The Religion Century: Challenged By European Atheists? No.

Posted by – April 5, 2011

In my post in September 2006, The Religion Century, I argue that now that the world is no longer bi-polar, the only pole left is the US, and in place of a conflict between nation-states, we have clashing cultures and ideologies.  Religious fervor, among Muslims, Christians and Jews, not to mention European paganism and the ancient religions of the East are increasing.  The Religion Century post was important for this blog, predicting a groundswell in spirituality, setting a tone and establishing my position as pro-religion, favoring religion as a positive force for community building, fulfillment, artistic expression and connecting to something larger than yourself.
But what’s that, my thesis about The Religion Century is being challenged?  People think this will be the non-religious century because Europeans are rapidly going atheist?
BBC News reports:

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

BBC News – Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

Wait, not so fast, nothing here means “The Religion Century” won’t happen.

First, this study is flawed, basing itself on the concept of “utility,” that there was more self-interested utility in belonging to a religious community in the 19th century and their model shows that utility dropping more and more in the future.  The model fails because religion isn’t always (and should never be) about self-interest, rather about something larger than the self and self-interest.  But if social services across Europe collapse as predicted, that utility model turns upside down as the lower and middle classes suddenly have great self-interest in joining a helping religious community.

Secondly, yes, atheism is on the rise across European Christendom, but these countries also have low birth rates (see List of countries by birth rate, European states are at the bottom). This means that religious communities with really high birth rates (Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, other sects) within and without Europe will more than replace them, ultimately resulting in a big jump in religious populations.

Lastly, just because “traditional Christendom” as we’ve known it in Europe for the past 1,000 years will shockingly shrink doesn’t mean that other faiths won’t move in.  Nature abhors a vacuum, y’see, and religions are no different.  In Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland, you’ll see people turning to Islam, or Mormonism, or nonsense like Scientology, or New Age paganism or old-school paganism (with Europe going full-circle back to druidism and Norse beliefs) or something worse, who knows, but it’ll definitely be something. Human beings are hard-wired to seek out and connect with spirituality.

Though I understand the fear of Christianity waning in Europe, because when Europeans have let even a sliver of their leaders put weird Norse beliefs ahead of Christianity in the past, it has ended up like THIS, the worst thing ever.

The Religion Century, an upswing in religiosity as support structures we’ve relied on (especially government) are failing and changing more and more, will most definitely have its downsides, too, with intolerance and violence.  But just because religion has gone bad many, many times doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Just because an ice pick can kill, doesn’t mean it can’t create beautiful ice sculptures.

The Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave rippling across North Africa and the Middle East has, from its outset in Tunisia, been driven by Islamic arguments about dignity for all and about how proper Muslim rulers should try to measure up to the “righteously guided Caliphs” and respect human rights as seen in Islam. Though many have forgotten this, the first actions of the Egyptian uprising were about solidarity with Egyptian Christians following the brutal Alexandria church bombing that rocked Egypt seconds into New Year’s Day, and, famously on January 6th (Coptic Christmas) groups of demonstrators formed lines of “human shields” for churches during Christmas mass. Amid reports of the Mubarak regime‘s consistent discrimination against Christians and indifference to violence against them, revolutionary demands quickly grew. The rationale behind the Arab Spring is that the brutal dictators in the Arab world have broken Islamic law and should be removed. This is a dimension of The Religion Century that is amazingly positive.

The assertion often made by scholars and social scientists that religion wanes as affluence in a society increases is false–you only really see that correlation in the Western world. In Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and many others, they have built more and more spiritual interest, congregations, houses of worship and religious learning institutions as their exponential increase in standard of living and disposable income has allowed it. More income among religious populations has meant more mosques and temples built, more clergy trained, more religious texts produced. In China (most striking because the PRC has enforced atheism until recently) the newly affluent are funding an explosion of Christianity, Buddhism, even traditional Chinese Taoism. Check out this fascinating NYT story China’s Taoism Revival.

I know that I open myself up to potential ridicule by posting such unabashed pro-religion views.  But I see people across the world living in despair, and more disconnected from each other in daily life than ever before. Americans work more and more hours than any other people on earth, go home alone, veg out on fake corporate food and culture, rinse and repeat. In this rat race culture, devoid of much meaning and largely disconnected from religious traditions, spirituality couldn’t be more important, and religion is key as an organizing force that I hope will foster more human connection, community building, artistic expression (see Religious Art} and fulfillment to a bleak, materialistic world.  We need it now more than ever.

Nick