Sociology of Religion

Rodney Stark: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever

Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark is Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. I read just about everything he writes. 

His latest is entitled The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever. (Due out today)

Here’s a summary of what Stark has to say about the world in which we live.

It is a very religious world, far more religious than it was 50 years ago. Gallup World Poll Surveys of more than a million people living in 163 nations show that:

  • 81 percent claim to belong to an organized religious faith, and most of the rest report engaging in religious activities such as prayer or making offerings to the gods in various “folk religion” temples.
  • 74 percent say religion is an important part of their daily lives.
  • 50 percent report they have attended a place of worship or religious service in the past seven days.

In very few nations do as many as five percent claim to be atheists, and only in China, Vietnam, and South Korea do they exceed 20 percent.

Furthermore, in every nook and cranny left by organized faiths, all manner of unconventional spiritual and mystical practices are booming. There are more occult healers than medical doctors in Russia, 38 percent of the French believe in astrology, 35 percent of the Swiss agree that “some fortune tellers really can foresee the future,” and nearly everyone in Japan is careful to have their new car blessed by a Shinto priest.

I will document all of this in detail in my next book.

Here, I offer a brief summary.

Latin America For centuries, Latin America was alleged to be a Roman Catholic continent. For instance, the Catholic Almanac (1949) reported that Catholics constituted 99.2 percent in Argentina, 98.0 percent in Bolivia, and 99.8 percent in Chile. In truth, only about 10 to 20 percent of Latin Americans were active Catholics in those days; so few men entered the seminaries that most of the priests in South America were imported from abroad. Then came the conversion of tens of millions to Protestant groups, most of them of the Pentecostal variety. Faced with competition, the Catholic church responded so energetically that today Latin American Catholics flock to church in amazing numbers—well over 50 percent attend weekly Mass in most nations and over 60 percent in eight of them. What once was a fictitious Catholic continent is now actually a very Christian continent.

The Great Muslim Revival As recently as the 1960s, Western experts—including those employed by the CIA—assumed Muslims were rapidly becoming secularized, thereby failing to notice the great Muslim religious revival that had begun. During the 1950s, about 100,000 pilgrims made the trip to Mecca annually. By the mid-1970s, that number had risen to more than one million per year; by 2012, it topped three million. Many more pilgrims would come to Mecca, but the Saudis limit visas because of the great difficulty in providing food, water, and shelter in the midst of the desert. Other long-term statistics on the Muslim revival are scarce, but even those covering only quite recent times are remarkable. In Turkey, long considered the most secularized Muslim nation, the percent who say religion is important in their lives rose from 83 percent in 1990 to 93 percent in 2011, and the percent who believe in Hell rose from 84 percent to 97 percent during that same period. Nor is the revival limited to the masses of poor, uneducated Muslims; weekly mosque attendance is highest among the most educated.

Sub-Saharan Africa There are more Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else on Earth; a third of the world’s more than two billion Christians live there. And they are the world’s most active Christians: weekly church attendance averages 71 percent, ranging from 90 percent in Nigeria to 61 percent in Zimbabwe. While many Sub-Saharan Africans are Roman Catholics, the majority belongs to one of the more than 11,000 Protestant denominations founded by Africans.

China Not so long ago, it was chic to dismiss the several million Chinese converts claimed by the missionaries as “rice Christians,” cynical souls who frequented the missions for the benefits they provided. Then came the Cultural Revolution. Mao criminalized religion, and huge numbers of Chinese Christians suffered for their faith. Nonetheless, by 1980, when one could again dare to be openly religious, the “rice Christians” not only had endured in their faith, but had converted millions more. By 2007, there were about 60 million Christians in China. If the current rate of growth were to hold until 2030, there would be more Christians in China (about 295 million) than in any other nation on Earth. Meanwhile, most non-Christian Chinese are not irreligious. Tens of thousands of traditional temples that were torn down by the Red Guards have been rebuilt and are full of worshippers. Most Chinese also take part in ancestor worship, and Buddhism is booming.

