A New Age of Faith, Even for Atheists

May 2017By Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is the former chair of the Department of History at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever.  By Rodney Stark. ISI Books. 272 pages. $24.95.



Lately we’ve seen the purported rise of the “new atheism,” the popularity of books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, and the much-ballyhooed growing cohort of those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever on surveys. Academics and media types smugly regard these as harbingers of a new secularism and the end of religion, of human society’s inevitable “progress.” There are just a couple of problems with this thesis.

According to Baylor University’s Rodney Stark, a famed sociologist of religion and Pulitzer Prize nominee, this new religion-of-secularism thing is not new at all; it dates back to the Enlightenment, at least. Moreover, despite the gleeful predictions of its imminent demise, religion seems to be taking an awfully long time to die. The thesis of Stark’s Triumph of Faith is not just that the secularists are flat-out wrong but that the opposite situation is prevailing: The world is not getting less religious; it is getting more religious, more so than it has ever been. Stark marshals an impressive amount of statistical data to support his thesis, and while some of it will no doubt be criticized, the overall picture of the state of religion worldwide is a surprisingly optimistic one.

Stark presents data from a number of different international surveys, and from studies done by his own Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor, in an extensive set of tables spread throughout the text. Where other surveys and studies disagree with his conclusions (such as the Pew Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Survey), he provides reasonable critiques of them or their methodologies.

Each chapter focuses on the situation within a different region of the globe: Europe, Latin America, the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa, Japan, China, Asia, India, and America. Judging from a global perspective, it would be difficult to refute Stark’s conclusion that not only is religion not declining, it is thriving, if not actively proliferating. The rapid and unprecedented spread of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa will come as a surprise to no one, nor will the recent surge in the popularity and influence of Islam. But Stark also details lesser-known events, such as the increasing popularity of Hinduism in India, and the slow but surprising spread of Christianity in China, especially among educated elites. His treatment of the religious situation in Latin America is of particular interest: While many have noted the spread of evangelical Protestantism in that once solidly Catholic region, few have documented the Catholic counter-response to evangelical efforts, with the overall result that religious observance of all kinds is at an all-time high.

Wait a minute, the reader might be tempted to ask, what about Japan, where people don’t seem to believe in anything? Or the U.S., where the recent Pew study seems to indicate a fourteen percent rise in the “nones”? Or Europe, whose churches appear “scholarly, liberal, and empty”? Examples like these seem to disprove the thesis of overall religious growth, don’t they? Not so, concludes Stark, noting that discrepancies like these tend to represent limitations in the nature of the survey data gathered over the years, particularly with regard to how one defines religion. If sixty-seven percent of people surveyed in Japan list their religion as “none,” but eighty-eight percent also say they maintain Buddhist shrines to their ancestors in their houses, Stark quite reasonably concludes that it is utterly wrong for analysts to assume that the Japanese have no religion, or that religion is unimportant in Japan, when obviously it is important.

A similar situation prevails in Europe. While church attendance and membership are unquestionably down, the fact that fifty-five percent of Icelanders surveyed say they believe in huldufolk, or elves, or that seventy-eight percent of Swedes say they want some kind of religious memorial service after they die, or that eighty-three percent of Dutchmen say they pray regularly, does not mean that one can claim, as secularists do, that Europeans are becoming less religious. Their religious beliefs are not going away; they are merely changing — a living illustration of the famous quip attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “When people cease to believe in God, the problem isn’t that they believe in nothing, it’s that they believe in anything.”

As for the 2015 Pew data focusing on the rise of the “nones” and the decline of religion in America, Stark concludes that this is a reflection of a number of errors in the survey, one of which is the simple fact that while responses of “none” went up by fourteen percent, there was no change in church attendance figures or the number of people who declare themselves atheists. As with Europe, the “nones” don’t believe in nothing — they either have their own individual religious beliefs or choose not to list a denominational affiliation.

The religious situation in Europe and the U.S. can be explained by Stark’s own “rational choice” theory about the nature of religion. The notion that religion is something practiced by the poor and ignorant is a crude stereotype perpetuated by secularists, he says. Rather, most people make rational choices about religion, as they do about other things in life, and if they don’t like their religion or church, they’ll usually move on to another one rather than abandon belief entirely. Regarding the “decline” of religion in Europe and the U.S., Stark points to the rise of “liberalism” and politicization in certain ecclesial bodies, which is not surprising. After all, if a devout Episcopalian finds out that his bishop denies the Virgin Birth and Resurrection and chooses instead to feed his congregations a diet of liberation theology rather than the Gospel, our devout Episcopalian is not likely to remain an Episcopalian very long.

With regard to Europe, Stark credits another unusual factor in its religious malaise: the fact that Europe is nowhere near as free, religiously, as it thinks it is. Rather, it is a region full of “lazy, obstructionist state churches,” which have gone to considerable efforts to quash religious competition, leaving disillusioned churchgoers few places to go (except, perhaps, to the huldufolk). Instead, Stark favors the model presented by Alexis de Tocqueville a hundred and eighty years ago in his Democracy in America of a religiously open society, where religions have to compete with one another. This kind of religious “free market” has the effect of making clergy less complacent and adherents more devout. Contrasting the religious situation in Europe with Latin America is instructive: Catholic domination of the region led to religious complacency that was challenged by a zealous Protestantism, which was in turn challenged by a renewed Catholicism animated not by liberation theology (which failed) but by charismatic movements within the Church (which succeeded). The end result has been a higher level of religious devotion in Latin America than the region has ever known.

Is Triumph of Faith a perfect book? By no means. The writing is a little breathless here and there, and some readers (though not this reviewer) may be taken aback at the dismissive tone Stark sometimes uses toward his opponents. At times the work can be repetitive or hint at some points upon which it never delivers. Take, for example, the chapter on Europe, which mentions the difference in fertility rates between religious and non-religious people and concludes that the religious situation in Europe may conceivably be solved by demographics. This reviewer was hoping for a similar analysis in the chapter on Islam, but there was none.

Moreover, Stark presents some of his observations as hard and established facts when in reality they aren’t. Take, for example, his assumption that the practice of religion in Europe was minimal in the Middle Ages compared to later eras. While this is not unreasonable, there is simply not enough hard data available to make an absolute statement. Stark does make occasional errors of fact (Pope Francis is very far from being the “primary proponent of liberation theology today”).

Finally, though this reviewer generally accepts it, there are some problems with Stark’s use of the free-market religion idea. Though Europe is unquestionably less religiously free than it thinks it is, it is certainly freer than India or the Middle East, which doesn’t explain why Hinduism and Islam are exploding while European Protestantism and Catholicism are not. And Stark is honest enough to note that the rise in religion is not always an unalloyed good: Christianity is on the rise in Latin America, but so is anti-Semitism; the resurgence of Islam has also brought with it a rise of Islamic-based violence (seventy percent of which is Muslim-on-Muslim, contrary to Western stereotypes); and the explosion of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa has done little to prevent the warfare endemic to that region.

These caveats should not sway the interested reader. The overall conclusions of The Triumph of Faith are accurate — and very welcome. God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. For the first time in human history, four out of every five people belong to one of the great world faiths. Is ours a new Age of Secularism? Nope. Rather, it’s a new Age of Faith. Paradoxically, the rise of the “new atheism” (itself a kind of faith) proves it.



DOSSIER: Atheism & Its Discontents



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