Monday, 28 August 2006

The Decline in Christianity

The recent census by Discern has just confirmed what everybody knew all along - church attendance has continued falling, just as it has been doing for the past few decades, though perhaps at an accelerated rate. This will, of course, be followed by various opinions about what's causing it, suggestions on how to "bring the people back", as well as peeved and patronising arguments about how really important the church is to our lives.

The fall in church attendance can be attributed to two main factors - people losing their faith or interest in the Church and Mass, and people losing their faith in gods. The first is not hard to explain in today's world. Mass, like most prayers, is a rote recital. There's the same priest every week, intoning the same tired lines in the same bored voice, making the same gestures, asking the congregation to sit, or kneel, or stand in all the right places. And the flock responds in turn, repeating the same phrases as last week, and the week before, and the week before that... Is it any surprise then that people are feeling that this charade is meaningless in their lives, when we have become so accustomed to a fast, colourful and interesting life? I suppose that back before TV was invented, or when it consisted of only a few channels transmitting in the evening in black and white, when Paceville and Buġibba were quiet little backwater places, going to mass was a big and interesting event, practically a family outing. Today it's often viewed as just a waste of time, and even Catholics who doggedly attend mass each week show a marked preference for that priest who manages to compress mass into as short a time as possible. Some try to make mass a bit interesting, adding music of different kinds, or even brightening up the venue a little, but few would choose a cake for its icing if the inside is dry.

So what else is the Church good for? Its private schools? There is no doubt that the Church does run some good (and expensive) schools, but that is not specifically a religious matter. There are also very good non-religious private and public schools. Is it the occasional tirades issued by the Vatican or Curia? People are growing increasingly tired and skeptical about them. Despite the church's insistence that divorce is a terrible evil, one look at the statistics will show that in our divorce-free country, all is not rosy in the marriage business. Separated couples and single parents are on the increase, despite the fact that there still is a piece of paper somewhere that declares them to be "married", and people are not so convinced that insisting that marriage is for life when it so obviously is not always so, is the solution. Fewer still think that annulment is anything other than divorce with a different name, and a nice cash cow for the church. Similar invectives aimed at gay people or gay marriage are likewise losing their lustre. The church hasn't convinced people how gay marriage is supposed to undermine "traditional" marriage, especially in view of the countries which have legalised it without affecting existing marriages and their success rate. Of course there are also the village festas - those remain quite popular, but then again it's not really the religious aspect which draws the crowds most. It's the band marches, the festive air, the hot dogs and candy floss, maybe the traditional running and dancing around with the titular statue hoisted on the shoulders of the highest bidders. And of course, the fireworks - especially if one resides a good distance away from where they are being let off.

To make matters worse, some of the church's actions have been seen as quite cruel. I know of more than one case where the church refused to baptise a child because its parents were "living in sin" (that is, their church marriage broke up irrevocably and eventually they started afresh). Considering that the same church teaches that these children will not enter heaven until and unless baptised, that's a rather cruel bit of blackmail from the church - one which does little to endear it to its followers.

All of this leads to quite a few people losing their faith in the church. Some will seek other denominations, while others will retain their faith in God without the religious trappings of an organised religion. Some will go the whole hog and abandon faith in gods altogether. In the past, gods were created to provide an explanation for phenomena we didn't quite understand. Volcanoes everywhere were believed to be gods, lightning was a fearsome weapon wielded by Zeus, and storms were a sign of the gods' anger. Over time, through a better understanding of the world around us, we learned about magma and tectonic plates, about static electricity in clouds, and about the sun's warmth causing the movement of large air masses. In a relatively short period, the ancient gods of volcanoes, lightning and storms were abandoned, roadkill on the highway to knowledge. Of course some remained, since by that time these deities had been fleshed out with other attributes besides their bad tempers. The deity of Christianity was no exception, and has gone through some major makeovers in the Bible. From a quick-tempered deity who got very directly involved in matters such as floods, plagues, the outcome of wars, punishing entire peoples for the most minor of infractions and yet happily going along with things like slavery and genocide, he gradually mellowed into the benign god of love and forgiveness described in the gospels, allowing him to survive in belief where other, less fortunate deities were made redundant or even became an embarassment.

But one thing did change. From providing explanations to phenomena we did not understand, these remaining deities required far more explanations for their own existence and the stories attributed to them. Many are the Christians who have a hard time justifying the idea that someone ought to be punished for the sins of their ancestors, or why God would repeatedly punish the Pharaoh and all Egyptians when it was the very same God who repeatedly hardened Pharaoh's heart. Some may read words like "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (John 14:14) and wonder why Jesus seems to have forgotten that when their prayers go unanswered. Of course, one look at any other religion and similar problems will crop up everywhere. In fact, if the prayer-granting rate is any indication of authenticity of the deity in question, it would seem to make little difference whether you pray to any god or to the fairy queen for all the good it will do.

I will, of course, not be making any suggestions about "bringing people back" to an activity which, in my view, serves no purpose. I have no doubt that religions will remain for a long while yet, kept alive partly by a combination of fear of retribution or hope of reward, and unwillingness to change something familiar. I have little doubt however that the downward trend in popularity will continue. The gods have served their purpose, and now deserve a nice, peaceful retirement.