THE GODS ARE NOT WINNING
myth is gaining ground. The myth seems plausible enough. The
proposition is that after God died in the secular 20th century,
He is back in a big way as people around the world again find
faith. In 2006 Foreign Policy ran two articles that
made similar, yet distinctive claims. In the spring Phillip Longman's "The
Return of the Patriarchy" contended that secular folk are
reproducing themselves, or failing to reproduce themselves, out
of existence as the believers swiftly reproduce via a "process
similar to survival of the fittest." In the summer FP followed
up with "Why God is Winning" by Samuel Shah and Monica
Duffy Toft, who pronounced that the Big Three—
Christianity, Islam and Hinduism—are back on the global march
as secularism fades into irrelevance. In the fall Foreign
Affairs joined the chorus when Walter Russell Mead's God's
Country? gave the impression that conservative theism continues
to rise in a United States jolted back to the spiritual by 9/11.
In American Fascists Chris Hedges warns that
hard-core Dominionists are accumulating the power to convert the
nation into a fundamentalist theocracy.
The actual situation, as is usual in human affairs, is much more complex
and nuanced, and therefore much more fascinating. Let's start by
considering the analytical superficiality that mars the twin articles
in Foreign Policy. While Longman proposes that rapid reproduction
is the primary agent behind the resurgence of patriarchal faith,
Shah and Toft think it is mainly a matter democratic choice in
which younger generations reject their parent's secularism. In
reality all these claims are well off base. Religion is in serious
trouble. The status of faith is especially dire in the west, where
the churches face an unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence
of organized faith as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly
little that can be done to change the circumstances.
Shah and Toft cite the World Christian Encyclopedia as
supporting a planetary revival because its shows that "at
the beginning of the 21st century, a greater portion of the world's
population adhered to [Christianity, Islam and Hinduism] in 2000
than a century earlier." They point to a table in the WCE that
shows that the largest Christian and largest nonChristian faiths,
Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Hinduism, rose from half
to nearly two thirds of the world in the 1900s. But that it is
a peculiar choice of sects. If every Mohammedan and Hindu sect
large and small is tallied, shouldn't every Orthodox, Coptic and
so on be too? Another look at the WCE table shows that all Christians,
Muslims and Hindus combined edging up a much more modest 60 to
66% (but see below correction) since the reign of Queen Victoria.
What scheme of thought did soar in the 20th century? Although Shah
and Toft cite the WCE when it appears to aid their thesis,
they seem to have missed key passages near the beginning of the
work. The evangelical authors of the WCE lament that no
Christian "in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity
that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism….
and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists…. throughout
the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million
in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918
million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth
of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have
emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism….
and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere
0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at
the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each
year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large
percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or
the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes
were practicing Christians" (italics added). (The WCE probably
understates today's nonreligious. They have Christians constituting
68-94% of nations where surveys indicate that a quarter to half
or more are not religious, and they may overestimate Chinese Christians
by a factor of two. In that case the nonreligious probably soared
past the billion mark already, and the three great faiths total
64% at most.)
Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the
devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize
as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold!
It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon
climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within
Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion
does not equal it.
Yet Longman, and especially Shah and Toft, left readers with the
impression that Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are each regaining
the international initiative against secularism. Again we can turn
to the WCE, whose results are presented in the pie charts
(with the above adjustment, and with the proviso that the stats
are inevitably approximations).
1900 Christians have made up about a third of the global population,
and are edging downwards. No growth there. Hindus are coasting
at a seventh the total, no significant increase there either even
though India adds more people each year than any other nation.
The WCE predicts no proportional increase for these faiths
by 2050. The flourishing revival of two megareligions whether by
democracy, edification, or fecundity is therefore a mirage. Having
shrunk by a quarter in the 20th century, Buddhism is predicted
to shrink almost as much over the next half century. Once rivaling
Christianity, paganism – whether it be ancient or modern
as per New Ageism and Scientology — has over all contracted
by well over half and is expected to continue to dwindle.
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
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
— the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents
on a consistent, global basis.
It is well documented that Christianity has withered dramatically
in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The failure
of the faith in the west is regularly denounced by Popes and
Protestant leaders. 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.
In his paper "Christianity in Britain, R. I. P." Steve
Bruce explains that the recent rise of pagans is not nearly sufficiently
to make up for the implosion of the churches, which are in danger
of dwindling past the demographic and organizational point of no
return. A commission of the Church of England agreed, proposing that
little attended Sabbath services be dropped, and concluding that
the advent of modern lifestyles "coincides with the demise of
Christendom." The church commissioned Making Sense of Generation
Y study advised the clergy to "avoid panic." Perhaps that
response would be appropriate considering the absence of quantitative
evidence of a significant Christian revival in any secularized democracy.
God belief is not dead in these nonreligious democracies, but it
is on life support. The ardent hopes of C. S. Lewis and John Paul
II to reChristianize Europe have abjectly failed.
