18 August 2022

Religion's Precipitous Decline

Written by 
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map - World Values Survey 7 (2022). The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map - World Values Survey 7 (2022). Source: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/


I rarely get so absorbed by a book I’m reading. But I could hardly put down Ronald F. Inglehart’s 2021 book (Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing it, and What Comes Next?). An emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Inglehart is the “Founding President of the World Values Survey Association, which since 1981 has repeatedly surveyed representative national samples of the publics of 108 countries containing over 90 percent of the world's population” (from the Amazon page). This means he has been doing this kind of research with a couple hundred of other international social scientists for 40 years and has closely followed the evolution of people’s values and ethical norms around the globe. He died last year and this memorial page notes that according to Google Scholar he is the most quoted political scientist.

Inglehart’s findings surprised me – I’ve long known that people from all the major religions got more “religious” starting in the 1970s. In fact, I delved into that phenomenon using the sociology of religion in 2011, asking, “Is ‘Fundamentalism’ Still Relevant?” I stand by that still today.

But the general resurgence of religion last century began to reverse itself in the new millennium. The key year is 2007. In his first book on this topic, co-authored with Harvard University’s Pippa Norris (Secular and Sacred: Religion and Politics Worldwide), he hadn’t seen this dramatic change yet (first edition, 2004, second in 2011). What they did find is that for the 49 countries “for which substantial time series data was then available . . . more than two-thirds of [these] countries . . . showed rising religiosity in response to the question ‘How important is God in your life?’” (14).

[Allow me to insert a brief parenthesis here. Noted Baylor University historian of religion Philip Jenkins offered some thoughts about Inglehart’s book on his blog (Anxious Bench/Patheos) in May 2021. It’s a book “that I have been devouring,” he wrote. Just a year before, Jenkins had published a book offering very similar conclusions, Fertility and Faith, but from a different angle:


“High-fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. The lower a population’s fertility rates, the greater the tendency for people to detach from organized or institutional religion. Thus, fertility rates supply an effective gauge of secularization trends.”


Jenkins is also struck by the similarity of their findings: “In the US context, we both highlighted 2007 as the critical transition point. The gargantuan economic crash of that time is an obvious culprit.” I end here the parenthesis, but in highlighting again how significant this convergence of views is from two scholars coming from different perspectives and disciplines.]

Now back to Inglehart. He and Pippa had found that among 49 countries two-thirds had become more religious from 1981 to 2007. That said, respondents in most high-income countries exhibited a decline in religious belief and practice, while those that exhibited the most growth in religiosity were six former communist countries (13 out of 15 of those nations showed at least some growth).

Now writing in 2021, Inglehart explains his surprising new findings:


“The results show that dramatic changes have occurred since 2007 in the same countries analyzed earlier. In sharp contrast with earlier findings, which showed the dominant trend to be rising religiosity, the data since 2007 shows an overwhelming trend toward declining religiosity. The public of virtually every high-income country shifted toward lower levels of religiosity, and many other countries also became less religious. The contrast between ex-communist countries and the rest of the world was weakening, but still the eight countries showing the largest shifts toward increasing religiosity from 1981 to 2020 were ex-communist countries” (14, emphasis his).


The year 2007 also proved a watershed for the United States and its hitherto status as the only high-income country to be significantly religious. In fact, the US “once constituted the crucial case supporting the claim that modernization need not bring secularization.” Advocates of the “religious market secularization theory” could point to a very diverse and competitive religious landscape – the one factor which for them explains religious vitality. But that now seems irrelevant: “The U.S. still has plenty of diversity, but it recently has been on the same secularizing trajectory as other high-income countries; indeed, since 2007 it has been secularizing at a more rapid pace than any other country for which data is available” (83). My title above (using “precipitous” instead of Inglehart’s “sudden”) applies particularly to the United States.

Here are some of the indicators (emphasis mine):


    • According to the 1982 World Values Survey, “52 percent of the American public said that God was very important in their lives, choosing a ‘10’ on a 10-point scale”
    • In the 2017 survey only 23 percent said this
    • “In 1982, 83 percent of Americans described themselves as ‘a religious person.’ In 2017 only 55 percent did so”
    • In 1982, 16 percent of respondents said they “never or practically never” attended religious services; by 2017, 35 percent said so
    • In 1982, 46 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” of confidence in their religious institutions; by 2017, only 12 percent said so
    • Another important survey tool (The General Social Survey) indicates that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians went from 89 percent in 1972 to 71 percent; meanwhile, “the percentage who identified with no religion rose from 6 to 22 percent


Why does Inglehart (and Norris – this book builds on the same theory as his co-authored book) believe this is happening?


