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.