At Federation in 1901, around 50% of Australian adults went to church.
Fast forward to 2011 (the last census) and only 8% of Australian adults go to church.
Why the massive drop?
Not the Usual Suspects
Neither science, scandal, nor feminism
According to Williams, there are many popular reasons why Church attendance has plummeted. But he disagrees with many of them:
- It’s not because of science (most of the scientific revolutionaries were devout Christian theists);
- It’s not because of the child sex-abuse scandals (these only became public knowledge in the 1990’s, but the attendance drop happened in the 1960’s);
- It’s not because of any perception that Churches are anti-women (60% of church-goers are women);
- Nor is it because Australians have looked closely and found Christianity wanting (most non-Christian Aussies have never seriously checked out Christianity).
So why the massive drop in Church attendance?
The 4 Part Secular Juggernaut
A Perfect Storm that Smashed the Aussie Church
According to Williams, Aussie society has become more secular due to 4 factors. Put them all together, and they form a Perfect Storm that’s moved society away from Christianity:
Most people in Australia today simply do not know much about Christianity – or any religion. The well-educated professional classes are no exception.’
Who or what is to blame for this state of affairs?
In a nutshell: the education system. At least two generations of Australian children have grown up without any proper teaching about religion – and here I include myself, schooled in the 1970s and early 80s.
To tackle the Big Questions, you need at least a basic grounding in theology, philosophy, ethics, science and history.’
Having worked with uni students for a number of years on a secular uni campus, I have to agree. In my experience, many non-Christian uni students haven’t done much serious thinking about the big questions of life. In large part, because they were never formally taught or encouraged to do so.
2) War and Nationalism
I found this factor quite unexpected.
The first significant drop in measured levels of religious affiliation and commitment in Australia occurred in the 1920s, and, overwhelmingly, it was men rather than women who lapsed.’
The decline can be traced to a specific historical event: World War One… most church leaders in all countries, including Australia, strongly supported the war throughout and led prayers for the destruction of the other side.’
Rather than speaking up against such a senseless war, many church leaders were effectively government mouthpieces, speaking in favour of the War from their pulpits. And after surviving the senseless horrors of the Western front, many a man would no longer see their Church as having any moral authority.
Williams is careful to differentiate between scient-ism and the scientific method:
Scientism must be distinguished from the scientific method. It cannot be emphasised enough that the scientific method – empirical reasoning, tested by experiment – was and is a wonderful long-term product of Christianity.’
He goes on to describe scientism:
The problem nowadays is that the amazing success of the scientific method has given rise to the idea that science is the only reliable source of knowledge’.
Scientism is very popular, and I’ve come up against it a lot, on- and offline.
But it’s nonsense: science itself can’t prove that science is the only reliable source of knowledge.
And if this is the case, then by logical necessity, science can’t be the only reliable source of knowledge.
In fact, science can’t prove that science is a source of knowledge at all.
Thus unless we concede that there are other reasons to believe that science is a reliable source of knowledge (e.g. philosophical reasons – which immediately proves that science isn’t the only reliable source of knowledge), then we’re left with nothing but rank skepticism: not being able to say anything is ‘true’.
However, scientism seems very popular, and it allows people to swallow other nonsense, like ‘science has disproved God’. And so if you really believed that science has disproved God, why would you give Christianity any serious thought?
In my judgement, this may be the biggest factor of all. Australia in 2015 is one of the richest societies in the history of humankind. There has been a threefold increase in real personal income since 1950 – in real terms, I stress.
It has been the same, more or less, throughout the affluent West – and it is no coincidence that it is in the West where Christianity is in decline.’
So what’s the link between prosperity, and secularisation?
He outlines a few:
- Material comfort acts as a kind of spiritual tranquillizer – the more pleasant this life, the less focus on the life to come;
- A much-increased life expectancy means that for most people in the West, there is a reduced consciousness of death until old age;
- Sheer distraction – technology has created a world where there is far less time for quiet, uninterrupted contemplation;
- Personal priorities become skewed towards money, and making more of it.
The Common Thread: Worldview Change
The common thread I see throughout William’s 4 reasons is worldview change: each of the four factors has changed the way Australians see reality, including spiritual reality. And this new way of looking at the world makes Christianity seem less plausible to your average Aussie: e.g. when death and eternity are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ why would you need God?
However, we know from Scripture that people don’t reject God merely for sociological/cultural reasons, but ultimately for spiritual reasons: namely human rebellion, by replacing the worship of the true God with a false God (see Romans 1:18-32).
And so, the Secular Juggernaut didn’t start the process of people rejecting God (that started in Genesis 3). Rather, it’s given people more excuses to reject God: humanly speaking, it’s easier for Aussies living in wealthy, spiritually indifferent 2016 to ignore God, than back in 1901.
And so, (the Lordship of Christ not withstanding) the Secular Juggernaut poses a great challenge for Aussie Churches, as we seek to share the gospel with our world.
P.S. Roy Williams has also written a book called ‘Post God Nation?’ where he unpacks these ideas further.