Inglehart’s “evolutionary modernization theory”

Inglehart is a social scientist, and as such, he is careful to note that the presence of contextual factors also help to explain why a nation (or block of nations) waxes or wanes in its religiosity – including historical, political, religious and social factors. One example he gives is the much faster growth of capitalism in northern Europe compared to its southern Catholic counterpart in the three centuries after the Reformation. Partially looking at Max Weber’s work on the Protestant ethic, Inglehart surmises that Martin Luther’s emphasis on individual Bible reading, and thereby literacy and scientific study, were determinative in providing Protestant nations with a “remarkable economic dynamism.” By 1940, “people in Protestant countries were on average 40 percent richer than the people of Catholic countries” (22).

Yet his main point here is that even with a sharp drop of religious belief and practice, religious ethical norms can still remain dominant within particular populations. This seems to be at least a part of the success of “the Nordic countries”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland (he adds The Netherlands and Switzerland in most charts and calls this bloc “Protestant Europe”). These nations rate consistently highest as a group according to many indicators, such as life expectancy, years of schooling, GDP per capita, and life satisfaction. But it’s more complicated than that, he explains:


“The Nordic countries seem to be at the cutting edge of cultural change, and their distinctive character seems to reflect a synthesis between the Protestant ethic and the welfare state. As Chapter 2 demonstrated, Protestantism left an enduring imprint on the people who were shaped by it. But the Social Democratic welfare state that emerged in the Nordic countries in the 20th century modified this heritage by providing universal health coverage; high levels of state support for education, extensive welfare spending, child care, and pensions; and an ethos of social solidarity” (107-8).


He then adds, “These countries are also characterized by rapidly declining religiosity.” This brings up his central argument, which connects to Philip Jenkins’ linking of fertility and religious fervency. Two cultural shifts were underway in the 20th century, but converged early in the 21-century to form a “tipping point” – meaning that this cultural change changed directions and accelerated dramatically:


      • Rising existential security brings declining demand for religion because secure people have less need for the predictability and absolute rules of traditional religion and are far more open to new ideas. This has been happening for many years. But the second factor helps explain the recent acceleration of secularization.
      • All of the world’s major religions encourage pro-fertility norms, which help societies replace their populations when facing high infant mortality and low life expectancy. These norms require people to suppress strong drives, but with low infant mortality and high life expectancy, pro-fertility norms are no longer needed. After an intergenerational time lag, pro-fertility norms are giving away to individual-choice norms, eroding religious worldviews that had endured for centuries.


For an arresting case study, see this short piece by Philip Jenkins in The Christian Century: “How Quebec went from one of the most religious societies to one of the least.” In the 1950s, 90 percent of the population attended Mass. Today that percentage hovers around 4 percent. Inglehart would likely agree with Jenkins on some of the reasons the latter puts forward for this momentous shift: the confluence of cultural and political factors that were part of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” seeking independence from Canada, higher levels of education, and the spread of new media. But too, there was a shift by which the state “took over many of the functions claimed by the church.” People were more prosperous and open to new ideas, and the Catholic Church now seemed backwards and irrelevant to most, particularly its pro-nativity norms.

Inglehart’s research found that the social norms of wealthier countries in general are starkly different from what they were in 1945. This is especially noticeable with regard to fertility rates, which “have moved from the high of the baby boom era to falling below the replacement level in most developed countries.” He has this to say about the changing social norms:


“The World Values Survey and the European Values Survey have monitored norms concerning sexual behavior and gender equality in successive waves of surveys from 1981 to 2020. Although deep-seated norms limiting women’s roles and stigmatizing homosexuality have persisted from biblical times to the present, these surveys now show rapid changes from one wave to the next in developed countries, with growing acceptance of gender equality and of gays and lesbians and a rapid decline of religiosity” (47).


The evolutionary nature of Inglehart’s theory also ventures into theology. He avers that among traditional hunter-gatherers around the world, it is rare to find a belief in a creator God, but rather the belief that “local spirits inhabit and animate trees, rivers and mountains” – in other words, animism. This is actually misleading, because among many indigenous populations, from North America to Africa to the Aborigines of Australia, the belief in a high creator god is quite common, but he tends to be distant and therefore people turn to intermediaries, from lesser deities, to spirits of various sorts, and to ancestors. But be that as it may, his point that agrarian societies, which are dependent on rain and sun for abundant crops, also prayed to god(s) for protection from plagues of locusts and disease, is more plausible. So is this paragraph leading into more widespread ethical norms today:


“Changing concepts of God have continued to evolve since biblical times, from a fierce tribal God who required human sacrifice and demanded genocide against outsiders, to a benevolent God whose laws applied to everyone. Prevailing moral norms have changed gradually throughout history, but in recent decades the pace of change has accelerated. The decline of xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia is part of a long-term trend away from tribal norms that excluded most of humanity, toward universal moral norms in which formerly excluded groups, such as foreigners, women, and gays, have human rights” (48).


