Why Do So Many People No Longer Go to Church?

Great crises are usually not the result of a single cause, and so in attempting to answer this question we should avoid oversimplification.  But I believe the question can be largely answered. Whether the answer will please those who ask it, however, is another matter.

The question as we have framed it is often followed by another one: what exactly  has the church done to bring this about?  And no doubt certain actions of the church have played an important role in creating the current state of affairs. The Second Vatican Council, the encyclical Humanae vitae, and most recently the scandal of sexual abuse by so many priests are frequently mentioned.  But I believe a situation much like the current one would probably have developed anyway, given certain other changes that have taken place.  Since 1960 the church has changed; but it has changed far less than society has changed. I believe therefore that to understand what has been happening to the church we should first look to the changes that have taken place in society.

These changes in society can be summarized for convenience in one word: a dramatic liberalization. The decline in church attendance took place in the late sixties and early seventies. When I first came to the U.S. in the summer of 1962, it was by many standards a conservative country. One way this showed itself was in clothing: people still felt called upon to dress well  when going into town. If you watch a street scene in the news films made at that time, you will notice that the women wear dresses and coats, the men suits.  I can remember vividly being warned, for example, (coming from a tennis-loving Australia) not to wear shorts in public on the way to the tennis court, but to change into them there.

Since 1960 American society, and Western society in general, has undergone a series of revolutions. Let us briefly consider the five or six main ones. The first was the sexual revolution ushered in by the arrival on the market of the birth-control pill.  Previously, a very large part of the rules governing social behavior since time immemorial had been created for the purpose of protecting women from the pressures that could lead to pregnancy outside of marriage. Men’s innate desire for sexual freedom was deeply restrained in hundreds of different ways by women’s demand for security. In the space of a few months this was overturned completely.  Women could now enjoy the same sexual freedom as men with little fear of paying for the rest of their lives  a drastic penalty —  as it seemed. For both sexes, recreational sex became commonplace. The profound effects of this revolution on the shape of human society, and even on its ultimate fate, are far from over, and far from being grasped (as birth rates everywhere in the Western world decline below replacement, while those of “third-world” societies continue unabated).

A second revolution came with the civil rights legislation of 1964 and its ban on peaceful or non-coercive discrimination.  This not only altered the relations between the races but also between the sexes, for it banned discrimination not only on the ground of race but also of sex. Of the two, the ban on “sexual discrimination” has had far more revolutionary consequences for our society, for it not only resulted in a majority of women abandoning their traditional role as creators of the home in order to enter the workplace, one consequence of which has been their determination to have fewer children, with the result just alluded to that our society no longer reproduces itself;  but also led the way to bans and demands for bans on further kinds of non-coercive discrimination such as that on the ground of homosexuality. The worldwide Anglican Communion is being rent asunder at the present time by just this effect of the Civil Rights law of 1964.  Many others could be mentioned in almost every aspect of contemporary life. The sense of justice has undergone a profound alteration. Standards in many areas of behavior have declined because standards are inherently discriminatory.

These two  revolutions have been reinforced by three others: the student revolt,  the narcotics revolution and the feminist revolution. When the 1960s began, universities (at least the best of them) were governed by scholars who had demonstrated their expertise in their fields, the full professors. When the decade ended, they were governed instead by the students and the junior or beginning professors, who together had at least veto power over most decisions, including the hiring of faculty. Combined with the effects of the other revolutions, this produced the educational organizations we now have, in which the search for truth is routinely subordinated to the demands of “political correctness.”  Related events occurred in the nation’s public school systems as teachers were deprived of the authority they once were considered to possess.

In my experience the student revolt went hand in hand with the narcotics revolution. This has been a most important element in the radical liberalization of American society and one to which insufficient attention has been paid.  One reason why many people no longer take a great interest in organized religion of any kind is that they have experimented with narcotics and found in those experiences what appears to them to be an alternative to it. This is especially true, of course, when it leads them to take up a life of crime in order to support their habit.

The feminist revolution not only reinforced the others, but added its own dimension, which has been to create a new ideal female type.  The model female character today for most women in our society has become, not the loving wife of a husband and mother of children, the creator of what had been thought an indispensable institution of civilized society, the home, but the woman of power.  The power that is sought is no longer the special and immense power that females have always possessed in human society as the bearers of emotional meaning to the male sex, but is masculine power, the power of external control.

I have not mentioned the pacifist or anti-war movement unleashed especially by the Vietnam war and the Cold War, but this has also played its part, reinforcing the revolutions already mentioned.  Nor have I mentioned other changes, such as in divorce law, that have contributed to the break-up of the American family.

