Things have been strangely religious of late at that venerable journal, Foreign Policy (FP). In its March/April 2006 issue, in an article titled "The Return of the Patriarchy," Phillip Longman proposed that liberal secularism is being overwhelmed by fast-breeding religious conservatives in a Darwinian "process similar to survival of the fittest." That was startling enough, but it was only the beginning. In the July/August FP, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft triumphantly explained "Why God Is Winning," as an increasingly democratic globe goes increasingly pro-God. (The thesis that mass secularization is a myth or is being reversed is not novel. It is a primary theme of leading sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, who coined the expression "Secularization R. I. P.")
It is unusual for a periodical to run pieces that hold like positions on the same esoteric subject in such close succession-although in fairness, I must admit that the two articles contradict one another in a critical regard. Longman's piece focuses on rapid reproduction and retention of ancestral opinions as the agent primarily responsible for the return of God, while Shah and Toft imply that people are dropping their parents' opinions as they choose religious over secular worldviews. Obviously, both cannot be entirely true at the same time. One thing the FP articles do share is a disturbing lack of intellectual objectivity. It is astonishing to what degree the authors ignore abundant and readily available evidence that the actual story is far more nuanced, complicated, and contradictory. A search of the three authors' credentials did not reveal obvious evidence that these people have a dedicated agenda. But, one way or another, they are assisting the effort to make people believe that He is retaking the world.
As defective as the Longman piece is, the essay by Shah and Toft is even worse, so let's start with that one. Early on, Shah and Toft offer the carefully crafted assertion that the "struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu." Not mentioned is the fact that the African National Congress, which actually saved the nation, was highly Marxist and skeptical, as was Nelson Mandela, and that the bulk of white opposition to racial enslavement came from casual secularists of English origin. And never mind that the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church was an enthusiastic backer of apartheid.
Shah and Toft enter further into the realm of misinformation when they turn to the evangelically authored World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE) to show that "at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a greater portion of the world's population adhered to [Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism] in 2000 than a century earlier." It is true that Islam and Hinduism have grown relative to the total population-not so much because of the democracy Shah and Toft are so enamored of, but primarily because of the rapid reproduction that Longman expounds. What Shah and Toft do not reveal to the readers of FP is that, according to the WCE, 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 twentieth century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in a.d. 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.
These statements on the spectacular success of secularism appear in the first two pages of Part 1 of the WCE. It's hard to miss them. The WCE also details how a dismayed evangelical movement has watched the Christian faith remain stuck at about one-third of the world's population since 1900. The FP writers never breathe a word about this. Shah and Toft do leave the impression that, as the world has become better educated and more democratic, it has become more spiritual. Not only is this inaccurate, but Shah and Toft fail to inform their audience that, as education and income levels rise-both among individuals and nations-secularism consistently increases at the expense of supernaturalism. This is no secret; it is well documented by numerous surveys. The ultimate expression of this effect is seen in the scientific community, which is strongly atheistic, especially in its elite ranks.
High rates of religiosity are now restricted to the United States and the second and third worlds. With the conspicuous exception of the United States, secularism now rules in all the prosperous democracies from Europe to Australia and Japan, with agnostics and atheists making up 40 percent or more of the population, while absolute believers in God never exceed half and, in many countries, score as low as the teens and single digits. Across western Europe, secularization continues at such a pace that the churches are in serious danger of terminal collapse. With its population of about half a billion, this is of course the group of nations that enjoys the longest liberal democratic tradition based on high levels of education and economic prosperity without high rates of social inequality. The argument that education and democracy favor religion is spurious to the point of being outlandish.
Even in America, there are indications that popular religion is in trouble. For three decades, the National Opinion Research Center has asked Americans to what religion they belong. For the first two decades, it was a dull task, with Christians accounting for nearly 90 percent of the population year after year, with Protestants hovering near 65 percent and the nonreligious near 7 percent of the population. Things suddenly became interesting in the early nineties, as Christians began a steady decline to three-fourths of the population and Protestants headed for bare majority status. Of all belief categories, only one group experienced astonishingly rapid growth: the nonreligious, whose share doubled to about 15 percent. The big question has been how many of the nonreligious are those who do not believe in gods. The way to find that out is to ask the Gallup Poll. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, 1 or 2 percent usually responded "no" when asked if they believed in God; up to 98 percent said "yes." These days, 5 to 7 percent say they disbelieve. In other major polls, up to 8 to 10 percent have expressed disbelief. Skeptical agnosticism and outright atheism are indeed on the rise in America. With a probable membership somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty million, this category far outnumbers Jews, Muslims, and Mormons combined. Of course, Longman and Shah and Toft neglected to mention all this. Nor did they mention that Karl Rove's dream of converting America into a Republican religious nation is threatened, because the evangelical Right is failing to grow to majority status even as the nonreligious population blooms, or that church membership and attendance have been slipping downwards even as the megachurches gobble up a growing portion of what's left.
