Let’s look at daily life in America.
There’s scant serious mention of a supernatural creator-god supposedly in command of everything. Or of Jesus as an invisible deity supposedly hovering among us. Or of heaven or hell supposedly awaiting people after death. Those theological “truths” are largely ignored by the modern world. Any reports of miracles are treated half-jokingly.
Christianity has little reality in today’s Western democracies except for a fringe of intense believers. Most of the population in these countries would churn onward quite well without it.
Six decades ago, some radical theologians and professors saw this sociological change and launched the “Death of God” movement. Harvey Cox of Harvard wrote The Secular City saying that the disappearance of God in today’s democracies was “an epochal crisis … not just a passing fad.” In Catholic France, Gabriel Vahanian wrote The Death of God calling most religion a “domesticated” sideshow. American Rabbi Richard Rubenstein said the Holocaust forced all Jews to realize that a protector god doesn’t exist. Emory University Professor Thomas J.J. Altizer (who was from my town of Charleston, W.Va.) said any observer could see that God was absent from our world. His co-author, William Hamilton of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, called the loss of deities “the decisive theological event of our time.”
Public uproar over these assertions caused Hamilton to lose his job, and Altizer nearly suffered the same fate. That’s a shame, because I think all of them saw a clear truth: God is gone from our lives. Since those days, religion has faded enormously in Western nations, and many experts label the current society “post-Christian.” Some scholars say that today’s culture is “functionally atheist.”
Western Europe was first to experience the transformation. Churchgoing declined to a fringe. Pope Benedict has lamented: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” A report says the Church of Scotland was so powerful in the 1950s that playground swings were chained on Sundays to prevent children from playing on the Sabbath, but nowadays the church has virtually disappeared from Scottish society.
Canada, Australia and, finally, America have joined this shift. Time and Newsweek printed cover stories on fading faith. Now, Pew Research foresees that Christians will become a minority in the United States.
Here’s a clear example of the transition: When I was young in the 1950s, fundamentalist taboos ruled Appalachia. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath — or for anyone to look at nudity in movies or magazines — or to buy a lottery ticket — or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Gay sex was a felony. Even writing about sex was illegal. Now, all those church laws have vanished.
The shift from Christian to post-Christian has been a blessing for nearly everyone.