Can Faith Survive in the “First World”?

“As incomes go up, steeples come down. . . .Happiness arrives and God gets gone.” Looking at the so-called first world, this assertion, on the whole, has some merit. Over the last few centuries, as our material and creaturely comforts have slowly multiplied, religious fervor within society has generally declined. Yet this decline has not happened to the same degree in less opulent parts of the world. Since the sweep of secularism within the first world seems to have coincided with material and technological advancement, it is fair to ask whether religious faith will survive in this climate.

This seeming incompatibility of faith and human comfort is not new. Our Lord himself announced this tension in a warning to all: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:24) This admonition followed Jesus’s advice to a rich young man, who chose to return sadly to his many possessions rather than follow Jesus.

From the opposite perspective, faith seems stronger when people are in need. Ten lepers sought Jesus in their distress; once their needs were met, only one remembered to pay homage to his Healer. The heroic inspiration of martyrs has spurred faith in many believers during times of oppression. In our own day, Catholic churches at noon on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, were far more crowded than on the Tuesday prior or the Tuesdays since.

Even our Lenten practice of fasting seems to point in this direction. By fasting we deliberately deprive ourselves of food and other physical goods in order to spark spiritual growth. In the first week of Lent, we asked God that “through the chastening effects of bodily discipline, our minds may be radiant in your presence with the strength of our yearning for you.”

So was Marx right – is religion just the opiate of the masses, destined to be eradicated once sufficient wealth and material happiness are obtained? Will faith be snuffed out in the first world as its inhabitants grow more comfortable?

"Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ" by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
“Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ” by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
            First, there is nothing wrong with material goods or physical comforts in themselves. Second, so far, faith has clearly survived the spreading of luxury goods and secularization. Many still believe, and believe fervently, including some of the wealthiest and most comfortable among us. There are parishes and regions throughout the first world where religious practice is fervent, and rich and poor young people are still answering the call of religious vocations. So it is not the case that wealth and comfort necessarily destroy faith.

But it does seem fair to conclude that “first-world living,” as we know it today, has the potential to be inimical to the life of faith. Our restless hearts destined for God, as St. Augustine put it, can easily be distracted (in the literal sense of “dragged away”) by the wide and easy availability of comforts, conveniences, and medicines that promise happiness. Amid the frantic pace and constant din of our current world, God’s voice, which prefers silence and stillness, becomes more difficult to hear.

Yet the first world is more than a glut of things, noises, and activities. The sheer power of technology and material goods has given birth to a unique spirit, one characteristic of the Modern Age that gave birth to the first world: the service and worship of ourselves as the ultimate end for which these goods exist. Rather than see our material progress as a means of building the Kingdom of God, the first world has instead chosen to use technology to banish God in attempt to make ourselves the self-sufficient rulers of the universe. As a society, we have allowed the materials to lead us to materialism – the belief that only what is physical and tangible has any real significance.

Within this milieu, it is difficult for faith in an invisible and immaterial God, who promises not an elimination of our worldly sufferings, but a bestowal of an unknown type of union with Him after death, to take hold of minds already captivated by material goods and their promises. Imagine the response of a typical teenager to a description of the beatific vision as his cell phone flashes with all sorts of pictures and messages. There certainly are teens who have found today’s materialism empty and embraced religion, but they are relatively few.

Today the enemies of faith in the first world are as formidable as anytime in salvation history. And this history shows that Catholics have had massive success evangelizing whole peoples when they were compelled by two deeply held beliefs: a profound love of Christ to the point of martyrdom, and an understanding that those they encounter cannot be saved unless they accept the Gospel.

Our Lord promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but that was not a guarantee to keep souls within her. A distressing number of first world residents have heard of the Gospel but have not listened to it. Unless our efforts at evangelization reach the same zeal as the successful missionaries of the past, the first world may find itself the reason for our Lord’s sobering and haunting question: “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.