While we're at it, neither Longman or Shah and Toft have anything to say about why the Southern Baptists are in a funk. America's largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptists baptized just over a third of a million Americans last year. Why be glum about that? Because they immersed almost exactly the same number back in 1950, when the U.S. population was about half its current size. According to a church report, "evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration." It is this dangerous stagnation that resulted in the surprise overthrow of the hyper-conservative leadership this spring in favor of new leaders who seek to emphasize evangelical work over hardball politics. They have no choice but to act boldly to save their sect-not that I expect they will succeed.
The fact is, secularization is easy. It's keeping the faith that's hard work. Sociologists of religion understand that supernaturalism thrives only when it is promulgated by well-organized, well-funded, socially conservative institutional cults. The near demolition of these structures in most Western nations is a major factor in the failure of faith. This crash is associated with prosperity and democracy, a relationship Shah and Toft apparently do not appreciate. For Longman's part, he does not seem to grasp that, in human society, evolutionary success is more than a numbers game. In modern societies, Darwinian evolutionary processes have shifted from crude DNA-driven reproduction to cultural selection based on information exchange. People are not absolutely locked into the belief systems into which they are born. A significant number can and do change their minds. As those of us in the secular community know, many of today's skeptics started out as believers, this author being one. Because mass conversion from faith to rationalism occurs spontaneously, large-scale dedicated organizations are not required. This is true because modern science, especially evolutionary science, has rendered belief in supernatural superstition no better founded than belief in ghosts or ancient astronauts. Add to this the massive forces of secularization driven by the multi-trillion-dollar corporate complex that is doing all it can to turn the world's citizens into materialistic, hedonistic consumers who spend their Sundays at Wal-Mart and Home Depot rather than at church. A new study shows that the retailer-driven repeal of the blue laws that restricted Sunday commerce decreased church attendance by ten million.
What are the big-hit dramas on the corporate operated networks these days? Only one current religion-themed drama series made it-barely-into the 2006-2007 season, the late Aaron Spelling's Seventh Heaven. The big hits are shows like ABC/Disney's salacious Desperate Housewives and Rupert Murdoch's explicit House, the lead character of which is an atheist M.D. Even when retention of parental beliefs is operative, religion is still in trouble. As Sid Groeneman and Gary Tobin note, most nonreligious people are males and offspring tend to pick up ancestral beliefs from their fathers. This pattern helps explain why youth in the West are markedly less religious than their elders. It also means that patriarchy favors secularization, an ironic flip of Longman's thesis that desecularization favors patriarchy.
Making matters worse for the cause of faith, the United States is increasingly seen worldwide as the reverse of Reagan's Shining City on the Hill. If American life, riven as it is with societal ills, is the best a self-proclaimed Christian nation can do, Europeans will only be further encouraged to follow their more socially successful secular path.
Although some proponents of conservative irrationalism have figured out ways to use manipulative propaganda to slow down the tide of secularization, at least in the United States, they have not devised the means to halt, much less reverse, the rise of Western rationalism as popular understanding of modern science-and levels of prosperity-rise. On the world stage, even knowledgeable American believers come across as hysterical about cultural secularization-a stage their European counterparts passed long ago.
Where in the world is religion doing well, demographically speaking? A number of second- and third-world democracies come to mind-India being a classic example-but these are lands where large numbers remain poor and ill-educated. The biggest gains for faith in recent years have occurred in formerly communistic states. In some of these, secularization has been reversed sharply enough to slow global rates of growth in disbelief. Even so, the old churches in Russia and many other former eastern-bloc states are not being reopened in large numbers; not enough people are showing up on Sunday. Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, and the percentage of that population that says that religion is important in the lives of its members is in the teens. Even in Catholic Poland, just a third of the population considers religion important in their lives. China, never a particularly religious land in the first place, remains highly skeptical, despite some modest growth in supernaturalism.
If the relative number of conservative fundamentalists-Christian, Islamic, and Hindu-has not dramatically increased, how have these groups recently become such potent social and economic forces? Fundamentalists "punch above their weight" though their fiery, dedicated activism. They are frantic counterrevolutionaries, driven by their terrified reaction to the secular revolution in which hundreds of millions of well-educated, prosperous people have dared to lose interest in organized spirit cults. But the counterrevolution is actually helping to destroy its own cause. According to Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, the rise of a sometimes violent and often plain wacky Religious Right is a leading cause of the rise in the numbers of the nonreligious! Contrary to media accounts, American piety continued to decline after September 11, 2001; some ninety million American adults think that belief in the Rapture is nutty.
The claim that God, or more correctly belief in God, is winning across the world is inane. But to claim that secularism has outright won the global culture war is obviously crazy too. The (as usual) complicated truth is that America-and indeed, the world-have become more harshly polarized. The forces of secularism continue to cause grievous damage to organized superstition in the West; the reactionary forces of supernaturalism respond in increasingly desperate ways but have proven unable to stop the process. Far from educated, prosperous, Western democracy being an ally of supernaturalism, it functions, in fact, as the most powerful enemy supernaturalism has ever faced.
But what of Longman's thesis that faith will triumph simply by making more babies? It is true that believers tend to out-reproduce skeptics, but even that is proving unable to substantially reverse faith's losses. The hard truth is that faith does, and only can, truly thrive among the poor and poorly educated. That is not only a recipe for long-term decline in a fast-changing world; it is rather sad.