Europe’s churches areempty—but don’t take that as a sign of reason’s triumph. More than half ofIcelanders believe in elves and trolls.
Wall Street Journal
Naomi Schaefer Riley
God is not dead. Despite thepredictions of academics and liberal religious leaders, the world is becomingmore faith-filled, not less. According to Rodney Stark, the co-director of theInstitute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, there has been no riseof the “nones”—no increase in the number of the world’s self-professed atheistsand no triumph of reason over revelation.
One of Mr. Stark’s targets in“The Triumph of Faith” is certain modern polling firms, including the PewSurvey, that routinely announce a significant increase in the number ofAmericans claiming no religious affiliation. As Alan Cooperman, Pew’s directorof religion, reported earlier this year: “The country is becoming lessreligious as a whole.” Mr. Stark criticizes the methods of Pew and other firmsby asserting that their response rates are too small to justify the broadclaims they make.
His real battle, though, iswith intellectual elites of the West, who have been declaring the demise ofreligion for centuries and have been advancing a secularization thesis fordecades. For them, religious belief is a susceptibility of the illiterate andignorant. With education, in their view, people see the foolishness of theirways and abandon their beliefs. Education is spreading ever further, thanks toaffluence and technology: Hence the slow decline of faith.
The Triumph of Faith
ISI, 258 pages, $24.95
Mr. Stark pushes back againstthe secularization thesis in several ways. In a section called “The Myth ofMedieval Piety,” he notes, for example, that during the so-called Dark Ages ofEurope—when religion supposedly stifled the life of the mind and benighted thepopulace—more than 90% of the population lived in rural areas, while churcheswere to be found mostly in towns and cities: “Therefore hardly anyone couldhave attended church. Moreover, even after most Europeans had access to achurch, whether Catholic or Protestant, most people still didn’t attend, andwhen forced to do so, they often misbehaved.”
In short, the poor and lesseducated are not by definition more pious. As for the other half of thesecularization thesis, Mr. Stark shows that, in one country after anothertoday, more educated people are choosing religion in larger numbers than theirless educated peers. This is certainly true in the United States, wherecollege-educated Americans are more likely to attend religious services thantheir counterparts with only a high-school diploma.
Indeed, religious fervor hastaken hold in many countries where modernity is a settled fact. Inmajority-Muslim countries the percentage of people attending mosque is highestamong those with a college education. Mr. Stark writes that the people in thesecountries who are most offended by Western culture tend not to be village hicksbut people living in modernized, urban areas.
Scholars like PhilipJenkins have for years observed that in the Southern Hemisphere religiousbelief—particularly Christianity and Islam—has been spreading rapidly. Here Mr.Stark cites a poll that he trusts: the Gallup World Poll, which has beenconducted annually since 2005 and now includes more than a million interviewsfrom 163 different countries. According to Gallup, almost all South Americancountries are now less than 5% secular. While Catholicism used to be thedominant form of Christianity, because it was the official religion of thecolonizing powers, Protestantism “has become a major religious presence in mostof Latin America.”
Mr. Stark argues that, ingeneral, the government sponsorship of religion is a hindrance to the growth ofa faith. Monopoly destroys competition, and competition, he says, causesgrowth—in religious affiliation as much as in the marketplace for goods and services.In many places around the globe, the competition among Muslims, evangelicals,Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and hundreds of smaller religiousgroups has resulted in an atmosphere of revival. A smug complacency has beenreplaced by fervor to win souls.
Not in Europe, however, wherethe churches, once so important, are now empty. For the champions of thesecularization thesis, such a development is nothing to complain about: Emptychurches are a sign of reason’s progress. Mr. Stark offers some amusingevidence to the contrary. Drawing on the Gallup poll, he notes that Europeanshold all sorts of supernatural beliefs. In Austria, 28% of respondents say theybelieve in fortune tellers; 32% believe in astrology; and 33% believe in luckycharms. “More than 20 percent of Swedes believe in reincarnation,” Mr. Starkwrites; “half believe in mental telepathy.” More than half of Icelandersbelieve in huldufolk, hidden people like elves and trolls. It seemsas if the former colonial outposts for European missionaries are now becomingmore religious, while Europe itself is becoming interested in primitive folkbeliefs.
Mr. Stark may criticize themethods of Pew and other polling firms, but there is no doubt that fewerAmericans than ever before claim an association with a particular sect ordenomination. They may be religious by some definition, but they are“unchurched.” The folks at Pew are not atheist triumphalists. They do seem tobe tracking what Mr. Stark acknowledges to be the “social consequences” of thechanges in the way people identify.
And while it is true that themost educated members of American society are the ones going to church, theirattendance and affiliation is likely to decline in the coming years, in partbecause of changes in family dynamics. Americans are getting married at laterages or increasingly not at all. And it has traditionally been marriage thatbrings young adults back to religion or keeps them in the fold. Such changesmay be a blip on the global screen, though. God only knows.
Ms. Riley is the author of“Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young PeopleBack” and “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is TransformingAmerica.”
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