Is Religion Relevant in the 21st Century?

Kenny Chui / The Runner

Belief is on the decline around the world, what can the church offer us now?

Kenny Chui / The Runner

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

In Canada, the number of people, specifically teens and young adults, who belong to a religion has been steadily dropping, while the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated—either secular, atheist, or the like—has been growing larger and larger.

The Pew Research Center tallied numbers from 1971 until 2011 and found that the most popular religions in Canada in 1971 were Protestant and Catholic, collecting 41 per cent and 47 per cent of the population respectively. In that time, the religiously unaffiliated made up only four per cent of the population.

Fast-forward to 2011 and these numbers drastically change. Protestants only make up 27 per cent of the population while the Catholics are keeping their numbers high with 39 per cent. The big change comes from the unaffiliated, which jumped up to 24 per cent of the Canadian population. Though, it should be noted, these statistics aren’t always the most reliable way to learn of people’s true beliefs.

“It’s notoriously difficult to get reliable data on this,” says Colin Ruloff, professor of philosophy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Ruloff cautions that the statistics don’t reflect the intricacies of certain belief systems, such as instances of atheists who accept universal spirits, or religious people don’t necessarily believe in God. “Moreover, a lot of people seem to think that a rejection of organized religion somehow entails an acceptance of atheism. This is pretty clearly not the case—one can reject organized religion but still retain, in some broad sense, belief in God as a universal or creative force.”

Despite this, Ruloff is of the opinion that atheism, which is defined as the firm belief that God does not exist, is “on the rise globally.”

According to the statistics used above, this rise in atheism is largely reflective of a younger, more sceptical generation. There was an eight-point jump in the religiously unaffiliated over just 10 years, from 21 to 29 per cent by the end of the last decade, largely due to the secularism of people born in 1970 or later. Ethan Vanderleek, a Christian Reformed Chaplain for the Kwantlen Multi-Faith Centre, believes that we are now living in a “secular age.”

“As we become more rational and scientific, we’ll obviously see the need for less religion,” says Vanderleek. “We are surrounded by multiple pressures—even if you hold a position very firmly, you know there are others who hold different positions, so it doesn’t matter. That’s what makes our age secular. You can’t assume others hold the same perspective or worldview as you.”

In Ruloff’s experience, it’s the marketplace of new ideas—where inquiring minds can be exposed to any sort of belief system they desire—that leads young people towards atheism. Of the myriad of choices, he cites the social political “New Atheism” movement of the early 2000s as a contributing philosophy.

“During this time the New Atheists made numerous appearances on the news and talk shows, gave public lectures, made films, held conferences, and made headlines by attacking prominent religious figures, such as Mother Teresa,” says Ruloff. “I’m pretty sure that these initiatives —initiatives that were ultimately aimed at showing that religious belief is fundamentally irrational and contrary to reason, and that there exists a broad consensus among experts on this—helped contribute to the current rise of atheism among teens in Canada, the US, and in Europe.”

The wide variety of choices in what to believe can make it more difficult for someone to devote themselves to one specific idea, as competing ideologies vie for the public’s attention. That is the primary thought behind modern secularism, that while we’re open to learning more about other cultures and other systems of belief, the consequence of this melting pot is a shift in our priorities. We no longer dive into one group, but instead we dip our toes into many pools to test the waters.

Chaplain Vanderleek agrees, saying there is certainly an “increased suspicion” on the part of the general populace in regards to tradition or institutional religion. “The idea is still that we don’t want to accept the prejudices of the tradition that came before us,” he says. “The name of the game today is to be open-minded and hospitable, and I think that those are good things—but I would also say that it’s impossible to be absolutely open-minded. Everyone comes from a particular perspective, but what we’ve abandoned now is allowing our group perspectives to be shaped by a tradition.”

When considering the decline in religious affiliation, Vanderleek says that the existence of “religious violence” has likely turned people away from the church. But he laments the idea that what we need to solve the problem of religious violence is less religion. “That’s the narrative we’ve been fed since the enlightenment. I think that that’s not exactly right, because you need to think, ‘Where do we find the resources for harmony and peace, if not in tradition?’”

“A lot of the benefits we enjoy in our society didn’t emerge out of nowhere,” says Vanderleek. “They came from a particular tradition, and they emerged from a particular evolution of thought and history and practice. That depends very heavily—especially in the West—on the Christian tradition. But that’s not the only tradition. Muslim tradition, Middle Eastern tradition—they’ve all contributed to how we understand what it is to be human. So we can’t divorce ourselves from them so easily.”

It remains to be seen definitively whether the influx of atheistic thought is a good thing or a bad thing for humanity. Ruloff believes that, if the rise of secularism is due to New Atheism, it might not be inherently beneficial, as the movement, “makes religious belief comically simplistic, and they give the mistaken impression that there is a broad consensus amongst experts on this.”

“As any student in my philosophy of religion class will tell you, the issues regarding the rationality of theistic belief are complex, intellectually challenging, and highly controversial,” he says. “Arriving at any definitive conclusions on these matters is enormously difficult.”

As Vanderleek puts it, “There isn’t less religion—we’re just religious beings who have chosen different objects of worship.”