Why the gods will not be defeated

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2007 6:53 pm

I’ve received a few emails from friends about this piece in Edge titled Why the Gods are Not Winning. The reason is that I’ve made it clear that in many ways I think religiosity as we understand it naturally arises out of the intersection of our societies and our cognition, that atheism is not the ancestral “wild type” for our species. In some ways the piece at Edge is a good corrective and offers up a lot of data that people need to know. Recently an acquaintance of mine mentioned that the United States is undergoing a “religious revival.” I responded that over the last 10 years those offering that they have “No religion” has increased greatly in proportion (the magnitude of the increase is somewhat in dispute, but the direction of this trend is not). The simple repetition in the media that there is an “evangelical awakening” has convinced many there is such an upsurge in religiosity when the reality of the data might argue against it. Nevertheless, the whole piece has serious issues, as to some extent the two authors are offering an inverted narrative from that of the religious triumphalists, cherry-picking data congenial to their arguments and mixing & matching adjectives and superlatives with specific numbers in a way that might beguile the uninitiated. The assertion by the authors of the Edge is somewhat like the following: “the Middle Ages saw a decline in economic production across the world.” Yes, true, but which Middle Ages? When Europe was at is nadir between 500 and 1000 China was in efflorescence under the Tang dynasty. When Europe was in the midst of the Aristotelian Renaissance during the 13th century Chinese culture was in decline due to the assaults of the Mongols. When Europe was entering into its Age of Exploration Japan was beginning to withdraw into the shell enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The point is that world wide generalizations often mask local dynamics, and One True Answer that projects the future is often falsified by the variation of that future.


The details in the data are important. In the piece the authors offer:

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.

This is correct. But what is the direction of the trend? In the West we are conditioned to assuming a narrative where organized religion has a strong shaping influence in public life, and some affiliation with an institutional religion is normative. The fact that 40% of South Koreans don’t believe in God would imply intense secularization, no? That is not true, in fact, under the Choson dynasty institutional religion was out of favor starting in the 14th century, Buddhism was driven out of the public sphere and monasteries were banished to the mountains! This is a common phenomenon in east Asia (e.g., Oda Nobunaga’s attacks on Buddhist monasteries, the Tang suppression of “foreign” religions, etc.) , the powers that be, influenced by Confucian “orthodoxy” have looked negatively at organized religions. Though faiths like Buddhism are in many ways analogous to Christianity and Islam, a mix of devotion, philosophy, ritual and institutional framework, in east Asia it has generally had mixed success in securing elite temporal support and patronage. James I of England once stated, “No bishop, no king,” to make the case that an ecclesiastical superstructure was a natural and necessary complement to the monarchy, but in east Asia these institutions have often been viewed with suspicion, condescension and distaste. Though emperors might personally be believers in religions, they did not generally enter into exclusive and symbiotic relationships with one cult which then was propagated from on high. In the specific case of Korea, this has resulted in a normative non-affiliation of the population with one religion, as opposed to a loose and generalized belief in the supernatural. The rise of affiliation, whether Buddhist, Christian or other religion, is a feature of modernization. In fact, there is a positive correlation in Korea between socioeconomic status and religious affiliation, in particular Christianity, and most especially Roman Catholic Christianity! Christianity has increased in South Korea from less than 5% of the population in 1950 to 25% today. Buddhism has experienced something of a counter-reactive renaissance. Of course, the percentage of Christians has plateaued in the last 10 years, and there is some thought that the “carrying capacity” has been reached as conversions to Christianity are now much more likely to be from various Christian sects to other sects than from non-Christian to Christian. Projecting that the rate of growth will continue to hold over the long term is not tenable. Just as religious triumphalists should be cautious with extrapolating exponential growth, so skeptics should be aware that perahps secularism itself has a carrying capacity. In any case, here’s some data which will place the authors’ glee at South Korea’s secularism in perspective:
31% – I have always believed in God
25% – I believe in God, but have not always done so
8% – I used to believe in God, but no longer do so

19% – I have never believed in God
14% – I do not believe in God but I do believe in a higher power
3% – I do not believe in God but I am a spiritual person
1% – None of these
About Europe, the authors say:

God belief is not dead in these nonreligious democracies, but it is on life support.

