Podcast: Is Christianity on the Decline? (Rebecca McLaughlin)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
An Innacurate Hypothesis
In this interview, Rebecca McLaughlin, author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, highlights the failure of the “secularization hypothesis”—the idea that religion would eventually disappear with more education and technology—arguing that believers have much to be hopeful about when it comes to the spread of Christianity around the world. She also responds to two common charges often levied against conservative Christianity from the broader culture: that it’s anti-science and that it’s homophobic.
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Addressing 12 controversial issues about Christianity—the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality, the reality of heaven and hell, and more—this book shows how current psychological and scientific research actually aligns with teaching from the Bible.
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Rebecca, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.
I’m excited to be here.
So fifty years ago, sociologists predicted that the world would be much more secular by now than it actually is. They predicted that religion would eventually be a thing of the past. But it turns out that they were wrong, they were very wrong. What happened?
Turns out that that actually didn’t happen at all. Not only has religion not declined as prophesied, but actually it looks like there’s going to be growth in the proportion of humanity identifying with a particular religion even in the coming forty years. And part of the story there is, interestingly, that religious people have more children than the people that don’t believe in God. And that’s true in America as well as being true in places like China where there’s been obviously some programmatic pressure on nonreligious people to have fewer children.
But there are also real ways in which it’s quite hard to maintain religious beliefs over multiple generations. So there are multiple things going on in the picture here. It looks like, as far as sociologists can now predict (out to roughly 2060), by then the proportion of Christians in the world will have maintained stability, having grown slightly from 31% to 32% of the world's population. The proportion of Muslims will have shot up from about 24% to 31%—very close to Christianity. Buddhism and Hinduism are predicted to experience a marginal decline, and the proportion of people not identifying as religious is set to decline from 16% to 13%, which is extremely surprising news to my contemporaries who grew up under what you might call the secularization hypothesis.
Christianity’s Predicted Decline
Yeah, on that hypothesis, what was the meat of it? What were they saying was going to be the cause of that?
I think a range of factors. So people assumed that increased education would lead to decreased religious belief. Turns out that’s not true and actually, interestingly, if you look at the history of education, Christianity has been an incredible driver of educational progress, ranging from essentially inventing the university to evangelism globally pouring fertilizer on global education and literacy rates because we are effectively “people of the book.” I think another piece of that is the idea that science is somehow incompatible with Christianity, or has discredited Christianity, so the more scientific people got, so the reasoning went, the less religious they would be. Again, this is a misconception and if we look back at the history of science, it turns out that the modern scientific method was actually invented by Christians as well, not as an alternative hypothesis to belief in a Creator God, but because they believed in a Creator God who was both rational and free.
So I think there are many complex pieces that are woven into this picture, but there were a number of essentially myths about religion in general and Christianity in particular that led people to think that there was going to be a decline in religious belief and—at least at a global level—there hasn’t been.
Now interestingly, your demographic, Matt, is the one demographic that is secularizing significantly and that’s white Western men. So we sometimes think of Christianity or some people think of Christianity as a religion of white Western male privilege. In fact, Christianity is the greatest movement for diversity in all of history. And atheism in America is overrepresented by white men.
That is fascinating. I think thinking about those prominent “New Atheists” (how they’re often referred to these guys who kind of loom large in the public consciousness about religion in America) and the supposed problems with religion, especially in the face of science. Some of these guys—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens—what is it that you think contributed to their popularity in the face of the reality that you just sketched for us in America?
So I take perhaps a slightly unorthodox view of the New Atheist movement from the Christian perspective, which is that I don’t think that it was entirely a bad thing. So I think the one service that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al. have done for us is shaking some people out of a cultural or nominal Christianity, which to my mind is actually a more dangerous place to be than knowing that you’re not a Christian. And I think in the US, and in the UK, the meat of the decline of religious belief as reported in surveys has actually been from people who are nominal or are significantly liberal Christians, rather than from the more sort of full-blooded, evangelical, traditional Christians. The axe that they and others wielded at the root of some poor conceptions of Christianity has been helpful, to at least move people forward in the conversation.