EuroMuslims may become a theological plurality by outnumbering active
Christians in a few decades, but that does not mean much in the context
of a shrinking Christian minority. In most western nations Muslims
are less than one percent to under three. The only exceptions are
the Netherlands at five percent, and France at ten, and the native
French have the highest birth rate in western Europe.
The mass loss of popular faith in the Eurocultures is often waved
away as an isolated aberration in a world still infatuated with the
gods. After all, who cares what the "old Europe" of France
and Sweden is up to? This is a big mistake. Such a thing has never
been seen before in history. And where it has happened is critical
to the future of faith. Aside from constituting proof of principle
that religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism
and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated
and prosperous directly falsifies the Shah and Toft thesis that these
factors are the allies of religiosity.
But hasn't the loss of faith in old Europe been matched by a great
revival in new Europe? In his account of his voyage along the Siberian
Lena River, Jeffrey Taylor in River of No Reprieve observed
that the locals remain atheistic, and the religious minority seems
more nationalistic than devout. This premise is applicable to former
KGV officer Putin's embrace of the Russian Orthodox church, which
had tight connections with the Czarist secret police. 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 Central Kingdom has never been especially religious, became atheistic
under communism, and is striving for world dominance via materialistic
consumerism. The finding by the Shanghai university poll that religious
Chinese lifted from 100 million in the 1960s to 300 million resulted
in headlines along the lines of "Poll Finds Surge of Religion
Among Chinese." But the 300 million figure is far below the
600 million religious estimated by the World Christian Encyclopedia,
and is less than a third of the adult population. Nor should monotheists
be particularly comforted. The survey uncovered 40 million Christians,
about half the inflated estimate in the WCE, and just 4%
of the adult population. Most religious Chinese are Buddhists and
Taoists, or worship the likes of the God of Fortune, the Black Dragon
and the Dragon King. By the way, The Economist says women
are using religion as a way to battle traditional Chinese patriarchy.
If the survey is correct that over two thirds of Chinese are not
religious then they may approach a billion in China alone, expanding
the global total even further.
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.
Doesn't America, the one western nation where two thirds absolutely
believe in God, and nine in ten think there is some form of higher
power, show that religion can thrive in an advanced democracy? Not
A decade and a half of sampling finds conservative (thought to be
about two thirds to four fifths of the total of) evangelicals and
born-agains consistently stuck between a quarter and a third of the
population. The majority that considers religion very important in
their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare majority
in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton era. But
instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping again.
who feel the opposite about religion doubled between the 1960s
and 1970s, have been fairly stable since then, but have been edging
up in recent years. American opinion on the issue of human evolution
from animals has been rock steady, about half agreeing, about half
disagreeing, for a quarter century. 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.
Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of
sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate
effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for
whom the old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon
and sing some old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather
than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating
a high of three quarters of the population in the 1930s to 1960s,
a gradual, persistent decline has set in, leaving some clerics
distressed at the growing abandonment of small churches as the
big ones gobble up what is left of the rest. Weekly religious service
attendance rose only briefly in the months after 9/11—evidence
that the event failed to stem national secularization – and
then lost ground as the Catholic sex scandal damaged church credibility.
As few as one in four or five Americans are actually in church
on a typical Sunday, only a few percent of them in megachurches.
In his Foreign Affairs article Mead noted that conservative
Southern Baptists constitute the largest church in the states, and
they are among the most evangelical. Mead did not note that a Southern
Baptist church release laments that "evangelistically, the denomination
is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration."
The greatest born again sect is baptizing members at the same absolute
yearly rate as they did half a century ago, when the population was
half as large, and in the last few years the overall trend has been
Rather than Amerofaith becoming deeply patriarchal as Longman thinks,
it is increasingly feminine. Women church goers greatly outnumber
men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to
pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical
youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious
and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation.
One group has experienced rapid growth. In the 1940s and 50s 1-2%
usually responded no asked if they believe in God, up to 98% said
yes. A Harris study specifically designed to arrive at the best current
figure found that 9% do not believe in a creator, and 12% are not
sure. The over tenfold expansion of Amerorationalism easily outpaces
the Mormon and Pentecostal growth rates over the same half century.
America's atheists now number 30 million, most well educated
and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims
and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern
Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the
rise of American rationalism is based on adult choice—secularists
certainly not growing via rapid reproduction. The results can be
seen on the bookshelves, as aggressively atheistic books such as
Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian
Nation, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Daniel
C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell, break the mainstream
publishing barrier onto the best-sellers lists. Long disparaged
as neither moral or American, the growing community is beginning
to assert itself as a socio-political force.
What is actually happening here and abroad is a great polarization
as increasingly anxious and often desperate hard-core believers
mount a vigorous counterrevolution via extreme levels of activism
to the first emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major
religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion
in any circumstances, much less educated democracy. Disbelief
in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates
of growth by voluntary conversion. Why?
