How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” — Carl Sagan
Biblical Christianity is bankrupt. I use ‘bankrupt’ in the exact sense of the term. A business that goes bankrupt still has value and is still capable of producing useful goods or services. It still has an inventory and trained professionals in its employ. Until the day insolvency is declared, it also usually has a façade—a bright and upbeat demeanor by which its clients and the community at large assume it to be relatively healthy. The only thing wrong is that a bankrupt business is no longer able to accomplish its purpose: to be successful. It is precisely in this sense that I suggest Bible-centered faith is bankrupt.
Yes, Christianity still has tens of thousands of churches reflecting an enormous range of theological diversity—and, yes, some are still thriving. Christianity has rituals and practices that many still find meaningful, along with organizations and ministries doing good and important work in the world.
The Church is not bankrupt because it has run out of things to say or do. Rather, it is bankrupt because the otherworldly product it has sold for centuries now lacks wide appeal. Christianity now lags behind our most advanced secular methods and tools for providing salvation in this life. As well, by failing to update its “map of reality” to correspond with our best evidential understanding of how things are and which things matter today (as discerned through empirical science, historical research, and cross-cultural experience), Bible-centered faith can no longer provide the two essential services all religions must provide in order to survive.
The root ‘religare’ means to link together. Evolutionarily robust religions over the tens of thousands of years of human existence have been those that, as philosopher of religion Loyal Rue observes, nurture “personal wholeness” at the individual level and “social coherence” at the community level. To do so, they must operate with as accurate a map as possible of what’s real (how things are) and what’s important (which things matter).
Biblical Christianity that does not integrate our best evidential understanding of the universe and human nature is doomed precisely because it is wedded to unchanging scripture. It suffers from what I call “idolatry of the written word.” No longer does it link together what young people learn in church and what they learn in their science and history classes at school—and on the Discovery and History channels at home. As well, biblical Christianity’s strongest lifeline for claiming continued relevance is seriously frayed—although only those who track scientific advances in neurobiology, infant psychology, and the social instincts of apes and monkeys may be aware of this perilous condition.
What is that frayed lifeline? It is the intertwined strands of two crucial religious functions: first, the matter of where we acquire our moral compass, and second, how we come into right relationship with reality, or “get right with God,” when we have fallen from the path. As to the former, we moderns come to the Bible with a culturally evolved moral compass by which we carefully pick and choose which passages to preach and study and teach our children. We do not get our morality from the Bible.
The reason we do not consult the book of Exodus when dealing with a disrespectful teenage son, or the book of Leviticus for parenting advice when a daughter loses her virginity, or the book of Numbers for how to handle Sabbath breakers, or the books of Deuteronomy or Revelation when needing guidance regarding family members who choose a different faith, is because murder is no longer considered a moral option.
As popular science blogger PZ Myers has claimed, “There is no surer way to make an atheist than to get them to actually read scripture.” This is especially true of the Internet generations in America—those whose parents and church leaders can no longer shield them from other-than-biblical views and understandings of the world.
The result: Young people are leaving church by the millions and Christianity in America is in steady decline. Absent some radical shift in how we raise our children in Christian environments, we can expect America in the 21st century to follow the faith-falling trajectory pioneered by Europe, Canada, and Australia in the 20th century. To cite just two examples: Evangelical icon Josh McDowell, who has worked for Campus Crusade for Christ since 1964, reports that 94% of high school graduates leave the faith within two years. The Southern Baptists estimate that 88% of their kids leave the church after high school. (See here, here, and here.)