Having said that, I think we as Christians have bought into the idea that Christianity is anti-intellectual, or at least limited in its intellectual range when in fact it’s the greatest intellectual movement in all of history. Discoveries made by Christian thinkers throughout the last four hundred years of modern science have been extraordinary and continue to this day. Even in many of the fields people think of as having discredited Christianity there are literally world-class leaders who are scientists and very serious Christians. So I think we’ve taken an unnecessary and unhelpful step back from the academic world and allowed the New Atheist to unduly claim every academic and scientific victory for the cause of atheism. And actually I think that’s quite an illegitimate move.
Can Science Disprove Christianity?
So in your book, Confronting Christianity, you engage with twelve questions—challenging questions—that Christians need to be prepared to answer in our world today. Every one of them is fascinating, whether related to the exclusivity of our faith, or how Christianity views women, or the reality of hell. And one that we’ve already hit on briefly that seems perennially relevant is the question of whether or not science has disproved Christianity—or if not disproved, then rendered intellectually unnecessary. And I want to read this quote by Richard Dawkins. It’s a famous quote that I think really captures the sentiment of some of these Atheistic scientists. He writes, “The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” What do you say to that?
I would say that Richard Dawkins and other writers of his ilk often ask questions of science that science is not designed to answer for us. And that plays out in two directions. First, they sneak metaphysical claims into scientific statements. There’s a whole other dimension that plays out where a New Atheist author like Richard Dawkins will make these bold statements on the basis of science—that there is a bottom in the universe, no evil, no good, no justice, massive statements with huge ethical implications—and yet, would argue that human beings should all be seen as innately and equally valuable. That men should be seen as equally valuable to women, that racism is wrong, that there should be this fundamental idea of universal human equality from which all sorts of other ethical positions spring. And in fact, by their own lips as it were, none of that is grounded in their beliefs. They typically have these high moral ideals that have essentially been inherited from Christianity. They’ve ripped out the idea of God from underneath those ideals, and are claiming that atheism supports them better than Christinanity ever did and that's simply not true.
Can Science and Faith Coexist?
It seems like on both sides of the issue—both atheistic scientists and even some Christians—are responsible for painting a picture that science and faith can’t go together. That as soon as they come into contact it’s almost like they cancel each other out or something like that and you have to kind of keep them separate. What do you think about that?
I think part of it is that on both sides, there can be this idea that the more we understand of science the less room there is for God. And I don’t think that’s true at all. I think in fact the more we understand of science, the more detail we see of how God has worked and operated. So sometimes we have this idea that more science means less God and that’s not true. Another analogy you could look at is the Bible. Where people will sometimes say, Well, do you think the Bible was written by God or written by humans? And I’m like, Well, the funny thing with the Bible is that it’s entirely written by humans and entirely inspired by God. So actually you can’t play those two things off against each other. It’s both at the same time.
God of the Gaps
But hasn’t that been exactly what Christians have done? We’ve argued for a “God of the gaps”—whatever kind of phenomenon that we’re observing that science can’t yet describe or explain, we see that as evidence for God. And then science comes along and starts to explain that phenomenon and gives us some measurable, testable, verifiable causes and then that kind of pushes God out of the equation.
Yeah, it’s certainly the case that Christians have, at times, poorly defined their sense of the relationship between God and science and that that has led us to some unfortunate situations where people have been arguing on the basis of one gap or another, or one scientific hypothesis or another for or against God. And I think that’s something that we need to reckon with—particularly in contemporary Christianity in America.
