About 12 years ago, my colleague
Pippa Norris and I analyzed data on religious trends in 49 countries from 1981 to 2007, including several subnational areas such as Northern Ireland (60 percent of the world’s population). We have not found a widespread religious resurgence, despite claims to the contrary: most high-income countries have become less religious; but we found that in 33 of the 49 countries studied, people became more religious over the years. This has been the case in most former communist countries, in most developing countries, and even in a number of high-income countries. Our results clearly showed that industrialization and the diffusion of scientific knowledge did not lead to the disappearance of religion, as some scholars once assumed.
But since 2007, things have changed very quickly. From roughly 2007 to 2019, the vast majority of the countries we study – 43 out of 49 – became less religious. The decline in faith has not been limited to high-income countries and has been seen in most of the world.
An increasing number of people no longer consider religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States, long considered proof that an economically advanced society can be highly religious, has now joined other wealthy countries in their departure from religion. Several factors are driving this trend, but the most powerful of them is the weakening of a number of beliefs and beliefs closely associated with the requirement to maintain high fertility. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the gender and sexual norms that have been instilled in the world’s major religions for centuries.
While some religious conservatives warn that backsliding will lead to the collapse of social cohesion and public morality, this claim is not supported by the facts. As surprising as it may seem, less religious countries tend to be less corrupt and have a lower homicide rate than more religious ones. Of course, religion itself does not encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as society develops, survival becomes safer: once widespread hunger is now becoming a rarity; life expectancy increases; the number of murders and other forms of violence is decreasing. And as the level of security improves, people become less religious.
The Rise and Fall of Faith
Our earlier study, published in 2011, compared the levels of religious belief in 1981 with the results of the latest polls available at that time, starting around 2007, covering a period of about a quarter century. In each survey, respondents were asked to indicate how important God is in their lives by choosing a value on a scale ranging from one – “Not at all important” – to ten – “Very important.”
Research into how a country’s level of religiosity has changed over time has produced striking results. Most of the countries studied show upsurges of faith in the importance of God. The largest growth was in the former communist countries. For example, from 1981 to 2007, the average indicator of the religiosity of the Bulgarian public increased from 3.6 to 5.7. In Russia, it grew from 4.0 to 6.0. In part, this rise in religiosity was a response to the sharp decline in economic, physical and psychological security following the collapse of the Soviet Union; religion filled the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism. Religious beliefs have also increased in many developing countries outside the former Soviet Union, including Brazil, China, Mexico, and South Africa. On the other hand, religion has declined in most high-income countries.
Since 2007, there has been a strikingly sharp trend away from religion. In virtually all high-income countries, religion continues to decline. At the same time, many poor countries, as well as most of the former communist states, have also become less religious. From 2007 to 2019, only five countries became more religious, while the vast majority of the countries surveyed moved in the opposite direction.
India is the most important exception to the general picture of the decline of religiosity. The study period roughly coincides with the return to power of the Bharatiya Janata Hindu Nationalist Party (PBG), whose policy seeks to combine national identity with religious identity. The PBG government advocates policies that discriminate against adherents of other religions, especially India’s large Muslim minority, that cause controversy in society and incite religious sentiment.
The most dramatic departure from religion has occurred among the American public. From 1981 to 2007, the United States was considered one of the most religious countries in the world, with very few changes in the level of religiosity. Since then, of any country for which we have data, the United States has shown the largest departure from religion. Towards the end of the initial study period, the average rating for the importance of God in American lives was 8.2 on a scale of ten. According to the most recent US poll in 2017, that figure fell to 4.6 – an astonishing drop. For many years, the United States has been a prime example of how economic modernization does not require a separation of church and state. In addition, the United States is currently the 11th least religious country for which we have data.
