Why Are People Leaving Traditional Religions?

RELIGIONS CLAIMING to base their teachings on those of Jesus Christ have some 1.7 billion adherents. Christendom has been counted as the world’s largest religion, even outnumbering such popular religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Reports show, however, that in many professedly Christian countries, Christendom is losing its grip on the masses.

 People of all social backgrounds are abandoning their churches. Ronald F. Inglehart, a researcher at the University of Michigan and director of the World Values Survey, said that religion is playing a waning role in developed lands. The magazine Bible Review quotes him as saying: “Not only has weekly church attendance plunged, but Latin American countries are now sending missionaries to save the souls of their former colonizers.” He claims that the “collapse of religion” is particularly striking in some northern European countries. In Norway and Denmark, only 5 percent of the population are regular churchgoers. In Sweden the figure is as low as 4 percent, and in Russia 2 percent.

Reports from Germany show that between the years 1984 and 1993, the number of regular churchgoers among registered Catholics declined from 25.3 percent to 19 percent. By 1992, only 4 percent of Protestants were regularly attending Sunday services. In 1999, Christianity Today reported: “Only one German in ten goes to church each week.”

Regarding the decline in believers in Britain, the newspaper The Guardian says: “Christianity has never looked in worse shape.” The article states that “for priest and presbyter, 1950-2000 was the worst of half-centuries.” Referring to a special report on religion in the United Kingdom, the newspaper shows that not only young people but also the elderly are losing faith in institutional religion. It says: “Older people are losing faith in God as they age. New research confirming the trend will shock Britain’s crisis-hit churches, which until now have regarded the elderly as the enduring backbone of their dwindling congregations.”

Similar trends are found outside of Europe. For instance, the Canadian magazine Alberta Report says that Canada is experiencing a “collapse of institutional belief and worship” and that “three times as many Canadians prefer their own subjective imaginings of God to submission to a clear creed.”

Many people simply do not feel spiritually enriched or enlightened by attending church services. According to Canada’s Maclean’s magazine, both Jews and Catholics who were interviewed at a Himalayan ashram, or Hindu religious retreat, voiced the opinion: “We were no longer moved and touched by wooden rituals.” Indeed, even after many years of faithful church attendance, some find themselves wondering, ‘What have I really learned in church? Am I closer to God as a result?’ No wonder that, as author Gregg Easterbrook put it, “in the West, spiritual poverty has replaced material poverty as the leading want of our age.”

Of course, there are many lands in which church attendance figures are more robust. However, attending church does not always mean adhering loyally to church teachings. For example, the Australian newspaper The Age states that in the West, “the proportion of Christians who practise their religion is declining rapidly. In much of Africa, Asia and Latin America, Christianity is a veil behind which many people continue to embrace more exotic tribal or cultic beliefs that have nothing to do with orthodox Christian teachings, often contradict them, and were officially jettisoned years ago.”

Why are so many people, young and old, abandoning their churches? A big factor, it seems, is disillusionment.

Religion’s Dismal Record

The Guardian makes the following observation: “The Roman Catholic church had a deplorable record of colluding with fascism throughout the 20th century, from the congratulations it bestowed on General Franco after the Spanish civil war, to its recent efforts on behalf of General Pinochet.” The Guardian also noted that Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff, “was happy enough to come to an arrangement with [Hitler] and steer clear of potential embarrassments like denouncing the Holocaust.”

 The Age states: “The claims of Christianity have rung hollow on too many occasions. Christians have not managed to preserve their own internal peace and unity. . . . The many wars of plunder and conquest justified in terms of winning converts to Christ attest to that. Faith, hope and love may be the pre-eminent Christian virtues, but those who are said to aspire to those virtues can be just as cynical, just as prone to despondency as non-Christians, and arguably no more charitable. . . . It was a Christian country that gave birth to the Holocaust and another that unleashed the horrors of atomic warfare on Japan.”

Some might argue that Christendom has long promoted such virtues as prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. However, The Age comments: “Well, as a rule Christians in Europe, North America and Australia consume far more than their share of the Earth’s resources and haven’t stopped at tolerating the exploitation, oppression and environmental degradation of weaker neighbors to feed their appetites.”

As to Christendom’s future, The Age continues: “Without a healthy institutional expression, Christianity can never hope to reclaim the social power it had in centuries past. This may be good or bad, depending on one’s point of view. But it is the reality confronting Christianity in the years ahead.”

As a result of such decay in the world of organized religion, many are turning away from the established churches. But does the alternative they find really satisfy their needs? Is it the answer?

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Lavish ceremonies leave many feeling spiritually unfulfilled

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Many have turned away from traditional religions because of their role in supporting wars and oppressive political regimes

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foto: age fotostock