I have looked up data on European religiosity. My conclusion is this: Europeans are post-Christian, but not predominantly “secular”, if that means lack of belief in God and a “spirit or life force.” In no nation does atheism even reach 40%, and only in France does it come close to being a plural majority. I am little confused about a definition for religion being on “life support” which suggests parity with secularity? In fact, the second link above shows that non-Christian supernaturalism tends to increase at a faster rate than pure atheism in response to de-Christianization! The authors also quote impressions about Russia being predominantly irreligious. This is almost certainly correct, at least by American standards, but the direction has been away from atheism, not toward it. That does not mean that religion will sweep all before it, or that its impact on society is deep, but I think it makes one question the authors’ use of anecdote and impression in areas where the numbers are pretty unequivocal in the direction they are arguing against. No one disputes that many Russians have switched from atheism to Christianity since the fall of Communism (I suspect that both these positions are pretty nominal in the switchers, but those are the facts).
The authors also bring up some interesting ideas in regards to male vs. female adherence to religion. They make a big point to emphasize that women are generally more religious the world over, but this a well known phenomenon. Men in the pulpit and women in the pews is a joke in some quarters. In much of east Asia and Catholic Europe and Latin America devotional religion was the preserve of women, they were the ones who attended church or enacted the rites on behalf of the whole family. The attraction of women to religion can be traced back to the ancient days, they have often been the religious innovators, prominent in Mystery Cults, Christianity and major vectors for the spread of Buddhism (e.g., Tibet). The authors’ contention that religion is transmitted through men needs to be highly qualified, in the United States this is often not the case, which is why Barry Kosmin in One Nation Under God looked at the disjunction between religions of the mother and child as a metric for disaffection or out-conversion (it differs from place to place).
Finally, the authors make some assertions about church affiliation. They note that it is dropped off in the United States (and to some extent in most Western nations) since the 1960s. But, they don’t note that this was an “S-shaped” curve, that is, a slow process which became rapid but eventually leveled off. The authors want you to think that the trend will continue, and to some extent it does continue, but at a far lower rate of disaffection than the major bleeding in the late 60s and early 70s. These are not trivial issues, and the verbal description here misleads. In fact, books like The Churching of America document that church membership rose from 1776 up until around 1950, so the draw-down in the 1960s was from a relatively recent highpoint (when American culture faced off against “godless Communism”).
This brings me to the issue of methodology, and what these surveys of affiliations tell us. Was an America that was 10% churched in 1776 far less religious than the 75%-80% churched America of 1950? I am not sure that that was the case, the fact that most families lived on farms away from urban areas (where churches were concentrated) likely explains the low rates of affiliation. As America became more urban, and rural areas became denser with churches, there was a natural gravitation toward various denominations. This did not necessarily mean that Americans became more religious, just that the outward institutions scaffolded their beliefs. Similarly, the decrease in church affiliation in much of the modern world suggests a reverse process as individuals decouple their spiritual beliefs (if they have any) from religious institutions. A dynamic such as this explains why at least half (usually more) of those surveyed with “No religion” in the United States express a belief in a God or Higher Spirit. One can have religiosity without religion. One can also have irreligiosity with religion when one considers the norm in some societies of church membership for cultural reasons (Scandinavia is a case of this). So when people say that “religion is not important” in their lives, one must be cautious, because there are people who would self-characterize as very spiritual and supernaturalist in their belief systems who would nevertheless balk at being associated with “organized ‘religion.'”
Nuance of this sort is lacking in much of the piece, and is one of the clearest ways in which the authors are an inversion of religious triumphalists. The World Christian Database is a great resource, and the reliance of the authors upon this partly in response to religious triumphalists. Nevertheless, TWCB highlights only one level of religion. TWCD is an evangelizing tool in its intent, its core focus is upon allowing missionaries to know where they must put their energies in convincing people to espouse a belief in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. That’s it. But words are words, and there is a great deal of data on the multi-textured nature of religiosity. People may have a rich supernatural life without attachment to organized religion, or, conversely they may have a spare supernatural life in their mind despite being attached fervently to an organized religion. Organized religion is an important metric, but it is only one metric among many.
