Is religion dying out? Is this inevitable in the modern world?

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?

Secularisation theory

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 secularisation thesis has been abandoned by most sociologists (though not all), because, they say, it hasn’t happened.

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.

Summary

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Personal reflection

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!

What can we learn from a prominent atheist’s views on “faith”?

Main picture: morgueFile.

35 Comments

  1. It’s fair to add that Berger rejects the secularisation thesis as well now. He regards Western Europe as a special case.

    Scandinavia isn’t by a long shot the secular paradise the more undiscerning American atheists hold it for. Large segments of the population are nominally attached to the former state churches and regard them as important traditions. Only Sweden is particularly atheistic.

  2. Yes, I did actually mention that Berger, along with most others, rejects the thesis he once supported.

    Thanks for your comments about Scandinavia. How do you see other parts of Europe you are familiar with?

  3. Interesting post. I’ve been observing these studies and predictions for a while now. My gut feeling is that humans as a whole are just more instinctively spiritual than they are reductionist. Whatever becomes of the traditional religions (I suspect they will continue to evolve), I just have trouble foreseeing a time (at least any time soon) when atheism will rule the world. Of course I may be wrong.

  4. Ah, I see it now. Sorry for that.

    Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled about the monolithic way in which Europe is often presented in media, but also more academic texts. I mean, the percentage of weekly church attenders in the US is 25%, but countries like Italy and Ireland score actually higher. Malta and Poland may score higher still.

    Germany is rather similar to Scandinavia in several respects, but East-Germany is still very irreligious, which makes most of the difference.

    I think there are two important factors at play in Western Europe’s church decline. One is the fact that liberal churches are very bad at keeping young members connected. Another problem was that some orthodox churches maintained a very public profile, but often regarded other churches and secular people as evil, leading to obnoxious confrontations that put people off religion. As a result, the liberal churches lost membership.

    I suspect the BBC article made a mistake, though. There are no actual censuses in the Netherlands and certainly no religion questions on censuses. So the information can’t be based on census data.

  5. Hi Doug, thanks for your comment. I think we are pretty much agreed on what you say.

    G’day IgnorantiaNescia, thanks for that clarification. I was interested in your earlier comments on Scandinavia and now on Netherlands. Another blog I follow, by a Swedish guy, said this in a recent post:

    we are one of the most secularised countries in the world, xenophobia and racism is spreading, the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer

    I think one of the problems with liberal churches is that they lack faith, and without faith, liberal theology loses inspiration and motivation. While I have adopted some more ‘liberal’ views (e.g. of the OT), I still believe most of the normal christian doctrines because they are taught in the NT – and while NT scholarship makes it difficult to ‘prove’ some of these teachings historically, I think what can be taught provides sufficient justification to believe them in faith. And these teachings give me strong motivation. But a liberal theology, like Spong’s or Borg’s seems to me to offer little more than humanism and historical curiosity.

    I must do a post on that sometime.

  6. I must clarify that with liberalism I had the old, nineteenth century style of liberalism in mind, which Spong and Borg, your examples, indeed perpetuate. I suspect that the theology of a Bultmann or a Tillich might be much more durable, but they never enjoyed as much attention in wider society.

  7. Also, while I don’t doubt for a moment that the trends your informer reports are correct, it is still the case that these trends are relatively minor. Sweden remains one of the most socio-economically egalitarian (even too equal to my tastes) and culturally open societies on this planet. It must be difficult for the trends to be in the other direction!

  8. These surveys have a tendency to convey a sense of urgency or imminence that has the other side racing to draw up their own set of stats.

    I am inclined to adhere to the old adage, ‘‘There’s no smoke without fire.” and thus look at the bigger picture.

    The global availability of information via the internet has made all number of things accessible – religious information is no different; be it educational, proselytizing, or refuting. Its all there at the touch of a mouse click.