Influential thinkers from Karl Marx to Max Weber and Emile Durkheim predicted that the spread of scientific knowledge would scatter religion around the world, but this did not happen. For most people, religious belief was more emotional than cognitive. And for most of human history, survival itself has been in question. Religion provided the assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers), which promised that if someone followed the rules, things would eventually turn out for the better. In a world where people often lived on the brink of hunger, religion helped them cope with severe insecurity and stress. But as economic and technological development progressed, people became more able to avoid hunger, cope with disease, and suppress violence. As existing insecurity decreases and life expectancy increases, they become less dependent on religion, and less inclined to accept its restrictions, including keeping women in the kitchen and homosexuals in the toilet.
The separation of the state from the church does not occur everywhere and at the same time; it occurs when countries have achieved a high level of real security, and even then it usually moves very slowly as one generation succeeds another. The direction of this secession may even be reversed and reversed if societies become more religious due to prolonged periods of declining security levels. The separation of the state from the church has occurred gradually since the nineteenth century, starting with the societies of Western Europe and North America, which were the most economically and physically secure, and then spread to more and more countries around the world.
While separation of state from church usually occurs as generations change, it can reach a tipping point where prevailing opinion in society changes, and people, influenced by the forces of conformism and social preference, begin to support the views they once opposed. which leads to extremely rapid cultural changes. Young and educated groups in high-income countries have recently reached this line.
LOSING YOUR RELIGION
Several factors other than the rise in economic and technological development help explain the weakening of religion. In the United States, this decline is partly due to politics. Since the 1990s, the GOP has sought to garner support by introducing conservative Christian positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this politically motivated appeal to religious voters has had the side effect of alienating other voters, especially the young and culturally liberal, from religion. It was once believed that religious beliefs shape political views, and not vice versa. But recent evidence suggests that causality may go the other way: studies of groups of subjects have shown that many people change their political views first and then become less religious.
The uncritical acceptance of President Donald Trump – a leader who is not a paragon of Christian virtue – by many prominent Protestants has led other Protestants to fear that young people will leave their churches en masse, thus accelerating an ongoing trend. The Roman Catholic Church, for its part, has lost adherents to its own crises. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that 92 percent of US adults were aware of recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and about 80 percent of those surveyed said they believed the violations were “ ongoing problems that still arise. ” Accordingly, 27 percent of US Catholics surveyed said they had reduced their attendance at Mass in response to these messages.
However, perhaps the most important force behind the separation of the state from the church is the transformation of the norms that govern human fertility. For centuries, most societies have assigned women the role of having as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any non-reproductive sexual behavior. The scriptures of the world’s major religions vary widely, but as Norris and I have demonstrated, virtually all of the world’s religions have instilled norms that are conducive to reproduction in their adherents. Religions have emphasized the importance of increasing fertility because it was necessary. In a world with the high infant mortality and low life expectancy that prevailed until recently, the average woman had to produce five to eight children just to replace the population.
During the twentieth century, a large number of countries achieved significant reductions in child mortality and higher life expectancy, making these traditional cultural norms less necessary. This process did not happen overnight. Major world religions presented fertility norms as absolute moral rules and strongly opposed change. People were slowly abandoning the familiar beliefs and social roles that they knew from childhood in relation to gender identity and sexual behavior. But when society reached a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security, younger generations grew up taking that security for granted, and fertility rates receded. Ideas, practices and laws regarding gender equality, divorce, abortion and homosexuality are now changing rapidly.
These changes are quantifiable. The data collected in the World Values Survey over the years reveals a profound transformation. The survey uses a ten-point scale based on each country’s acceptance of divorce, abortion and homosexuality. The tipping point is located roughly in the middle of the scale, at 5.50; lower scores indicate a more conservative view of the majority of residents of a country, and higher scores indicate a majority of more liberal, individual-choice views. Around 1981, the majority of the population of every country for which we have data supported rates that were conducive to fertility. Even in high-income countries, average scores ranged from 3.44 (Spain), 3.49 (US), 3.50 (Japan), 4.14 (UK) and 4.63 (Finland) to 5.35 in Sweden was the most liberal country at that time, but with a score just below the critical point of the scale. But profound changes were taking place. By 2019, Spain’s average score rose to 6.74, the US to 5.86, Japan to 6.17, the UK to 6.90, Finland to 7.35 and Sweden to 8.49. All of these countries were below the tipping point of 5.50 in the first survey, and they were all above it by 2019. These numbers offer a simplified picture of a complex reality, but they convey the magnitude of the recent acceleration in church-state separation.