The mention of belief in evolution as a major issue by the authors suggests to me that they are focused on the percentage of people who accept a general scientific materialist narrative of the world. I simply reject the idea that the decline of organized religion naturally leads to a materialistic conception of the world. The graph which plots religiosity across European nations shows clearly that though atheism rises as defection from Christianity increases, non-Christian non-atheism rises faster! The authors make much of the fact that social democratic policies and First World standards lead to the decline and death of organized religion, and though I think that their model has some validity, they neglect that organized religion is and has generally been very weak in east Asia, well before economic and social modernization. Because of this weakness modernity will likely bring about a greater adherence to the world religions, at least nominally. One can see this at work in Singapore and Taiwan, where those who espouse an unaffiliated supernaturalism (“Chinese Folk Religion”) are declining as a fraction of the population, but avowed secularists, Christians, Buddhists and Taoists are increasing. This does not mean that these nations will be conquered by God, South Korea shows that rapid religious growth tends to reach saturation of potential converts, and a significant portion of Chinese in Taiwan defect from customary supernaturalism to scientific materialism. The situation varies from culture to culture.
The authors also neglect Africa, I believe this is primarily because just as Europe is the case in point for the Secularization Hypothesis conquering the world, Africa is the counter-point. This is a continent where Christianity and Islam are growing and soaking up the substratum of “Tribal religionists.” Unlike east Asia secularism doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction. Even if modern economic conditions result in secularism, there is just no prospect of that in the near future on that continent. Meanwhile, in much of Latin American nominal Catholics are converting to evangelical Christianity. This does not mean that the circumstances here are uniform, Uruguay for example has always been a stronghold of secularism and anti-clerlicalism, but in the regions of the world characterized by the fastest growth rates (Africa, Middle East and Latin America) religion is a vital force (though Latin American elites often mimic Europe in that politicians can be openly irreligious). This is not something to dismiss lightly when those regions are also sources of immigration (though secularization also often occurs with immigrant streams! Ah, so many thoughts to hold in one’s head).
It seems to me that the authors of Why the Gods are Not Winning are trying to do two things. First, they are attempting to offer a data rich counter-narrative to the story of religious triumphalism which is common in the press. I think they do a good job at that, though my own reading of the data suggests that both these stark narratives are too simple and engage in rough & ready “averaging fallacies.” As if “the world” as an abstraction is what is relevant to the thousands of peoples, and billions of people, in the world. Second, I think they are also implying that with the decline in organized religion the world will be safe for science. The references to evolution are pretty intelligible in this light, less religion = better prospects for acceptance of science. There’s a lot of nuance here, it isn’t as if most religions are literalist about geocentrism. Religion adapts to the world as it is, engaging in dynamic processes of retrofitting. If supernaturalism is the cognitive default in many then the details of the religious narrative are of only proximate importance. But, I also think it is important to note that the decline of organized religion does not imply a concomitant decline in supernaturalistic or non-scientific thinking per se. An equal number of Americans and Europeans believe in reincarnation after all! The extremely secular (defined by a generally positive attitude toward science and an apathy toward organized religion) Chinese are also responsible for the near extinction of tigers (and other animals) because of the popularity of Chinese medicine. Secular American regions, like the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco, are also “New Age” meccas. But, I do think the argument that the decline of organized religion is “good for science” is correct in the end because I think these counter-scientific narratives have a more diffuse impact. In short, the problem with organized religion is that it scales supernaturalism into a powerful unified force, like the forcible realignment of iron molecules within ore to generate magnetism. So long as the molecules are randomly oriented then they “cancel out” and don’t result in a net force. Though New Religions, superstitious claptrap and customary cults (e.g., nominal affiliation with a Shinto Shrine and a Buddhist Temple) are common in Japan, there is a societal deference to science because there is no unified counter-force (though Japanese attitudes toward organ donation suggest that “irrational” beliefs can be perpetuated in secular societies). I agree with the authors when they say, “The actual situation, as is usual in human affairs, much more complex and nuanced, and therefore much more fascinating.” I just don’t think they take their own advice to heart.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • Nevyn