India When India became an independent nation in 1947, its political leaders, all of them educated in British universities, assumed that Hinduism was in its last days. They believed that as the nation became modern, it would become secularized. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead, India has undergone a massive Hindu revival. Today, 67 percent of Indians say they have attended a religious service in the past week, 85 percent acknowledge religion as important in their daily lives, and atheists are scarce. Moreover, it is the most educated and affluent who are the most religious!

Europe Attendance at Europe’s very limited variety of Christian churches is very low. Even so, most Europeans still hold religious beliefs and atheists are few—an average of 6.6 percent in Western Europe and 4.6 percent in the East. And, as is typical where conventional religion is weak, unconventional and unorganized “faiths” abound in the vacuum. Occult movements are rife. So is belief in fortune-tellers, astrology, lucky charms, and psychic healers. Spiritualism is popular, especially in the Nordic nations, and many dabble in all manner of New Age activities. So much for claims that Europeans have “outgrown” belief in the supernatural.

United StatesAlmost weekly, the media seems to celebrate new evidence that America is no longer the religious nation it has always been, that secularization has finally arrived. But these are always false alarms. Consider just two of the more recent sensational claims.

  1. First, it is claimed that young people are leaving the churches in droves. Indeed, the latest polls show that people under 30 have far lower church attendance rates than do the older generations. But that has been true as far back as polling goes. The young and single sleep in on Sunday. Then they get married, have kids, and go to church.
  2. Second, it is argued that the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion is skyrocketing. But, all that reflects is an increase in the percentage who have no denominational preference. They are not irreligious. Most of them pray and say they believe in God. In 1944, the Gallup Poll was the first to ask about belief in God, and four percent of Americans said, “No.” When asked that question today, four percent say, “No.” In fact, actual church membership is at an all-time high, and 66 percent now tell Gallup that “religion is important in my daily life.”

Despite the wishful thinking of most secular academics, Stark shows that the world remains very religious.

The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever

China — the first post-religious society or the nation with the most Christians on earth?

Pp2 1

A few notes from A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China ….

In the 1940s Western academics like Harvard’s John K Fairbank, were proclaiming it had “become evident that few Chinese people are likely to become Christians and that the missionaries’ long-continued effort, if measured in numbers of converts, had failed.”

In 1949 the Chinese Communists came to power and within a few years had expelled all Western missionaries. China was to become the model of a fully secularized post-religious society.

By the best estimates, in 1949, there were around 1 million Chinese Protestants and 3.2 million Catholics. From the beginning the Communist Party opposed all forms of religious faith, although the fiercest and deadliest persecution awaited the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

The death of Mao in 1976 led to a relaxation of persecution, and by 1979 one million Protestants had become 5 million and 3.2 million Catholics had become 5 million, mostly due to fertility.

By 2007 there were as many Christians in China as members of the Communist Party. Today Christians greatly outnumber party members, although increasingly there is an overlap between the two affiliations. [Yes, there are now many members of the Communist Party who are Christians.]

If this rate of increase continues for just ten more years, there will be more Christians in China than any other nation in the world.

It appears that faith in a coming post religious China has been revealed as the opium of Western intellectuals. The foolishness of God has shamed the wise. The weakness of God has overpowered the strong.

Rodney Stark on the rise of Christianity in China UPDATED

I read everything Stark writes on movements. I haven’t been disappointed yet.

"A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China" (Rodney Stark, Xiuhua Wang)

UPDATE: The publisher has provided a sample of the book.

Southern Baptist success? Maybe.

I keep bumping into church leaders of different persuasions whose goal it is to see their church plants grow to 500+.

If you want a case study of how it's done, try the Southern Baptists. I've just finished a 1994 article by Roger Finke that shows between 1920 and 1990 the average size of a Southern Baptist church soared from 115 to 396. Impressive.


The other trend he noticed was the dramatic increase in seminary trained professional clergy. Before 1950 the Southern Baptist seminaries produced 10,000 graduates. From 1950-90 the number grew to 60,000.


The Southern Baptists heritage was all about small churches and lay leadership. Today it's professional staff and large churches.

Bigger churches. Trained clergy. Sounds like a recipe for success.


