Why atheism is winning-9: The global picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning point out that the percentage of Christians worldwide is declining, that of Hindus is stagnant even as the proportion of people in its homeland India is rising, and the proportion of Buddhists is on a steady decline.

The only growth area is Islam but even here the picture is not optimistic for religion.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050. Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to Allah. Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex.

The authors conclude that “The absence of a grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated — the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a consistent, global basis.”

The numbers of people choosing to adopt religion is declining while the number leaving it is increasing. Paul and Zuckerman point out that religion has declined rapidly in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and signs that religion in those countries is on life-support are everywhere. “Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some.”

It is this fact that is most dangerous for religion because it shows that “religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous.” As societies become more modern, and we see this happening everywhere, people give up religion. The trend towards modernity cannot be reversed and one should expect to see the decline of religion along with it. That is the key point.

But what about the supposed rise in religion in the ‘new Europe’, the countries of the former Soviet bloc? The authors argue that religions in those countries seem more nationalistic than devout. “Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism, just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives, and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out that the “new” Europe is not turning out particularly godly.”

The one bright spot for religion is the developing world but even here it is tenuous as modernity takes root. “Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs. In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don’t believe in God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify themselves as strongly religious.”

Even in America, the outlier among modern societies that still seems to be holding on to religion, the trend is away from religion and what seems to be driving it is that belief in the literal truth of the Bible is decreasing. “What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.”

Next: Religion and insecurity


  1. says

    Most of those who profess to be religious really aren’t. They might “think” they are, but that’s because they don’t really think.

  2. Benjamin Holvey says

    In the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians in Africa. Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia predicts that in 2025 there will be over 630 million Christians in Africa. That’s about 250 million is 25 years.

  3. says

    It is rather disengenuous to include Japan, where belief in God was violently suppressed for 200 years, as an example of how faith in God is dying out. In a survey I took of students in Japan, about one fifth said they believed in God as theists conceive Him — but none of the predominant Japanese religions preach such a God. So that’s actually a remarkably high figure, considering.

    Nominal Christianity is dying in Europe, as it has before. Paul and Zuckerman, I think (and argue on my christthetao.com website), take a rather miopic approach to sociology of religion.

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