Religious Belief Declining Very Slowly Around the World

For a century or two now, people have been predicting the eventual disappearance of religion. As education spreads and scientific knowledge increases, people were supposed to cast off their old superstitions and come into the light of reason. While that has happened in many places—basically, the developed countries of the West, with the exception of the United States—for the most part religion has stubbornly persisted. An interesting survey of religious belief in 30 countries just out from the University of Chicago shows overall religious belief is declining, but at a very slow rate. And even in countries with high rates of atheism, as people get older, they are more likely to become religious. There is evidence from the survey that this is both a cohort effect (older generations being more religious than younger generations), and an aging effect, that individuals may actually be changing their beliefs as they age, particularly as they hit senior citizenship. Why? Death, of course. Which helps explain why religion has such staying power.

As in so many other areas, we are more likely to believe that the thing we would like to be true is in fact true. As you age you see more and more of your family and friends die, and the thought that they are living in paradise and you'll see them again one day is enormously comforting (although I have to admit, as an atheist I've always found it odd that even deeply religious people who claim not a shred of doubt about the existence of heaven nonetheless feel profound sadness and grief when their loved ones die, despite the fact that those loved ones are supposedly not only not dead, but are experiencing a joy beyond imagining). Even more powerful is the thought of your own mortality, which becomes harder and harder to ignore with each passing year. And immortality is, after all, religion's killer app. The need to confront and overcome the horrible finality of death—grim, merciless, terrifying, bleak death— is one of the principal reasons religion came into being in the first place, and the reason it persists no matter how much its ground of explanation is encroached on by science. It's no accident that every religion that ever existed promises some form of immortality. People will tolerate an awful lot of cognitive dissonance to hold on to that promise.

But if that kind of elemental force was what made all the difference in whether people believe or don't, we'd see only small variations between countries. Yet as the Chicago study shows (here's the full write-up), the variations are enormous. In the Philippines, 83.6 percent of people say, "I know God exists and I have no doubts about it." In Great Britain it's only 16.8 percent. Even among some similarly developed countries there can be a wide variation; 38.4 percent of Spanish people have no doubts about God, but only 15.5 percent of French people feel the same. One fascinating result comes from Japan, where only 4.3 percent have no doubts about the existence of God, but only 8.7 percent say they don't believe in God at all. So almost nine out of ten Japanese are in the believing-ish category.

Then there's us. According to this survey, 60.6 percent of Americans say they have no doubt about the existence of God, and 80.8 percent agree with the statement, "I believe in God now and I always have." The United States is the most religious of the highly developed nations, and most scholars attribute this to our tradition of separation between church and state. Countries in Europe with state churches found that as they developed and education increased, people had a declining interest in the hidebound church that couldn't speak to the realities of modern life. In America, in contrast, the constant competition for adherents made religious institutions more varied and dynamic. It's the difference between going into a store that has only one old, tasteless brand of cereal, and going into a store with 1,000 different kinds. In the former case, many more people say, "Eh, maybe I'll have a muffin for breakfast." In the latter case, most people can find something they're happy to eat.

Comments

I think it's highly unlikely that our tradition of separation of church and state is responsible for our high level of religious belief in the US. What the current demographics, showing religious affiliation mirroring Culture Wars, is that the explanation is the huge and growing economic, and cultural, gap between an increasingly secular elite and a socially conservative, religious working class.

This mirrors a global pattern, in which affluent countries are as a rule highly secular while religion flourishes in the Global South. In the US, roughly the top quintile of the population (in terms of income, education and occupation) are to all intents and purposes Europeans, and are largely secular. The bottom 2/3, Americans who don't have at least a 4-year college degree, are in effect living in the Global South. This is why you see the "mainline" churches that have traditionally catered for the urban-coastal upper middle class collapsing while Evangelicalism, traditionally the religion of the poor and of the rural South flourishing.

A history major's quibble.

Mr. Waldman writes:
"It's no accident that every religion that ever existed promises some form of immortality."

This is false. To take one example, the ancient Jewish Sadducees did not belief in an afterlife: "[T]he doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies[.]" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 18, Ch. 1).

I suppose Mr. Waldman could argue that the Sadducees believed in "some form of immortality" for the Hebrews as a nation, but that does little to buttress his argument.

Agree with baber's skepticism regarding separation of church & state as causal. I do think church/state separation facilitates the kind of market-based approach America has taken to religious propagation.

As for cause, I'd point to the fact that so many of our earliest colonists were religious refugees who formed religious enclaves, like religious "rugged individualists". Deeply-held religious convictions were< foundational to the white man's chapter on this continent, and we're nowhere near shedding them. (It's why the Christian Nation myth persists among American believers.) Merge that with a capitalist framework and Manifest Destiny, and the rest is history.

Okay, I'm an atheist, and I think your argument is pretty lazy. It's an interesting question, but claims like "every religion promises some form of afterlife" are just obviously inaccurate.

Also, "although I have to admit, as an atheist I've always found it odd that even deeply religious people who claim not a shred of doubt about the existence of heaven nonetheless feel profound sadness and grief when their loved ones die, despite the fact that those loved ones are supposedly not only not dead, but are experiencing a joy beyond imagining?" I'd imagine for the same reason that high school seniors feel grief when they graduate: even if what comes after is magnificent, the act of separation is sad. Jeez. You're better than this, Paul.

Similar to what babar said, I think part of the reason the U.S. is so religious is that our hyper-competitive society combined with a weak social safety net creates a lot of stress and uncertainty for people, who turn to religion to cope. There is a strong corelation between having a strong social safety net and having low levels of religious belief.

Lots of empirical evidence too that a strong welfare state wipes out religion--not just from Europe but more recently from Brazil: http://news.yahoo.com/brazils-roman-catholics-shrink-secular-rise-071216935.html At the other end, where government is corrupt and civil society is a mess, people look to religion, even oppressive religion, as an alternative that's more trustworthy.

And I'm not cheering--I'm a Christian and wish things were otherwise.

The belief in an afterlife has existed for hundreds of thousands of years and spiritual practices are just as old. Neanderthals also buried their dead and had altars for their beliefs.

Here is the subject from Wackypedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_religion

Another article to support this with references:
http://www.examiner.com/article/neanderthals-exhibited-spirituality-and-compassion

I do not think spirituality will die out soon. Now the question of dogma and man made religious orders is another question.

Agree with Anstema: great question, lazy answer.

On why people might become more religious as they age, try this one on for size: fear of being alone. Religion offers the community of the church and, for many, it also implants a feeling of being constantly looked after and in good company, even when physically alone. That the author failed to take this into account seems like a pretty critical oversight.

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