What Replaces Christianity?

A general outline of what is replacing Christianity as the public order of the old Christendom and its overseas enclaves

We often hear expressions like “the post-Christian era” to describe the time we live in. Just as Christianity preserved many pagan practices, a “post-Christian era” will retain many Christian customs and ideas. They will usually be disguised under different names or explanations. We will notice a pseudo-heaven and hell, an explanation for sin not based on free will, an inner-worldly immortality of sorts, an evil and a good in Manichean fashion. 

But a post-Christian age will invent new names and explanations for them. It will logically “develop” ideas into a new form or synthesis that is anything but Christian. To know what a post-Christian era might mean, no doubt, it is helpful to know what Christianity is and maintains. And this knowledge, in spite of the General Catechism, is not easy to come by today. We used to talk of Christian “heresies”. These were explanations of one or other Christian idea in a different, erroneous, or inaccurate way. But the heretic generally did not disagree with the whole corpus of Christian ideas. In fact, he thought he was giving a better explanation of those ideas and beliefs.

What “replaces” Christianity, we can assume, will want to appear to itself, at least, to be logically coherent. It will claim to explain human life and its earthly condition, usually in what is called a “scientific” way. Indeed, that will be one of its basic propositions, namely, that everything can be explained by scientific method. What cannot be so explained will be said not to exist, or not to be worth studying. Scientific method itself depends on quantity and mathematics based on it. If reality also contains things that are not quantifiable, that can be reached by other methods, these facts will be denied or ignored.

What are the most obvious tenets to a world-view that replaces Christianity? I would begin by pointing out that other world-views like Islam, which also intend to replace Christianity, have remained pretty much consistent with themselves over the centuries. It is true that Islam can be considered a New Testament, or better Old Testament heresy. Most of its ideas were present in some form before its arrival on the scene in the seventh century. And Islam is indeed one of the major candidates to replace Christianity in many parts of the world, as it did in the early years of the Muslim conquest of Persia, North Africa, the Holy Land, and across the central Asian plains to parts of India.

One way to look at this issue would be to consult birth-rates among various nations and peoples. Birth rates among Christian people, including Catholics, in Europe and North America are way below replacement needs. It is quite clear that what is called the white race is in a rapid proportionate decline in its overall numbers. The largest countries today, China and India, are themselves experiencing a change in population growth. What seems clear now, something that was not really a concern of earlier generations, was the possibility of parts of the human race choosing to decline and reduce its overall presence in the world. If this were a phenomenon among everyone, we would not look on it as a problem of the relation of nations to each other, but when one group declines and another takes its place by immigration or other means, the newer and more populous peoples will probably dominate future political entities.

But a relation exists between population and ideas. The world number of abortions worldwide since 1980 is over one billion, three hundred million people. The conception and subsequent abortion of such children was the result of ideas about ecology, personal choice, science, economic capacity, and freedom. The Planned Parenthood Motto, “Every child a wanted child” is, in principle, a good one. The trouble, of course, is that its authors do not mean that we should want and take care of the actual children we beget. Rather, it means that if we do not want such children on conception, we need not have them. They have no intrinsic worth due to being human.
That switch in the meaning of “wanted” is one of the tenets of the ideology that replaces Christianity. We do not proceed from the being of a thing—to how we relate to it—but from our will to create our own reality, from what we want to what we allow and enable to exist.

II.

Perhaps the main idea that replaces Christianity is the idea that man can save himself—or better, that he needs no savior. Nothing is wrong with him that he cannot identify and fix himself. He needs no redeemer. None of his actions has transcendent meaning. Humanism thus comes to mean that man is the architect of his own being. He does not “receive” what he is from a God or nature. He is nothing until he makes himself into something he wants to be. His given being is no cause of worship for a creator who formed him. In himself, he is a result of chance and meaningless evolution. He can only be “satisfied” if what he is owes its content to himself. He is not a “social” being who requires others for him to be complete and happy. Each man is free to define himself. No one’s happiness depends on anyone else but himself.