What’s interesting though is that the New Atheist story says time and again Christians have believed “X,” and then science has come and told them “Y,” and then Christians have had to revise hypothesis #1 in light of science, and atheism marches on. What’s interesting to me is something like the Big Bang, which was first dreamt up by a Catholic priest and was strongly resisted at the time by many Atheist physicists because it implied that the universe had a beginning. And there was a common view at the time among scientists that actually the universe had always existed and there had been a steady state rather than a beginning, sudden explosion from a tiny nothing into what we see now. And so today even a number of Christians think of the Big Bang as another area in which science and Christiantiy are locked in mortal conflict and undermining our sense of a Creator, when it was almost alarmingly close to the idea of God creating the universe out of nothing.
Gender and Sexuality
So another important question that you address in your book relates to Christians and sexuality. And this topic could not be more relevant than it is today. And the issue of sexuality—in all of its shades, and contours, and preferences—it seems to dominate the headlines and it dominates pop culture, and it even dominates our politics very often. And many claim that Christianity is really regressive when it comes to its views on gender and sexuality. How would you respond to that?
If the question is Are there Christians today who are homophobic in the technical sense of being hateful and judgmental toward people who are in gay or lesbian relationships?, then absolutely, yes. Christians have many times in the past, and certainly today, engaged in that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior. So on that level, Christians certainly can be and have been homophobic.
However, if we’re asking the question Is Christianity homophobic? and Is there no place for people who are experiencing same-sex attraction within Christianity? I think the answer is Absolutely not. What we tend to do is not go back far enough and not think big enough in terms of our theology. So we look at the Bible and we notice certain passages that seem to prohibit homosexual relationships of various sorts. And if we just look at those passages, we don’t see the big picture of what male and female means in the Scriptures and what sex and marriage mean in the Scriptures. Then they just seem like kind of random directives from the Lord. Now, as good Christians, you and I may look at a seemingly random command from the Lord and think, Okay, I have no idea why that makes sense at all but I need to follow it and act on the basis that it’s true and there’s an extent to which that’s right. But I actually think the Scriptures give us a much more elevated and beautiful picture that once we understand that picture, what the Bible says about sex in all its forms makes much more sense.
My starting point in any conversation about sexuality at this point is to say we cannot give a biblical answer to the question Why do you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and that sex only—from a Christian perspective—belongs within that marriage covenant? We cannot answer that question biblically without telling somebody the gospel. Because the reason is so that human marriage can in some small way picture Jesus’s sacrificial love for us. God has given us these different pictures of himself, built into our very existence.
The third thing that I want to say, and this is a point being very well-made by Christian leaders such as Sam Allberry (from my own country), is that marriage is not the only picture we have in our lived experience of Jesus’s love for us. So Jesus says to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Paul calls Christians one body, he calls us his brothers and sisters, he calls us comrades in arms, he describes his friend Onesimus as his very heart, he tells the Thessalonians that he was among them like a nursing mother with her children. So these almost embarrassingly intimate pictures of what it means for one Christian to love another Christian. Marriage pictures Jesus’s exclusive love for us, but we experience his inclusive love in friendship.
Loving Same-Sex-Attracted Neighbors
So as you reflect back on your own experiences with same-sex attraction, but also being a Christian and being enmeshed in the church from a young age, is there advice that you could offer other Christians who in terms of loving their brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction, and even loving those who aren’t Christians but are homosexual living in that lifestyle? What advice would you give to the church for engaging with people like that?
That’s a great question. I think people of my generation who grew up Christian and experiencing same-sex attraction often are carrying significant hurts, wounds, fears and anxieties. And I think the willingness of brothers and sisters to come along side people in that situation—people like me—and just listen, and just be willing to not be freaked out by things, and to be loving, and open to people as they share their struggles is huge. I think for a long time we have created church culture in a way such that it’s much easier to confess a pornography addiction than same-sex attraction. And I think that’s a huge problem.