This trend has spread to the rest of the world, with one important exception. Population data for 18 Muslim-majority countries available in the World Values Survey were well below the critical point, indicating strong religiosity and commitment to maintaining traditional norms regarding gender and fertility. Even considering economic development, Muslim-majority countries tend to be somewhat more religious and culturally conservative.
BUT IT WILL NOT DESTROY
For centuries, religion has served as a force for social cohesion, reducing crime and promoting law enforcement. Each major religion instills a specific version of the biblical commandments “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill.” It is therefore understandable that religious conservatives fear that retreating from religion will lead to social unrest, with increased corruption and crime. But, surprisingly, this fear is not supported by evidence.
Since 1993, Transparency International (a non-governmental international organization for the fight against corruption and the study of the level of corruption around the world) monitors the indicators of corruption and integrity of government officials and business people around the world. Each year, this advocacy group publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures public sector corruption in 180 countries. These data allow us to test the real relationship between religiosity and corruption: is corruption less common in more religious countries than in less religious ones? The answer is unequivocal: no – in fact, religious countries are usually more corrupt than non-religious ones. Strongly non-religious Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest levels of corruption in the world, while highly religious countries such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have some of the highest.
Obviously, religiosity does not breed corruption. Countries with a low level of economic and physical security tend to have a high level of religiosity, as well as a high level of corruption. While at one time religion may have played a crucial role in maintaining public morality, this role diminishes as a society develops economically. Residents of religious countries are somewhat more likely to condemn corruption than residents of less religious countries, but this is where the influence of religion on behavior ends. Religion can make people more likely to punish, but it does not make them less corrupt.
This pattern also applies to other crimes such as murder. Surprisingly, the murder rate is more than ten times higher in the most religious countries than in the least religious. Some relatively poor countries have low homicide rates, but generally prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. The point, of course, is not that religiosity causes murder, but that both criminality and religiosity tend to be high in societies with low levels of real security.
Religious countries are actually more corrupt than non-religious.
The facts prove that modern societies will not plunge into nihilistic chaos without a religious belief that binds them, but this was probably not always the case. In early agrarian societies, when the standard of living of most people was slightly above the level of survival, religion may be the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But modernization has changed this ratio. As traditional religiosity declines, an equally “strong set” of moral norms seems to emerge to fill the void that appears. Data from the World Values Survey shows that in countries with high levels of security and non-religiousness, people are paying increasing attention to self-expression and free choice, with increasing attention to human rights, tolerance towards visitors, environmental protection, gender equality and free speech.
Traditional religions can create dangerous divisions in today’s global society. Religions, by their very nature, tend to present their norms as absolute values, despite the fact that they actually reflect the history of society and socio-economic characteristics. The rigidity of any system of absolute beliefs can lead to fanatical intolerance, as shown by the historical conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Muslims.
As society evolves from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, the growing real security tends to diminish the importance of religion in people’s lives, and they become less submissive to traditional religious leaders and institutions. This trend is likely to continue, but the future is always uncertain. Pandemics like COVID-19 reduce people’s sense of real security. If the pandemic continues for many years or leads to a new Great Depression, cultural changes in recent decades may begin to take a turn for the worse.
But this change remains unlikely because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven wealth and life expectancy trend that is helping to “divert” people from religion. If this trend continues, the influence of traditional religious authorities on public morals will diminish as a culture of growing tolerance grows stronger.
Ronald F. Inglehart