Is Christianity facing an exodus of, well, Biblical proportions?
There are clear signs that the passion of Jesus's followers is ebbing and the congregation is losing critical mass.
On July 28, in a spectacular renunciation of her faith, celebrated Christian author Anne Rice announced on Facebook that she was quitting the Roman Catholic Church.
Rice wrote: "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
She also pointed to recent statements from several radical Christian groups that have threatened the lives of gay citizens. "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life," she added.
In yet another celebrated case, in August, 42-year-old Hollywood actress Julia Roberts declared she, her husband and their three children were practising Hindus. Roberts, who was born to Baptist and Catholic parents in Bible belt Georgia, is thought to have made the religious conversion while in India where she was shooting her new film, Eat, Pray, Love, in which she plays a woman hoping to find herself through Hindu spirituality.
While these high-profile exits, coming shortly after the damaging exposes of rampant pedophilia in Christian churches worldwide, have no doubt caused disquiet in the over 2000-year-old faith, it is the less publicized but inexorable exit of once staunch members that is a pointer to the real crisis.
According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent. Overall, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.
The proportion of Americans who think religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48 percent. Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased nearly fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million.
Worse, the biggest decline in US church affiliation was concentrated in the north-east, America's Christian heartland. This massive decline in the Mayflower sector, where Christians first settled has caused acute anguish among conservative Christian leaders who fear America will soon become a post-Christian country.
Of course, there is denial. Christian commentators like to talk about revolving door membership, that people quitting the traditional churches are signing up at Born Again denominations. Sure, more than 34 percent of adult church goers today consider themselves Born Again or Evangelical Christians, but as the surveys says, "The challenge to Christianity in the US does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion."
Indeed, 27 percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death, indicating that they dismiss Christianity's zero-sum offer of heaven or hell.
Across the Atlantic, Northern Europe is a virtual graveyard of abandoned churches. Further south, in predominantly Catholic Italy, over 60 percent of Italians have stopped attending confession. An entire generation of European Catholics has become indifferent -- or openly hostile -- to the church,mainly because of the sexual abuse of young children by priests.
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