[Ovewseas]Is God winning?In the future, reason will triumph over fanaticism and science will banish superstition. In the future, human beings will be more tolerant, rational and humane. In the future, they will cease to believe in God.
That, at any rate, was the faith of the Enlightenment, the broad-based movement for social progress and reform that motivated idealistic minds in the 18th century. True, not all of the movement’s defenders put the case that crudely, and few were so naive as to think that enlightenment would triumph without a long struggle. And yet a good many shared the general assumption that as the world advanced, people would steadily liberate themselves from the clutches of religion.
Until relatively recently, that same assumption was widely shared. The great social theorists of the nineteenth century ― from Marx to Weber to Durkheim ― took it for granted, and in 1928 Sigmund Freud wrote a book on religion, whose title, “The Future of an Illusion,” says it all.
How the world has changed! Today, it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without being reminded of the presence of religion in public life. From Buddhist monks in Burma to evangelical Christians in the United States to Hindu nationalists in India or Sunni or Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, religion is both present and political in today’s world in ways that would have shocked yesterday’s pundits. Whereas Time Magazine could run a cover story in 1966 that asked “Is God Dead?” just last year the influential American journal Foreign Policy published a long article on global politics affirming “Why God is Winning.” Apparently, that fact is no longer in question.
But is that really the case? Can we say, unequivocally, that God is “winning,” or, to put it more precisely, that the world is experiencing a global resurgence of religion and religious belief? The case is complicated. On the one hand, few would deny that the world has witnessed some surprising religious developments in recent years: the surge of Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa, for example; the growth of the Bahai faith, Sikhism and Jainism in India; or the spectacular surge of Islam, which with 1.3 billion adherents and an annual growth rate of 1.84 percent is spreading faster than any other faith on the planet.
Even Western Europe, often seen as an area of religious slumber, has recently experienced the first stirrings of a reawakening ― not only among Muslims, who constitute the fastest-growing religious group there, but among Christians and Jews. In July, the Wall Street Journal ran a long article titled “In Europe, God is (Not) Dead,” which reported on the increasing prominence there of religion in public life.
Whether Europe is waking up or not, the rest of the religious world certainly seems to be. Ronald Ingelhart, the chairman of the World Values Survey, which measures changes in values and beliefs around the world, points out that not only are there more people alive today who share traditional religious beliefs than ever before in history, but that these people are a larger percentage of the world population than they were 20 years ago. South Korea would seem to be a case in point. The number of those describing themselves as having no religious affiliation has fallen from a rate of 57.4 percent in 1985 to 49.3 percent in 1995 and roughly 46.9 percent in 2005, while the number of religiously active citizens ― particularly Christians ― has grown rapidly since the 1960s.
That said, there is, on the other hand, a relatively straightforward explanation for much (though not all) of today’s religious expansion: population growth. Critics of the “God is winning” thesis like to point out that religion is growing fastest in those parts of the world (Latin America, India, the Middle East) where population is growing fastest, too. They add that this is not really very surprising. Demographers have long argued that traditional religious adherence is more conducive to high birthrates than the secularism of advanced post-industrial societies, where people have far fewer children. Western Europe is a case in point. In countries like Italy, Germany and Spain, with low rates of church attendance and professed belief, population is actually falling. Rather than concede that God is winning, these critics suggest, we should simply accept that his followers are better breeders than the secular-minded.
That might look like an admission of defeat, if not for the fact that these same critics continue to adhere to a central aspect of the modernization-equals-secularization thesis. Look at the data for advanced post-industrial societies since 1945, they challenge, and pose questions like “How often do you attend church or temple?”, “How important is religion in your life?” or “Do you believe in God?” The percentages clearly decline. So though it may be true that there are more people alive today with traditional religious beliefs and they do constitute a greater percentage of the world’s population than 20 years ago, this doesn’t disprove the fact that as societies modernize, their beliefs change.
Moreover, as the sociologists Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul have argued in “Why the Gods Are not Winning,” the number of “non-religionists” (atheists or agnostics) is also on the rise, skyrocketing in Europe and America from 3.2 million in 1900 to 918 million in the year 2000. On a global scale, whereas non-religionists constituted a mere 0.2 percent of the global population in 1900, that percentage has expanded steadily ever since, adding something like 8.5 million non-adherents each year. Modernity may be slow, but it gets there in the end and, as it spreads around the world, faith will decline.
So, was the Enlightenment right after all? Is God winning, or is she not?
Those of us who care will probably have to wait for a while to learn the truth. In the meantime, we might say that both sides in the debate are right: Religionists and non-religionists alike are more prominent in the world today. And that fact may well mean increased conflict between them in the years to come.
*The writer is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University and the author of “Happiness: A History,” forthcoming in Korean translation by Sallim.
by Darrin M. McMahon