No society in the history of the human race has been so untrammelled by constraint and so liberated from tradition in regard to individual behavior as the one in which we now live. In my view this is the main reason for the current decline in church attendance. It is at any rate, I believe,  an explanation of more than sufficient power to account for the change. A religious tradition is an inherently conservative force. It derives its authority from its continuity with the past. And it imposes serious restraints on human behavior.  The ancient traditions of the Catholic church are opposed to each one of the particular revolutions we have mentioned. These traditions do not approve of sexual freedom, they do not support sexual equality, they tend to defend legitimate authority, they reject the self-indulgence of recreational narcotics, and they favor the traditional family as the foundation of human society.

The argument is often heard that the question at issue is one of rationality: religion is essentially irrational, and people today are more educated and have become more aware of this fact. Personally I am skeptical about this argument. There seems little reason to believe that people today are more rational than they were in times past.  If the daily news is any guide, irrational opinions and behavior do not appear to be in any danger whatsoever of dying out.  The thesis that people are better educated today requires a high degree of credulity.

Having pointed out factors in society that I believe have altered the attitude of many people to the church, I would like to dwell for a moment on one or two respects in which the church itself can be considered the cause of its own problems.  One of these was probably the Second Vatican Council, or at least the perception of it that subsequently became predominant.  As I have mentioned, the authority of any religious tradition depends essentially on the continuity of its tradition. But this was perceived as being called into question by the Council. For many centuries the church had laid heavy obligations on the faithful under pain of mortal sin: Mass on Sunday, Friday abstinence, confession, the use of Latin, etc. etc. Now these obligations, which many had taken with the utmost seriousness as decisive for eternal life, were abolished. There were very good reasons for the abolition, no doubt, and I do not wish to say it should not have been done.  Yet the implications of the changes for the authority of the church do not seem to have been well grasped. Many bishops, I believe,  did not understand the importance of tradition, and so they unwittingly abolished their own authority.

The effects of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae have been commented on so often that I will not make any further remarks about it.

What Should the Church Do?

If this analysis should be correct, the question arises as to what the Church ought to do in reponse to it.  The course of action which seems to be most frequently recommended is to liberalize the Church. This has already happened to some degree in the official church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.  Among the laity it has happened far more because of the changes just discussed in civil society.

It seems to be a rational response: if one wishes to appeal to liberals, one should be liberal.  Yet ironically the churches that have gone down this path of liberalization do not appear to have increased their membership or attendance. On the contrary, the more liberal churches for the most part seem to be the ones losing their membership while the more conservative churches have been gaining members.  Liberal elements in the laity respond that one should do what is right, irrespective of the outcome. Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum! But there is, I believe, a serious question to what extent genuinely liberal religion is even possible.  As remarked above, for the most part religion is a conservative force.  This can be seen in many ways. The central way it expresses itself is in the role of tradition, which is invariably what confers on every religion its distinctive identity. As Granvill, the great mediaeval lawyer remarked, “custom is a form of reason.”  Far more powerful, I might add, for most people than abstract argument.  But it can also be seen in other ways at the fringes, for example in the role that their religious tradition plays for immigrants in keeping alive their native culture in a strange land.

If we look at civil society as a whole, there can be little question but that it has moved to what we may call the Left since 1960.  But this is not true of every segment of the population. There remains a portion of American society that can be described as more or less conservative.  Our nation is in fact divided pretty much down the middle in this regard, a division that expresses itself not only in taste and lifestyle but also in political opinion.   The question the church faces concerns which half of the population it should attempt to appeal to. The one half is skeptical about religion, but the other half is still positively inclined to be religious.  This pattern, that the Left is generally (there are important exceptions) indifferent about religion while the Right tends to favor it, can be seen in every country in the Western world. The New York Times has referred to it as “the religion gap,” reporting that “regular churchgoers identify by a wide margin with the  G.O.P.”  I do not want to say that this in inherently or necessarily so, but it is so at the present time when the Left is defined by values historically associated with the socialist movement, for socialism was from the first not merely skeptical about but actively hostile to the cause of religion. In the United States the term socialism is not used, but everywhere else that is how these values are described.  They are not “hard” socialist but constitute “soft”, cultural,  moderate or “semi-” socialism.

My view is that the church will do well when shaping its message and its practices, including especially the liturgy,  to have in mind in the first place that moderately conservative segment of the population that is already favorably disposed towards it and constitutes its natural audience, rather than to understand its own identity in terms acceptable to the portion of the population that prefers to stand aloof from it.

In this connection I feel it necessary to point to one area where the church has contributed to its own problems. This is, as the New York Times recently referred to it, its revolutionary doctrine of “social justice.”  There are good reasons for considering this the quintessential doctrine of socialism and the Left. It represents a conception of justice far removed from the traditional understanding, which always saw justice primarily as a quality of human actions, and so which necessarily involved the element of individual responsibility.  To regain its attractiveness to its natural constituency, as well as (in my opinion) to regain its moral authority, the church must find its way back to the traditional conception of justice.