Religion on its knees
In 2007, University of Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart and a colleague analyzed religious trends from 1981 to 2007 in 49 countries comprising 60% of global population. In 33 of these countries — including former communist, developing and wealthy nations — people had become more religious.
Examining data from 2007 to 2019, Inglehart found that in 43 of these same 49 societies, people had become less religious. The major exception to this decline is the Muslim world, as all 18 Muslim-majority countries studied remain “strongly religious.”
How did this startling drop in religious belief and practice happen? Citing a well-known explanation for this phenomenon, Inglehart notes that as societies modernize (especially in science, technology and medicine) and survival becomes more secure, an increasing number of people “no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives.” Dramatic increases in food production mean fewer people starve, advancing medical knowledge results in longer, healthier lives, and well-functioning criminal justice systems (the police, courts and prisons) significantly reduce rates of murder and other violent crimes.
Inglehart and his research team compared levels of religious belief from 1981 survey data to survey results from “around” 2007. They asked respondents to indicate how important God was in their lives on a 10-point scale ranging from 1 (“not at all important”) to 10 (“very important”). A majority of countries surveyed revealed upticks in the importance of God, with the largest increase in the former communist countries.
The most dramatic shift away from religion occurred in the United States. Whereas we ranked as one of the world’s more religious nations between 1981 and 2007, since then, “the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.” Near the end of the 1981-2007 period examined, American’s average rating on the importance of God in their lives on a ten-point scale was 8.2 — a score that fell to 4.6 in 2017, “an astonishing sharp decline.”
Inglehart argues that “perhaps” the most important factor driving secularization globally is the transformation of norms and values regarding fertility. In most societies over the course of human history, women were given the role of producing as many children as possible to counter high rates of mortality, especially infant mortality. To that end, sexual activity not linked to reproduction — divorce, abortion, contraception and homosexuality — was discouraged or forbidden by religious values, norms and laws.
However, as societies modernized and life expectancy from birth increased dramatically (doubling in the U.S. from 39.4 years in 1880 to 78.9 years in 2020), women no longer had to give birth to five to eight children. When societies reach a level of economic and physical security, strict religious norms regulating fertility are challenged, especially by the young. Inglehart notes that ideas, practices and laws concerning gender equality, divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage are changing rapidly.
Inglehart notes that another factor contributing to the decline of religion in the United States is politics. Over the past 30 years, the Republican Party has sought to win support by advocating conservative Christian positions on a number of social issues, especially same-sex marriage and abortion. And while this position has attracted many voters, it has also alienated others from religion, including younger and more liberal individuals. Inglehart makes the interesting observation that while it is generally assumed religious beliefs shape political values, evidence suggests that causality can also run in the opposite direction. That is, “people change their political views first and then become less religious.”
Inglehart states the “uncritical embrace” by evangelicals of Donald Trump, a leader “who cannot be described as a paragon of Christian virtue,” may be a double-edged sword. While many conservative Christians enthusiastically support the president, some evangelical leaders fear that young people unhappy with their leaders yielding to Trump will desert churches “in droves.”
The decline in religion can also be attributed to self-inflicted wounds. The ongoing pedophile priest scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church is the foremost example. A Pew Research Survey conducted earlier this year found that 27% of U.S. Catholics polled stated they had scaled back attendance at Mass as a result of reports of sexual abuse by priests.
Social scientists have long argued that religion is a significant factor, if not THE most important factor creating social solidarity. People who share a common religion, bend their knees to the same deity and regularly engage in collective religious rituals generate the social cohesion necessary for societies to function and endure.
What happens when beliefs and rituals diminish in a society to the point wherein there is no religious based social cohesion? Will the loss of the “Thou shall not kill” and “Thou shall not steal” imperatives in Christianity, for example, result in a lawless, violence-ridden society that will eventually collapse? To date, evidence indicates this has not occurred.
The extremely secular Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) have some of the world’s lowest rates of corruption while the highly religious nations of Bangladesh, Guatemala and Tanzania have some of the highest rates of corruption. Murder rates in the most religious societies are more than 10 times as high as murder rates in the least religious countries. It’s not that religion causes corruption and murder (that’s more adequately explained by social, economic and political factors) but that religion cannot prevent criminal behavior. It appears that prosperous, stable, relatively peaceful societies can exist and thrive without religion.
Inglehart notes that as religion declines in many societies, “an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void.” Evidence from the World Values Survey indicates that in highly secure, secular nations, “people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality and freedom of speech.”
Religious studies historian Gary Macy states, “Organized religion no longer provides a support system for many people’s deepest concerns and beliefs. They may actually live the way Jesus or the Buddha or the Koran advocate, but don’t find the organizations claiming to represent these teachers help them to live that way.”
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
Coser, L. (1977) “Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context,” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers: New York
Inglehart, R. (September/October 2020) “Giving Up on God,” Foreign Affairs, pp.110-118
Macy, G, (2020) Personal correspondence
O’Neill, A. (Accessed 2020) “Live Expectancy in the United States: 1850-2020” Statista, www.statista.com