I think one of the interesting issues that this latest anti-Hillsong conspiracy theory brings out is that many people, particularly Atheists, are disappointed that secularisation hasn’t panned out quite how they expected it. They expected that secularisation spelled the death of God, or the death of Christianity at least, and are now quite miffed to see it is not fading quietly into the night. Moreover, it seems the forms of Christianity that are thriving in secular environments are far more activist than those that are not, so if anything it must seem that the situation is getting worse. So what is really going on?
My contention is that secularisation has affected religious institutions in much the same way as deregulation has affected Banking institutions and Telecommunications institutions. It hurt those used to state protection; it helped those used to state suppression.
In the same way as the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra suffered losses of market share as their monopolistic grip over the financial and telecommunications industries in Australia was broken up with deregulation, so too the churches with the strongest ties to the state have often been the ones to suffer the most significant declines in membership as secularisation started biting.
In fact, if you look at the census data, relationship to the state seems to be one of the most reliable indicators of church decline or increase. The Catholic Church is the only exception (but different things are going on there). What this seems to suggest is that while secularisation may well spell the death of state-sponsored Christianity, it does not spell the death of Christianity as a whole. Quite the contrary, it points to a new era of state-independent Christianity, of more marginalised but more market-responsive forms of Christianity competing in an open market of religious and irreligious ‘isms’ where Atheism is only one of many options.
Now, some of these forms of Christianity will no doubt pander to the lowest common denominator, and yes we are seeing some of that already. But just as sophisticated products have their niche in an open market I also expect sophisticated forms of Christianity will have their niche too. And I expect the same can be said for other religious and irreligious options too. This boutique end of the spectrum is where I would like to locate myself.
But for people who thought the future was comfortably godless I suppose this must seem very threatening.