Is the Christian church losing critical mass?
It is amazing how Christmas has come full circle. In the pre-Christian era, it used to be a fertility festival celebrated by European pagans, who did not believe in a male "jealous god" and his "only son".
Two thousand years later, the pagans are gone but Christmas is now celebrated by Europeans, who do not believe in a male jealous god or his only son. Today in much of the Western world Christmas is almost completely shorn of its religious association.
It is because of this delinking of Christmas from Christianity, that Christmas has become a truly global festival. For instance, I find myself irresistibly drawn towards Christmas. Where earlier it used be just a day to sit at home and do nothing, now I'm drawn into the dazzle and sparkle of the festival.
Poking around I discovered that many non-Christian, non-European immigrants now celebrate Christmas, sometimes going all the way with Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, partying and merry making just as Christians and people of European origin do. (It's a bit like non-Hindus celebrating Diwali) For atheists like me, Christmas is tailor made for the good times. I'll say hallelujah to that!
That's not what we wanted!
You'd think with the entire world celebrating its festival, the Christian church would be feeling smug and satisfied. Well, not quite.
As per a survey conducted by the Barna Group, a leading research organisation which focusses on the relationship of faith and culture, less than 1 per cent of the young adult population in the United States has a biblical worldview. Even more striking, the data show that less than one half of 1 per cent of Christians between the ages of 18 and 23 has a biblical worldview.
Is Christianity facing an exodus of, well, Biblical proportions? There are clear signs the passion of Jesus's followers is ebbing and the congregation is losing critical mass.
On July 28, 2010 in a spectacular renunciation of her faith, celebrated Christian author Anne Rice announced on Facebook that she was quitting the Roman Catholic Church.
Rice wrote: "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
She also pointed to recent statements from several radical Christian groups that have threatened the lives of gay citizens. "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life," she added.
In yet another celebrated case, in August 2010, Hollywood star Julia Roberts declared she, her husband and their three children were practising Hindus. Roberts, who was born to Baptist and Catholic parents in Bible belt Georgia, is thought to have made the religious conversion while in India where she was shooting her new film, Eat, Pray, Love, in which she plays a woman hoping to find herself through Hindu spirituality.
Maids in Japan: Japanese revellers get a head start on this year's Christmas festivities.
While these high-profile exits, coming shortly after the damaging exposes of rampant paedophilia in Christian churches worldwide, have no doubt caused disquiet in the over 2000-year-old faith, it is the less publicized but inexorable exit of once staunch members that is a pointer to the real crisis.
According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 per cent. Overall, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 per cent.
The proportion of Americans who think religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased nearly fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million.
Worse, the biggest decline in US church affiliation was concentrated in the north-east, America's Christian heartland. This massive decline in the Mayflower sector, where Christians first settled has caused acute anguish among conservative Christian leaders who fear America will soon become a post-Christian country.
Ain't giving up
Of course, there is denial. Christian commentators like to talk about revolving door membership, that people quitting the traditional churches are signing up at Born Again denominations. Sure, more than 34 per cent of adult church goers today consider themselves Born Again or Evangelical Christians, but as the surveys says, "The challenge to Christianity in the US does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organised religion."
Indeed, 27 per cent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death, indicating that they dismiss Christianity's zero-sum offer of heaven or hell.
Across the Atlantic, northern Europe is a virtual graveyard of abandoned churches. In the south, in predominantly Catholic Italy, over 60 per cent of Italians have stopped attending confession. An entire generation of European Catholics has become indifferent - or openly hostile - to the church, mainly because of the sexual abuse of young children by priests.
In fact, there is a rapidly growing movement that seeks to rediscover the original fertility religions of pre-Christian Europe, Wicca being the most well known. Incidentally Wicca practitioners, or witches and warlocks, were Europe's medicine people. Falsely accused of black deeds, hundreds of thousands of them were burned at the stake by the church.
Born Again arrogance
Born Again Christians have long lived under the delusion that their storm troopers, a new breed of uncompromisingly fundamentalist pastors, are ready to kick in the doors and spread the Lord's faith worldwide. They also believe their moral compass is perfectly tuned towards god. According to them, they are simply better human beings with special suites reserved for them in heaven.
But surveys have repeatedly proved there's little measurable difference between the moral behaviour of churchgoers and the rest. Evangelist George Barna, the founder of The Barna Group, has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than others.
And while evangelical adolescents overwhelmingly say they believe in abstaining from premarital sex, they are more likely to be sexually active - and at an earlier age - than peers who are mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews, says University of Texas researcher Mark Regnerus.
Christian activist Ronald J. Sider writes in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: "By their daily activity, most Christians regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is their Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate their allegiance to money, sex, and personal self-fulfillment."
Counter attack and reform
However, the Christian church is not giving up without a fight. In a debate last year on "The Uniqueness of Christ in Multi-Faith Britain", Nezlin Sterling, general secretary of the New Testament Assembly, a black majority church, told the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod: "There is no room for complacency, no room to procrastinate or retreat but like a mighty army of the church we Christians must go forward, spread the Gospel and the good news of salvation. Every person in my mind is a potential convert."
While missionaries such as Sterling want to revert to their lapel grabbing mode, others have tried more creative methods. A pastor in New Zealand, hoping to arrest falling church attendance, delivers his Sunday sermon in rap form.
However, it's the Catholic Church's 'modernisation' that is most puzzling. In March 2008, the Pope, playing God, announced seven new sins to be placed alongside the Biblical seven deadly ones.
To add onto Envy, Pride, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Hate, and Sloth, the seven "mortal" ones are: Environmental Pollution, Genetic Manipulation, Excessive Wealth, Inflicting Poverty, Drug Trafficking and Consumption, Morally Debatable Experiments, and the Violation of Human Rights.
Observe that paedophilia - the church's most persistent problem - has been left out.
It is indeed ironic that while its European flock is seeking comfort and meaning in the East, the church is desperately seeking adherents in the same catchment area. In my view, the church is abandoning the questioning West and seeking converts in countries where people are (as yet) unaware of its human rights record.
Here's a new action plan for the 21st century. Instead of being obsessed with the harvest of souls, the church needs to build a new order that values spirituality, which millions of former Christians have found in New Age beliefs, yoga, meditation, Tantra, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Those who believe spirituality and meditation are un-Christian are not just bigoted but also ignorant. Christ's followers were not very different from the Eastern religions in the early years; spirituality was at the core of Christianity, before the clergy hijacked the faith. In fact, the spirituality of the ancient church is still preserved in the Orthodox Church of Russia.
As Anne Rice summed up, "Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian."
Rakesh Krishnan is a proud pagan, infidel, kafir and atheist