The Secular Revolution of the West: It's Passed America By-So Far. (Anywhere but Here: America, Religion & the Rest of the World)

By Paul, Gregory S. | Free Inquiry, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Secular Revolution of the West: It's Passed America By-So Far. (Anywhere but Here: America, Religion & the Rest of the World)


Paul, Gregory S., Free Inquiry


Most human beings are hard-wired for religion. Or so many American secular humanists believe. With a sigh, they take for granted that nine out of ten people will always believe in God, then wonder why the skeptical few are so different. Across the Atlantic, this picture is reversed. Only a minority of Britons attend church. Fewer than half of Germans believe in God. In Sweden atheists and agnostics outnumber strong believers 2 to 1. Across Europe--and, for that matter, Australia--the nineteenth-century dream that religion would wither in the face of science and general education seems to be coming true. Among developed democracies, America's penchant for piety is so exceptional that it screams for explanation.

In this special section, independent scientist Gregory Paul limns the extent of the trans-Atlantic "religion gap." Cartographer Rodger Doyle probes the reasons underlying America's dint for devotion. Finally, British biologist Richard Dawkins offers strategies U.S. unbelievers might apply to help close the gap. -Eds

Until the early twentieth century, the peoples of all nations were strongly religious. Europe was a longtime Christian bastion with monarchs continuing to claim divine approval. Religion was officially taken less seriously in the United States, where church was separated from state and only half of the population belonged to any congregation. Across the globe, only intellectuals seemed prone to nonbelief.

What, then, is the status of religion around the globe at the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in the developed democracies (Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Japan, and Australia)? Several data sources are available. In 1991, the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) released its large "Religion I" poll, documenting beliefs and practices in sixteen countries. (1) Beginning in 1998 and concluding in early 2001, the ISSP conducted a second, more massive "Religion II" poll, in which nearly 40,000 people were interviewed in thirty-two countries, including eighteen developed democracies. (2) The new World Christian Encyclopedia presents data on global rates of belief during the twentieth century, (3) while the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America focuses on the United States since colonial times. (4) These and other reports provide an unprecedented view of how religion is faring relative to secularism in the modern world. (5) The results show that, although religion continue s to do well and has even enjoyed a (usually conservative) revival across much of the world, the belief in and worship of God has largely collapsed in developed democracies other than America. At the same time, the nonreligious community has become large and increasingly powerful. These facts, to say nothing of their implications, remain poorly understood even among secularists.

For the purposes of this essay it is assumed the cited data is reasonably accurate, although additional research, analysis, and verification is urgently needed.

RESULTS OF THE STUDIES AND RELATED CULTURAL MATTERS (6)

It is estimated that only a few million people were nonreligious in 1900 (Figure 1). Today the estimate is nearly one billion, a sixth of the world's population. (7) This 250-fold expansion in absolute numbers and fifty-fold increase in percentage of population in just one long lifespan far outstrips the growth of any major faith in the twentieth century, and probably in history. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, believers in the supernatural belong to 10,000 variations, most within ten major varieties of organized religion. Christianity's percentage of the population has remained remarkably stable, at about one in three, spread across some 34,000 denominations. (8) If anything, the percentage of Christians has declined slightly during the past one hundred years. Among the major religions, only Islam has seen major growth: from about 12 percent of the global population in 1900 to nearly 20 percent today. …

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