How Christianity became an urban movement and conquered Rome

St Mark Preaching In Alexandria
Rodney Stark has been crunching the numbers on the spread of the Christian movement in its first century. He has examined data from 31 Roman cities that had populations of at least 30,000. Here are his findings on the spread of the Christian congregations.

1. Port cities tended to have Christian congregations sooner than inland cities.

Despite their reputation, Roman roads were still much inferior to boats for travel. Rome was a waterfront empire surrounding the Mediterranean. 64% of port cities had a church by the end of the first century while only 24% of inland cities had a church that soon.

2. The closer a city was to Jerusalem, the sooner a city had a Christian congregation.

Christianity’s base was Jerusalem until it was forced to move by the Jewish Revolt. Most cities (71%) within a thousand miles of Jerusalem by the year 100, compared with only one (7%) of the cities further away.

3. Hellenic cities (Greek language and culture) had Christian congregations sooner than did Roman cities.

In the first century far more Jews spoke Greek than Hebrew or Aramaic. When Paul stripped the Jewish prerequisite from Christianity, he not only made the faith open to Gentiles, but offered the Hellenized Jews an attractive religious option, which many of them took.

Hellenic culture was less conservative then the Roman tradition. There was remarkable compatibility between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy.

Almost two-thirds of the Hellenic cities had a church by the end of the first century, and no Hellenic city lacked a church by 180. In contrast, two-thirds of less Hellenic cities still had no church in 180.

4. Larger cities had Christian congregations sooner than smaller cities.

The more urban a place, the higher the rates of unconventionality. The larger the population, the easier it is to assemble the “critical mass” to form a “deviant” subculture.

Three quarters of larger cities had a church by the year 100, while only a third of smaller cities did so.

Stark applied “regression analysis” to the figures and found that both Hellenism and city-size had significant, independent effects on Christianization but that the effect of Hellenism is substantially greater than that of city-size.

What can we take away from this?

Firstly, I should have spent more time studying mathematics in school.

Secondly, context matters when it comes to the spread of church planting movements.

Thirdly, Tim Keller is right—cities are critical. Reach the cities and you'll reach the world.

Fourthly, culture matters.

Fifthly, external contextual factors are not everything. Christianity faced the same contextual factors, yet it triumphed over paganism and other rivals because it differed qualitatively from them.

Lastly, God is the sovereign Lord of history. ?

“Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome” (Rodney Stark)

Cities of God

Rodney Stark
Plunged into Cities of God by Rodney Stark this morning. Three insights on church planting movements from first chapter:

1. No mission without monotheism
The Jews were the world’s first missionaries because Judaism was monotheistic. Paganism doesn’t produce missionary movements. Within a polytheistic framework, new gods are supplements not alternatives.

The Jews of the Diaspora were very successful in seeking converts. By the first century, Jews made up from 10-15% of the population of the Roman Empire, nearly 90% of them lived cities outside Palestine— that's six to nine million people.

Christianity was even more successful in evangelism because Christians didn’t have to become ethnic Jews. Christianity offered the world monotheism stripped of ethnic encumbrances.

2. Conversion is adopting the faith of your friends
Conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines. After conversion has occurred is when most people get more deeply involved in the doctrines of their new group.

Most conversions are not produced by professional missionaries conveying a new message, but by rank-and-file members who share their faith with their friends and relatives..

3. Why early Christianity grew
Only monotheism can generate the level of commitment to a particular faith sufficient to mobilize the rank-and-file to engage in missionizing activities.

In its expansion, early Christian mission followed the network of synagogues of the Jewish diaspora. Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, and all the others who took Christianity to the Roman Empire travelled along social networks that gave them entry to do so, and credibility within, the Hellenized Jewish communities.

Following Paul there was no organized or systematic program evangelism. Personal evangelising was the program. Once under way, this program allowed full-time missionaries such as Paul to assume the role of advisors and visiting supervisors of local churches built by, and sustained by, local ‘amateurs,’ as is fully evident in Paul’s letters.

There are the insights. What are the implications?

“Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome” (Rodney Stark)