse and everything is blowing up and aliens and the need for a savior. At least in two of them were very obvious.
DR. CRAIG: I think this prediction of all six is a fantasy. This represents the secular humanist hope that somehow humanist communities are going to develop and have a social conscience and do things to better and save society. And that has been anything but true. It has historically been faith-based organizations that have established charities, city shelters for homeless and the poor, hospitals, learning institutions. As one of my professors once said, there are no humanist leper colonies. This idea that these humanist communities are going to somehow coalesce and be a great strength and a help to society is self-congratulatory delusion. Even where they have managed to, say, have some fundraising campaign for disaster relief or something, the amounts involved are just minuscule when compared to what Christian charities contribute to these.
KEVIN HARRIS: Knock yourself out. Go ahead.
DR. CRAIG: Right! Right! We want them to do that. That's fine, but the idea that this is going to continue to grow, I think, is a pipe dream.
3) Christian denominations will continue to decline as more people become "cafeteria believers" who no longer associate belonging to a church or receiving the sacraments with being a Christian in good standing.
DR. CRAIG: I would say that denomination labels will continue to decline in importance for people; it will not be so important to identify as an Episcopalian or Baptist or a Presbyterian. Those mainline denominations that have deserted orthodox biblical Christianity, I think, will continue to decline. That is the reason for the sharp decline in religious affiliation. The evangelical church, the Pew study shows, is holding its own as a percentage of the American population. In fact in terms of absolute numbers the Pew study shows that evangelical believers are increasing in the United States. So the decline is due to the bloodletting from the liberal mainline denominations that no longer proclaim and believe in biblical truth.
4) The "nones" and other stepping stones to frank atheism will grow as the stigma of not belonging to religious institutions declines. More people will identify as spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) and more SBNR will move to the agnostic category as openly questioning religion becomes more commonplace. Others will roll over into atheism with the same ease and none of these nones will raise their children in a religion. Religious customs and holidays will persevere, though, and perhaps the term "secular Christian" will catch on, with the same acceptable non-religious connotation as "secular Jew."
DR. CRAIG: I think this is an open question. We saw some data, I remember in a previous podcast, that the level of those self-identifying as having no religious affiliation had plateaued, in fact, and was no longer increasing. So it remains to be seen whether or not there will be a trend in this direction. One of the things that came out of the Baylor study that I mentioned that Rodney Stark and others were involved in with regard to American religiosity was the finding that 78% of Americans today identify with a particular Christian denomination. The professor who was sharing these results said this is astounding. This is extraordinary. He said up until the 1940 s – the Second World War – less than 50% of the American population identified with a particular Christian denomination. It was only since the forties that that figure went above 50%. And he said the figure of 78% is unparalleled in the history of the world in a free society. So this Baylor information from their polling leads to a quite different conclusion, and I think it just remains to be seen whether or not this category of persons who self-identify as having no religious affiliation continues to grow. In any case, there's no reason to think that they're going to roll over into atheism. Atheists remain a minuscule percentage of the American population – 2% or 3% – and many of these that have no religious affiliation nevertheless have religious beliefs – believing in God, they pray, and so forth. They just don’t identify as a Baptist or Presbyterian.
KEVIN HARRIS: So much confusion about the “nones” in these polls. I read in one poll that only about 30% are agnostic or atheist of the nones. They're still religious or Christian; they just don't identify with a particular denomination.
I was reflecting on this. In my whole life, my whole Christian life, it has been emphasized to me that denominations are not important. That's the way I was brought up. That’s the way the Jesus Movement – people of the 70s – were in a lot of ways. If you did a sermon on Sunday morning “The joy of being a Baptist” you were made fun of because, I don’t know, in a more secular society we’ve got to be a little more united. If we are all Christians, yeah, then we can divide up and be proud of our team, but, I don't know . . .
DR. CRAIG: You are quite right. I think denominational labels are much, much less important. That is true of churches themselves. Many churches prefer to have a name like Something Community Church or Something Christian Church and don't identify with a denomination even if they have one.
KEVIN HARRIS: I heard another statistic that one poll showed in an attempt to identify denominations the polls were asked Who are Presbyterians? or Who are Baptists? or Who are Anglicans? And so on and so on. And they found that there was a negative element that most of the people would say, “Oh, that group – they are the ones who don't believe in this.” It was always what they didn’t believe in. “They are the group that don’t believe in spitting tobacco.” They were identified by what they were against as somehow being the hallmark of it. We’ve gotten to the point of saying, “OK, Let’s just skip those stigmas that have grown up over the years. Be a Community Church or non-denominational.” So we have these nones everywhere, and now this is being heralded as a decline in religion. Well, maybe not.
5) Liberal clergy will continue to lead the move away from biblical religion. They are humanists' natural allies — in the forefront of all progressive causes — anti-slavery, women in the clergy, LGBTQ. They do this not to tailor their image, but because it's the right thing to do.
So the rise of liberal clergy.
DR. CRAIG: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And these are the people that are responsible for the free fall in the mainline denominations which are staffed by these clergy. The mainline denominations have a suicide wish, and their attempt to be relevant in these ways has led to catastrophic declines in their membership. It is no wonder. These groups will become increasingly sidelined and not represent the cultural mainstream in the United States.
KEVIN HARRIS: They said that Jesus is currently the biggest target of the liberal clergy and of the Westar Institute.
DR. CRAIG: That was funny. Do you know what the Westar Institute is? That is the old Jesus Seminar! They are practically irrelevant. Nobody cares about them or talks about them today. They got big headlines many years ago, but they are not significant at all. Yet here it is touting the Jesus studies of the Westar Institute as though this represented the vanguard of scholarship when in fact it is a liberal backwater that is of really no importance today.
6) Some people will remain religious just because it's their nature. They have an innate sense of a benign "presence," just as some people have an innate love, amounting almost to addiction, of music. Religion, that "binding together" element that has been present since our human beginnings, will finally be unbound from attempts to explain science and form governments. It will probably survive as an irresistible attraction for some people, and as long as religions don't abuse their members, or enforce ignorance on their children, we should tolerate them and even protect them as minority groups.
DR. CRAIG: This is great. Some people are addicted to religion and therefore will continue to be religious. It takes no cognizance whatsoever of people who happen to believe that religion is true and of the renaissance in Christian apologetics and Christian philosophy not to mention New Testament studies and science that's going on today. We are living in a time of a great intellectual renaissance of the Christian faith in academia, and these folks are doing their best to put on their blinders and ignore that and treat Christians as religious addicts who have this irrational attraction to religion that they can't shake.
KEVIN HARRIS: Here is how he ends the article.
Could anything turn the declining curve of religion around? Yes, unfortunately. A global plague, a world war fought over water or oil, the collapse of the internet and power grid, or some as yet unimagined catastrophe could throw the remaining population into ignorance, misery, and fear, which is the soil in which religion flourishes best. And then we'd have to start rebuilding civilization all over again.
DR. CRAIG: There’s that apocalyptic scenario again. I wonder who this co-author is on this article – this Linda LaScola. I find it hard to believe that Dennett believes these sort of apocalyptic scenarios. This is really weird stuff.
She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master's Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America, is a co-founder of The Clergy Project.
DR. CRAIG: Oh. That is mentioned in the article as a place where ex-clergy can go. I think that this is just nothing but condescension and ignorance. What could change the situation, I think, would be a tremendous revival that could be spearheaded by a rebirthed interest in apologetics among Christian laity. I see that happening today.
 Total Running Time: 19:24 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)