    Fifty years is paltry when one considers how long religion has held humankind in its thrall.
    The key is to project forward to say, around five hundred years, if one can, and what can be envisaged?
    A world that has thoroughly embraced Christianity, Judaism or Islam, or a world that has seen the erosion of religion to the status of an outdated but possible quaint collection of stories similar to those of so many other stories now confined to the history books and encyclopedias?

    Religion in general is founded upon supernatural elements and so far not a single one has delivered on its promises.

    Think of any defunct religion…

    What is to prevent current religions from going the same way?

  9. “The key is to project forward to say, around five hundred years, if one can, and what can be envisaged?”

    Hi One Sceptic, thanks for continuing to read my blog. If you think you can project forward 500 years, you are a better person than I am! I wouldn’t be sure that the human race will still exist in that time, or what physical conditions we might live under.

    “Religion in general is founded upon supernatural elements and so far not a single one has delivered on its promises.”

    How do you know this? Perhaps there are right now billions of people enjoying heaven and you wouldn’t be aware of it! Besides, christianity promises me forgiveness, peace of mind and a purpose in life and it has delivered all them for me and many others.

    “What is to prevent current religions from going the same way?”

    God?

    (At least for one current religion.)

  10. “What is to prevent current religions from going the same way?”

    God?

    (At least for one current religion.)

    Sorry, this quote went over my head…maybe too much sun today.
    Which current religion?

  11. Whichever one God believes in. 🙂

    Ah…got you! Yes, this is true. Yet if history is to be believed then every City State, Country, Empire believed similarly, and no doubt felt their gods ( and subsequent belief in them) would last forever.

    This is why I suggested hypothesizing into the future to consider how god belief would be.

    Considering the scientific advances over the past 50 years alone and the documented decline in religious belief in the more advanced European countries and even Australia ( a trend that will likely reflect in countries such as Africa and China in the not too distant future) why would it be preposterous to envisage a purely secular humanist world without any form of religious adherence?

    Judaism is the foundational religion for all the Abrahamic faiths and slowly but surely, it is coming to terms (grips) that its tenets are fictitious.
    This will inevitably have negative ripple effects for Islam and Christianity; there is only so much goal post shifting that can be done, surely? 🙂

    If the world was genuinely moving toward a more religious mode of existence and there was some sort of evidence that religious tenets had even a measure of credibility I would consider that one or the other of the Big Two would eventually outshine and prove itself to be ”Truth”.

    This does not appear to be happening, so while stats currently paint a reasonably rosy picture for religion and god belief in general, if history is any guide then it doesn’t look good ( for religion) long term and its likely demise is there for all to see…in the tea leaves.

  12. One Sceptic, this is just all speculation, arising out of your own wishful thinking.

    You are welcome to post it here, but you can offer no evidence because it is all in the future. I don’t see a lot of point in discussing that, especially as I could just as easily say the opposite based on the same lack of evidence.

  13. Well,it was merely in response to your own hypothetical speculative post, that’s all, nothing serious.

    Stats are one thing, evidence another.

    Stats clearly show that in some countries religion is gaining ground, whereas in many others it is losing ground.

    Evidence shows that of the worlds’ religions, most have had a “shelf life” and most gods have come and gone. Look at how long the Egyptian Dynasties lasted or the Roman. Millenia. But where are they now?
    All gone and all their gods too.

    I was under the impression that this was an open forum where ideas where welcome.
    If you merely wish to post in an echo chamber then it’s hardly worth commenting then, is it?

  14. “Well,it was merely in response to your own hypothetical speculative post

    Hi One Sceptic, mine wasn’t a hypothetical speculative post and I don’t know how you could call it that. It is based on actual data and the interpretation of that data by experts. I specifically avoided hypothetical speculation by saying “TIme will tell!”

    I was under the impression that this was an open forum where ideas where welcome. If you merely wish to post in an echo chamber then it’s hardly worth commenting then

    I’m sorry you think this, but again, I don’t know how you can say this when I said: “You are welcome to post it here”. I just said I didn’t have a lot of interest in discussing such wild speculation.

