Is the West Becoming Less Religious?

empty church
image: Getty
October 7, 2013

In an influential book published in the thick of the Cold War called How Democracies Perish, French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel asked the chilling question of whether "[p]erhaps in history democracy will have been an accident, a brief parenthesis which comes to a close before our very eyes." In so doing, he summarized the anxiety felt by many people during those years, East and West, about the ultimate outcome of the struggle over Communism. As a seemingly ascendant Soviet Union continued its geographic and ideological spread, did it not make sense to wonder whether democracy itself would survive – or whether indeed it had already entered terminal eclipse, as Revel and others feared?

Today, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know what those concerned observers could not have, which is history’s dramatic answer to that question. Today, almost a quarter-century after the Velvet Revolutions of 1989, we know that it was Communism, not democracy, that was imploding before the eyes of the world; and that democratic capitalism would emerge the moral victor over the millenarian collectivism that led to the Gulag. The battle between freedom and un-freedom, as it turned out, was not going to continue for centuries after all. In a way that even the sharpest minds of the time could not have foreseen, history’s verdict came swiftly and decisively.

This background may be useful these couple of decades later as some of us Western people ponder a related question: namely, whether religion itself might not also turn out to be a parenthesis coming to a close before our very eyes, in Revel’s haunting phrase – specifically, the Christianity so integral for two millennia now to the history and cultures of Western Europe and their offspring. Over a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche’s fabled madman predicted that it would take “hundreds and hundreds” of years for all humanity to learn the news of God’s death. Given the evidence of our senses today, do we finally see that the madman got it right?

The answer is yes – and no. Yes, significant parts of the Western world are indeed becoming less religious; one can even say accurately of some that they are “de-Christianizing.” But no, that fact does not prove Nietzsche’s prophecy right – for secularization, upon inspection, is springing in large part from sources that Nietzsche, and for that matter all his like-minded intellectual heirs since the Enlightenment, could not have foreseen.

First, to the matter of religious decline, and again limiting ourselves to the religion dominant in the history of Europe, America and the rest of what is called the West: Christianity. Though some scholars would argue that “secularization” itself is illusory, there is nonetheless ample evidence that the Western world is considerably less religious than it used to be.

The empty cathedrals and churches of Europe are mute but empirical testimony to the point, as are the Continent-wide falloffs in religious marriage, religious burial, and other rituals on which Christianity once successfully insisted. The argument for increasing secularization is also backed by statistical barrages like the European Values Survey, which has found, for example, that in nine out of eleven countries measured, belief in God dropped between the years 1981 and 1999; that all countries but one also showed a decline in church attendance during those same years; and that the number of nonaffiliated individuals (“nones”) also rose simultaneously during that period.

Nor is the United States exempt from similar trends, despite its often proclaimed relative religiosity. Yes, America remains far more pious than Europe overall; but here too, the number of “nones” rises apace, particularly among people in their twenties. In the last five years alone, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated has increased from 15 to 20 percent – the highest figure yet. To judge by other significant statistics that are proxies of sorts for belief, such as rising rates of cohabitation and unmarried births, say, America’s religious tomorrow is just Sweden’s yesterday.

For that matter, creeping godlessness isn’t only a Euro-American thing, either. According to Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins, across Latin America “signs of secularization appear that would have been unthinkable not long ago.” Nine percent of Brazilians now report themselves “nones,” for instance, and just as with the “nones” in America, the number is higher among the young. Forty percent of Uruguayans now profess no religious affiliation. Fewer Argentines are going to church. And so on.

So the question – and it is a large and critical question – is this: what, exactly, is driving that trend of religious decline? Many assume unthinkingly that the answer to that question is obvious, but on inspection, it is anything but.

Does education, for example, drive out God? That is one common explanation for secularization. As people become more sophisticated and more rational, many suppose, they have less need of religion. The problem with this idea is the explanation from education only works if religion is a lower-class thing – and it isn’t.