    “In no nation does atheism even reach 40%, and only in France does it come close to being a plural majority.”
    You are mistaken. The Czech Republic is well over 40% atheistic – http://www.radio.cz/en/article/10834.
    There is no equivocation on what these people meant when they checked the box on the census form. Amongst choices for Christianity, Islam, etc. was a box that translated to “one who does not believe.”

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    There is no equivocation on what these people meant when they checked the box on the census form. Amongst choices for Christianity, Islam, etc. was a box that translated to “one who does not believe.”
    i meant in the linked survey. comparing across the sample space of all surveys might be interesting, but not really kosher. but yes, no study i’ve seen suggests that the czech republic or the eastern lander of germany are religions in the least.

  • barry

    The culture clash between science and “religion” may be quite a recent phenomena, and it is hardly inevitable. Historically, in the Christian and Islamic worlds, scientific advances often occurred during eras when organized religion was growing in power and confidence — such as early Baghdad, or the Medieval Renaissance in Western Europe.
    The medieval universities of Europe, where empirical and theoretical science revived after the continent’s Dark Ages, were all created by the Church and were long viewed by all as Church bodies. A great many of the non-professional geologists and botanists of England who laid the groundwork for Darwinism were country vicars of the Church of England; those with secure “livings” had lots of time on their hands. Many of them welcomed Darwin’s theories, unlike the handful of churchmen who public opposed them (see Himmelfarb’s dated but still useful Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution).
    Rabbinic Judaism has always been fiercely intellectual and valued man’s reasoning powers as almost Godly. Yeshiva University in New York proudly maintains a world-class medical school. Yeshiva, as well as its Israeli counterpart Bar Ilan University, maintains a full range of science departments, which operate without any administrative interference.
    I suspect that the anti-science attitudes found among many traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims is largely a product of the militantly anti-religious stand of so many scientists (especially “social scientists”) in the 20th century. Don’t forget that the murderously anti-religious Soviet regime billed itself as the final culmination of the scientific world view– a claim that received militant support from huge segments of the intellectual world in Europe, Latin America, China, India, and the Muslim world.
    The 21st century may well see an end to the pointless and fruitless struggle between supposedly conflicting scientific and religious world views.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    The culture clash between science and “religion” may be quite a recent phenomena, and it is hardly inevitable.
    if one believes science is a recent phenomenon this follows naturally. that is, some would contend that science as we understand it as a culture is a product of the 17th century.
    Historically, in the Christian and Islamic worlds, scientific advances often occurred during eras when organized religion was growing in power and confidence — such as early Baghdad, or the Medieval Renaissance in Western Europe
    the medieval renaissance was the apogee & crystallization, not the period of growth and confidence, for christianity in the west. that was between the 5th and 11th centuries when all over western europe was christianized. that was not a time when science was ascendant, so it does not hold to your thesis. if you assume science was extant before the 17th century then one might hold that its pre-modern apogee was during the classical period. this was a period where organized religion in the form of judaism, zoroastrianism and buddhism was spreading and growing, but not in the area where this efflorescence of science itself was occurring.
    The medieval universities of Europe, where empirical and theoretical science revived after the continent’s Dark Ages, were all created by the Church and were long viewed by all as Church bodies.
    i think this was generally true of england and france, but not so much italy. can you clarify on this point?
    Rabbinic Judaism has always been fiercely intellectual and valued man’s reasoning powers as almost Godly. Yeshiva University in New York proudly maintains a world-class medical school. Yeshiva, as well as its Israeli counterpart Bar Ilan University, maintains a full range of science departments, which operate without any administrative interference.
    jews were pretty much minor actors in pre-modern science, mostly in medicine.
    I suspect that the anti-science attitudes found among many traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims is largely a product of the militantly anti-religious stand of so many scientists (especially “social scientists”) in the 20th century.
    no, they probably have to do with a variety of forces. on the intellectual level it is probably rooted in a counter-reaction to the german textual analysis of the bible in the 19th century. on the mass level it is likely a general manifestation against elite technocracy. anti-science in the name of religion has an old and sporadic history. religion might not necessarily justify an anti-science position, but it is often a post facto rationale.

  • John Emerson

    The Dark Ages (~450-800 AD) were genuinely dark, but they were the result of political collapse. The Catholic Church was very weak in Western Europe before Charlemagne, who partly restored both the European political order and the Church. The Franks and some other barbarian groups weren’t even Christian at all in the early post-Roman period.
    The period ~800 A.D. — ~1700 A.D. was mostly progressive, with stops and starts. After ~1700 A.D. there was explosive progress resulting from modern science, the rationalized state, the free market, and other innovations, and this was somewhat at the expense of the feudal aristocracy and the Church, which had ruled during the previous period. Enlightenment and later writers were in a polemical relationship with the now-reactionary aristocratic and clerical forces, and they vastly exaggerated the darkness of the Middle Ages. I’m sorry to see the Edge people picking up this interpretation, if that’s what they’re doing.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I’m sorry to see the Edge people picking up this interpretation, if that’s what they’re doing.
    they’re a diverse bunch. i expect to see a response at some point.

