David Carlin: The decline of Christianity is found not just in those who claim no Christian faith, but also in those who claim to be liberal Christians.
Modern history (by which I mean the history of the western world since about the year 1500) tells many stories. I suspect that these many stories are subplots in one big story, and for years I’ve been trying to guess what this one big story may be. My guess (but it’s only a guess) is that the one big story is the story of how the western world has been trying to get rid of Christianity.
The story begins with the Protestant Reformation. None of the reformers intended to do away with Christianity. Just the opposite. Regardless of anybody’s intentions, however, a divided Christianity would be easier to destroy than a united Christianity.
This divided Christianity led in the 16th and 17th centuries to the rise of skepticism, especially in France. But skepticism, while it continues even to the present day to erode Christianity, is too purely negative a thing to replace the old faith. And a replacement is needed. You can’t just get rid of Christianity and leave the world with nothing to believe in.
Skepticism was succeeded by a more positive thing in the 18th century, Deism, which professed to hold on to the good elements of Christianity (afterlife, morality, etc.) while getting rid of its bad elements. But Deism was too “thin” a thing to replace Christianity. Besides, it stopped well short of the ultimate aim of anti-Christianity, namely the complete eradication of the old religion.
Deism helped bring about the French Revolution, which showed for the first time that a powerful state could be used as a tremendous anti-Christianity machine.
In the second half of the 19th century, there was a great intellectual movement on behalf of agnosticism. But agnosticism was simply another name for the old skepticism, still too negative a thing to get the anti-Christianity job done.
In the 20th century, two gigantic anti-Christianity movements took the stage, and each of them came to control an enormously powerful state: Nazism and Communism. The former intended to get rid of Christianity while thinly disguising its intention; it deceived many Christians who wanted to be deceived. The latter didn’t stoop to disguise; it was quite frank about its intention. Both of them did great damage to Christianity, and when they failed (Nazism in 1945, Russian Communism in 1991) they left behind them a Christianity that had been greatly weakened.
In the postwar period (1945-present) the western liberal democracies (U.S.A., U.K., France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain [after Franco], Portugal [after Salazar]) have been subject to a non-statist kind of anti-Christianity. These countries all experienced, some of them sooner, some of them later, the growth of an anti-Christianity public sentiment.
These countries all experienced the gradual asphyxiation of Christianity by the gradual growth of anti-Christian feelings. For decades the state played little or no part in this smothering process – though this has changed recently.
This liberal-democratic, anti-Christianity got a tremendous boost beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the coming of the sexual revolution. This “revolution” was about sex – but it was about much more than sex. Sexual restraint and even downright chastity had been an essential element of Christianity from its beginning in the first century AD. Get rid of Christian sex morality, and you’re well on your way to getting rid of Christianity altogether.
Once the average person decides that Christianity has been wrong about fornication, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, etc. for almost 2,000 years, it will be relatively easy for that person to believe that Christianity has also been wrong about many other things – including all the articles of the Nicene Creed.
Many would-be Christians – I have in mind “liberal” Catholics and Protestants – believe it is possible to have a “new and improved” Christianity that embraces and endorses the values of the sexual revolution. They are mistaken – as certain a priori considerations should have persuaded them decades ago, and as experience has abundantly demonstrated over the last fifty years.
Throughout the western world (the world that used to be called Christendom), including the United States, Christianity is in steep decline today. Evidence of this decline is found not just in those who claim no Christian faith (the “Nones”). It is also found in those who claim to be liberal Christians – which means that they have dropped most of Christianity’s orthodox “baggage.” And it is also found in those who, while claiming to be orthodox, really don’t take their orthodoxy seriously.
- Does one have to be an atheist to be anti-Christianity? Strictly speaking, no. For instance, the Deists of the 18th century were anti-Christianity without being atheists. But if you want to get rid of Christianity, it helps to be an atheist. A lot, because atheism is the most thoroughgoing kind of anti-Christianity. If you want to get rid of the old religion, why not go all the way? Why not destroy the very foundation of Christianity?
- Does one have to be a supporter of abortion to be counted among the haters of Christianity? Yes. For the right to abortion – and not just the legal right but the moral right as well – is essential to the sexual revolution. If we don’t have abortion as a back-up when mistakes are made or accidents happen, how can we have a moral regime of sexual freedom?
Practically speaking, we can’t. Think about it. If abortion were to be banned throughout America, the next thing you know we’d have people recommending chastity. And once people recommend chastity, guess what? – they’ll start recommending Christianity.
Well, we can’t have that, can we? And therefore we must make sure that abortion is legal and is considered to be morally unobjectionable. Indeed we must make it a praiseworthy thing – the kind of thing which, like public education and police and fire protection, everybody who needs it should have free of charge.
For what it’s worth, that’s my reading of the last 500 years.
David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.
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