The declining power of organised religion

We are going to have months — years — of public agony about the sexual abuse of children in care of various kinds, the churches being the most prominent. A lot of it happened a long time ago, and if the churches can now say that they have their houses in order, that is in part because they have lost most of their following over the last fifty years. Regular churchgoing is down to a tiny proportion of the population (I leave to one side religions other than Christianity).

The churches were, and are, about obedience and conformity, important conditions in earlier ages, because they helped to create social unity, which in turn enabled people to trust one another, to work together, to defend the society, and so on. In the absence of a strong civic culture, a common religion reduced the possibility of civil strife. The power of religions attracts people, especially men. Churches provided a career, a means of attaining status and positions of power of various kinds and at a number of levels. Religions set up a structure that allows some people to regulate the behaviour of others, and it is plain that power of this kind attracts.  Once there is an established religion (and even where there are competing religions) the church becomes among other things a career structure and a means of social advancement.

In turn, those within the career structure work hard to enhance the power of the religion or the church. When people are unsure of the future and life is by and large unpredictable, the prevailing religion at least offers a source of comfort and hope, as well as a source of explanation. In the case of Christianity, hope in a splendid life hereafter, and comfort in knowing how to achieve it, were the important offerings. Since all religions are systems of public behaviour, it is important not only that I conform, but that you conform too. If you ignore the religious practices that I follow or, even worse, dismiss them altogether, then my own preparedness to conform is weakened. The larger the congregation I belong to the more likely I am to see that I am on the right track, and in consequence the larger and more important the church will be as a career system.

To some degree the Australia I grew up in looked a bit like that, and the pronouncements of church leaders about the problems of our country were thought important enough to be in the news broadcasts. That’s gone. Churches and church buildings have become surplus, and sold for other uses. Church services have become important, at least for the wider public, only as places for the commemoration of particular people, some famous, some desperately unlucky.

What caused the decline? Educating girls as well as boys, and in a growing economy which needed more skills, drew women into the postwar workforce. The oral contraceptive gave women control over when they would make babies, and with whom, and how many: that meant that most stayed in the workforce. Much of the work of the churches had always rested on the voluntary work of women. There was now much less of it. The growth of population meant that new suburbs were created — two-thirds of our building stock has been built since the second world war — and the churches could not afford to build new churches where the people were.

The spirit of the times was also important. From the mid 1950s on we have moved into a much more individualistic age, where conformity has been replaced by ‘do your own thing’. Individualism does not sit easily in church. And the spirit of education over the last fifty years has been that of rationality. Here science is paramount, asking questions is the way forward, and ‘faith’ is not in the curriculum.

The churches are not at the end of the road. But I think that one outcome of the present fuss will be an acceptance that the churches’ privileged status in our society will be reduced. What is said in the confessional, for example, cannot be superior to the law. Clergy will have new obligations to the wider society. Churches have tax-free status at the moment. That may come into question, too.

As a social scientist, I’m not one who worries about the decline of organised religion. Australia is not more lawless as a result, and its levels of compassion for others and capacity to engage in voluntary work are high. I worry a bit about whether or not the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater — but what exactly is the baby, any more?

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