Europe’s churches are empty—but don’t take that as a sign of reason’s triumph. More than half of Icelanders believe in elves and trolls.
Naomi Schaefer Riley
Jan. 3, 2016 4:57 p.m. ET
God is not dead. Despite the predictions of academics and liberal religious leaders, the world is becoming more faith-filled, not less. According to Rodney Stark, the co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, there has been no rise of the “nones”—no increase in the number of the world’s self-professed atheists and no triumph of reason over revelation.
One of Mr. Stark’s targets in “The Triumph of Faith” is certain modern polling firms, including the Pew Survey, that routinely announce a significant increase in the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation. As Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion, reported earlier this year: “The country is becoming less religious as a whole.” Mr. Stark criticizes the methods of Pew and other firms by asserting that their response rates are too small to justify the broad claims they make.
His real battle, though, is with intellectual elites of the West, who have been declaring the demise of religion for centuries and have been advancing a secularization thesis for decades. For them, religious belief is a susceptibility of the illiterate and ignorant. With education, in their view, people see the foolishness of their ways and abandon their beliefs. Education is spreading ever further, thanks to affluence and technology: Hence the slow decline of faith.
Mr. Stark pushes back against the secularization thesis in several ways. In a section called “The Myth of Medieval Piety,” he notes, for example, that during the so-called Dark Ages of Europe—when religion supposedly stifled the life of the mind and benighted the populace—more than 90% of the population lived in rural areas, while churches were to be found mostly in towns and cities: “Therefore hardly anyone could have attended church. Moreover, even after most Europeans had access to a church, whether Catholic or Protestant, most people still didn’t attend, and when forced to do so, they often misbehaved.”
In short, the poor and less educated are not by definition more pious. As for the other half of the secularization thesis, Mr. Stark shows that, in one country after another today, more educated people are choosing religion in larger numbers than their less educated peers. This is certainly true in the United States, where college-educated Americans are more likely to attend religious services than their counterparts with only a high-school diploma.
Indeed, religious fervor has taken hold in many countries where modernity is a settled fact. In majority-Muslim countries the percentage of people attending mosque is highest among those with a college education. Mr. Stark writes that the people in these countries who are most offended by Western culture tend not to be village hicks but people living in modernized, urban areas.
Scholars like Philip Jenkins have for years observed that in the Southern Hemisphere religious belief—particularly Christianity and Islam—has been spreading rapidly. Here Mr. Stark cites a poll that he trusts: the Gallup World Poll, which has been conducted annually since 2005 and now includes more than a million interviews from 163 different countries. According to Gallup, almost all South American countries are now less than 5% secular. While Catholicism used to be the dominant form of Christianity, because it was the official religion of the colonizing powers, Protestantism “has become a major religious presence in most of Latin America.”
Mr. Stark argues that, in general, the government sponsorship of religion is a hindrance to the growth of a faith. Monopoly destroys competition, and competition, he says, causes growth—in religious affiliation as much as in the marketplace for goods and services. In many places around the globe, the competition among Muslims, evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and hundreds of smaller religious groups has resulted in an atmosphere of revival. A smug complacency has been replaced by a fervor to win souls.
Not in Europe, however, where the churches, once so important, are now empty. For the champions of the secularization thesis, such a development is nothing to complain about: Empty churches are a sign of reason’s progress. Mr. Stark offers some amusing evidence to the contrary. Drawing on the Gallup poll, he notes that Europeans hold all sorts of supernatural beliefs. In Austria, 28% of respondents say they believe in fortune tellers; 32% believe in astrology; and 33% believe in lucky charms. “More than 20 percent of Swedes believe in reincarnation,” Mr. Stark writes; “half believe in mental telepathy.” More than half of Icelanders believe in huldufolk, hidden people like elves and trolls. It seems as if the former colonial outposts for European missionaries are now becoming more religious, while Europe itself is becoming interested in primitive folk beliefs.
Mr. Stark may criticize the methods of Pew and other polling firms, but there is no doubt that fewer Americans than ever before claim an association with a particular sect or denomination. They may be religious by some definition, but they are “unchurched.” The folks at Pew are not atheist triumphalists. They do seem to be tracking what Mr. Stark acknowledges to be the “social consequences” of the changes in the way people identify.
And while it is true that the most educated members of American society are the ones going to church, their attendance and affiliation is likely to decline in the coming years, in part because of changes in family dynamics. Americans are getting married at later ages or increasingly not at all. And it has traditionally been marriage that brings young adults back to religion or keeps them in the fold. Such changes may be a blip on the global screen, though. God only knows.
Ms. Riley is the author of “Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back” and “ ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America.”