WASHINGTON — A majority of the world’s people believe that religion plays a positive role in society, according to a new WIN/Gallup International survey released April 17. However, the poll found two areas where religion is likely to be viewed more negatively: Western Europe and academia.
More than half (59%) of the close to 67,000 people interviewed by WIN/Gallup International reported that religion plays a positive role. Overall, those in the world who felt positive about religion outnumbered those who felt negatively about religion by 37%.
“What we see is in line with other religious studies we have been doing for the past 30 years, which is that religion is important for people in general on a worldwide basis,” said Marita Carballo, a Gallup spokeswoman.
But not so much for Western Europe, where secularism, the welfare state and the culture clash from Islamic immigration enter the mix. Western Europe accounted for six out of nine countries where the negative views outnumbered the positive views toward religion: Denmark (-36%), Belgium (-30%), France (-22%) and Spain (-22%), as well as the Netherlands and Sweden.
Laura Keynes, a British scholar, writer and Catholic apologist, said news reporting in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom (where positive views only outnumber negative views by 6%), bears significant responsibility in shaping public attitudes toward religion. She said how news outlets “frame the story or use certain words or images” tends to reinforce a certain view unless the reader or viewer is aware.
“This was particularly true with Northern Ireland,” Keynes said. “A whole generation has grown up thinking that ‘The Troubles’ were purely about religious difference rather than a mix of religious-political difference.”
Since the media does not tend to report on Church-led initiatives in ecumenism, conflict resolution or helping people out of poverty — “it’s just not dramatic enough” — Keynes said, “when the public hears about the Church or religion, it’s generally in a negative light (and in recent years usually in association with the child-abuse scandal).”
More Positive Attitudes
In most other places of the world, religion was viewed much more positively. The region that viewed religion the most positively was Africa (65%), followed by the Americas (54%) and the Middle East and North Africa (50%). In the United States, 62% viewed religion positively, while, in Indonesia, 95% viewed religion positively.
“People are not getting less spiritual today, with the exception of Europe,” Carballo said, adding that contrary to some social-science theories, “we’re finding that modernization does not necessarily bring secularization.”
People in Western European societies who view religion positively only outnumber those who don’t by 4%. Carballo indicated that one major difference between why religion in the Americas is viewed more positively than Western Europe is that Europe’s cradle-to-grave welfare state makes people feel more secure and comfortable, so they feel less like they have to depend on God to take care of them.
“I think it has to do with that on the one hand — and also with the churches not being in line with what people are thinking: the way they want to see life and to behave,” she said.
By comparison, Carballo pointed out that Latin America has a “Catholic culture,” where “religiosity is very high.”
“Uruguay is a less religious country, but, in general, they are all very religious; they think religion is important and very positive. A lot of importance is given to God in the life of the people,” she said.
But WIN/Gallup International also observed that as education increases the positive view toward religion decreases — the most significant declines were seen at the university and graduate levels.
People with no education had a 70% total positive view of religion, dipping slightly to a 62% total positive view of religion among those with a secondary-school education.
Once university education enters the picture, negative attitudes accelerate: 56% have a total positive view, while 26% have a total negative view. Among those with advanced degrees, such as master’s and Ph.D.s, just 52% have a total positive view of religion, while 32% have a total negative view.
Carballo speculated that with advanced education often comes higher income and economic prospects, and for many, this replaces the feelings of comfort and security they had depended on religion to give them.
“They feel that they don’t need religion after that,” she said.
“But a majority of people in all education levels still view religion more positively, which is significant,” Carballo added.
A greater hostility toward religion among the academic elite might also stem from “a set of values amongst the intelligentsia,” explained Keynes. A direct descendent of Charles Darwin, Keynes said she was “born and raised in this milieu — where everyone shares the same opinions on issues like abortion, euthanasia … that it is the individual’s right to choose.”
“So there’s a hostility, or lack of understanding, towards the Church for opposing those things,” she said.
Opportunity for Dialogue
John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, cautioned that academia is complex, and different disciplines may attract people with varying views about God: Biology, for example, has people who think more materially, while astrophysics tends to have people who take their thinking a step further toward metaphysics and God.
“I would not deny the point that the kind of disapproval or just-don’t-care attitude among those in academia would be higher than the general population as a whole,” he said.
But Garvey said that while people tend to give credit to academics for social trends as they do to politicians for political trends, “in fact, it’s often the case that they follow, rather than lead, social trends, because they think more reflectively about them and give them more attention and try to explain them, justify them, excuse them or condemn them.”
Garvey noted that Catholic academics have “the best kind of opportunity” to share their views with those who disagree because the academy prizes serious discussion over general agreement.
“It’s important for us who believe in God and the importance of living virtuous lives to make that part of what we say in our academic work,” Garvey said.
“We have to approach our academic opponents with an open mind and with charity toward the possible truth of their views,” he added.
Keynes noted that “people are always hungry for a personal encounter” with faith.
How Catholics “live and witness” can create this opportunity for an encounter, especially with young people, who often are more open to the countercultural example of Christian living “in a secular-liberal culture.”
“It will naturally invite questions, and that’s an opportunity to effect dialogue,” she said. However, she added that being “civil and polite” in the face of hostility is critical, because “as soon as you get riled, or defensive, or sarcastic you’ve lost it.”
Keynes pointed to Pope Francis as an example of how to dialogue in a way that “phrase[s] things so as to emphasize the mercy of God, showing a Church that is open and welcoming,” and yet the message is “always orthodox.” She said Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the late founder of Communion and Liberation, also knew how to do this well.
“It’s about whether we’re walking the talk as Christians,” Keynes said. “Authenticity is always attractive and always communicates.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.