Gregory Paul, Phil Zuckerman [4.29.07]

Disbelief 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 21st century.

Greogory Paul


Phil Zuckerman

GREGORY PAUL is an independent researcher on subjects dealing with paleontology, evolution, religion and society. Books include Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air.

PHIL ZUCKERMAN is a sociologist at Pitzer, and the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion, Du Bois on Religion, and Sex and Religion.

Greg Paul's 's Edge Bio Page
Phil Zuckerman's Edge Bio Page 


A 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 WCEtable 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 WCEprobably 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).

Since 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 little appreciated — 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 necessarily. 

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.

Those 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 it.

From 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 downwards.

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 evangelicals.

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 of faith. 

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.

As a 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.

In part 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 existence.

The 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.

So much 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.

We can 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.

Disbelief 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 21st century.

Even 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 belief."

Aside 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.

Assuming 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.