  15. Evidence? History….look at the Egyptians and the Romans to name two who held the belief their gods would survive.

    And your ”expert data” is misleading, as it cannot possibly project very far into the future any more than me suggesting there may be a complete secular overhaul in 500 years.

    The expert data includes countries like China and certain parts of Africa, still massively untapped resources for the entrepreneurial proselytizer, but in world terms they are still in infancy regarding Christianity and Islam, numbered in a few hundred years.
    Islam has been around for about 1500 and Christianity around 2000. If we project what is happening in countries that were once wholly religious because the church ruled almost as a theocracy and are now ever more secular, onto countries like China or continents like Africa then there is no reason to believe they will not got the same way.

    As mentioned before by several bloggers religion can only survive in a secular society, yet to become the sole global religion will mean the eradication of all the others, a highly unlikely scenario considering the two major religions are unable to get their own houses in any semblance of unification.

    Thus, logic suggests, based on historical evidence that the demise of religion albeit a fairly slow process, is inevitable.

    Truth will always ”out ” in the end, as it should.
    Sadly, based on history and current global trends religion has yet to provide any.

  16. it seems the future is not as certain…..

    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!

    🙂 Now this is wishful thinking.

  17. Thus, logic suggests, based on historical evidence that the demise of religion albeit a fairly slow process, is inevitable.

    Critical comment here: I didn’t see anything suggesting inevitability in your logic.

    Here’s another trend: ultra-orthodox subgroup often tend to still grow. Can we extrapolate from that that in the far future (such as 500 years) they will dominate the earth?

  18. Critical comment here: I didn’t see anything suggesting inevitability in your logic.

    Then maybe you ought to study the history of religion in a little more depth?

  19. Quite frankly religion is like an elderly gentleman: it’s nice for it to be around but, as technology grows with each passing day, it begins to weigh us down. I may just be a mere 12 year old but I am really intrigued by this statement you have made

  20. Hi Immanuel, what statement was it you were intrigued by?

    I think religion probably does weigh us down – unless it happens to be true, in which case it lifts us up.

  21. God does exist. I am a teenager and have experienced him up close. You are deceived. Christianity is not a primitive faith. All of the morals that still remain among agnostics come from Christianity. From your point of view, there should be nothing wrong with murdering someone, since there is no authority to tell you not to. However, you don’t do this because you feel that its wrong and you know it’s wrong. That feeling is God working his truth into your mind. Depression is observed far less among Christians because God brings peace. I pray that God opens your eyes so that you are able to see the truth, because what you see now is all false. You think you worship nobody, but atheists do have gods…themselves. Atheism is the religion of self-centered people who simply are too prideful to admit weakness and submit. We all hate being weak. I know I do…and we also tend to dislike submission, but submission is necessary for keeping order in the world. Submit to God. He is God, ok? How could you not want to be with your creator? We all sin. Nobody is perfect. God forgives. Go to church. Hashtag. Smiley face. The end.

    Also, if you want to do something kind and amazing, please be excellent and donate to the film I will be directing. 95% of proceeds from the film will go to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom (www.UFF.ua).
    Our film website is: http://www.viktorsmirnovfilm.org
    Follow us on instagram:
    @viktorsmirnovfilm
    Thanks!!!

  22. Religion as a form of human association is not privileged. It has no claim to inevitability, it is like a golf association, a bridge club, or a political party. Every organization has a life cycle that begins and ends.:-)

  23. Hi Richard,

    Of course you are right. But whether religion, or various forms of it, are dying out or growing is still an interesting question. But whether the Catholic Church (for example) will end certainly seems doubtful to me.