  • GordonHide

    This author seems to have missed the most important point of the “Why the gods are not winning” article. That is that religiosity appears to be related to social and economic conditions rather than other factors.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    the commenter seems to not find it necessary to read the whole post of the author, seeing as:
    That is that religiosity appears to be related to social and economic conditions rather than other factors.
    ->
    “In fact, there is a positive correlation in Korea between socioeconomic status and religious affiliation, in particular Christianity, and most especially Roman Catholic Christianity!”

    “The authors make much of the fact that social democratic policies and First World standards lead to the decline and death of organized religion, and though I think that their model has some validity, they neglect that organized religion is and has generally been very weak in east Asia, well before economic and social modernization. Because of this weakness modernity will likely bring about a greater adherence to the world religions, at least nominally.”
    whatcha gonna do about dumbuck commenters who can’t be bothered to read? should do a picture-blog.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/clock/ coturnix

    Katz rock!
    Anyway, I really like this take on it. As you have stated before in some of your earlier posts (linked above here and there), it is far too often that people talk about religion without defining exactly which aspect (or level) of it they are talking about, e.g., social cohesion, supernatural thinking, rituals, organized religion, etc, which makes it easy for them to switch in mid-sentence and apply reasining about one to another, which is inappropriate.
    In Eastern Europe, religion is mainly about group-membership and organized religion is just now trying to channel it into actual church membership, but they encounter resistance because people balk at all the supernaturalism that comes with church attendance.

  • John Emerson

    A friend of mine from N. Germany reported that Lutheran churches there amounted to community centers, with little religious content. IIRC he reported that his own family belonged to a spinoff group of people who actually were religious believers.
    The State Church is the best resource that irreligion ever had.

  • John Franson

    I read the whole post, and sorry, I have to agree with the commenter who said the author seems to have missed the most important point of “Why the Gods are Not Winning”: That religiosity appears to be related more to social and economic conditions than other factors. More specifically, the article argues that where there is social democracy–and particularly a strong welfare state–religion recedes. This, it is proposed, is because in social democracies people aren’t stressed out like in more purely dog-eat-dog capitalist societies. The hypothesis is that the stress and uncertainty of competitive capitalist society and a weak social safety net drives people toward the comfort and certainty of religion.
    I do think it’s the most important aspect of the article. For if social democracy and welfare are the main factors contributing to a decrease in religiosity, then secularist activists should redirect their energies more toward promoting social democratic policies–at least, those who are not completely opposed to such policies.
    I’m still looking for a compelling analysis of this hypothesis.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    The hypothesis is that the stress and uncertainty of competitive capitalist society and a weak social safety net drives people toward the comfort and certainty of religion.
    the hypothesis needs is a regression. they present a verbal exposition. and as i said, it may be a necessary condition, but it isn’t sufficient. additionally, several east asian states would argue against your model (they becoming more modern and more “organized” in their religiosity). in any case, it can’t explain a lot of the variation. e.g., estonia & the czech republic aren’t vibrant social democracies, they have strong neo-liberal streaks, but they are the two most secular of european states (along with sweden & france).

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    to be clear, without a quantitative reckoning there really isn’t much to say besides, “social democracy does seem to correlate with secularism.” to what extent? that needs to be quantified before putting the contingent context into frame.

  • John Franson

    “several east asian states would argue against your model (they becoming more modern and more “organized” in their religiosity)”
    I agree, modernity alone isn’t a predictor of irreligiosity. The U.S. is the prime example of that. What we’re talking about is social democracy and welfare. That’s not the same thing as modernity.
    You make a good point about Estonia and the Czech Republic. What accounts for the low levels of belief there? I’d be interested in seeing the statistics of belief over time for those two countries. And also for Japan: I’ve read that unbelief runs high there, but it’s also my understanding that life there is relatively stressful. That would seem to go against the hypothesis in question.

  • John Emerson

    Estonia and the Czech Republic went through decades of anti-religious propaganda. The Czechs also were forced to live as Catholics despite strong early Protestant tendencies (established Church again).
    My experience has been that strongly secular people are either committed dissidents who expect trouble, or else secure people whose lives are going pretty well. I don’t think of Dawkins, PZ Meyers, or Razib (as far as that goes) to be very likely to understand people whose lives are dominated by desperation, loss, or a sense of wrong. Even atheist dissidents and reformers, despite the troubles they undergo, often or usually come from secure backgrounds (e.g. the stereotypical elite Communist), and often are criticized because they fail to understand the difficult lives of the ordinary people they’re preaching to. Atheism is an option for people who have options, not a refuge for people who feel vulnerable or desperate.