I’m certain Jews, Christians and Muslims, particularly those on the conservative end of the spectrum, would want to push back against such a generalization. But it would be equally difficult to argue with the facts supported by such rigorous and comprehensive (both in terms of longitudinal and geographical) research. These World Values Surveys from 1981 to the present provide Inglehart with nine “hypotheses to be tested” – and having read the book, I believe they stand up rather nicely (pp. 51-2):


    • The pro-fertility norms that evolved over time have mostly called for women to produce and raise as many children as possible and prohibit any sexual activity that would endanger this nativist mission of survival and are the “polar opposite” of the “individual-choice norms” that include “support for gender equality and tolerance for divorce and homosexuality. Countries today are found all along this spectrum, with a several on both ends.
    • “Pro-fertility norms are closely linked with religion.” They are “strongest in societies with strong religious beliefs; conversely, tolerance for gender equality, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality will be strongest in societies where religion is weakest.”
    • High religiosity, coupled with support for pro-fertility norms, correlate to “relatively insecure societies, especially those with high infant mortality rates, and weakest in relatively secure societies.”
    • There is “built-in tension” between pro-fertility norms that demand a high degree of self-control and individual-choice norms. Historically, societies weak in pro-fertility norms were societies that did not survive. “But in recent decades, a growing number of societies have attained high existential security, long life expectancy, and low infant mortality, making pro-fertility norms no longer necessary for societal survival – and opening the way for a shift from pro-fertility norms to individual-choice norms.”
    • Norms deeply anchored in a society’s culture are very slow to change in normal circumstances. Most changes come, and then incrementally, when a new generation takes over (change “through intergenerational replacement”). Any noticeable change, therefore, “reflects the level of existential security that prevailed during the pre-adult years of people who were born decades earlier.” That is why “the strongest predictor of a society’s level of support for new values among the adult population will not be its current level of life expectancy, infant mortality, and per capita GDP, but the levels that prevailed decades earlier.”
    • “Although intergenerational population replacement involves long time lags, cultural change can reach a tipping point at which new norms come to be seen as dominant. Social desirability affects then reverse polarity: instead of retarding the changes linked with intergenerational replacement, they accelerate them.” This kind of tipping point is occurring “in a growing number of settings, starting with the younger and more secure strata of high-income societies.”
    • “In societies where religion remains strong, little or no change in pro-fertility norms will take place.”
    • “In societies where religiosity is growing, we will find growing emphasis on pro-fertility norms and declining acceptance of individual-choice norms.”
    • “In societies where support for individual-choice norms is growing, we will find declining religiosity.”


The interesting variance amidst the general trend

Inglehart presents a series of graphs seeking to map the evolution of various countries along two axes (see the latest version above). As you can see, the horizontal axis goes from “survival” to “self-expression,” or from the pro-nativity norms on the left to the individual-choice norms on the right. The vertical axis moves up from “traditional values” to “secular values” on top. This is similar to the impact of the Enlightenment on Christian Europe starting in the 18th century.

What is fascinating here is that countries, by and large, fall into regional or religious groupings. I mentioned “Protestant Europe” (Nordic countries plus The Netherlands and Switzerland) and how as a group they have served as trend-setters since the late 1980s to the present: their standard of living and their top scores on the World Happiness Report (see this year’s). This score is based on “comprehensive Gallup polling data from 149 countries for the past three years,” and takes into account six categories: “gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.” Generosity here includes acceptance of foreigners and minorities, but this might not last. Inglehart’s ninth chapter, “At What Point Does Even Sweden Get a Xenophobic Party?”, begins with a look at the political backlash caused by Angela Merkel who in 2015 opened the doors of Germany to almost a million refugees, most of whom being Syrian Muslims.

Another discernible cluster regroups the “English-speaking” countries of Britain, the US, New Zealand and Australia, and in the latest version of the map (2017-2020), they are just below “Protestant Europe” (not as far on the secular-rational values end), and the US is behind its counterparts in terms of self-expression values. What is striking also, is that the “Confucian” cluster (China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong) are around the middle of the map but on top (high secular-rational values), with Japan farthest along the self-expression axis. These nations, explains Inglehart, have in common a Confucian-infused culture which was mostly secular to begin with, so while they have become less religious, they have relatively always been so.