  24. Conor Lyons you are living in a dream world. Christian history has produced many killings in its name. If God indeed were guiding them why would he guide them erroneously. Your belief that God is telling people not to kill is ridiculous. It is human morality and common sense. God cannot intervene with humans because as you preach there is free will. If there is free will then he can’t guide you to not commit a murder. If he can guide with his powers then why can’t he save the millions of people that are dying of hunger everyday. Either free will exists or it doesn’t. Christians should get their silly, misguided story straight. If your going to lie at least do it consistently and with a pattern so you don’t look like fools. All religions preach the same things,with their same “holy books” and same miraculous events. Religion is a cultural phenomena that varies as food varies from culture to culture. Either they are all correct or they are all wrong. None of them provide any substantial proof of the existence of one God over the other. Christianity has plagiarized many concepts. It began from Judaism and has incorporated pagan concepts. It has changed over the years as people have changed over the years. Jesus Christ is not coming dude, it’s been over 2,000 years don’t you think that is ample time to have come back. There are no monsters under your bed as well as there are no Gods.

  25. Let it be said that the sciences cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god. In our modern era, we have come to rely entirely on science for our information on what is truth, yet if you look at scientific method, there is no way to prove or disprove anything. There is simply evidence and more evidence. Furthermore, God is not a matter of science. How can we say that science disproves the Christian God when Christians think of him as someone who is all-powerful–someone who is beyond the limits of science? Proving or disproving the existence of a god is, frankly, impossible. All knowledge of God comes through faith. Science is for other matters, such as helping cure a sickness, finding information about our universe, and producing hybrid plants, but science has no authority over personal belief.

  26. I would like to add that the Eastern orthodox faiths have been solid as a rock for the better part of two millenia, and there is a wide-spread interest (at minimum) to conversion (at most) of a lot of protestants searching for the NT church. The lives of the saints are a testimony to the fact that the Christian faith will never die out.

  27. Hi Steven, thanks for that input. Have you been strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox church? How are these churches going in countries like Greece, Serbia, Armenia and Russia, do you know?

  28. Even if one religion is correct it is plain harmful to humanity, yes it has layed many foundations for our race but putting all the holy wars aside it has now lost its usefulness. If u want to be loyal to god (if he exists) there is little benefit since he has proven himself a complete asshole and moron (mind the language) and has hindered us from the begining of the modern age.

    Evidence- holy wars- accusations of heresy- exteaction of wealth(vatican)-death in general-murder-sex trade-slavery (being dominant once in SPAIN as we know was fanatical.

    Now what supports an entity that allows this?

    Beleif in something with no evidence behind it other than centuries old books to speculate on it is moronic and the beleif in a asshole of a god is moronic

    And dont say he works in “mysterious ways”

  29. Hi Al, thanks for commenting. Can you tell me why you think that religion is harmful to humanity? And why you say there is no evidence for God?

  30. If the old faiths are having a revival can we have the Germanic faith back? I wanna raise some runes with an old language written on it for future historians to marvel and wonder at what the faded symbols mean. You know what… I think I’ll do that anyway.

  31. One Skeptic (and others) are making some broad assumptions that are already not supported by reality here.

    The internet (and more generally, the easy access to all sorts of information) has not made us better-informed. All available evidence is to the contrary: the generations that are heavy internet-users are also less knowledgable about history, civics, religion, really everything, than previous generations. The internet is making us dumber.

    In theory, access to information would make people better informed, but this pre-supposes that they really WANT to be better informed. It appears that what really happens is that we gravitate towards whatever ideology is appealing to us. There is a general downward spiral into hedonism, and ideologies (atheism, “nones”) that support and justify hedonism. There is no logic to this.

    There is zero evidence that prosperous countries are entering some new “age of reason” and atheists need to account for this and own up to their false predictions. We ARE getting less religious, but we are also getting dumber, angrier, less logical, and more depressed, on a massive scale.

  32. Hi Isaac, thanks for reading and commenting. Due to a corruption of my blog’s database, the comments haven’t been appearing for a couple of weeks, and I had only just restored the database when you read this and saw the comments. So I’m glad for the timing.

    Yes, I generally agree with you. We are probably better informed on matters we want to be informed on, but tend to be tribal and selective in most of the information we get. For example Facebook curates what we see. The result is more polarisation than understanding, on many matters at least.

    What do you think is the way forward?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *