Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 22—1900 onward—False Religion—Overtaken by Its Past!
“The key to a nation’s future is in her past.”—Arthur Bryant, 20th century English historian
BABYLON THE GREAT is what the Bible calls the world empire of false religion, likening it to the ancient nation of Babylon. (Revelation 18:2) What happened to that empire of old bodes no good for its modern-day namesake. In a single night in 539 B.C.E., Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus the Great. After having diverted the waters of the Euphrates River, which flowed through the city, the attacking troops were able to move in undetected over the riverbed.
Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ, a king greater than Cyrus, will achieve a similar victory over unfaithful Babylon the Great. The Bible describes her as being a great harlot sitting on many waters, indicating the support she receives from “peoples and crowds and nations and tongues.” But prior to destruction, this support, like “the great river Euphrates,” must be “dried up, that the way [may] be prepared for the kings from the rising of the sun.”—Revelation 16:12; 17:1, 15.
Evidence that such a drying-up process is occurring today would be invaluable in identifying false religion. Is there any evidence?
A Bright Outlook Dims
As the 20th century dawned, every third person on earth professed Christianity. The outlook for Christendom was bright. In 1900, evangelist and Nobel prize winner John R. Mott mirrored optimism, publishing a book entitled The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.
But “the 20th century,” admits the World Christian Encyclopedia, “has proved to be startlingly different from these expectations.” Explaining that “no-one in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism, in Russia and later Eastern Europe due to Communism, and in the Americas due to materialism,” it says that these and other “pseudo-religions” mushroomed “from a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, . . . to 20.8% of the globe by 1980.”
These “massive defections” have left the churches of Western Europe practically empty. Since 1970 the Lutheran Church in the Federal Republic of Germany has lost over 12 percent of its members. More than one third of the churches in the Netherlands have been closed, some converted to warehouses, restaurants, apartments, and even discos. And in Britain almost every eighth Anglican church in existence 30 years ago is no longer used. No wonder a clergyman speaking last year at a conference of European Protestant theologians and clergymen complained that “the former ‘Christian West’ can no longer call itself Christian. . . . Europe has become a missionary field.”
However, the problem goes beyond Christendom and beyond Europe. It is estimated, for example, that throughout the world, Buddhism is losing 900,000 persons a year to agnosticism.
A Lack of Personnel
“To rouse a village first rouse its priests,” advises a Japanese proverb. But what priests? In the decade prior to 1983, the number of Catholic priests worldwide decreased by 7 percent. And in 15 years, nuns by 33 percent. Meanwhile, the outlook for replacements is gloomy. In less than 20 years, the enrollment at Catholic seminaries in the United States plummeted from 48,992 to 11,262.
Catholic orders are also suffering. At one time, the Society of Jesus, founded in Paris in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola, practically controlled education in a number of countries. Its members, popularly called Jesuits, took the lead in missionary activity. But since 1965, membership has dropped by over one fourth.
Bad enough that personnel is dwindling; worse still is that many of them can no longer be trusted. The number of priests and nuns who oppose official church policy on celibacy, birth control, and the religious role of women is increasing. This was demonstrated in January 1989 when 163 European Catholic theologians issued a public statement—by May 1 it had been signed by over 500 more—accusing the Vatican of authoritarianism and misuse of power.
Millions in Christendom have become spiritually dead, victims of spiritual malnutrition. A U.S. churchman admitted as much when he complained: “The church [has become] a supermarket dispensing spiritual junk food to passers-by. The pastor’s sermon is little more than the ‘special of the week,’ offered to customers at a discount of commitment.”
Since 1965, membership in five mainline Protestant denominations in the United States has dropped by some 20 percent and Sunday school enrollment by over 50 percent. “Not only are the traditional denominations failing to get their message across,” writes Time magazine, but “they are increasingly unsure just what that message is.” Small wonder, in view of such a spiritual famine, that many church journals have suspended publication. Already in the mid-1970’s, one of them lamented: “The era of the general church magazine . . . has passed.”
An Indifferent and Unresponsive Flock
In the 18th century, English statesman Edmund Burke realized that “nothing is so fatal to religion as indifference.” If alive today, he would find indifferent religionists aplenty.
For example, when interviewed some years ago, 44 percent of Lutherans in the United States said they would not talk about their faith to nonchurch families if asked to do so by their pastor. A more recent poll showed that over three fourths of U.S. Catholics feel that disagreeing with the pope, even on moral issues, does not disqualify them from being good Catholics.
In Japan, 79 percent of the population say that being religious is important. But since, according to Religions of Modern Man, only one third actually profess a religion, it is apparent that many are too indifferent to follow through.
Religiously indifferent adults do not generally have zealous and responsive children. A survey of 11- to 16-year-olds made by the director of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bonn, Germany, revealed that more than ever before, young people are looking for personalities on whom to model behavior. But when asked who their role models are, the youngsters failed to mention church leaders even once.
