The Coming Evangelical Collapse

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 24, 2010 in General Atheism

collapse building

The Coming Evangelical Collapse” is a series of blog posts by Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (who, alas, recently died). Since it was picked up by The Christian Science Monitor and The Drudge Report, it has been a hot topic among evangelicals.

Spencer was an evangelical who thought that evangelicalism – one of the few forms of Protestantism to grow in the U.S. over the past few decades – will “decline quickly to a smaller, more chastened, more diverse, less influential form.”

Why will this happen? Spencer offered several reasons (my paraphrase):

1. Evangelicals allied themselves with political conservativism and George Bush, a costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as bad for progress, bad for children, bad for morality, bad for America. [Evangelicals should have remained politically diverse.]

2. Evangelicals spent their billions on youth pastors, Christian media, and well-produced events, producing a new generation of evangelicals that knows a lot about how it feels to be Christian but knows almost nothing about theology or how to defend their ancient faith in the age of science and reason. [Evangelicals should have spent less on worship concerts and more on locals chapters of Reasonable Faith.]

3. What evangelicals see as ‘good’ is increasingly seen as ‘bad’ by the culture, and ministers will be forced to work ministries that are less distinctly Christian to remain morally relevant. [Evangelicals should not have picked ugly fights they will inevitably lose, for example the fight against the gays.]

Part of the problem is that Americans in general don’t like evangelicals very much. They rank slightly above IRS agents in likability, according to a survey that Spencer wrote about back in 2002. Why do Americans dislike evangelicals?

Maybe it’s the media portrayal of extreme evangelicals. Or maybe it’s the Gospel, plain and simple. But Spencer offered some other possibilities (my paraphrase):

1. Maybe Americans hate evangelicals because they hold others to a high standard of conduct from which they are quick to excuse themselves.

2. Evangelicals live out their faith in public – in giant worship services, in entertainment, in celebrity cults. They are eager to tell others “what God is doing” in their lives. But this is the opposite of what Jesus commanded.

3. Evangelicals often relate to others with an obvious or very thinly-disguised agenda to convert others, like a telemarketer always interrupting your dinner.

4. Evangelicals seem consumed with demonstrating that they are “better” than other people, when the opposite is very often true.

5. Evangelicals talk about God like he is their personal friend, some kind of self-help commodity, or a way of marketing products and political positions. Non-evangelicals don’t have much respect for this cheap, ancient abuse of a deity.

6. Evangelicals are too slow to separate themselves from evil. Because evangelicalism is a moral religion, evangelicals preach moral certainty, but then change their minds about all kinds of things (segregation, women’s rights, etc.) and then claim evangelicalism is the cause of their change of heart.

7. Evangelicals take themselves too seriously. They choose to be offended by things that are just plain funny to most people.

These are some big problems for evangelicalism, according to Spencer.

So what will be left of evangelicalism? Spencer had some predictions, though he stressed that he was not a prophet or a researcher. He wrote an opinion piece. Here are his opinions (my paraphrase):

1. Evangelicalism will grow towards Christianity-as-therapy megachurches like Joel Osteen’s. Evangelical leaders will preach motivation and personal success more than doctrine. The result will be a church more incapable than ever to pass on the fundamentals of Christianity.

2. Evangelicals will continue to convert towards Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

3. A small but significant band of leaders will work to rescue the movement through theological renewal, effective publishing, and strong leadership.

4. Aggressively fundamentalist and evangelistic hurches will decline rapidly.

5. Evangelicals will fragment over the culture war. Some will wage the war as always, others give up politics for a more personal discipleship.

What do I think?

A statistical analysis (1, 2) of Spencer’s claims make it make it clear that we shouldn’t be confident about any predictions. Personally, I doubt evangelicalism will fragment and decline as quickly as Spencer predicts (“within 10 years”). But really, who knows?

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam July 24, 2010 at 5:25 am

I could see it happening this way in other parts of the country, but here in the bible belt I doubt evangelicalism is going anywhere anytime soon. The people around here are so good at compartmentalizing that you can almost literally see them de-evolving. I’m afraid what’s going to happen is that these evangelical bastions will become more isolated and the children will find it ever harder to compete, particularly in scientific endeavors, in the real world.

Had I not been naturally curious and taught myself, I know I would have fallen into that trap. My physics teacher was a creationist (he didn’t want to hear anything about the Big Bang) and my biology class just glanced over the concept of evolution. How is anyone supposed to be taken seriously by a college or university when they think the universe is 6k years old?

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Martin July 24, 2010 at 5:41 am

…knows almost nothing about theology or how to defend their ancient faith in the age of science and reason.

I contend that this is the reason for much of modern lay atheism. It isn’t a well-reasoned philosophical position but rather a reaction to idiotic Christianity.

I’ve heard it said that only two groups take the Bible literally: fundies and atheists.

