Is Religion Slipping out of the Picture?
By Awake! correspondent in the Netherlands
MANY people in Europe find themselves facing that question, which appeared in the cover article of the Dutch weekly De Tijd. The magazine also raised questions such as: Is it true that religion in Europe is dying off? What does the average person think as to the future of religion?
Undoubtedly, you too have questions about the present state of religion. Even in the United States, where traditional religion still has a strong hold, credibility has been shaken by the scandals that have rocked the TV evangelists and by the divisions within Catholic ranks. In many Catholic countries, the fall in church attendance over the last two decades has also been noticeable.
Here in the Netherlands, there was a time, not too long ago, when you could have fired a cannon on the streets on a Sunday morning without hitting anyone—they were all in church! Now very few attend. What has happened?
Former Churches Now Restaurants and Shops
During the past ten years, the two largest religious bodies in the Netherlands, the Roman Catholic Church and the Dutch Reformed Church, have lost many members and churchgoers. Only 19 percent of the believers attend either of these churches, and for the Catholic Church that represents a drop from 85 percent attendance in 1967!
As a consequence of this, many churches have become superfluous. Some have been torn down, and others have been sold for other purposes. So do not be surprised if you walk into a former church building in Rotterdam or Amsterdam and find that it is now a supermarket, a flowershop, a clothing store, a restaurant, a bicycle shop, a sports hall, or a discotheque. This comes as a shock to many people. And this slump within the churches has had its effect on priests and preachers.
Dwindling Clergy and Divided Flocks
Just as many of their members have left the church, so likewise many priests and preachers have abandoned their calling. In a recent five-year period, the number of Catholic priests fell by some 900. At the same time, very few have been added, as the number of “vocations” has fallen off. Those remaining are getting old. For example, 89 percent of the nuns in the Netherlands are over 50 years old.
The clergy also find themselves no longer able to cope with the problems that confront them within the church. Some completely buckled under the pressure and have had to turn to psychiatric treatment. The daily Apeldoornse Courant put it this way: “When they venture to be conservative in their preaching, the more progressive members of the congregation are stumbled. Should they position themselves progressively, this then draws criticism from those members sticking more closely to the Bible. Should a preacher or priest dare to choose the middle road, he then runs the risk of being rejected by the whole congregation.”
Of course, these events have had an influence on Dutch society. A census by the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Office in 1985 reveals that for the first time more than half the population views itself as being nonreligious.
Divisiveness within the churches, often concerning political issues, has led many to doubt. Church support of “freedom movements” in various South American and African countries has led to considerable internal strife. There has even been a national advertising campaign under the motto: NO CHURCH MONEY FOR ARMED VIOLENCE.
How do you react to such developments? Do you think the churches will emerge unscathed from this period of crisis? To formulate an answer, we really need to dig deeper into the basic causes of the present religious confusion.
Why Is Religion Slipping?
Historians, sociologists, and theologians are thoroughly divided as to the causes for the present developments within the churches. Some quote the pleasure-loving of this materialistic society and the growing indifference of the populace. It brings to mind the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1, 2, 4: “But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, . . . lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God.”
Others try to explain matters on the basis of European history. This history is soaked in blood and tears, from the religious wars of the 16th century all the way up to the religious involvement in the world wars of our 20th century. All of this has left behind a deep-rooted suspicion of any form of philosophy, theology, and ideology. After all, these were often the reasons behind wars, persecution, and violence.
Within the churches of today, many find missing an optimistic expectation for the future. To quote a German Roman Catholic theologian, Professor J. B. Metz of the University of Münster: “Our Western religiousness is secularized down to the bone. It seems that not even a trace of messianism has been left over. Rulership by God has vanished from it. He does not fulfill a role within the churches anymore, or within the theological and the social and political issues of our day.”
In addition, there is the influence of both world wars, which began in Europe in this century. Auschwitz, as a symbol of concentration camps during the second world war, has increased the criticism of the churches. For many, the fact that Pope Pius XII, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, kept virtually silent during critical periods is something hard to swallow.
In view of this, many have lost confidence in the church and its leaders. And how do you personally view these developments? Have they made you indifferent, and do you reason as do many others: ‘I will outlast this situation’? Still, looking at it from another angle, you no doubt see the threat of a nuclear holocaust and the ecological crisis, and without doubt you ponder the questions: ‘Really, what kind of future is there in store for me and my children?’ ‘As far as the future goes, does religion have anything to offer us?’
What Future Is There for Religion in Europe?
Many people consider it possible that Judeo-Christian tradition will have ceased to exist within a short time. Some theologians are of the opinion that Europe has already become a post-Christian society.
What does the Bible, the source of the faith Jesus Christ taught, say about the future of religion? If there is anybody who can say something significant on this subject, then of course it should be the Founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ.
As one studies the Bible, one of the things that immediately comes to the fore is what the apostle Peter said about the Bible itself at 1 Peter 1:24, 25: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like a blossom of grass; the grass becomes withered, and the flower falls off, but the saying of Jehovah endures forever.” The Bible will always exist, and history reveals that whatever its enemies have done in an effort to destroy it, they have not succeeded. And what has become of the teachings that Jesus Christ taught when on earth more than 19 centuries ago? How many of these teachings can one find in the various forms of religion?
In talking to a Samaritan woman at a well, Jesus explained what the requirements of pure worship are: “Nevertheless, the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for, indeed, the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him. God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” This worship “with spirit and truth” will always remain.—John 4:23, 24.
But what is it that is going to disappear? Divided Christendom, the friend of the political world. And why will it have to go? Because it has shown disregard for the warning: “Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever, therefore, wants to be a friend of the world is constituting himself an enemy of God.”—James 4:4.
In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, chapters 17 and 18, the world empire of false religion is symbolically described as a harlot, “Babylon the Great.” Revelation 17:16 and Re 18:8 describe how political elements will destroy her, and all who have shared in her sins will also receive of her plagues. That is why the following exhortation is sounded in Re 18 verse 4 of chapter 18: “Get out of her, my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins, and if you do not want to receive part of her plagues.” At that time the prophecy of Zephaniah will also be fulfilled: “For then I shall give to peoples the change to a pure language, in order for them all to call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder.”—Zephaniah 3:9.
Do you see where you stand in that picture? Are you serving with those who call on the name of Jehovah? What is needed so as to be able to do this?
What Can You Do in Order to Find Safety?
Although Christendom, along with all false religion, is bound to vanish from Europe as well as the rest of the world, true Christianity will remain forever. The crucial question is whether your faith will collapse or remain strong enough to enable you to survive when Christendom crashes down. What is necessary in order to survive? You must ‘worship the Father with spirit and truth.’ The Creator expects of you that you will get to know him through his Word, the Bible. Of that Word, Jesus said: “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) In the Bible, the course making survival possible is marked out, regardless of where you live on the face of the earth.
[Picture on page 15]
Church in Hoorn, now apartments and a clothing store
[Picture on page 15]
Lutheran church in Arnhem, now used for storage, cinema, and discotheque