The state exists to enable everyone to be what he wants to be. The collectivity enables as many people as possible to achieve their own vision of their happiness whatever it is. No common good exists other than the greatest good of the greatest number. There is no truth. No criterion exists by which we can say that one life is better or more complete than another. However, since various understandings of life oppose each other, we must erect some institution to decide what arbitrary way of life is to be allowed. This selection becomes the function of the state. It takes on the task of keeping peace by adjudicating and forcing peace. Peace is not agreement in a common understanding of being and truth, but a condition of non-hostility, enforced by power.
Further, since ideas cause conflict, they will need to be carefully regulated. There will be no “free speech,” but only “non-hate” speech. No one will be allowed to say anything is wrong with anything or anybody.

The only conceivable opposition to such a world view would be a claim that there is a truth in reality to which man is invited freely to know and pursue. This view would suggest that it is possible to say some ways of life are better than others, even that some are wrong—that a distinction between good and evil exists outside our subjective estimate of what it is. It is not enough to hold that no distinction between good and evil exists. We cannot express any public opinion on the issue. This would entail calling things evil that we did not like. This “calling” would disturb the peace. Hence, no discussion can be allowed. We are locked into a welter of diverse opinions about which we cannot meaningfully speak both because there is no objective answer and because the suggestion that some difference exists would be “hate language.”

Such is the general outline of what is replacing Christianity as the public order of the old Christendom and its overseas enclaves. While some Christian presence is found outside of Europe and its offshoots, some two/thirds of the world’s population is not Christian in any case and is not open to its influence. Political regimes in these areas range from hostile to minimally tolerant, provided no sign of significant Christian growth take place. The rest of the world, in some way, has to confront the same ideas that are replacing Christianity. One widely held view is that the way to tame the growing aggressiveness of Islam is to subject it to the same post-modern forces. But that would just extend the same problem beyond its sources of origin. Islam thus far has shown itself rather impervious to these forces, which explains much of its current strength.

III.

Catholics in particular have debated the nature of the “new evangelization” designed to confront the tenets of the post-Christian world. Pope Benedict especially emphasized the importance of renewed attention to Europe, the origin of the aberrations. He also faced and clarified its intellectual origins. Evangelization of Islam seems almost impossible in any meaningful sense. Christians, not Muslims, are left with a rhetoric of “dialogue” when there is really no one to dialogue with.

Much is the same is true with the Chinese, the Hindu, and the Buddhist world. The Hindus and Buddhists have begun, as has Islam, to look for expansion into the post-Christian world. Latin America, while it remains largely Catholic, is witnessing a large shift to evangelical forms of Christianity or to more Marxist types of social action as the response to the situation.

We do find schools of thought that maintain, with some scriptural and much Augustinian support, that, as the world nears its end, there will be fewer and fewer believers, only a “remnant.” Whether this is the time in which such a turn might happen is not for us to tell, though the phrase “signs of the times” largely referred to this period.

But the “replacement” of Christianity, in its intellectual roots (as Eric Voegelin once wrote), seems to be more related to a decline in the faith of Christian men. They were impatient with the means of prayer, sacrifice, sacrament, and judgment that informed classic Catholicism. They began to consider these means to their transcendent ends to be impediments to their success in this world. So they turned to this very world to fulfill what they conceived to be their “right” to a better order of this life. To do this, they had to transform the Christian doctrines into tools or incentives in this world, for its inner-worldly completion of man’s ultimate destiny.

In pursuing this line, modern men ended up with that world of self-fulfillment that we described above. The saving of the earth became more important than the saving of souls. The freedom to choose what we want replaced that freedom based on the truth. Action replaced contemplation. Having replaced being. An inner-worldly eschatology explained man’s purpose on this planet. And if man’s sojourn on this planet is itself finite, which it seems to be in scientific terms, we must look to space, to other planets to carry on man’s work in this world.

The whole human race and its billions of inhabitants over the eons seem so transient. Without a theory or reality in which each human being has a transcendent origin and destiny, the whole record of mankind on this planet seems to mean nothing if all we find in it are myriads of men seeking their own definition of what they are about. It is in this direction, perhaps, that in the end evangelization must move. The post-modern world may, in the end, just provide the logic that enables us to see that what Christian men gave up was far superior to what they offered to replace it.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.