(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 12-17-15)
Several generations of sociologists and anthropologists have confidently predicted the fading of religious belief from the modern world. And very recently, some prominently reported survey numbers have seemed to confirm that the world is becoming more secular. Christianity is shrinking, and the ranks of the religious “nones” are swelling rapidly — to the dismay of believers and the delight of unbelievers.
But now along comes a book by Rodney Stark, one of the most prominent, respected and consistently insightful sociologists of religion in the business. In “The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $24.95), Stark draws upon a wealth of survey data from around the planet to contend that “Contrary to the constant predictions that religion is doomed, there is abundant evidence of an ongoing worldwide religious awakening.
“The conventional wisdom about secularization,” he says flatly, is “unfounded nonsense.”
While, for example, he points to how not very long ago there were virtually no Protestants in Latin America, they now number in the millions. But has this come at the simple expense of Catholicism and Catholic numbers? No. “Latin American Catholics are far more religious” today than ever in the past, he writes.
Across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Islamic belief is more fervent than at perhaps any time in recent centuries, he writes, and from small beginnings in the relatively recent past, there are now more church-going Christians in Africa than anywhere else on Earth.
“Hinduism has never been stronger” than it is today, he writes, and pilgrims to sacred Hindu sites are straining the resources of the administrators of those sites and of the Indian transportation systems that serve them.
China is experiencing an unprecedented surge in its number of Christians, and tens of thousands of traditional temples have been rebuilt since the days of Mao.
Regarding “Religious America,” as he terms it, Stark argues that many commonly accepted notions simply can’t be justified by the actual data: Young people aren’t leaving churches in droves. Young evangelicals aren’t becoming more liberal. Church attendance isn’t in decline. The number of American atheists isn’t increasing. American Jewry is becoming more faithful and more Orthodox. Even the “nones,” by a large majority, believe and act in ways that can only be described as religious. For example, “the overwhelming majority of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation pray and believe in angels.”
Stark discusses in detail the decline of the churches that once rather smugly described themselves as the American religious “mainstream,” correlating the rise of “modernist” theologies — focused not on traditional Christian doctrine but on often-socialist politics — with the mass exodus of their membership to more conservative denominations in a free marketplace of religious options. People seeking the bread of hope and meaning in their lives here on earth and the promise of life beyond the grave simply weren’t satisfied with the stone of secularism that liberal theology too often offered in its place.
It’s true that churches are still rather empty in parts of Europe — long the model representative of the supposedly godless world in which all of us will soon live — but this isn’t, Stark argues, “the reliable sign of secularization it has long been said to be.” Complacent and often unbelieving religious functionaries working for state churches in an uncompetitive religious marketplace have simply failed to serve their congregations, and as a result, those congregations have opted out, he writes. Europe, he says, quoting another scholar, is a continent full of not unbelievers but “believing non-belongers.”
“The world,” Stark writes, “is more religious than it has ever been.” In fact, among all of the globe’s great religious traditions, only Buddhism may not be growing. People naturally resist attempts to reduce their lives to brief and cosmically meaningless episodes on a pointless planet in a blindly purposeless cosmos, Starks writes.
The Soviet Union leaders aggressively pushed atheism not only through relentless propaganda but also through the often ruthless persecution of believers. Nonetheless, after more than 60 years of this intense crusade, a 1990 survey found that just 6.6 percent of Russians described themselves as atheists, a figure only slightly higher than the roughly 4 percent reported for America since the mid-1940s.
I enthusiastically recommend this stimulating book to religious leaders and to those generally interested in what’s going on in the minds of people around the world. It has much to offer, not only for understanding but also, in my judgment, for action.