Secularization is not, for example, the inevitable result of affluence, as many have said; statistically, men and women who are better-off in the United States today, for example, are more likely to believe and practice faith than are those further down the economic ladder. The same was true of Victorian England, as documented by the eminent British historian Hugh McLeod. Education and Mammon alone do not necessarily drive out God.

Is secularization then the inevitable result of increased rationality and enlightenment, as the new atheists and others claim? Here again, the fact that religious practice is not the opiate of the masses, but more likely imbibed by those higher up the ladder, confounds that theory too. Is secularization then the result of the world wars, as still other observers have supposed? If so, it is hard to see how countries with different experiences of those wars – neutral Switzerland, vanquished Germany, victorious Great Britain — should all go around losing their religions, let alone why countries untouched by the wars should follow suit.

In sum, to study history is to see that pace the main line of conventional thought, Christianity does not recede bit by bit in an inevitable downward motion. Instead, it waxes and wanes in the world – strong one moment, weak the next – in a movement that modern sociology, fixated as it is on the progressive axiom that religious decline is somehow inevitable, has nowhere satisfactorily explained.

An alternative way of asking what is driving Christian decline involves looking more closely at what else is going on when religion seems to be on the upswing. Let’s take as our petri dish the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1960s. As historians and sociologists have documented, those particular years saw a remarkable revival of Christianity across the Western world. Church attendance was up. Denominational affiliation was up. Baptisms and related ceremonies increased. Religious language and religious ideas influenced public speech, manners, laws, schools, the arts – even popular culture such as movies.

This religious flowering was underway not only in the United States, but across the Western world, as British historians Callum G. Brown and Michael Snape have independently documented. Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Denmark, and more countries – i.e., most of the West – all saw an unanticipated rise in churchgoing and profession of belief during those exact same years. Remarkably, this revival applied to the vanquished as well as the victorious, the impoverished as well as the affluent. Related Questions Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Other Freedoms to Flourish? Does Digital Communication Encourage or Inhibit Spiritual Progress?

In the United States, so pronounced was this religious renascence, so influential in the public square, that some people just assumed it would always continue this way – that religious faith, not its decline, would be inevitable. Will Herberg, who was perhaps the single most influential sociologist of religion during those years, actually wrote in his classic book Protestant-Catholic-Jew that the village atheist was a vanishing figure in American life and that even agnostics seemed to be in historical eclipse.

Once again, it makes sense to ask what happened to make that dramatic postwar religious revival possible. What else was underway at that exact same historical moment across the whole Western world – not only America but almost all of Western Europe and Canada and Australia too?

The answer is that the extraordinary religious boom documented by scholars was accompanied by another and even more familiar boom – a Baby Boom, which was itself preceded and accompanied by a marriage boom that spread across the West during those same years.

The conclusion that suggests itself is that something about living in families, meaning families that are married and with children, is an important part of what drives many people to church.

Family and faith are the invisible double helix of society – dependent upon one another for support and reproduction. Witness too this converse example: contemporary Scandinavia.

The Nordic countries are the least religious in all of what was once regarded as Christendom, as measured by survey and other data. They are also, arguably and collectively, the least familial societies in the Western world. Almost half of all households in Sweden are households of one person, for example, and Swedish rates of out of wedlock births and cohabitation have led the rest of Europe and America for decades now.

This pioneering of the atomized home, alongside the pioneering of the empty pew, is obviously more than a casual relationship. Once again, the fate of the church and the fate of the family appeared twinned. There is more going on in Western religious decline than has been dreamed of yet by Western philosophers, secular or otherwise; and the real end of either of these historically critical institutions remains to be written.

Discussion Questions:

What do current trends portend for the future of the family and religious faith?
 
How might the decline of the family lead to the decline of Christianity, rather than just vice versa as many people believe?
 
Is religious revival possible given the trend toward secularization?