The Triumph of Faith

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