The Future of Religious Belief

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The Future of Religious Belief

The media regularly report new “proofs” of the rapid decline of religion in America and abroad. For instance, in May 2015, the Pew Research Center released its latest Religious Landscape Survey.1 Commenting on the findings, Pew’s director of religion, Alan Cooperman, declared, “The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board.” Fewer Americans identified as Christian, Pew said, and the percentage of people who gave their religious affiliation as “none” had increased substantially in recent years.

However, this assessment doesn’t really represent what their data is actually able to tell us. For example, the overwhelming majority of Americans who say they have “no religious affiliation” also say that they pray and believe in angels! Therefore, it’s clear that most people with no religious affiliation actually hold religious beliefs—and, those beliefs typically impact their behavior to some degree.

What about the decline of religion elsewhere in the world? This, too, appears to be “wishful thinking” on the part of the commentators—and it is entirely at odds with reliable data.

Consider the experience of the former USSR. The Soviet government thought of itself as pushing forward the inevitable process of secularization (in which religion would disappear from the face of the Earth) a process that has become an article of faith for many dogmatic social scientists. This Soviet effort constituted a remarkable natural experiment.

What was the result? A national survey conducted in 1990, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, found that more than sixty years of this intense instruction had resulted in just 6.6 percent of Russians saying they were atheists. That’s only slightly more than the 4 percent level in the United States!

Perhaps the most rigorous analysis to date of trends in religious belief appears in Rodney Stark’s late-2015 book, The Triumph of Faith.2 The empirical backbone of that book is provided by the truly remarkable Gallup World Polls. This data collection began in 2005 and consists of annual national surveys conducted in 163 nations that, as of 2015, added up to more than 1 million interviews. Never before have researchers had access to such a body of data—and the data tell us that, contrary to media reports, a massive religious awakening is currently taking place around the world.

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