Last Thursday we ran our first article for “Beyond Belief,” a column on the role of religion, faith or lack thereof in our lives. The column was inspired by a recent international poll called “The Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” which reported that globally, religion is on the decline and atheism is on the rise.
According to the study, irrespective of whether or not the participants attended a religious service or participated in religious institutions, “59 percent of the world said that they think of themselves as a religious person, 23 percent think of themselves as not religious, whereas 13 percent think of themselves as convinced atheists.”
The same study was done in 2005. The data shows a 9 percent drop in the number of people claiming to be religious, while those claiming to be atheist rose 3 percent. In the United States, the number of religious people dropped 13 percent and the atheist population rose from 1 percent to 5 percent in 2012.
Based on this poll, it would seem that God is dead (or dying), just as the 19th century philosopher Nietzsche famously stated.
However we must question whether or not such research is truly indicative of the changing face of religion around the world and in our communities. What defines a person as being religious or nonreligious? What does being a convinced atheist mean? What is the difference, if there is any, between religiosity and spirituality?
Dr. Rick Talbott, chair of the religious studies department, does not think the poll’s language was specific enough to assess whether or not religion is declining or inclining in the world. He pointed out the difference between the trend of secularization in certain countries around the world versus what the data of the poll implies.
“I find this study very facile – it over simplifies what is going on in the world,” said Talbott. “There is a connection between secularization and atheism – secularization is a phenomenon that describes the declining influence of religion in public life. You can have a fully secular nation, but fully religious individuals.”
Talbott found it problematic that the study did not define religion, religiosity or atheism. According to him, just because people do not identify as religious does not mean they are automatically atheist.
“In our culture, many people are consciously distancing themselves from religion,” explained Talbott. “Recently the Dalai Lama came out and said that religion is a bad thing –the leader of a large Tibetan religious group. He’s playing into the cultural concept of religion. He realizes that for many, religion carries a negative connotation.”
Talbott said that people of even major traditional faiths such as Christianity are claiming that they are not religious, but “spiritual.”
Last year, two mathematicians from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University published a paper predicting that religion would die out in nine of 85 countries they studied. Those nine countries are Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
According to the recent poll, the 10 most atheist countries are China, Japan, the Czech Republic, France, South Korea, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Iceland, Australia and Ireland.
These countries may have a higher rate of atheism, however, Talbott points out that religion is rising in some.
“The fastest growing religion in the world today is Pentecostalism in China – why didn’t this study point this out?” asked Talbott. “Christianity is no longer a white religion.”
In a 2009 PBS interview with religious scholar Harvey Cox, author of “Future of Faith,” stated that religion is actually on the rise all over the world.
“There were people who were predicting the marginalization and even disappearance of religion in my early years as a teacher,” said Cox. “That disappearance, marginalization, didn’t happen, and in various religious traditions, almost all of them, there’s been a resurgence for complicated reasons… I think it’s a basic change in the nature of our civilization, that it will continue.”
This campus has over 20 faith-based student clubs registered with the Matador Involvement Center, and probably more faith groups that meet unofficially. Faith is an important part of their lives as students, however, they may not actually identify as religious. Atheism is likely an important part of some students’ lives and may be on the rise also.
However, the international poll does not accurately capture the role of belief – or lack thereof – in people’s lives. Perhaps an index of faith and disbelief might be more relevant and accurate to study the changing face of religion. The thought that faith has less influence today in the lives of individuals is just beyond belief.