Thousands of people disengage from Christianity every year. Some have a crisis of faith and lose belief in God, the Resurrection, heaven or the existence of miracles. Others leave over intellectual disagreements or issues of doctrine. Still others depart because of what they perceive as hypocrisy or dogmatism within the organization.
Unfortunately for the Christian church, many reasons to leave have accumulated over the past several centuries. The general consensus today is that the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the witch hunts and the imprisonment of Galileo were all ill-fated ventures. The church seems to be on the wrong side of history regarding gay marriage and women’s rights, and the widespread sexual abuse problem within the Catholic Church has strained its credibility.
In the United States, where political orientation is closely tied to religious belief, the Republican Party has, for many, become the Christian party. Their stances on issues like abortion, gay marriage, transgender rights and popular culture are underpinned by theological arguments—in sharp contrast to the ideas of intellectualized liberals, who tend to make political decisions based on expert opinion, rationalist ethics and scientific judgements. The conflict between these two worldviews has, in large part, driven the culture wars.
All this has taken place alongside a noticeable decline in the Christian population of the western world. Although Christianity is growing in South America, Asia and Africa, it is shrinking quickly in North America and Europe. Only 65% of Americans identify as Christian today, down from 78% in 2007. Analysts expect that one-third of Canadian churches will close over the next decade, and it’s estimated that thousands of churches close in the United States every year. Most young people in many European countries no longer identify with a religion, which suggests future trouble for churches in Europe as well.
Although atheists and ex-Christians may not be sad to see Christian institutions fade away, churches play a vital role in smaller towns and rural communities, especially in the United States. According to Gallup, churches are some of the only venues available for large social gatherings in these communities, and are often the only institutions that provide counselling to the needy or distribute aid to the poor. In communities of all sizes, churches play host to day care centres, meals for the hungry, Montessori schools, voting stations, 12-step groups, community meetings, musical performances and much more.
Without congregations to sustain churches, they die, and the community loses a vital resource. In a sense, the average Christian churchgoer is providing community support just by attending and putting money in the collection plate. That’s not counting the volunteer hours that many church members put in: for example, the Dream Center in Echo Park, a Pentecostal megachurch, has distributed over 350,000 free meals during the Covid-19 crisis.
This is often forgotten in the larger dialogues about Christianity. Discussions between Christians and non-Christians almost never centre on positive topics, and are instead dominated by disputes over points such as the existence of God or the transgressions of the larger Christian institutions.
To make matters worse, Christians and non-Christians seem to speak entirely different languages. Take, for example, the hyper-rationalist atheist author Sam Harris, who operates in the world of science, falsifiable claims and testable theories. His way of thinking and talking is completely different from that of a fundamentalist Christian who believes in the infallibility and historicity of the Bible. They come from different worlds. How are they to communicate?
Unfortunately, neither side seems to see value in the other side’s position. To the Christians, the atheists are consumed with pride, lust and greed. To the atheists, the Christians are remnants of a backwards era when superstition ruled the world.
As the debates rage on, the pews continue to empty and communities suffer as a result.
The church has three major problems. First, it is struggling to retain the members it does have. Second, it is having a difficult time converting new members to the faith. Third, it struggles to maintain productive dialogues with critics and non-believers. In his book ChurchMorph, Eddie Gibbs notes that this is true of almost all denominations:
The fact that churches representing different ecclesial structures and theological positions are encountering the same challenges at the same time indicates that there are deep-level and widespread issues that need to be identified and addressed.
One of these “deep-level problems” is a translation issue. The Christian faith is extraordinarily complex, with two thousand years of New Testament theology stacked on top of two thousand years (or more) of Old Testament theology. This makes it difficult to understand—and understanding is what intellectualized westerners require for belief.
Although there are some denominational and individual differences, the essence of the Christian faith is this: there is an omnipotent creator god who manifested the entire universe, made its will known to humankind through various prophets and descended into Creation in human form to lead by example, performing miracles, sharing insightful teachings and ultimately dying on a cross as a substitutional atonement sacrifice of itself to itself.
Non-Christians find this belief system baffling. Even many believers have silent doubts and unasked questions.
The present inaccessibility of Christianity is perhaps its greatest weakness, as it makes conversion efforts more difficult, hinders productive dialogue with nonbelievers and confuses genuine believers. Making it easier for people to understand and embrace the faith would address several of Christianity’s major issues at once.
What is needed is a middle ground where Christians and non-Christians can discuss ideas without falling into old tropes and tired debates. Luckily, this new perspective is beginning to emerge both within the church and outside it.
A significant minority of practicing clergy members identify as agnostic or atheist. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one in six Dutch Protestant Church ministers lack a belief in a theistic god, and, following a controversy at the Canadian United Church involving a self-professed atheist minister, a survey of the clergy found that between five and twenty per cent of clergy members in that denomination were agnostics.
