Salvation has always been the most important concept for Christians. Their core belief, regardless of denomination, is that from the beginning human sinfulness barred us from heaven, but God in his mercy sent his Son to atone for our sins and make possible our salvation.
Most Christians still hold that belief and live by it. But a growing number have abandoned it or embraced an understanding that in times past would have qualified as heresy.
Pew research shows that the number of Christians in the U.S. is declining among both men and women of all races and ethnic groups, and most dramatically among young adults. Between 2007 and 2014 alone, the decline was 7%, while the number of atheists and agnostics increased by more than 6%.
Furthermore, though 85% of Americans were raised as Christians, nearly 25% of them are no long Christian. The change is most dramatic among Catholics, 41% of whom have left the Church. According to Pew, “no other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.”
The decline in the number of practicing Christians can be traced to a variety of factors. The earliest ones include industrialization, the migration from rural areas to cities, and the attendant weakening of family ties. A more recent factor is the secularization of society, most notably in education, the media, and government.
In addition to such broad social processes, there is another more powerful factor in the decline, and that is an idea that has gained a strong foothold in American culture over the last half-century—the idea that there is no such thing as sin.
That notion was fostered by the field of psychology, which from its inception in the late 19th century gradually diminished the influence of both philosophy and religion and became, in time, the main interpreter of human nature and behavior. As psychiatrist Karl Menninger observed, many psychologists redefined sin as a form of disease. (See his 1973 book, Whatever Became of Sin?)
From that psychological point of view, the responsibility for socially disapproved behavior does not lie so much with the perpetrator as with his or her genetic makeup, parents, teachers, or society in general. The perpetrator thus becomes a victim and should feel aggrieved rather than remorseful.
The school of psychology known as “Humanistic” and led by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow struck an even more devastating blow at the concept of sin by proposing that right and wrong should be determined by each individual according to his or her feelings.
These psychologists argued that people are justified in doing whatever they want to do, which is another way of saying that the message of the Ten Commandments and the Gospel, and for that matter logic and common sense, are irrelevant. Moreover, that the concept of sin is meaningless and the idea of being saved from it is therefore nonsensical.
The psychologists went even further, claiming that people need to maintain a high level of self-esteem to function adequately in life and therefore should be wary of both criticism by others (for example, parents and teachers) and self-criticism.
A clear implication of this claim is that what Catholics call “examination of conscience” is fraught with danger to one’s health. For if, by chance, we discover that something we have done was wrong, we would be forced to criticize ourselves and damage our self-regard. To then take that finding to the confessional would constitute psychic self-flagellation.
Given a half-century of this attack on the concepts of sin and salvation, it is no surprise that many people have fallen away from Christianity. More surprising is the fact that more have not done so.
The Catholic Church and other Christian churches have taken a variety of approaches to draw former believers back to Christian faith and practice. But the most effective one is likely to be continuing exposure of the shallowness, in some cases absurdity, of psychology’s arguments against religion.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.