  • omar

    “I don’t think God plays well in Sweden. God sticks pretty close to the Equator.” – John Updike.
    I certainly feel more ‘spiritual’ in warmer climes, well, at least in areas where the sun isn’t blocked by mist, gray cloud and old night most of the time. In forests as well.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Estonia and the Czech Republic went through decades of anti-religious propaganda. The Czechs also were forced to live as Catholics despite strong early Protestant tendencies (established Church again).
    so why are lithuania and the slovak republic so much more
    “religious.” the key issue here might be protestantism is less robust (though i think you overemphasize the impact of protestantism john, the hussites didn’t reject the sacraments and they are hundreds of years in the czech past). why? at this point we have to go beyond the dyad of religion and non-religion. the czech republic is certainly far more economically advanced than the slovak republic, but then so is poland. lithuana is a catholic country traditionally, while latvia and estonia are lutheran.
    i don’t deny various factors (e.g., modernity, communism) some explanatory power. but there needs to be an acknowledgment that univariable narratives simply don’t work on a world wide level.
    Atheism is an option for people who have options, not a refuge for people who feel vulnerable or desperate.
    true as it goes, but, do not that in parts of western europe atheism was the refuge of the working class (which anti-clericalist) and the intellgensia. in contrast, church going tended to concentrate in the middle class. this is changing as secularization is sweeping the middle class too (and in some places evangelical christianity is gaining traction in the lower classes, this is especially true of the conventionally religiously apathetic lower classes of latin america), but i can dig up some data from parts of western europe similar to south korea for the post-world war ii period.

  • dougjnn

    For me the real puzzle here is the relative lack of historical religiosity in E. Asia. I suspect the real answers here, which you do allude to Razib, is not that there’s strikingly less belief in the super natural in E. Asia than in European and offshoot societies – after all the high level of various sorts of superstition among the Chinese is often remarked upon.
    Rather it seems that in China Confucianism became an early quasi secular belief system and moral / political dogma that was tightly interwoven with the Emperor or warlord’s political machine and highly useful for maintaining and directing power. Belief in a deity or other unitary moral force divorced from imperial authority could only be competitive, and perhaps establish moral limits to political action. So the secular moral dogma of Confucianism was periodically the basis for campaigns to marginalize more clearly “religious” systems of moral authority when they were seen as disruptive. Communist or Marxist-Leninist moral dogma did the same sort of supplanting and suppressing of religious belief, with the aid of modern totalitarian methods and technology, of course.

  • dougjnn

    Razib said–
    true as it goes, but, do not [forget] that in parts of western europe atheism was the refuge of the working class (which anti-clericalist) and the intellgensia. in contrast, church going tended to concentrate in the middle class.
    I don’t think it was atheism per se that was that refuge, but rather Marxist-Leninist derived leftist dogma of various flavors that was (and is), and these secular dogmas generally required an atheist stance on the issue of the existence of God. They did not however encourage or even much permit a la carte individual moral theorizing. They establish a clear moral order and promise that the working class will inherit the future right around the corner, after some struggle.
    For example I don’t think your sort of quasi-libertarian anti-dogmatic free thinking atheism would or has appealed much to working class Western Europeans at all. Nor would it or has it appealed much to working class Americans either.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I don’t think it was atheism per se that was that refuge, but rather Marxist-Leninist derived leftist dogma of various flavors that was (and is), and these secular dogmas generally required an atheist stance on the issue of the existence of God.
    yeah, i worded that wrongly. i mean that the working class was the refuge of atheism, not the inverse.

