Religion’s Sudden Decline

Religion’s Sudden Decline May 10, 2021

Since 2007, the United States has “showed the largest shift of any country away from religion and now ranks among the world’s least religious publics. … The United States, which for many years stood as a highly religious outlier among the world’s high-income countries, now ranks as the 12th least religious country for which data are available.” That’s least, L-E-A-S-T.

Those striking statements summarize the findings of a recent book that I have been devouring, namely Ronald L. Inglehart, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It, And What Comes Next? (Oxford University Press, 2021). I stress that what I am writing here is in no sense intended as a real review, but is rather a series of impressions of a truly significant study that demands to be much discussed. By the way, I take those opening words from the book’s blurb, and its chapter summaries.

Inglehart’s basic theme is one close to my heart. Last year, I published the book Fertility and Faith (Baylor University Press, 2020), which argued for a very close correlation between fertility rates and levels of religiosity and active religious practice. By those standards, I argued, organized or institutional religion is in deep trouble around much of the world, not just in Europe, but also in East Asia, Latin America, and parts of the Middle East. In his new book, Inglehart uses very different means, but reaches a very similar conclusion. In the US context, we both highlighted 2007 as the critical transition point. The gargantuan economic crash of that time is an obvious culprit.

Briefly, Inglehart argues that religion worldwide grew substantially between 1981 and 2007, but has since gone into full retreat. (I stress that global dimension: this is anything but a parochial US study). He argues for the key role of fertility and reproduction. Religion, he says, was always strongly committed to promoting natalist goals and combating or suppressing any contrary impulses. That was doubly essential in times of very high infant mortality, when societies needed high reproductive rates just to maintain their population levels. However,

Recent technological advances have greatly increased life expectancy and cut infant mortality to a tiny fraction of its historic levels, making these norms no longer necessary for societal survival. These norms require repressing strong natural urges, but, since they present traditional norms as absolute values, most religions strongly resist change. The resulting tension, together with the fact that rising existential security has made people less dependent on religion, opened the way for an exodus from religion.

I totally agree with his stress on infant mortality. In fact, in Fertility and Faith I argued for a startlingly close correlation between the levels of infant mortality in a given society and its levels of religiosity: high infant mortality, high faith, and vice versa. That works about as well as the other fundamental correlation I suggested with overall fertility rates. Just how astronomically high those rates were historically beggars belief. In the late nineteenth century, infant mortality ranged “from about 100 per 1,000 live births in Norway and Sweden to 200 or even 250 per 1,000 in countries such as Germany, Austria and Russia.” Germany today has a rate of below 3.0 per thousand, with the Netherlands at 2.5. Scarcely remarked by many historians, that constitutes one of the most remarkable revolutions in human history.

On a closely related topic, I have blogged at this site on “The Decline of Death” (seriously) and how revolutionary medical changes over the past century or so have affected religious life and attitudes.

Here is a useful list of Inglehart’s chapters:

Chapter 1. The Shift from Pro-fertility norms to Individual-choice norms.
Chapter 2. Religion matters.
Chapter 3. The Secularization debate.
Chapter 4. Evolutionary Modernization theory and secularization.
Chapter 5. What’s causing it? The rise of Individual-choice norms.
Chapter 6. What’s causing it? Insecurity.
Chapter 7. Secularization accelerates in high-income countries.
Chapter 8. What comes next: People need a clear belief system– What is replacing religion?
Chapter 9. What comes next: At what point does even Sweden get a xenophobic authoritarian party?
Chapter 10. What Comes Next?

In examining the impact of these changes, he points to the seemingly very satisfactory arrangements that have been achieved in low faith / low fertility Scandinavia. But he also points out that such societies need immigration, and that will very likely spawn reaction. Do note the chapter asking “At what point does even Sweden get a xenophobic authoritarian party?” Good question.

I will quibble with one point. He says that “For centuries, all major religions encouraged norms that limit women to producing as many children as possible and discourage any sexual behavior not linked with reproduction.” I just don’t agree with that, as a flat statement applying to all times and places. For over half the history of the Christian Church, canon law and custom placed very severe limits on marital sex, amounting to outright prohibition for around half the days on the year, and those restraints were severely enforced. That is hardly a great way to boost population. Also, if you want as many children as possible, then polygamy is the ideal way to achieve that goal, but very, very, few Christian societies ever permitted or tolerated that practice. But as I say, that objection detracts negligibly from my praise of the book.

There are countless lessons from this book, but let me stress one here. If you are looking at religious decline in the contemporary US, never blame it on peculiarly American settings or factions. Rather, it has to be seen as a global trend of immense and perhaps irresistible power. Don’t say it is all the fault of (say) Donald Trump! Or Beth Moore! Or INSERT CONTROVERSIAL INDIVIDUAL, THEME, OR MOVEMENT HERE.

But let me return to that basic blockbuster:

The United States “showed the largest shift of any country away from religion and now ranks among the world’s least religious publics.”

By the by, I have a relevant column in the latest CHRISTIAN CENTURY on “How Québec went from one of the most religious societies to one of the least,” with the subtitle “Americans don’t have to look as far away as Europe for an example of how quickly secularization can come.”



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