As of yet, nobody has been defrocked or accused of heresy, which indicates that the churches assent, at the very least, to agnostics and atheists leading worship services. This opens the door to the concept of an agnostic Christian, an idea first proposed by theologian Leslie Weatherhead in 1965, to describe people who find deep meaning in the Bible’s teachings, and may even identify as Christian, but hesitate to profess belief in supernatural or miraculous matters:
[A] person who is immensely attracted by Christ and who seeks to show his spirit, to meet the challenges, hardships and sorrows of life in the light of that spirit, but who, though he is sure of many Christian truths, feels that he cannot honestly and conscientiously “sign on the dotted line” that he believes certain theological ideas about which some branches of the church dogmatize … His intellectual integrity makes him say about many things, “It may be so. I do not know.”
Weatherhead argues that faith is a matter of conviction, not of assent: people cannot be made to believe, just as they cannot be forced to like Beethoven. He rejects creeds and statements of faith as an unnecessary source of inner conflict:
The most important convictions in religion cannot really be reached on the word of another. We can assent to propositions out of laziness of thought, or a desire to please, or an inability to argue, but one of the reasons why, in a crisis, men often feel let down by their religion is that they glibly assented to this and that, and falsely called their assent “belief.”
The term agnostic Christian applies to the minority of ministers who lack belief in a theistic God and is also an apt descriptor for many practicing Christians and ex-Christians who may find themselves alienated from their church over questions of faith.
The hallmarks of this new type of Christian include an insatiable curiosity and a desire for intellectual engagement with the faith. Agnostic Christians have deep questions and are seeking answers, often beyond what the Church is currently able to provide.
This attitude of intellectual engagement is perhaps best embodied by Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, who has renewed interest in the Christian faith by bridging the divide between Christianity and science. His lecture series on the psychological significance of the stories in Genesis was delivered to the kind of packed house that is just a memory in many church buildings, drawing the attention of church leaders around the world.
Peterson, one of only a few professors at the University of Toronto rated as “life-changing,” has extensively studied the psychology of religion and presents the Biblical stories within the context of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, literary analysis and human psychology. It’s been a recipe for success: each lecture’s associated YouTube recording has an average of 1.4 million views, a head count larger than the entire membership of some national churches.
The comments on Peterson’s YouTube videos tell a compelling story. “I used to hate religion. Now I hate and fear what is replacing it,” says one user. “Do I believe in God? No. Am I going to watch this series? You bet I will,” says another.
Despite the rapid decline that Christianity has been experiencing in the western world, Peterson has unleashed tremendous interest in the Christian faith. Over a million people are suddenly interested in a brand-new perspective on Biblical stories. Thousands of them are not explicitly Christian, and some are even following the Christian ethos as a result of exposure to his work.
By demonstrating that these stories have intrinsic value from a scientific perspective, Peterson has given Christians new ways to understand, appreciate and communicate their faith. He has also ushered in a curious Christian revival in the west. Most importantly, he has introduced nuance and respect into a dialogue that has been fraught with impatience and misunderstanding.
Christian religious leaders haven’t come to a consensus on Peterson. Some wonder whether he is the saviour of Christianity, others denounce him as a heretic who is trying to be God. His followers—and what they could bring to the faith—have attracted little interest, at least for now.
This is unfortunate, because the emergence of agnostic Christians is of significance both to the Christian church and to broader society. Agnostic Christians straddle the divide between believer and non-believer: the Gospel is meaningful to them for unique reasons, and they can explain the Good News in different terms.
In particular, agnostic Christians are positioned to move interfaith dialogue forward by translating some of Christianity’s teachings into terms that non-Christians can understand. What does it mean to be justified by faith? How can God’s plan for humankind simultaneously contain death penalties for homosexuality and the forgiveness of sin? These are things that church leaders have struggled to answer convincingly, moored as they are within their own paradigm. Figures like Peterson, who come from a different background altogether, can shine a new light on these difficult theological questions.
In the coming years, new language will probably be developed for matters of Christian faith. Debates on difficult topics may find new direction. Communication and mutual understanding can only improve.
But what is the church to make of this trend?
On one hand, atheism and agnosticism within the church could be seen as a threat. Many Christians see a term like agnostic Christian as an oxymoron or contradiction in terms. Their position, which has some grounding in scripture, is that one can’t be Christian without fully believing in God, the Holy Spirit and especially in Christ’s resurrection. To welcome such people into their congregation to worship freely would constitute a threat to the core of the church’s mission, which is saving souls.
On the other hand, the thousands of potential congregation members that this demographic contains represent a potential lifeline for ailing churches in the west. Just a few additional contributing members to an individual church could make the difference between its closing or staying open. New members don’t just contribute financially: they also breathe new life into a church by bringing new networks, ideas and skills. This is doubly true of younger generations, who grew up in a different world and represent the future of church leadership.
For hundreds of years, the Christian church has been characterized by rigidity, orthodoxy and insistence on blind faith. This has not played out well in the newly secularized and scientific west and has cost the church countless followers since Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God. Even today, thousands of practicing Christians suffer silently during worship services, afraid to ask the tough questions that could lead them down a slippery slope to damnation. Some stay; many do not.
As figures like Peterson are demonstrating, there is an interfaith demand for Biblical interpretation that goes beyond traditional theological approaches. Thousands of people want to engage with Christianity, yet lack a home in the church. There are also untold numbers of ex-Christians who are ready to be welcomed back into a church capable of contending with their unorthodox beliefs. The western world is ready for a fresh take on Christianity—but whether church leaders are ready to adapt is for them to decide.