By Rebecca McLaughlin
When it comes to giving reasons for our faith, we Christians are playing far too defensive a game.
We’ve believed that Christianity is declining. It isn’t. We’ve assumed Christianity can’t stand up in the university. It can. Too many of us think Christianity is threatened by diversity. It never has been. And too few of us think Christian sexual ethics are sustainable in the modern world. They are. On these and many other fronts, we have conceded far more ground to secularism than it deserves.
But we’ve also been playing too aggressive a game. We’ve majored on point-scoring and culture-warring, when the Bible calls us to “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). We’ve propagated weak arguments without listening to real experts. And we’ve blindly stepped out into cultural traffic, rather than taking our lead from those with the credibility to speak.
If we are to be faithful in this cultural moment, we must be neither retreaters nor attackers, neither (needlessly) defensive nor (faithlessly) aggressive. Instead, we must go on a “gentle offensive.” Here are five things that will help.
1. Know Our Moment
Forty years ago, sociologists predicted religious decline. Modernization had bred secularization in Western Europe, and where Western Europe led (so the logic went), the rest of the world would follow.
But that prophecy failed.
In the West, religious identification has certainly declined and looks set to decline further. But the rest of the world has not followed suit. In the next 40 years, Christianity is set to remain the world’s largest belief system, claiming 32 percent of the global population (a 1 percent increase over its current share), while Islam is expected to grow substantially from 24 percent to 31 percent. Meanwhile, the portion of humanity that does not identify with any particular religion (including atheists, agnostics, and “nones”) is set to decline from 16 percent to 13 percent. Indeed, if China swings toward Christianity as rapidly as some experts expect, the non-religious category could shrink even more, and the proportion of Christians would increase.
To the surprise of many in the Western academy, the question for the next generation is not, “How soon will religion die out?” but “Christianity or Islam?”
2. Level the Playing Field
The New Atheists claimed that religion poisons everything. This warps the thinking of our secular friends, but it doesn’t line up with the facts. A large body of empirical evidence shows that regular religious participation is good for individuals and good for society. In America, those who attend church weekly or more are 20 percent to 30 percent less likely to die over a 15-year period, suffer less from depression, are less likely to commit suicide, and are less likely to divorce.
We all know the health benefits of exercise, quitting smoking, and eating more fruits and vegetables. But it turns out that going to church at least once a week is correlated with equivalently good health outcomes to any of these! And the benefits extend to others. In his 2018 book The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, philosopher Christian Miller observes that “literally hundreds of studies” link religious participation with better moral outcomes. In North America, regular service attenders donate 3.5 times the money given by their nonreligious counterparts per year and volunteer more than twice as much. Meanwhile, levels of domestic violence in a U.S. sample were almost twice as high for men who didn’t attend church versus those who attended once a week or more, and religious participation has also been linked to lower rates for 43 other crimes.
Many of these effects aren’t exclusive to Christianity, but they give the lie to the idea that secularization is good for society. Why have we heard a different message? As atheist social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns, “You can’t use the New Atheists as your guide” on these matters, because “the new atheists conduct biased reviews of the literature and conclude that there is no good evidence on any benefits except the health benefits of religion.”
3. Reclaim Diversity
Celebration of diversity is a core secular liberal value. But when it comes to diversity, the cards are firmly in our hands. Christianity is the most culturally and ethnically diverse belief system in the world. Further, as we look at the demographics of Christianity in North America, two themes stand out. First, people of color are far more likely to be religious than whites are. Across every index of Christian participation, black Americans poll substantially higher than whites—often by as much as 20 percentage points—while Latino Americans are also more likely than whites to identify as Christians. Second, in line with global trends, women are significantly more likely to be active Christians than men are. The gender gap is smaller than the racial gap. Black American men are more religious than white American women. But it’s still significant. Conversely, among American atheists white men are overrepresented.
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Source: Church Leaders