Will Christianity Survive to 2364?

 

Rare Christian imagery in Star Trek

Rare Christian imagery in Star Trek

By 2364, according to Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, humanity will have achieved the unthinkable: the complete eradication of poverty, inequality, and war. Earth itself will be a paradise with climate control facilities stifling hurricanes before they form and medical science easily treating most of the diseases that ravage us here in the 21st century.

However, something uniquely human is largely absent from this fictional utopia: religion.

Despite Gene Roddenberry’s own disdain for religion, Star Trek is not overtly hostile toward it. Not only are some prominent characters deeply religious, but many episodes across its five series also explore both religious and ethical themes. Nevertheless, as a whole, the major religions that we know on Earth in the 21st century simply do not factor into the lives of the human characters of Star Trek. Tolerant though they may be, humans constitute a primarily secular society in which “abandoning belief in the supernatural” is a goal all advanced civilizations will eventually achieve.

Although this vision of the future is 350 years away, the American blogosphere is already anticipating the persistent and inevitable decline of religion in the coming decades. Conservative Christian groups long ago sounded the red alert, with Answers in Genesis predicting a mass exodus of Millennials from their ranks due to the insidious creep of secularism. Even Sojourners Magazine, a popular outlet for progressive Christianity, has heard the death knell, publishing a blog series titled “Letters to the Dying Church.” Recent research showing the rising population of the religiously non-affiliated (the so-called “nones”) only seemed to confirm these suspicions.

Ephesus_Temple_of_Artemis

The only remains of the Temple of Artemis.

But are these predictions accurate? Religions, like languages, certainly go extinct. Renewal movements notwithstanding, no one worships Artemis of Ephesus anymore. Even though her cult flourished in Asia Minor for over 900 years, it simply died out through mass conversions and invasions from the Visigoths. But in terms of absolute growth, what will the religious landscape of the future look like?

Simple population studies show that these prophecies of religion’s downfall smack of alarmism and, as is the case of Sojourners Magazine, no small amount of melodrama.

In 2013, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, a subsidiary department at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, published a sweeping study on religious populations around the globe. The researchers analyzed population and demographics data from 1970-2010 in order to extrapolate the likely trajectory of religious populations through to 2020.

The study found that in 1970, 82% of the world population self-identified as “religious.” By 2010, this number had grown to 88% with a likely projected 90% by 2020. During the same time period, Christianity in particular grew more rapidly than population rates. By 2020, it is expected to comprise 33.3% of the world population, up from 33.2% in 1970.

So if Christianity (and religion in general) is actually increasing worldwide, why the predictions of a secular world-to-be?

This discourse of Christianity’s downswing stems from two factors: our Western bias and a failure to recognize large-scale historical changes in favor of immediate causal factors.

Christianity’s greatest gains in population have occurred in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In east Asia alone, the Christian population skyrocketed from 11.4 million people in 1970 to 127.8 million in 2010 (a jump from 1.2% to 8.1% of the region’s population). During this same time, the Christian population in Europe and North American markedly decreased. Western Europe has experienced the steepest decline from 89% in 1970 to 69% in 2010. The US followed suit with a drop from 90% to 80%. However, the gains in the global south outstripped these losses in the global north, yielding a net increase in the Christian population worldwide.christianity-graphic-01

So, from Star Trek producers to Christian bloggers, it seems that we all suffer from an inherently Western bias, fixating on our neighbors at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s population. Christianity is not on a downswing any more than it is on the verge of a cataclysmic collapse. Rather, we are witnessing a population shift away from its historical centers.

This leads to the second motivator behind our alarmist rhetoric: the generational snobbery that we are the first to experience titanic cultural shifts. Even a cursory glance at the longue durée  of church history shows this to be false. Christianity’s geographical center has shifted before when Jerusalem’s influence waned in favor of Rome and Constantinople. Since then, Christianity has experienced schisms, reformations, and revitalizations that no one could have expected at the time. Ironically, the “end-is-nigh” attitude has remained constant from St. Paul to now despite Christianity’s continued growth through these upheavals.

We see a similar Western and generational bias when pundits gripe about China’s economic resurgence in the past half-century, forgetting that China was the dynamo for global trade and technological innovation for 2000 years. This same myopia tells us that Christianity has always been the most populous and powerful religion, when, in fact, this wasn’t the case even 500 years ago. Short-term memory loss, it seems, thrives when our status quo is at risk.

So, what will Christianity and the religious landscape look like in 2364? Painful as it is to contradict my favorite science fiction series, the ancient historian in me must disagree with Star Trek. I fully anticipate religion to continue playing a critical role in human culture, economics, and politics for centuries to come. However, whatever form it may take over the next 350 years, it will markedly differ from 2014. Globalization will demand from us to think broadly in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world. Rather than a secular utopia, the Earth-to-come will be a religiously pluralistic society in which we, as global citizens, will find it increasingly difficult to shelter in our own religious bubbles.

However, we don’t need to wait 350 years for this…it is already happening now.