Political Clout on the Wane
No longer does organized religion wield the political clout it once did. For example, the Vatican has been unable, even in major Catholic countries, to prevent the passage of laws on abortion, divorce, and freedom of worship clearly not to its liking. Similarly, circumstances compelled the Vatican to agree to a 1984 concordat that robbed Catholicism of its status as Italy’s established religion!
What false religion formerly achieved by subtle political pressure it now tries to accomplish by public protest movements led by its prominent clergymen, such as Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
A 1910 conference of Protestant missionary societies in Edinburgh, Scotland, gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement. This movement has recently been intensified in an attempt to promote religious cooperation and mutual understanding, allowing “the Christian religion” to speak with one voice.
The ecumenical movement takes many forms. A significant step was taken in 1948 in Amsterdam when the World Council of Churches was formed. Originally composed of almost 150 Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, the council now boasts double that number.
Although not a member of the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church seems to be inching in that direction. In 1984 at the council’s Swiss headquarters, Pope John Paul joined the council’s outgoing general secretary in leading an ecumenical prayer service. And in May 1989, Catholics were among the more than 700 European churchmen who conferred in Basel, Switzerland, at what one newspaper called the “largest ecumenical event since the Reformation.”
Since the mid-1930’s, this willingness to compromise has become more pronounced because of a growing acceptance of the idea that all “Christian” religions have an inherent God-given unity. As “proof” of inherent unity, the World Council of Churches emphasizes that all its members accept the Trinity doctrine, viewing “Jesus Christ as God and Savior.”
Christendom has also pursued dialogue with non-Christian religions. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, this is to find a workable compromise “between an attitude of theological imperialism, which implies that if one faith is the truth no other faiths really have a right to exist, and a syncretism, which implies that there are not enough differences between the faiths to pose an issue and that some amalgamating of them all can create a new faith for the future.”
In reality, false religion is like a cord made up of many strands, all of which are pulling in different directions. This is a prelude to disaster, for Jesus’ words have yet to be disproved: “Every kingdom divided against itself comes to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”—Matthew 12:25.
Accept the True, Reject the False!
Some people may choose to ignore the evidence. But unfounded optimism is dangerous. “The churches have lived for more than a generation with the hope that things would get better more or less of their own accord,” noted The Times of London in October 1988. It added: “In spite of the gradual long term decline in church membership in Britain, there has been little sustained effort within the churches to explain or reverse it, or to devise policies accordingly.” It then logically concluded: “Any commercial organization finding its sales continually reduced would either prepare itself for ultimate disaster or take steps to improve its product and its marketing.”
Nothing indicates that false religion will “take steps to improve its product and its marketing.” The only basis for optimism for God-fearing persons lies in turning to the one true religion, whose flowing streams of spiritual water are in no danger of drying up. As regards false religion, “The Time for Settling Accounts Is Near.” Learn more when that article appears in our next issue.
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Jehovah’s Witnesses: Their Waters Are Not Drying Up
“As traditional religions slowly decline, their churches and temples getting emptier all the time, Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing increased membership and are even getting former church buildings and other new facilities in which to gather their new members.”—Le Petit Journal, Canadian newspaper.
“There are in Italy about 45 thousand . . . Today the sect has real magazines, which are nice and even interesting (they are rich with news and articles from all over the world), prints small books that are up-to-date and also answer the most expert Catholic Bible scholars, distributes Bibles translated directly from Hebrew . . . With these methods, the Witnesses have had even enormous success.”—Famiglia Mese, Italian Catholic magazine (written in 1975; by April 1989, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Italy had grown to 169,646.)
“[Jehovah’s Witnesses] are baptizing hundreds while we are baptizing twos and threes.”—The Evangelist, official organ of the Evangelical Tract Distributors. (Jehovah’s Witnesses baptized 69,649 persons in 1962 when this statement was made; in 1988 the number of newly baptized Witnesses was 239,268.)
“In 1962 I concluded a study of Jehovah’s Witnesses with this observation: ‘That the New World Society will suddenly run out of steam is doubtful.’ . . . There are well over twice as many Witnesses today  as then. All signs indicate the Watchtower Society will probably double again in size during the next decade.”—William J. Whalen in U.S. Catholic. (The 989,192 Witnesses of 1962 grew to 3,592,654 by 1988.)
Since 1970 the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Federal Republic of Germany (and West Berlin) has increased by 38 percent. In the past 30 years, the number of congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands has increased from 161 to 317, and in Britain from 825 to 1,257, necessitating the erection of many new Kingdom Halls in both countries.—Compare paragraph 3 under the subtitle “A Bright Outlook Dims.”
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Religion goes largely ignored in the hustle and bustle of today’s world