It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where
wealth is concentrated among an elite few and the masses are
impoverished that the great majority cling to the reassurance
Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most
of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious
shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun
control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies,
rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive
sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic
disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive
health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to
family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.
result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle
class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to
factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one's middle class
status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always
accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture
emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most
folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances
dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces
that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they
don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club
Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans
and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most
hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant
to their contented lives.
The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that
enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high
level of popular religiosity. They all go material.
It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed
sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that
lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural
creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal
from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended
illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy;
before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially
ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.
to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial
catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic
disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged
in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which
failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological
stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly
forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky
American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal
effect can be more direct. For instance, the absence of universal
health care encourages the utilization of faith-based medical charities.
The latter, as well intentioned as they are, cannot provide the
comprehensive health services that best suppress mortality at all
ages. But charities extend the reach of the churches into the secular
community, enhancing their ability to influence society and politics,
and retain and recruit members.
Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character,
the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy
that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because
we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level
of disparity. The other factors widely thought to be driving forces
behind mass faith—desire for the social links provided by churches,
fear of societal amorality, fear of death, genetic predisposition
towards religiosity, etc—are not critical simply because hundreds
of millions have freely accepted being nonreligious mortals in a
dozen and a half democracies. Such motives and factors can be operative
only if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently poor to sustain
mass creationism and religion.
for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the
default mode inherent to the human condition. What about the hypothesis
that has gained wide currency, that competition between the plethora
of churches spawned by the separation of church and state is responsible
for America's highly religious population? Australia and New Zealand
copied the American separation between church and state in their
constitutions, yet they are much more irreligious. Meanwhile the
most religious advanced democracies in Europe are those where the
Catholic church is, or was, dominant.
To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual
matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially
economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long
term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of
the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed
prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies.
There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief
has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment
of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely
in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and
educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd
and 3rd worlds and the US.
also explain why America has become increasingly at odds with
itself. On one hand the growing level of socio-economic disparity
that is leaving an increasing portion of the population behind
in the socially Darwinian rat-race is boosting levels of hard-line
religiosity in the lower classes. On the other hand freedom from
belief in the supernatural is rising among the growing segment
that enjoys higher incomes and sophisticated education. Bill Gates,
Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are
typical upper crust disbelievers.
The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time
a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian
education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That
is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms
their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from
socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy
is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the
secular community should be more encouraged.
Skepticism of the transcendent has not swept the planet with the
completeness expected by some in the 20th century. Doing so would
have required the conversion to atheism of an unattainable 50
million people a year in a world where the great majority chronically
lack the high level of science-oriented education, secure prosperity,
and democracy that spontaneous disbelief depends upon. The expectation
of global atheism was correspondingly naïve, and will remain
so as billions live in, or fear living in, substandard conditions.
Which should not comfort theists. Even so, theists are equally
naïve when they dream that faith can retake the entire world.
now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never before
has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced
a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized
religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when
only one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive
activity rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when
no major faith is proving able to grow as they break out of their
ancestral lands via mass conversion, and when securely prosperous
democracies appear immune to mass devotion? The religious industry
simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the
though liberal, pro-evolution religions are not at fault for unacceptable
social policies, organized faith cannot reform itself by supporting
successful secular social arrangements because these actions inadvertently
suppress popular religiosity. They are caught in a classic Catch-22.
And liberal churches are even less able to thrive in advanced democracies
than are their more conservative counterparts, so if churches,
temples and mosques become matriarchal by socio-politically liberalizing
they risk secularizing themselves into further insignificance.
In Commonweal Peter Quinn contends that Stephen Gould, Richard
Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have sanitized the social
philosophy of Charles Darwin, which was not sufficiently kindly and
tolerant to produce "the sole and true foundation for a humanistic
society, free of the primitive and dangerous irrationality of religious
from the above nontheists never having promoted Darwin's personal
world-view as the sole fountain of societal goodness, Quinn is
making the even bigger mistake—the same mistake nearly everyone
is making—of believing that the contest between popular faith
and secularism is an epic struggle of ideas that then determines
the quality of societies. But the level and nature of popular faith
is really set by economic conditions, and only secular egalitarian
prosperous democracies that reject extreme social Darwinism can
produce the best practical conditions.
America continues to secularize towards the 1st world norm then
what can we expect? The decline in faith-based conservative ideology
is predicted to allow the country to adopt the progressive policies
that have been proven to work in the rest of the west, and vice-versa.
Even Wal-Mart has come out in favor of universal medical coverage
as bottom-line busting health care expenditures compel the corporations
to turn towards the system that has done so much harm to the churches
of Europe. If and when religion declines in the states Darwin's
science will automatically benefit enormously as it has in ungodly
Europe, but Darwinistic social policies will not fare as well as
they have in Christian America.
In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter
of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction.
The more national societies that provide financial and physical security
to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The
more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards
the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their
anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by
either side to alter this fundamental pattern.