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lukeprog July 24, 2010 at 6:23 am

Martin,

When atheists ‘take the Bible literally’, we’re responding to fundamentalists. We say, “If you take the Bible literally than your God is evil, incompetent, and insane. But yeah, if you don’t take the Bible literally, then we can respect that, but we don’t have to respect your decision to believe in a magical being from Jewish mythology for which there is no evidence.”

But yeah, most atheism isn’t a well-reasoned philosophical position. But that’s true of all positions. Very few of us have time to reason out our worldview.

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Martin July 24, 2010 at 6:32 am

Luke,

Very few of us have time to reason out our worldview.

Very true, and unfortunate. I’m beginning to think philosophy (or at least logic and reasoning) should be a basic skill taught every year in school, along with math, English, social studies, etc.

In fact, it definitely should be. Why the hell isn’t it?

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EvanT July 24, 2010 at 6:42 am

The real question is “why was there a rise in evangelical christianity?” I can only offer what I consider reasonable assumption, especially since I don’t live in the US.

It boils down to this: The Cold War
On one hand you have the Soviets. Atheistic, Aggressive, Scary, basically thoroughly hate-able. You hate the Soviets. Which branch of Christianity would you pick? One that exemplifies love, forgiveness and turning the other cheek, or one that has no qualms about demonstrating how much it hates certain kinds of people (like atheist soviet scum, especially when hating them was also state approved?)

Later on you also have large groups of your compatriots turning to universal love through a naturalistic/deistic philosophy (identified as the Hippie movement).

Non christian enemies outisde threatening to nuke you and non christian Americans within preaching love, singing odes to the stars and dancing around naked. Scary shit…

As I’ve said, I’m merely trying to make an educated guess, but I’d say that the decline of evangelism is mainly due to the fact that fear and paranoia-generated hate is neither a condoned citizen characteristic, neither relevant anymore (and I’d bet the 11/9 incident triggered a brief surge in evangelistic congregation attendance).

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Justfinethanks July 24, 2010 at 6:59 am

In fact, it definitely should be. Why the hell isn’t it?

My personal guess?

Middle schoolers are snotty enough without them saying crap like

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Tanner, but ‘because I said so’ commits the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam and therefore bears no relevance to the morality or immorality of my refusal to open my history book. Before I accept your position that I ought to open my book, you must first explain the moral framework from which you are operating and how it compels moral and rational agents to your conclusion.”

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Scott July 24, 2010 at 7:11 am

“In fact, it definitely should be. Why the hell isn’t [philosophy taught to young kids]?”

First, the teachers aren’t skilled enough to teach it well. We’d need to have a more rigorous teacher education program (which we need anyway, but…)

Second, it’s a difficult subject. Most people have trouble with abstract reasoning, and too many failing schools causes funding issues. So it’s easier to lower the standards.

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Bradm July 24, 2010 at 7:27 am

FYI … Spencer passed away this spring from cancer.

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Martin July 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Tanner, but ‘because I said so’ commits the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam and therefore bears no relevance to the morality or immorality of my refusal to open my history book. Before I accept your position that I ought to open my book, you must first explain the moral framework from which you are operating and how it compels moral and rational agents to your conclusion.”

I can’t stop laughing! Seriously! That is some funny-ass shit right there!

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Reidish July 24, 2010 at 9:31 am

Thanks for bringing this article to my attention, Luke.

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Bryce July 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

I wouldn’t mind the dissipation of Evangelical culture. Their music sucks.

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Atheist.pig July 24, 2010 at 11:29 am

I’m beginning to think philosophy (or at least logic and reasoning) should be a basic skill taught every year in school, along with math, English, social studies, etc.

Good idea Martin, throw good science in there as well and my guess is the level of atheism, agnosticism, and religious doubt would rise fairly sharply, unless the parents indoctrination hasn’t already taken a strong hold of course. We already know the association between science education and rejection of religious faith is fairly substantial.

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Chris K July 24, 2010 at 11:34 am

Luke, when you say, “very few of us have time to reason out our worldview,” are you saying that very few of us have time to be rational about our worldview, or would you say that one can rationally hold to a worldview without needing to have the time to reason it out?

If you go with the former, (which I think I’ve seen you do before, if I’m not wrong) wouldn’t it be the case that the theist is no worse off, epistemically speaking, than the atheist? And if you go with the latter, does this make you a reformed epistemologist???

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lukeprog July 24, 2010 at 11:38 am

Chris K,

Yes, the way I use words like ‘knowledge’ and ‘rational’, I go with the first choice, But no, that doesn’t make me a reformed epistemologist.

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Haecceitas July 24, 2010 at 11:48 am

I just thought I’d mention that the Michael Spencer died some months ago. Doesn’t have much to do with the actual contents of Luke’s blog post but there are few places where his word choices imply that Spencer is still alive.