As you might guess, Muslim countries are by far the most religious. The World Values Survey has enough data over ten years for ten of them. They “show the highest absolute levels of religiosity of any major cultural group … But they are not becoming more religious” (85). Another factor setting them apart is that “age-linked differences are very small in Muslim-majority countries.” Younger people are only slightly less religious than their elders. This provides strong support for his hypothesis 7: “In societies where religion remains strong, little or no change in pro-fertility norms will take place.” But let me add that though the average birthrate in Muslim nations is the highest (2.9 per woman – replacement rate is 2.1), it is “down from 4.3 in 1990–1995.”

I would also inject that future polling and research will show that religiosity is waning in many Muslim countries. The example of Turkey for which we have research is not unique.

Finally, as “the publics of most ex-communist countries [now labeled “Orthodox Europe”]j showed steeply rising support for religion from 1981 to 2007 and (although this then slowed down) are still considerably more religious than they were in 1981.” In conformity with hypothesis 8 above, “a majority of the ex-communist publics show rising support for pro-fertility norms over the long term." Russia has been particularly vocal about stigmatizing gays, for instance.


What is the take-away?

This impressively researched and crafted book documents in granular detail the global shift in values over the last few decades. Inglehart’s analysis of the causes truly provides an illuminating explanation for what we witness today. But is it the last word on the matter? No book can claim this. Inglehart throughout acknowledges that there are other factors at play and he quotes other scholars on this. But his contention is that growing security, the erosion of pro-nativity religious norms, and the pull of individual-choice or self-expression values are the primary causes for the precipitous drop in religiosity in most countries since 2007.

Certainly in the US, he avers, factors contributing to secularization must also include the religious right’s “embrace of xenophobic authoritarian politicians,” the scandal of the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to deal with its child abuse problem, and for millennials and Gen-Z’ers, the failure of most religious establishments to recognize the validity of people’s choices in their acceptance or even adoption of other religions, their sexual orientation, their use of abortion, and drugs.

Nevertheless, I finished this book and said to myself, “well, the story of religion in America isn’t finished, and especially that of Christianity.” American history and the figures behind Christianity’s breathtaking growth in the 19th and 20th centuries tell us there is more to religion than this. One of the textbooks I use for my Comparative Religion course is Boston University’s Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. A New Times bestselling author, Prothero has nothing to prove religiously. After belonging for over a year to a Christian group as a college student (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship), he left Christianity and religion behind because his questions were not getting answered. So, as he puts in this interview, he made it his profession to keep asking those questions.

I love Prothero’s chapter on Christianity. He calls the 19th century “the Evangelical century.” Building on historian David Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism (biblicism, crucicentrism or centrality of the cross, conversionism, and social activism). He then explains:


“In the early nineteenth century these characteristics coalesced into a movement. Thanks to great revivals in England and the United States, and to the heroic missionary efforts of Methodist circuit riders and Baptist farmer-preachers, Anglo-America was rapidly missionized, and evangelicalism became the dominant religious impulse in the Protestant world …

In the nineteenth century, Christianity made a similar advance among English speakers, expanding even more rapidly than it had in the first Christian centuries. In 1800, less than one-quarter of the world’s population was Christian. By 1900, that figure had jumped to more than one third (34 percent). The most extraordinary growth came in North America, which saw the total number of Christians jump tenfold between 1815 and 1915. In the process, the portion of Christians among the overall U.S. population expanded from about 25 percent to about 40 percent. In Canada, the advance of Christianity was even more dramatic – from roughly one-fifth of the overall population to roughly one-half” (84-85).


Meanwhile, that evangelical missionary fervor produced an explosion of church growth in Africa. Prothero puts it this way, “There is no way that Christianity can keep up the growth it posted in Africa in the twentieth century – from 9 million souls in 1900 to 355 in 2000 – but thanks to a combination of that old-time revivalism and old-fashioned population growth, Africa and Latin America alike should bypass Europe by 2025 in terms of professing Christians” (96). He adds that the percentage of Christians in South Korea went from 1 percent to 41 percent in that same period.

Here from the Encyclopedia Britannica is a short summary of the great religious revivals in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. If I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and speak like the Christian that I am, I say that this is more than just cultural and socio-historical dynamics at play. I believe this is God sovereignly stirring up these populations at that time and calling people to himself. It has happened again and again in many different places around the world. From the 1906 Azusa St. revival in Los Angeles, the Pentecostal movement fanned out and exploded. Today there are more than 600 million Pentecostals (who usually also identify as “evangelicals”) in the world. That’s why Prothero calls last century “the Pentecostal century.” Why then, and why here and not there? Only God knows. But this could happen again in 21st-century USA, and it is happening elsewhere as I write.

Religion’s Sudden Decline is a great read, and I recommend it heartily. I would just caution the reader that there is always more to the story. And for people of faith, there is more going on here than that which meets the eye of a social scientist.