  • http://www.accidentalblogger.typepad.com Ruchira

    Abject poverty as well as unfettered capitalism may indeed show a direct correlation with religiosity, both being circumstances of increased stress. India and the US are prime examples. The tendency is more evident where the social safety networks too are meager or missing. Someone mentioned that the Japanese lead stressful lives but still manage to stay indifferent to organized religion. That is true, as is also the fact that Japan, despite its capitalistic system, provides a pretty good economic safety net for its citizens.
    The trend of some prosperous societies turning to organized religion (south Korea) is not entirely surprising. As Razib mentions, religion is often a substitute for social networking. In Asia, being associated with the west, Christianity is often looked upon as the “progressive” path. I bet that some among the prosperous in Taiwan, S. Korea and even Japan turn to Christianity as a status symbol, rather than for any religious/spiritual conviction. That is the same reason why many immigrants from communist Russia and China promptly sign up with the nearest local church upon arrival in the US. In British India, conversion to Christianity was most widespread among two sections of the population. The socially disinherited tribal societies turned to Christianity because they truly saw that as a path to physical and spiritual redemption. Some among the educated elite converted because they wanted to identify with the ruling class and its “enlightened” ways, blithely exchanging one set of superstitions for another.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I bet that some among the prosperous in Taiwan, S. Korea and even Japan turn to Christianity as a status symbol, rather than for any religious/spiritual conviction.
    yes, to some extent xtianity is associated with ‘forward’ elements in east asian societies. but, i think it is difficult to operationally generate a dyad between status symbol|religious/spiritual conviction. part of the problem is that to be honest you really can’t trust converts to give you a reliable rationale for why they converted. in any case, it is important to keep in mind that religion is more than just a relationship with the supernatural, just as it is important to be reminded that it is also more than just a social networking club. the problem is teasing apart these various aspects to generate a realistic picture of social dynamics.

  • http://4-lights.blogspot.com MattXIV

    Abject poverty as well as unfettered capitalism may indeed show a direct correlation with religiosity, both being circumstances of increased stress.

    Secularity in social democracy probably has relatively little to do with social safety nets or other economic factors and a lot more to do with the history of the political movements involved. From Louis XVI to Franco, organized religion often buttressed the governments that were removed in order to give birth to the modern European mostly-social-democratic states. The former Warsaw pact countries serve as a good counterexample, since they started from the point of state-supported atheism and communism and their divergence in terms of religious belief and economic systems has not held for a correlation between either economic volatility or the role of the government in social welfare.
    Further, if economic volatility or capitalism (and I don’t think that it is a given that even the two are even heavily correlated) were a driver of religiosity, then it would be expected that changes in the policy or economic uncertaintly within a society would track well with religious changes, which they largely don’t. The regulatory and social welfare roles of the US government expanded dramatically during the first half of the 20th century while religious affiliation continued to grow and during the 70s, the most economically tremultous period in the later half of the 20th century in the US, organized religion declined. What increased stress does seem to correlate with is a rejection of the dominant social and political institutions, including religious ones, but the direction the rejection will take depends on the specifics of the society in question.
    I think the growth of the political impact of religion in the US over the last 60 or so years creates a false preception of increasing religiosity in the US. I’d break it down into 3 phases.
    The first phase is the early Cold War, where public religiosity was in large part a reaction to the official atheism of the USSR and religious expression was used as a demonstration of political loyalty.
    The second phase, the last 30 years, has a great deal to do with two trends that are often poorly understood by people who aren’t familiar with the history of the American right. The first is the drifting of the center of power of the Republican establishment from the northeast to the west and south in large part due to the rise of fusionism and the religious right respectively. This was faciliated by direct mail fundraising, the end of the equal time rule, and the increased interest in conservative evangelicals in using mass media and the government to propagate their religious and social views, which had previously been avoided doing because of their dislike of primarily secular fora. This defined the modern Republican coalition and brought us the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, etc.
    The last 10 years have much more to do with the death of fusionism after these movements came to a crest in the mid-90s. Once in power, the Republicans moved away from fusionism because of the political difficulties of cutting government and the more reliable turnout of the religous right, creating the current environment where religious displays among conservative politicians increase because their electoral success is dependent on rallying that fraction of the base. The realization of the significance of this political faction lead some Dems to start playing the religion card too (although not as much so) to keep the Republicans pandering in order to curtail the Repub’s ability to reach beyond the base and since expressing “reasonable” amounts of religious sentiment doesn’t cost them substantially among the more secular part of their base.