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Thomas Lantern July 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm

It seems to me that if an evangelical collapse is inevitable, as Spencer put it, then it would be because those that leave the proverbial flock are not really Christians. (Which seems reasonable given the paraphrasing Luke has provided us in the OP.)

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Hermes July 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Martin, atheism at it’s base is a response to theistic claims. It’s not the responsibility of a non-theist to be an expert in the details of divergent and contradictory claims by different theists. If a theist had a strong argument — positively supported and not contradicted by reality — I’d be a theist. So far, after decades, none have been presented to me. Just like claims about about aliens from distant planets visiting.

Yet, I think there is something to theism and tangentially religion that even the religious miss. Religious stories and themes and personal testimonies aren’t metaphors for the most part. Poetic language is often metaphorical, and while religion … can be poetic, they’re pointing to something else. At that point, though, as that something else is not defined it gets split into the buckets of literalism, metaphorical language, and personal insights and cherry picking.

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lukeprog July 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Thanks, I fixed the wording of this post.

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Martin July 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Good idea Martin, throw good science in there as well and my guess is the level of atheism, agnosticism, and religious doubt would rise fairly sharply, unless the parents indoctrination hasn’t already taken a strong hold of course. We already know the association between science education and rejection of religious faith is fairly substantial.

You’re still living in that “all theists are idiotic fundie creationists” box, aren’t you?

Learning logic and philosophy would actually help balance out the scientism that has irrationally come to the fore front. That way, if people are going to be scientism-ists, at least it would be because of good reasoning and not living inside a science box.

Lots of boxes that people live in. What is this, Skid Row?

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Atheist.pig July 25, 2010 at 12:13 am

You’re still living in that “all theists are idiotic fundie creationists” box, aren’t you?

I’ve never thought anything of the sort Martin. As I said, religious belief in scientists is 50% lower than in the lay public, and belief in NAS scientists is over 90% lower than in the lay public. This is why basic science education isn’t very popular in Islamic states in the middle east.

Explain the definition of scientism your using, there’s tons of uses of that word nowadays. And does it have any actual negative effect or impact apart from annoying the hell out of non-scientism-ists?

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Martin July 25, 2010 at 6:03 am

Generally, that science is the only way of finding out truths about the world.

I’m not saying scientism is or is not correct. I’m saying that with a good philosophical background, people could approach it from the top down to decide if it’s valid or not, rather than having their heads in the laboratory and assuming the scientific method is the best for everything outside the lab as well, which may or may not be true.

See why logical positivism, the mid-20th Century philosophy behind scientism, collapsed.

I’m not saying the collapse was correct or not, but if people were aware of the issues with it the could reason out whether it is or is not a valid method.

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Hermes July 25, 2010 at 11:59 am

Martin, I hope that you find the following boring and obvious. If you do, don’t consider it directed towards you but to others who may not have thought this through and realize that much of what we’re dealing with is human nature and not unreasonable absolutists.

* * *

While I don’t doubt that there are people who are in ga-ga love with the idea of science as a form of whole package thinking, those people are so rare that I can’t remember the last time I ran into one. Maybe the best examples are those who are new to the power of the sciences as a tool or as a source of knowledge, and they are overly enthusiastic — enthralled like a child with a new toy?

That said, there are people who, when they encounter stunning nonsense including unreasonable anti-science mysticism proponents, decide to whip up a caricature of an anti-mystic pro-science persona.

While I attempt to avoid that myself as it does not reflect reality in all respects, I can’t blame them much since the pro-mystics (or other variants such as that undefined fuzz buried in a fog bank promoted by pro-supernaturalists) are stunningly resistant to basic facts about reality shown through logic or observation. Many pro-mystics insist on ideas that have no basis in reality, and then demand that any opposition to those unfounded claims are made by unreasonable people. The low hanging fruits often cling to literal Biblical Genesis accounts like the global flood or reject current accepted facts from biology, cosmology, and geology.

Worse yet, any budge from a heavy materialist and pro-science absolutism is often taken by the pro-mystics as a gap to exploit; if materialism and science don’t have absolute proof (frequently in the mathematical sense of proof), mysticism (etc…) must be the answer for the area that is not claimed. This dogmatic attitude is easy to see in these forums, so it’s not a rarity that can be laughed off here even if it can be in more civilized discussions.

Instead of whole package, much more often I hear something like “I don’t know, and we may never know, and I’m OK with that.” than “Science will answer all questions!” Yet, this does not deny that we do indeed know quite a bit even while acknowledging our ignorance.

In the case of some facts, though, the pro-mystics (and others) will even take the lack of a gap as irrelevant as basic facts and even logic are ignored or even distorted. This can be quite an annoying thing to deal with. (Example: See from the 15th to the present).

Well, personally, I’m pro-reality.

