Religiosity and faith in the institutional structures of the Christian Churches are on the decline. Faith in God and the afterlife is being undermined by centuries of scientific progress: natural phenomena must no longer be explained with divine intervention. But theologians could have minimized the subsequent erosion of religiosity – especially over the last decades – if they had at least managed to protect the authority of the Church. Yet it has declined as well, at least in many democratic societies.
Christian Churches are increasingly seen as authoritarian and undemocratic institutions that have lost touch with the lives of ordinary people. Clerically endorsed moral norms appear antiquated, and the (mis)behavior of priests has severely undermined the Church’s claim to legitimacy in questions of morality. Yet even a complete modernization and democratization of the Church would be insufficient to refurbish the Church’s moral authority as long as it remains rooted in divine faith. Religiously justified moral norms are unlikely to appeal to the rising number of people who have started to doubt their faith or renounced it altogether.
The loss of religiosity goes hand in hand with a loss of cultural and social traditions in countries that have historically been dominated by Christianity. For two thousand years, Christianity served as the incubator for tales, rituals, traditions, and symbols, while churches ensured their cultivation and social heredity. The Christian heritage has contributed incommensurably to the cultural landscape in the West, to the rise of social structures, and to the embedding of the individual within larger communities. It’s too early to foresee the consequences if the decline of religiosity continues.
Authority without authoritarianism
The question today is whether a secular Church might constitute a possible alternative. Can we imagine a Church-like institution that protects and develops our cultural heritage without relying on God and on the afterlife for its justification, and without decaying into authoritarianism and anti-democratic structures?
Such a Church wouldn’t be atheist precisely because it would remain neutral vis-à-vis individual proclamations of faith. It wouldn’t be a mere service provider either, because its mission would go beyond the organization of wedding ceremonies, funerals, and Christmas parties.
The nucleus of any Church is the parish, the individual community of members. A secular society that cares about its collective heritage requires a caretaker of, and advocate for, communal experiences. A secular Church could fill that role. It would embrace Christian rituals, traditions and texts (and possibly even religious symbols) – and we can already see it happening. For most of us, Christmas is more than the time of Santa Claus and the birth of Christ. It’s a time to re-connect with friends and family. Lent has likewise lost its religious connotations and is often seen as a time of conscious renunciation in a consumer society. While Christmas and Lent began their cultural ascendancy as Christian holidays, they have long secured a secular importance as well.
The Church of Van Gogh
Many biblical stories, especially those of the New Testament, have become part of our social and moral fabric. Sentences like “those without sin, cast the first stone” are often used without a religious context. Yet a secular church would not have to limit itself to secularized biblical traditions. It would be able to draw on a much bigger range of texts and artworks. They include Renaissance poetry, Shakespeare’s plays, and the paintings of Van Gogh.
Could such a Church exist without falling prey to authoritarianism? The experiences of early Christianity might be instructive: When Christian communities first arose two millennia ago, many of them put an emphasis on communal organizations and the avoidance of hierarchical structures. Yet the failure of these early experiments, and the subsequent emergence of rigid ecclesiastical hierarchies, also highlights the precarious state of communal organizations.
In contrast to the state, to political and economic associations and lobby groups, the community is the natural locus for moral discussions. Communities decide which moral norms to embrace, which forms of behavior to sanction, and which beliefs to condemn as bad or evil. It’s where the conscience of the members becomes audible. A secular Church would provide a similar forum. It could allow for an experience that transcends the narrow confines of the individual without relying on God and the afterlife: By leaving a mark on our community, we outlive our bodily existence.