On the other side of that, there’s a real danger of what I have sort of referred to at times as “heterosexual guilt.” And what happens here is that straight Christians who have grown up in the church and had, frankly, a homophobic attitude, (i.e. an unloving, revolted, unkind, disparaging approach to gay people outside the church or inside the church) recognize that attitude in themselves and earnestly want to repent of it and want to start being empathetic and loving and appropriately Christian in their approach to their brothers and sisters in the church and to gay people outside the church, but then they throw out their theology with their homophobia. And I don’t think simply opposing gay marriage for Christians is homophobic, but I do think there is a homophobia in terms of a fear and suspicion of people who are same sex attracted. And the most unkind thing that you can do as a straight Christian to a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction is to cast doubt on whether the Bible actually says that same-sex marriage for Christians is not okay. In doing that you are cutting the legs out from under your brother's or your sister's discipleship. And I think we’ve had too much of a “them and us” mentality up to this point, which has played out in various directions, but it’s meant that we’re kind of acting like we’re only expecting same-sex attracted Christians to give things up for the gospel.
And if that is true in our churches, we have some major discipleship problems. I’ve had people say, Oh, I think it’s just unfair that it’s only same-sex attracted Christians who should be expected to sacrifice for the gospel. I’m like, Yeah, it’s unfair and it’s unbiblical! All of us are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. And in the area of sexual desire and romantic love, many married people find themselves attracted to someone they’re not married to. Many single people find themselves attracted to someone they’re not married to. Often my friends—gay, straight, or otherwise—find themselves intensely attracted to someone they’re not in a covenant relationship with. And so at that point they need to submit those attractions to Christ and deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him.
So I think we are in meaningful ways all in the same boat and we’ve spent too long creating this sort of special category for same-sex versus other-sex attraction that can lead us into sin, and I think actually we kind of all need to be a bit more real about the need for ongoing discipleship in this area and just kind of be shoulder-to-shoulder in that mission.
Christians and Today’s Culture
That’s so helpful. So to the Christian listening right now who, when they look out at culture they just feel sort of under attack, they feel maybe a low-grade shame at their beliefs, or they feel attacked over—whether it’s their beliefs about sexuality, science, God being the creator, their confidence in the Bible, this book that we’ve been given that reveals truth about who we are, who God is, something as simple as the resurrection—what encouragement, or exhortation, would you offer to the person who might be feeling like that right now?
I think the gospel is fundamentally offensive and we must never lose sight of that. And we should always expect, in some sense, to be under attack if we are standing for Jesus. However, I think we have allowed an obstacle course of myths—that we could dispel—to build up as a stumbling block almost in front of Christ for our friends to trip up on. And I think there are many things that Christians find themselves anxious about, on the defensive about, or ashamed of believing, etc. that actually really do stand up under serious academic scrutiny. So I guess a significant part of the reason I wrote this book was to hopefully give Christians an entry point to exploring some of these questions and relieving some of these anxieties and then maybe to be able to give this book to a friend and say, Hey, what do you think? Maybe this engages some of the questions that you have about Christianity. So on the one hand I would want to take burdens off the shoulders of those folks and say, “Actually, the cards are very much in our hands.” There are so many ways in which we actually have far more cards in our hands than we often realize.
At the same time, we should never expect witnessing for Christ to be easy. And if it always is, we’re doing it wrong. Our metric for success should not be that we’re always well received. In fact, Jesus was utterly rejected on many occasions. The first disciples were utterly rejected on many occasions. The expectation that we sometimes have that our Christian beliefs should fly just fine in contemporary culture, whatever culture we’re in and whenever our contemporary is, I think is at odds with the promise of the gospel which is Jesus calling us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. So I think on the one hand I want to say, Brothers and sisters, let’s get moving here. There is so much work to be done. There is incredible opportunity before us to grasp and in many ways we need to go on the offensive regarding evangelism” At the same time, I would not want to say this is an easy life. That’s not what Jesus promises us.
Rebecca, thank you so much for this fascinating conversation. There’s so much more in your book that you discuss—other questions, other challenges to Christianity—we could only do a couple today, but I really appreciate you taking the time.
It was great to be here, Matt. Thank you.
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