In the case of the sciences, the people who don’t reject the sciences have quite a bit of stuff to point to — literally — and that literal stuff at a basic level is generally not disputable by rational people even if reason can lead people to different final conclusions based on those facts and observations. Could the consensus conclusions be incorrect? There are probably many of those. That it can be acknowledged is a strength, though, not a weakness. As in the case where two people in ancient times could have different ideas on what the world was like — round or flat or on the backs of turtles — the person who is flexible enough to hold an idea if it is positively supported but that it is tentative is the one who is being most honest. Someone who gets what the practice of science is knows the value of tentativeness and the danger of dogmatism by any name.

If someone on the pro-mystic side of the isle isn’t acknowledging basic reality — including but not limited by that discovered through scientific methods — it’s a cheap tactic to label the person who acknowledges reality that happens to be supported through the sciences as some kind of extremist.

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Martin July 26, 2010 at 7:52 am

Hermes,

Yeah, that doesn’t really apply to me. I just think that too many people assume their worldview without ever actually reasoning out if it’s correct or not.

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Sabio Lantz July 26, 2010 at 10:37 am

@ Hermes:
Thanks for linking to my site. But I wondered if you comment was also cutting at my positions — sorry, I wasn’t clear.

@ this thread:
Concerning Evangelicals (being an ex-Evangelical, of sorts), if religious hx teaches us anything, like all sects, it will morph through mergers, atrophy and competitors. I wager in 40 years they will be very different animals.

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Hermes July 26, 2010 at 11:00 am

Sabio Lantz, your blog post was insightful; I was not being critical.

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Rick B July 26, 2010 at 11:46 am

Bryce,

LOL! I once wondered about this phenomenon out loud to my dad, a professional musician:

Me: “Dad, there’s just something about most christian music that sets it apart from secular music in a big way.”
My dad: “Son, they call that cheese.”

Does anyone know of Christian bands, aside from U2, that have broken into the mainstream while conserving their message? If so, are they evangelical? I think U2 actually makes good music, while not trying to evangelize through song.

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Martin July 26, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Rick B,

Jars of Clay, maybe? They sing directly about Christian stuff but in a way that just isn’t really all that cheesy. Overt enough to be clearly Christian but subtle enough to be tasteful.

Compare with DC Talk: “My best friend was born in a manger…”

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Jeff H July 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Relient K and Switchfoot are two Christian bands that get played on the radio a fair bit. Their messages are usually pretty tame, but they both definitely have religious messages in their songs.

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al friedlander July 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

“Does anyone know of Christian bands, aside from U2, that have broken into the mainstream while conserving their message?”

It is kind of interesting to see how bands get ‘less Christian’ as they become increasingly successful.

Some examples include Underoath, Paramore, Relient K, Switchfoot, Lifehouse, etc.

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Gavin Brown July 27, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Someone in the thread may have mentioned this, but WLC did a podcast episode in response to iMonk’s article.

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socratus January 27, 2011 at 5:15 am

God as a Scientist : Ten Scientific Commandments.
==.
#
God Himself is Creator.
He/She/It created Everything.
So God must be Scientist and must use Physical/
Mathematical Laws and Formulas for His/Her/Its work.
#
For forty days and forty nights Moses wrote the tablets
of ‘ The Ten Commandments’.
Which Commandments are they?
They are moral, ethical Commandments.
Can be written ‘Ten Scientific Commandments’ ?
I think ‘ Yes’, God has given to us everything that necessary
to understand Him and His Genesis using Physical /
Mathematical Laws and Formulas.
===.
Scheme.
Ten Scientific Commandments:
Fundamental Theory of Existence.

1 The infinite vacuum T=0K. ( background energy space: E ).
2 The particle:
C/D = pi, R/N= k , E = Mc^2 = kc^2 , h = 0 , i^2= -1
3 The spins: h =E/t , h =kb, h* = h/2pi
4 The photon, the inertia
5 The electron: e^2 = h*ca, E = h*f , electromagnetic field
6 The gravitation, the star, the time and space
7 The Proton
8
The Evolution of interaction between Electron and Proton
a) electromagnetic
b) nuclear
c) biological
9
The Laws
a) The Law of conservation and transformation energy/mass
b) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle / Law
c) The Pauli Exclusion Principle/ Law
10
The test.
Every theory must be tested logically ( theoretical ) and practically
a) Theory : Dualism of Consciousness: (consciousness / unconsciousness)
b) Practice : Parapsychology. Meditation.
========.
Best wishes
Israel Sadovnik Socratus
============.
#
The secret of God and Existence is hidden
in the ‘ Theory of Vacuum & Light Quanta ‘.
==========..
#
I want to know how God created this world
I am not interested in this or that phenomenon,
in the spectrum of this or that element
I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details
/ Einstein /
==========.

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