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Discipleship Hour Notes

A Reason For Hope | Session One

Posted by Nick Locke on

IS THE WORLD REALLY LOSING ITS RELIGION? (Or is it just Michael Stipe?)

 It is commonly supposed that as the world becomes more economically prosperous and educated, religious belief will inevitably wane. Some have even written songs and delivered impassioned speeches picturing a future without faith in God, judgement, or anything that might divide humanity. The most famous example of this is probably John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine”, in which he sings of a world that had forgotten about old ideas of heaven and hell, in which there was “nothing to kill or die for,” and “no religion.” He made his dream even more explicit in an interview in which he declared: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and will be proved right.”[1]

Writer Rebecca McLaughlin in her book Confronting Christianity points out how Lennon’s dream persists. She notes that “Imagine” was sung reverently at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, as a sort of anthem of unity across ideological differences (she notes the irony of this song ringing out in close proximity to North Korea, a state that has tried “no religion” for some time, yet manages to find many things to kill and die for).[2]  

It wasn’t just artists who were making these sorts of predictions. Sociologists of religion also speculated along similar lines, predicting that modernization would produce secularization. It was held that as the world became more educated, more advanced and scientific, religious belief would become obsolete. This view is often referred to as the secularization hypothesis. But it has been proved wrong. According to Sociologists Peter Berger and Grace Davie, “most sociologists of religion now agree” that the secularization thesis “has been empirically shown to be false.”[3] According to Jack Goldstone, professor of public policy at George Mason University, “Sociologists jumped the gun when they said the growth of modernization would bring a growth of secularization and unbelief… That is not what we’re seeing… People… need religion.”[4]

While much attention has been given to the rise of the “nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation) in the west, at a global level, religion is on the rise. McLaughlin helpfully summarizes the findings of several new studies:

“by 2060, the latest projections suggest, Christianity will still be the largest global belief system, having increased slightly, from 31 percent to 32 percent of the world’s population. Islam will have grown substantially, from 24 percent to 31 percent. Hinduism is set for marginal decline, from 15 percent to 14 percent, and Buddhism from 7 percent to 5 percent. Judaism will hold stable at 0.2 percent. And by 2060, the proportion of humanity identifying as atheists, agnostics, or ‘none’ will have declined from 16 percent to 13 percent. Yes, declined.”[5]

Additionally, while most of the attention in our own country has been given to the rise of the nonreligious population, McLaughlin points out how that is only one side of the narrative. “A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of Americans raised nonreligious become religious (typically Christian) as adults, while only 20 percent of those raised Protestant switch. If that trend continues, my secular friends are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians as I am to raise children who become nonreligious. And the kind of religious beliefs people hold today are not the kind that fit comfortably into the ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker.”[6]

Perhaps one of the biggest shock to the proponents of the secularization hypothesis has been China. This is a country that has tried hard to imagine and enforce “no religion” for quite some time. But “Conservative estimates from 2010 put China’s Christian population at over sixty-eight million, representing 5 percent of its vast population. But Christianity is spreading so fast that experts believe China could have more Christians than the US by 2030, and that it could be a majority-Christian country by 2050.”[7] According to Fenggang Yang, a sociologist of religion in China, the study of and reporting on religion needs to undergo a paradigm shift akin to the scientific revolution, as we recognize the failure of the secularization hypothesis. “Much academic discourse rests on the assumption that religion is withering under the scorching heat of modernization. Secular humanism is seen as the shared ground on which we all can stand. But this framework has crumbled.”[8] As Tim Keller notes, “Belief in God makes sense to four out of five people in the world and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”[9]

[1] Maureen Cleave, “The John Lennon I Knew,” Telegraph, October 5, 2005, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandjazzmusic/3646983/The-John-Lennon-I-knew.html.

[2] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 1.

[3] Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas, Religious America: Secular Europe? A Theme and Variation (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2008), p. 10.

[4] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “The World Is Expected to Become More Religious—Not Less,” Washington Post, April 24, 2015.

[5] McLaughlin, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016), 11.

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