 

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Andrea D. says:

    This was so interesting! I’ve often thought about this topic. I think this comes up because many people don’t think of how vast history and time is–they don’t think far enough back, or far enough forward. So, we can get really short sighted when it comes to things changing. People have been preaching doom and gloom from the beginning of history–it’s all apart of the flow of time. I think it will be interesting to see how Christianity evolves as the center shifts to the “global south”. So much of our religion has been influenced by Western thought–that a change from that will probably look quite different.

    • Andrew Henry says:

      I agree. I’m curious to see how this shapes the leadership. More and more pastors, scholars, and theologians will come from these “developing” nations.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Let me begin by saying that I agree with you that Christianity will still be present in 2364. However, I do not think that we will be building intergalactic starships at that point, either (not that I don’t want to be captain of a Federation command cruiser one day, I just don’t think it will happen). But, let me ask you about one of the basic requirements of Star Trek: aliens. We, as Christians, believe that Man is created in God’s image. If that is so, how will Christianity handle encountering not one, but hundreds of other “sentient species”? Do we consider ourselves, by God’s intent and decree, rulers/shepherds of the aliens we encounter? What if those aliens have significantly more advanced biology and technology than we do? Is it the sheep’s place to shepherd the grizzly bear (or if humans are truly outclassed in every way, does the sheep shepherd the human?)? I think that Gene Roddenberry created a universe where not only are humans the epitome of what we can be but humanity is past the struggle leading up to the very concept of encountering aliens. Does anyone think that the people who are part of what are called radical Islamic groups would simply sit back and let aliens interact peacefully with humans? They don’t even let humans interact peacefully with humans unless everyone follows their particular belief system. Can we count on aliens to follow Sharia? I hardly think so, although the Ferengi have some interesting parallels to it. I think that the very basis of creation would be called into question if we encountered hundreds of aliens, and that it might change the way Christianity is viewed – perhaps to the point of extinction.

    I would say that Gene Roddenberry, given his distaste for religion, created his own. The Prime Directive is a set of moral and ethical standards based on enlightened tolerance (sound like any political philosophies of today?). “You are not as advanced as I am, and that is okay. I will not conquer you or uplift you. You must find your own place in the universe. When you progress to my level of evolution, I will be waiting for you with open arms.” Nothing like a little arrogance to round out a sci-fi show 🙂 Great post, I enjoyed it!

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Mike,

      I think your points about aliens are astute. I too have wondered if encountering aliens would drive Christianity to the point of extinction. We would need to construct an even more capacious theology (did Jesus die for aliens too?), and we would need to further privilege Christians (not only did Jesus visit a backwater province of the Roman Empire…but he chose to visit a backwater planet and species out of a myriad of choices!). I’m sure many Christians could make this theological stretch without abandoning their faith, but I predict many will jump ship. Either way, it would be jarring. I think many theists rest comfortable with the idea that humans are unique in their sentience.

      The Prime Directive and individualism of Star Trek does seem to replace one idol for another. They are not above worship.

      • Daniel M. says:

        I think that CS Lewis in his space trilogy addresses some of these points in an interesting way. Without too many spoilers there is a man who visits different planets where different rules/laws/means of grace are given to the different groups. I don’t see a reason why God couldn’t interact with other specials through the universe just because it isn’t written out in the Bible. Just because we only see the communication between Earth and God does not inherently limit God from other communications. What are people’s thoughts?

        • Andrew Henry says:

          Good points from CS Lewis. Many people consider the thought exercise of aliens and theology silly…but it’s gratifying to see a mind as great as Lewis grappling with the idea. It would certainly complicate theology to say God communicated differently with different sentient species. Did he intend the Bible to be for humans only? Do his revelations to other species apply to humans too? Fun to think about, and I’m not sure where I’d fall on those questions.

          • Interesting thought to add. The Mormon church believes that God created many planets thought out the universe and that much like you postulated, this earth is the one that was privileged or in essence the one that was wicked enough to kill Jesus which is why he was chosen to come here. He then goes to visit other places such as the Americas in the Book of Mormon and then after that he is said to have gone to other planets. Thoughts on this?

        • Ken Scaletta says:

          Lewis still loads it so that the whole universe follow his basic theological presuppositions. He presents nothing that would actually challenge him, The more intriguing question to me is how are Christian going to handle it when missionaries from civilizations much more advanced than their own come to Earth to convert our backwards, primitive people to the one true religion.

  3. Jesus said to the woman at the well “God seeks those who worship Him in spirit and in truth”. The first two words having the most impact for me: God seeks. The divine creator of all things takes time to SEEK (look for, discover where, hunt out) those who are trying to or want to or are worshiping Him. This speaks volumes. As long as God is seeking, there will always be those, who touched by his Spirit, will be seeking for Him.

  4. Dave Smith says:

    Well balanced and intelligent post. I enjoyed it. Really have liked what I’ve read on your site so far. Keep up the good work!

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. This post was inspired mostly by the alarmist claim that religion is slowly disappearing. This research seems to indicate the opposite.

  5. Zach Taylor says:

    Great piece Andrew. I especially appreciated what you said about our failure to recognize large-scale historical changes with respect to religion. I often find myself making this same mistake when thinking about traditional orthodoxy and its various iterations over the past two millennia.

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