I woke up this morning to find this article by Tom Hoopes titled “10 Signs Christianity Is on the Rise.” I read these kinds of things from time to time, and usually they leave my desk with no comment. But when I read this one, each and every point he tried to make was either uninformed at best or dishonest at worst. Either way, his points are so easily refuted by looking at the research into his claims that I’ve decided to address them, point by point.
1. Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds worldwide.
Hoopes starts by writing, “The research shows Christian numbers rising, not falling worldwide.” First I want to take issue with Hoopes for committing the number one sin in reporting. What research?! Although this is a clerical matter, and it in no way means Hoopes is mistaken, he should’ve known better than to not cite his sources.
Anyway, moving on. Even though Hoopes offers no evidence to support this statement, he’s right. As Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart pointed out in 2004, Christianity — and indeed all religious beliefs — will continue in an upward trend globally for many years. But their research also points out that religion is declining in industrialized states and will continue to decline as states modernize. This happens, they posit, because the church is often a source of hope in societies where the threat of death from disease, starvation, or murder is common. As our existential security increases, we find hope in secular places. As disease, starvation, or murder loses its monopoly on our fears, the church loses its monopoly on our hopes. In other words, yes, Christianity is growing much faster than it’s declining globally, but in the industrialized world, it’s been put on the endangered religions list.
2. Nominal Christianity is dead — and that’s a good thing.
In his second point, Hoopes argues that the decline of Christianity in the US is a product of fake Christians finally leaving Christianity. Here Hoopes makes an ad hoc no true Scotsman fallacy. He appears to believe that Christians who leave the church were never Christians to begin with, so good riddance to them! He cites the growing acceptance of atheism as an alternative to Christ as the cause of this, which may be true. Some atheists are closet atheists who pretend to follow a particular religion out of fear of being socially ostracized. But to say it’s a good thing to get rid of them because they weren’t real Christians is merely to ignore objective realities in order to maintain a rhetorical position. Yes, it’s good that atheists are freer today to leave Christianity, but try to avoid rationalizing this reality with us-them arguments.
3. The Church is promoting the sacraments.
Hoopes laments dwindling Catholic attendance at Mass. But his entire argument that this is no indication of a dying church is a planned Vatican event for this Friday. He argues this event has already seen positive results as other cities make preparations for it, but that’s merely a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other words, if you think more Catholics will eventually attend Mass and then organize a massive global Mass, of course more Catholics will attend Mass — that Mass. What happens a month later? Is it likely the Catholic church will substantially and permanently increase Mass attendance, or, going back to the first point, has industrialization in the US affectively put Christianity into a death spiral?
4. Eucharistic Adoration is on the rise.
Here Hoopes essentially makes the same argument as above: The Vatican building Eucharist Adoration chapels is a sign that Catholicism is growing in the US. No. It’s a sign that the church is building buildings. If future generations utilize those buildings at a higher rate then they do now, then Hoopes will have a point. For now, he’s just making prophesy. Furthermore, he makes this argument despite his previous lament that Catholicism is on the decline in the US. If you build it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will come.
5. Catholic youth movements have never been stronger.
At face value Hoopes has a point here. He cites unprecedented attendance at the church’s World Youth Day and at pro-life rallies. But if we look at the research, this type of activistic growth is to be expected in the face of religion’s weakening grasp. Norris and Inglehart’s study suggests that as religion declines in industrialized and industrializing states, the church will push back against these changing norms with equal force. As these sincerely and deeply held beliefs fall from normal practice, those who still maintain those beliefs must actively justify them. This isn’t a sign that Christianity is withstanding secularism; it’s actually evidence that Christianity is falling victim to secularism.
6. … and the Catholic youth movements are linked to higher education.
Hoopes believes that the massive increase in the National Catholic Register’s list of Catholic universities from 5 to over 30 is somehow a sign that Christianity is on the rise. But he admits this increase is a reaction against “hostile environments that dismantle students’ faith.” In other words, this is the same reactionary force I mentioned above. As universities and students become more secular, religious schools must push harder to justify the teaching of faith. Again, if we consult the research, we would see that this is evidence of a failing religion, not the other way around.
7. New, young vocations.
Hoopes argues that young people are becoming priests and nuns at sufficiently high numbers to replace the literally dying old priesthood. He cites “research” that shows young people are “even more likely” to become nuns and priests, but again he fails to cite that research. I have no idea where this claim came from, and I’m not about to take it at face value. But even if this is true, this phenomenon is occurring despite dwindling church membership. Having a sufficient number of young priests and nuns is meaningless if there’s no one making tithes.
8. Strong, engaged Bishops.
Here Hoopes argues that the Church is showing signs of strength because bishops are more actively getting involved in politics. He cites anti-abortion activism and anti-contraception activism. But again, these are reactionary forces against a secularizing state, not a sign that the church will survive.
9. A new interest in Scripture.
He argues that popular culture — such as the Da Vinci Code — have piqued people’s interest in reading the bible, which is not a bad thing. But an increase in interest in the bible is not indicative of much. If Homer’s Odyssey came back into mainstream pop culture, that too would increase interest in the Odyssey, but that doesn’t mean there’d be an increase in people who worship Zeus.
Furthermore, I invite people to read the bible and then attempt to demonstrate the accuracy of the bible by looking at the evidence. This is how a lot of people go from Christian to atheist. If they can’t support the bible with secular, objective evidence, then they’re less likely to believe the bible.
10. The witness of the martyrs.
Lastly Hoopes makes an appeal to prophesy: If the bible is true then Christianity will survive. If it’s not true, then it will die. Well, duh. He finally writes “But since Jesus Christ really did die and rise and leave us the sacraments, don’t expect it to go away any time soon.” I should ask him, how do you know he really did die and rise…? He offers us nothing but religious conjecture. This final point doesn’t tell us a damned thing! It only serves to reinforce his own beliefs and his readers’ beliefs. It’s not an argument; it’s an opinion, one not supported by a single shred of evidence.
A Brief Discussion
If you believe in Christ, that’s cool with me. I’m only here asking that you justify your belief in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. But don’t be surprised if future generations leave the church at high rates. And don’t be surprised if Christianity goes the way of Mithraism.
If this world continues to modernize, then we should expect to see a continued trend towards secularism. Even states where religion is growing fast enough to more-than-compensate for the decline of religion elsewhere, we should expect to eventually see an identical reversal of that growth, given sufficient modernization. At least, this is what the evidence suggests.