There’s a new study out that is giving the impression to some people that the loss of religion is the result of the Internet. The UK Daily Mail article does not make a causal relationship, but some Christian sites give the impression that it does. Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, “is careful to note that his research has revealed a correlation and not a causation. A relationship between the rise of the Internet and the drop in religion exists, but one is not directly responsible for the other.”
There are many causes for a loss of religious belief. I’ve listed and commented on three of them.
First, prosperity without acknowledging who made it possible for us to be prosperous is a key factor. Christianity made the West possible and prosperous. Three books that defend this claim are Rodney Stark’s How the West Won, Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, and Alvin J. Schmidt’s Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization.
Failure to acknowledge who made us prosperous is an old sin as this warning to Israel shows:
“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 8).
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon learned this lesson the hard way even after he had declared the following: “It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me. ‘How great are His signs and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and His dominion is from generation to generation’” (Dan. 4:1-2).
It wasn’t long before he forgot the source of his blessings and fell into the sin that God had warned about in the book of Deuteronomy:
“The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’ While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes’” (vv. 30-32).
We become prosperous by following God’s commands, then we think that we can do it all on our own. It’s a common problem. Presently, we are living off of borrowed moral capital.
Second, Christians have been taught a form of cultural irrelevancy, that the world (that God created) isn’t important. Their experience tells them otherwise.
Many young Christians hear from the pulpit that Christianity only requires a personal, private faith. Os Guinness described this as “The Private-Zoo Factor,”1 a religion that is caged so that it loses its wildness. When true Christianity is applied to any part of the world, it blossoms far more fully and colorfully than we ever could imagine.
Over time, Christianity ceased to be a comprehensive, world-changing religion. “[W]here religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or ‘committed’ the individual may be, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare-time hobby, a leisure pursuit.”2
Theodore Roszak used an apt phrase to describe much of modern-day Christendom: “Socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.”3
It wasn’t always this way. James Davidson Hunter has written, “Most Christians in history have interpreted the creation mandate in Genesis as a mandate to change the world.”4 And they did.
Young people aren’t being challenged with such a call. They have to leave the church to find a world-changing religion that worships the world.
Third, many in today’s church teach a form of eschatological pessimism that cannot be overcome. If there’s peace and prosperity, the antichrist must be alive somewhere in the world today and we’re living in the last days. This was the theme of Dave Hunt’s 1983 book Peace Prosperity and the Coming Holocaust and his 1990 Global Peace and the Rise of Antichrist.
On the other hand, if there are “wars and rumors of wars,” these, too, are signs that we are living in the last days. If Christians take the gospel to the world and promote peace and oppose war, are they promoting the antichrist’s agenda? So no matter what Christian do, they are contributing to an end-time delusion. Despair is the operating word.
William Edgar, a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, recounts the time in the 1960s he spent studying in L’Abri, Switzerland, under the tutelage of prominent Christian philosopher and apologist Francis A. Schaeffer (1912–1984):
“I can remember coming down the mountain from L’Abri and expecting the stock market to cave in, a priestly elite to take over American government, and enemies to poison the drinking water. I was almost disappointed when these things did not happen.5
Edgar speculates, with good reason, that it was Schaeffer’s end-time view that negatively affected the way he saw and interpreted world events. One of Schaeffer’s last books, A Christian Manifesto, did not call for cultural transformation but civil disobedience as a stopgap measure to postpone an inevitable societal decline.
“The fact remains that Dr. Schaeffer’s manifesto offers no prescriptions for a Christian society. . . . The same comment applies to all of Dr. Schaeffer’s writings: he does not spell out the Christian alternative. He knows that you ‘can’t fight something with nothing,’ but as a premillennialist, he does not expect to win the fight prior to the visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth to establish His millennial kingdom.”6
Tom Sine offers a startling example of the effect “prophetic inevitability” can have on some people:
“‘Do you realize if we start feeding hungry people things won’t get worse, and if things don’t get worse, Jesus won’t come?’ interrupted a coed during a Futures Inter-term I recently conducted at a northwest Christian college. Her tone of voice and her serious expression revealed she was utterly sincere. And unfortunately I have discovered the coed’s question doesn’t reflect an isolated viewpoint. Rather, it betrays a widespread misunderstanding of biblical eschatology . . . that seems to permeate much contemporary Christian consciousness. I believe this misunderstanding of God’s intentions for the human future is seriously undermining the effectiveness of the people of God in carrying out his mission in a world of need. . . . The response of the (student) . . . reflects what I call the Great Escape View of the future. So much of the popular prophetic literature has focused our attention morbidly on the dire, the dreadful, and the destruction of all that is.”7
Eschatological ideas have consequences. A world always on the precipice of some great and inevitable apocalyptic event is not in need of redemption but only of escape. As one end-time speculator put it, “the world is a sinking Titanic ripe for judgment.”
Who wants to sail on a ship piloted by people who believe it’s going to sink before it sets sail? I’d jump ship, too.
- Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 79. [↩]
- Guinness, The Gravedigger File, 72. [↩]
- Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 449. [↩]
- C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2008), 40, 41. [↩]
- William Edgar, “Francis Schaeffer and the Public Square” in J. Budziszewski, Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 174. [↩]
- Gary North and David Chilton, “Apologetics and Strategy,” in Tactics of Christian Resistance: A Symposium, ed. Gary North (Tyler Texas: Geneva Divinity School, 1983), 127–128. Emphasis in original. [↩]
- Tom Sine, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy: You Can Make a Difference in Tomorrow’s Troubled World (Waco, TX: Word, 1981), 69. [↩]