Author:McGowan, Dale

The Christian church in the developed world is in collapse. This is true notwithstanding the current political resurgence of the religious right, which demographics show to be a cultural stab from the grave. Three million fewer Americans are attending church each year, driving the religiously unaffiliated from 8 percent to 23 percent in a generation. For millennials, that number jumps to 35 percent. Twice as many millennials are religiously unaffiliated as their parents' generation, and three times as many as their grandparents' generation. And early reports of Generation Z, those currently in high school and younger, show that traditional religious identity is on the demographic cusp of vanishing as a significant cultural presence.

Europe is ahead of the secularizing curve. Millennials in Europe are now majority nonreligious, and not just in Scandinavian countries. French millennials are two thirds nonreligious, UK millennials are approaching three quarters, and the Czech Republic tops the list at 90 percent.

It's understandable for humanists to feel a little giddy at this trend, which is happening faster and with more statistical strength than most of us imagined possible. But even as we celebrate the coming decline of a toxic cultural influence, there is cause for concern. Because for all the negatives, the Christian church has some positive and culturally important achievements to its credit. As the temple falls, those of us on the outside must quickly learn how to achieve those things just as well without the negatives.


One great success of the Christian church has been the creation of an effective culture of philanthropic giving. Yes, much of the potential is siphoned away by the care and feeding of the institution itself, but there's little doubt that the individual act of giving happens more robustly on average within the church than without. According to such robust instruments as the American Community Survey of the US Census, the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, and studies by Independent Sector and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, US churchgoers give away two to three times more of their income on average than non-churchgoers.

Still the deflections come from our side of the aisle: the religious might be lying to these surveys about their level of giving. This is possible, though no evidence is ever offered to back the assertion up, or to back up the assertion that non-churchgoers are not lying, or that the churchgoers are lying at a rate two to three times higher than we are. We just grab at any opportunity to deflect that statistic.

We do that because people like conservative commentator Arthur Brooks claim that the difference is evidence of a "gap in virtue" between the groups; churchgoers are just better people. That's also obviously untrue.

In fact, I would be floored and amazed if charitable giving by churchgoers wasn't higher than ours. I'm mostly amazed that the gap isn't bigger. But it has nothing to do with virtue, or even guilt, exactly.

The reason starts to become clear when you notice that we're talking not about belief but the measurable activity of churchgoing. I was a churchgoing atheist for twenty years, and when I stopped going to church, my charitable giving fell off a cliff. So either I suddenly became a bad person, or my generosity was being tapped less often and less effectively.

Imagine an experiment designed to determine how best to motivate individual giving. One group attends a weekly inspirational talk. They hear about the needs of those less fortunate and are urged to rise to the highest aspirations of their worldview by meeting that need. Then a shiny plate is passed, full of the generous donations of their friends and neighbors. Each person makes a choice--add to that plate or pass it on without contributing--fifty-two or more times per year.

A control group attends no such meetings. They give to causes they learn about and care about, but it's less systematic, less closely tied to a community expression of shared values.

Run the experiment for a year, then try to contain your surprise when the first group turns out to have given two to three times as much as the second. You probably wouldn't conclude that the first group is filled with more virtuous people. Instead, you'd realize that you had created an effective giving culture--one that is systematic, personally aspirational, and tied to a community of shared values.

This experiment has been going on for centuries. Churches have created a giving culture so effective that most religious adherents see charitable giving as a direct expression of their worldview.

So, once we get past the finger-pointing and back-patting about the giving gap, we can finally get to a worthwhile question: As the church crumbles and takes that system with it, can an equally effective, systematic...

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