  • Fern

    A point not really mentioned of great importance is the religious fate of mainland China. The recent growth of Christianity in China, while only so far reaching a total of about 3-4%, has been explosive, despite much government control and restriction. If China follows South Korea and a few decades hence is one quarter Christian this could have great geopolitical importance due to the sheer size of China. Could we even eventually see a Christian China?
    Chinese Christians tend to be fanatical in their evangelism, perhaps as a reaction to their government suppression. For example take a look at the Back to Jerusalem movement and the concept of the 10/40 window.
    http://www.backtojerusalem.com/
    http://www.backtojerusalem.com/video/btj128.wmv
    These guys truly believe that China has specifically been tasked by God to Christianise the entire Middle East and Indian subcontinent and that it is going to happen. Most Chinese Christians are of the evangelical / pentecostal type with little in the way of wishy-washy liberal theology, though often in ways quite distinctive from US counterparts (eg. Peter Xu Yongze’s “Criers”, so called because they emphasise confessing sins with tears in a three day intensive conversion experience). In it’s isolation Chinese Christianity has certainly adapted in form, particularly amongst the house churches.
    There are also signs of Christianity gaining a foothold within Chinese popular culture with some popular musicians and actors openly declaring their Christianity and even some within the Chinese government have made very positive noises towards Christianity.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    If China follows South Korea and a few decades hence is one quarter Christian this could have great geopolitical importance due to the sheer size of China. Could we even eventually see a Christian China?
    that’s a big if. remember that the little chinas (taiwan, hong kong & singapore) have had far less christian growth. the growth of evangelical sorts of xtianity prolly has little to do with gov. support, tha’s what flourishing in latin america and africa too (an korea).

  • Fern

    “that’s a big if. remember that the little chinas (taiwan, hong kong & singapore) have had far less christian growth.”
    Of course it’s a big if, but the stakes are much higher due to the scale and even if Chinese Christianity gets anywhere near the proportion that it has in South Korea it could have much more significant geopolitical consequences. I also think that the mechanisms of spread behind Christianity in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are not the same as that amongst the poorer inhabitants of China. In some ways mainland China bears more similarity with your Latin American or African examples than city states like Hong Kong and Singapore.
    One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the religious landscape in China will look very different in fifty years time than it does today, probably much more so than India, since in many ways China is more of a religious vacuum or blank canvas, it’s in a much less stable state in terms of religion as I see it. Somewhat akin to the Soviet sphere after the fall of the Berlin wall but with lots of added twists. Also because of the sheer scale we should be paying a lot of attention to China if we want to predict how the religious composition of the world will alter overall.
    “the growth of evangelical sorts of xtianity prolly has little to do with gov. support, tha’s what flourishing in latin america and africa too (an korea).”
    The growth of evangelical Christianity in China is certainly not due to government support, quite the contrary, but it is occurring extremely rapidly nevertheless. The Chinese government has tried to control Christianity by regulating it through official government churches (including a “Catholic” one that does not recognise the authority of the pope) but they are largely failing since the majority of Christians are in the illegal house churches, despite the fact that such people can face prosecution.
    In some ways the situation of rapid growth despite persecution has parallels to the spread of Christianity in the pagan Roman empire up to Constantine’s conversion, largely a clandestine movement among the poor but with another smaller layer amongst educated cosmopolitans. It has been argued by some, such as Rodney Stark, that martyrdom and persecution can actually be a spur to growth for Christianity and was actually an accelerator to growth in pre-Constantine Rome rather than a brake on it.
    I’m not sure how far such parallels to pagan Rome can go, but some of them are at least superficially rather striking.

  • poke

    I think you make a mistake in comparing the “supernaturalism” professed in Europe to East Asian religions. What’s generally expressed by “believing in a Higher Power” is merely “not being an atheist/materialist.” Atheism does not have a good name; people prefer to profess belief in something. But comparing such professed belief (“belief in belief”) to the religious practices of East Asia is misleading; it’s a response to a survey, not a religious practice. These people have far more in common with outright secularists (i.e., they’re indistinguishable apart from their reply to a survey question) than they do with Buddhists or Taoists or Shintoists.

  • edmund

    on the diffence between estonai and the czech republic – i thknk the difference lies a) in the liberal nature of the Christianity ( particula in estona-very german luterhan and so very influnced by early 20th century) which meant they were more vulnerable , b) its close ties to the state which meant when the state became hostile (agian particulary in Estonia) they were in deep trouble-like in tradioaly super pious russia and c) the degree to which the curhc hairh cooperated fuloy with the atheist/ communist persectors rather than becoming a center of resitance a la hungry and Poland.
    the geeral trend I can see in this excellent article- is where religous liberlaims became strong in previous confesioanl societies ( ie most western europe and Canada), religion ins in decline ( least so in malta, and ireland where such trends have been weakest!) , everywhere else including in communist/ atheist states where it was persecuted it is rising- the US is in between so the numbers are unclear

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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