Secularism: a rising tide

Is the church under threat from secularism?

by Michelle Haines and George Fisher

[Stylized arms around people]

After a bushfire in Australia some years back, the Sydney Morning Herald provided a rundown of fundraising events being held to support the victims. High up among the church groups and Rotarians was this little gem: "Pagans and spiritualists will hold a fundraising weekend at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre.... Tarot and palmistry reading, crystals and books for sale"

It sat without excuse or surprise with notices from the Anglican and Uniting Churches. It is now normal procedure for the media to check "religious groups" of all persuasions when covering such events. They no longer go straight to the church with the confidence of a social majority. The values of an earlier nominally Christian society have been relativised. Christian beliefs are now considered marginal, to be believed, adhered to or defended only by the minority of those who hold to them.

Media reports of Christmas messages now not only feature Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops, but also leaders from the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths. What was once perceived as being the dominant faith of our nation - Christianity - has become relativised, reduced to a mere question of personal preference like a choice between political parties.

A golden past?

Dr Garry Bouma, a sociologist and Anglican minister, has said that there was never really any golden past for Christianity, no peak time from which it has slid. The common experience of Christendom today is generally little different from previous generations. This is not to say that there haven't been times of general renewal or revival, as many a church historian will quickly explain. But it does help us to see beyond the confusing labels of recent generations which have confused Christian dominance with periods of conservative morality. Promiscuity, as just one example, was arguably more rife in 1st century Rome - a time of rapid growth for the Christian church - than in 20th century developed countries.

A sociological change

In America, a country with a long Christian tradition, Christians seeking expression in the public sphere, regularly find themselves face-to-face with vocal and passionate opposition.

Some years back in Santa Rosa, California, council member and Presbyterian elder, Dave Berto suggested that, in line with a time-honoured American custom, the city council pray before each meeting. The council agreed to the proposal on a trial basis. After seven weeks of outraged civic fury, the prayer was abandoned. The people of Santa Rosa had responded with horror to this "infringement of the rights" of the city's diverse groups of faith. Dave Berto had been rudely shocked: Santa Rosa was no longer even nominally Christian, and the people were violently opposed to a Christian church assuming it had more social power than others. The incident highlighted Christianity's new marginal status, even in the land of the progressive pilgrims. Nothing could have made it clearer.

It is a function of democracy that the majority gets its way. Even though 70% claim to believe in God, this does not translate to an actual Christian majority. Only around one in five are committed enough to attend church. Christianity is destined to increasingly stand apart from secular its secular environment.

Troubled times ahead?

Ross Warneke, the writer of the Melbourne Age's Green Guide, Australia, wrote of the possible offence given to Christians by SBS TV screening a program discounting the accuracy of the Bible on Jesus' birth. Warneke wrote that the decision to screen the program "in the middle of the Christian churches' most important celebration, shows lamentable insensitivity". He is right; it was insensitive. And it was an insensitivity that would arguably not have been made against Buddhist or Islamic believers.

This reveals that Warneke knows something that many church members haven't caught up with yet: that Christianity is a religious minority in the Western countries. Rev. Robert Forsyth wrote of an interchange he had with a radio interviewer on the Christian attitude to practising lesbians and gays. Accused of being out-of-step with society, Rev. Forsyth responded that Christians expected to be out-of-step with a society which didn't share their fundamental view of reality. The radio listener "assumed" noted Forsyth, "that the church must keep in step with society's increasingly secular values because in some way the society is Christian. A strange logic." Such is the legacy of being a post-Christian society.

There is no doubt that secularism is changing society. The traditional points of contact between the church and the population - weddings, baptisms - are being lost. Today, no less than 42% of couples will be married by a civil servant. Thirty years ago it was 11%. But a self-consciously secular society is at least an honest one. The real Jesus might get to replace the sham.