The future of religion

Two recent newspaper articles provide some hope for the future. They deal with the changing nature of religion throughout the world and in the USA.
Alan Wolfe in his Atlantic Monthly article The coming religious peace writes that although many people fear the possibility of rising religious fundamentalism and conflicts “many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice.” Wolfe argues that although secularisation may not appear inevitable to many commentators the facts do indicate “that material progress is slowly eroding religious fervor.”

This is supported by results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project last October showing that religiosity scores for 44 countries declined as the gross domestic product increased.


Wolfe discusses different regional trends. He points out that in Europe “the region’s last significant pockets of concentrated religiosity are collapsing. Fifty years ago, Spain and Ireland were two of the most religious countries in Europe; now they are among the least.”

The USA is an outlier on this graph and many people are concerned about the strength of religious fundamentalism in that country. But Wolfe says that American religiosity may be deceptive:

“For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Some signs indicate that the Christian right may be losing steam, or at least moderating, as a political force. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.”

But, more importantly, modernisation “is changing the trajectories of religion worldwide: the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace, which partly (though by no means completely) revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.”

US make up

Neela Banerjee’s New York Times article about a new survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life gives some support to this concept. According to the Pew report “44% of Americans have switched religious affiliations” during their life. This has caused an erosion of denominational loyalty and although this may revive religious fervor in the short term it probably denies it a base for long-term fundamentalism.

The Pew report documents the decline in major religious denominations. However, one group that has increased are the non-affiliated – now he fourth largest “religious group”. The non-affiliated generally describe their religion as “nothing in particular” rather than atheist or agnostic. This attitude will not provide the breeding ground for religious extremism or prejudice that strong affiliation with a denomination can.

Wolfe suggests that “religious leaders prone to fanaticism are likely to find that the price of using force to spread God’s word, or to try to monopolize it, will be a greatly diminished hold on the future.” However, he accompanies this with a warning that the declkine in relgiosity won’t necessarily mean the decline in fundamentalism:

“The world will never be rid of fanaticism; globalization is just as capable of disseminating extreme ideas as it is of advancing moderation. But fanaticism should not be confused with religious intensity. One can pray passionately to God and lead an otherwise balanced life, just as one can be monomaniacal about things having nothing to do with the divine.”

See also:
The coming religious peace
Americans Change Faiths at Rising Rate, Report Finds

Related Articles:
Putting the Bible in its place
Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect
New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?
Secular believers
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

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3 responses to “The future of religion

  1. Well written.

    Bizarre though: on Wednesday I went through a very similar exercise starting with wealth/religiosity correlation and ended up plotting a graph of IQ/atheism by country which turns out to be very similar to your first chart.

    Did we both inadvertently read something that triggered this line of thought? I can’t for the life of me remember what it was that I read that started my investigation.

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  2. Ah, found it. It was a comment on a review in Amazon that started it for me. (And I’ve just re-read your post where you clearly state that you read about it in a news article – doh!).

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  3. I would much rather see people who are serious and understanding about their faith and don’t go to church than people who do go to church and don’t have any knowledge.

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