I’ve seen it many times. A confident statement by a committed atheist that religion is dying out. It is inevitable. Modernisation, especially science, has made it impossible for the virus of faith to survive much longer.
Scandinavia is a peaceful paradise and almost godless, and shows that once society rides itself of God, prosperity and happiness follow. Well known atheist blogger and scientist, Jerry Coyne, has faith in this:
I believe with all my heart that some day America will end up like Scandinavia: virtually godless. I won’t live to see it, but I’m confident it will happen, and the trend is in that direction.
Many religious leaders see the same trends with concern but others disagree. God is still in business, they say, people are still being converted, and true religion is on the cusp of a comeback.
Everyone has a point of view and most of us have bias. Many of us fall victim to wishful thinking when we consider matters close to our hearts. Who has got it right? What do statistics and the experts say?
Back in the 1960s, sociologists like Peter Berger and Bryan Wilson argued that as the modern world became more affluent and secure, and people became more educated, people were becoming more rational and less in need of religion. As a result, “sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” (Peter Berger).
Modernisation was seen as inevitably leading to secularisation, and religion would soon become unimportant in advanced cultures.
Contemporary expressions of the inevitability of secularisation
I have already quoted Jerry Coyne’s view on the certainty of this. He has discussed the world statistics further here, under the title Religion dying off.
And there are mathematical models to “prove it”. Based on census data from nine western countries, one study predicted that religion would “all but die out altogether in those countries”.
Psychologist Nigel Barber has also argued that statistics show that “improved living conditions are associated with a decline in religion”. He therefore used mathematical models of religious belief and increasing affluence to lead to the conclusion that by about 2040 the world will have reached a level of affluence to make it majority atheist, or at least a majority seeing religion as unimportant. However this is a long way short of religion “dying out”.
What does the data say?
Recent surveys indicate:
- The four largest religious groupings in the world are Christians 31.5%, Muslims 23.2%, Unaffiliated 16.3% and Hindus 15.0%. More than 60% of the unaffiliated live in China. However the study points out that “many of the unaffiliated hold some religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith.” It is therefore difficult to say from this data how many atheists there are and whether their numbers are growing as secularisation predicts.
- The International Bulletin of Missionary Research has data for more than a century that shows which beliefs are growing as a percentage of world population (Islam, Pentecostal Christians) and which are declining (non-Pentecostal christians and those not included among the four major religions). Again this data doesn’t tell us how atheism is doing.
- In the US, the numbers of unaffiliated are currently almost 20%, rising at about 1% a year, and greater among the young. However only 2.4% of these are atheist plus 3.3% agnostic, with the remaining 13.9% of the unaffiliated not identifying with any group.
- In Australia, there has been a steady growth (about 4% per decade) in the number of people having no religion.
- Other studies around the world suggest that unbelief never gets above 40% in any country – many people who stop believing in a specific religion still believe in a “life force” or “universal spirit”.
The data thus shows that while religion is declining in many countries, it is growing in others. And those who leave a religion are generally more likely to hold to some less defined religious belief, or have no interest in the question, rather than self identify as atheist.
Critics of the secularisation thesis
The sociologists change their minds
Berger and most other sociologists of religion have realised that their earlier thesis was based predominantly on European data and the assumption that most other countries would follow the European model. The US was seen as an aberration. (The data used by Barber and others to predict the demise of religion by 2040 was also based on this assumption.)
But they are now confident that the world is not generally following that model. For example, the increasingly affluent middle class in China is showing growing interest in christianity. And while the number of non-believers is growing in the US, they doubt it will follow Europe.
Secularisation is more likely to mean pluralism with no dominant religion, rather than atheism. In most countries religion and modernity appear to be quite compatible.
God is back
About 5 years ago John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge published God is Back, which reviewed the data and the sociologists’ conclusions. The authors (both journalists) concluded that “the global revival of faith is changing the world”. This review summarised their conclusions:
If there is any trend that can be discerned in the parts of the world that are most rapidly modernising, it is that secular belief systems are in decline and the old faiths are being reborn.
The effect of birthrate
Political Scientist Eric Kaufmann argues that atheism will not succeed because atheists, who are in largest numbers in affluent societies, have lower birthrates. Michael Blume provides data to support this conclusion, though others disagree.
- It seems likely that christianity will continue to lose ground in some of the more affluent western countries, including the US, but continue to gain converts in Asia, Africa and South America. Islam will continue to grow (including in Europe) because it has a higher birthrate.
- Atheism will probably continue to grow slowly in the west, but the bulk of those leaving the major religions will probably not end up atheist, but have some less defined religious belief or simply be unaffiliated.
- It isn’t at all clear whether the numbers of the unaffiliated will grow or not. The growth of the unaffiliated in western countries may be offset by a decline in China, where the bulk of the world’s unaffiliated live, and where christianity is growing fastest of anywhere.
It seems the future is not as certain as Jerry Coyne and other atheists hope. They have extrapolated from Europe’s past and the US present, but the experts think this is an inadequate, and probably wrong, basis for prediction.
But in the end, prediction means little. The future will tell its own story.
Australia has been a predominantly secular country for as long as I can remember, and the drop in church attendance and belief to about 10% reflects (I think) the level of personal belief that was there all along. So the worldwide figures and the predictions of the experts seem quite positive to me, especially as present trends suggest a move away from organised religion to more organic faith such as simple churches.
Statistics of belief and disbelief don’t tell us much about the truth of any viewpoint. But the present situation presents an interesting challenge and performance measure. For the predictions are based on naturalistic assumptions and don’t account for any action by God.
If the atheists are right and natural processes are all that will influence christian growth or decline, then logically the secularisation thesis “ought” to be correct and religion will inevitably decline. Their “faith” in naturalism will have been confirmed.
But if, as I believe, christianity is true and God is involved with his world, then the atheist predictions will be shown to be mistaken and the christian faith will thrive and grow in often unexpected places, and be reformed and corrected in the west, to become a servant force in a world with dwindling hope.
Time will tell!
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Main picture: morgueFile.