It has been repeated so often and so widely that it’s become an unquestioned truism. Society is becoming more secular as more and more people bag their faith. Of course, the mainstream press – and the Christian press as well – are happy to relay the tale.
Each of us have seen the flurry of such headlines:
- "Christianity Declines Sharply in US, Agnostics Growing: Pew" – Newsmax
- "Christians In U.S. On Decline As Number Of 'Nones' Grows, Survey Finds" – NPR
- "Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian" - New York Times
- "America Is Getting Less Christian and Less Religious, Study Shows" – HuffPo
Well this story is as wrong as it is widespread. Ours is not an increasingly secular and irreligious culture and Baylor University’s Professor Rodney Stark, one of the leading sociologists of religion in the world, explains this in great depth and clarity in his critical and deeply researched new book, The Triumph of Faith. His first sentence explains his findings bluntly:
“The world is more religious than it has ever been.”
A few pages later with equal clarity he explains,
“The world is not merely as religious as it used to be. In important ways, it is much more intensely religious than ever before; indeed, it is far more churched.” (emphasis added)
“…the popular notion of an increasingly secularizing world is not merely wrong, but actually the opposite of what has been taking place.”
Surveys of more than a million adults covering 163 nations find:
- 81 percent say they belong to an organized religious faith
- Many of the rest report attending religious services or activities now and then
- 74 percent say that religion is important to them
- 50 percent say they have attended a religious service in the past 7 days
- 56 percent believe that “God is directly involved in things that happen in the world”
While Stark spends some time explaining how spirituality in general is and has been growing over the last few decades, he spends most of his time demonstrating how it is Christianity that is growing in considerable numbers. And it is a particular kind Christianity that is growing: the good kind.
Let’s look at some of the important specifics of the larger picture in brief.
Atheism: Not Growing
Atheism has remained stagnant for as long as pollsters have been measuring it. Most nations across the globe have fewer than 5% of their population who say they are atheists. There is not any nation in the world where their share of the population is higher than 30% and only three are above 20%: South Korea at 29.5%, China, 27% and Vietnam, 24%. In only eleven nations do they make up more than 10% of the population. The United States has only 4.4 percent, Canada is 6.6 and Mexico 2.4 of its population saying they believe there is no god.
The “New Atheists” are not having much success in getting people to drop their silly “God Delusion” as one of them famously put it even while their books sold briskly there for a while.
The group that says they don’t identify with any particular faith tradition has gotten a great deal of press in the last few years because of their significant growth, moving from 8 percent in 1990 to nearly 22 percent in 2014. They have indeed grown, but their nature is not what most think. They are not the new irreligious, evidenced by two key facts: (1) Church attendance overall has not declined during this time or their growth, in fact it has grown among biblically faithful churches and (2) atheism has not increased.
The supposed “growth” of the “nones” is found among those who never changed their beliefs, but merely their identity. Stark explains that up to the 1990s or so, those who didn’t regularly attend church still identified themselves as part of the faith with which they were raised. But increasingly, they have stopped explicitly identifying with the mainstream tradition they never really participated in anyway. They simply ditched the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist or Catholic social identity. Stark explains, “The entire change [in Nones] has taken place within the non-attending group and the non-attending group has not grown.” It has merely shifted the way it identifies itself.
Islam is not overtaking Christianity globally, nor is it even close. The two faiths are divided by about a 10 percentage point spread among both nominal and committed adherents in each. The number of Muslims in North and Latin America, Oceania and East Asia are less than 0.5 percent of the total population. In Europe and surrounding areas, they are only 2 percent.
Death of Mainstream Protestantism
When you read about declines in Christianity around the world, it is all concentrated to those mainstream traditions that are regularly jettisoning basic Christian teachings, primarily on the nature of Christ, sin and sexual ethics. These exiting members mirror the early morning Black Friday crowds, save that they are storming out the doors. Stark casts their declines as “catastrophic”, nearly being sliced in half since 1960, consistently sliding downward every decade since. Just since 2007, they have hemorrhaged 5 million adult members. Their people have expressed their Christian beliefs with their feet.
Given that the Mainline church roles are plummeting like a boulder with a bigger boulder tied to it and overall church attendance is not declining, how to do we reconcile this curious gap. It is because many of these exiting mainliners are not leaving the church. They are simply changing lanes over to the more traditional, faithful bible-teaching churches. The evangelical churches are the ones primarily gaining from this lane-change. While 36 million adults identify with one of the mainstream denominations today, 62 million American adults say they are evangelicals. The evangelical population has grown from 51 percent of all Protestants in 2007 to 55 percent today.
Catholic Decline or Growth?
So what about the Catholics? Most polls you see show notable declines in our parishes. That is not news to many of us. But, as usual, we have to dig deeper into the details to get the real picture.
Stark explains that Catholicism, like evangelical Christianity, is growing mightily in many parts of the globe. While Latin America has always been predominantly and strongly Catholic, he says in the last few decades, “…the Catholic Church has undergone a stunning awakening in Latin America” where parishes are “now filled on Sundays with devoted members.” He explains curiously that much of this growth has come even while, and in some ways in unison with it, the charismatic evangelical churches have exploded there. The energy in one feeds the other.
But while there are declines to be sure in the Catholic fold in North America, there is also growth. It has everything to do with exactly what we’ve seen among the mainline and evangelical protestant churches. This distinction is easy to discern there. The liberals and conservatives in Protestantism pull into different parking lots each Sunday morning. It is easy to tell who is who. It’s not so in Catholicism. The sheep and the goats are dumped into the same sandbox each Sunday all mixed together throughout the pews. You can’t really tell those who the strict menu adherents and cafeteria diners are.
Just as we see in Protestantism, the “evangelical” Catholics (such as those of the “JPII Revolution”) are growing while the Hans Küng/Leonardo Boff schools have long been flaming out. Colleen Carroll Campbell captures the nature of this interesting growth in the Church in her important book, The New Faithful. She cites Peter Kreeft who explains that this move of young and old Catholics toward a more ancient faith as “a massive turning of the tide.” Just the mention of one Catholic liberal arts university—Steubenville—and what is happening there proves the point.
As Carroll Campbell demonstrates as well, there has been no small migration of mainline Protestants and evangelicals (young and old) making the move to the ancient church, both East and West.
Why These Dramatic Lane-Changes in Christianity?
Professor Stark asks blankly, “Why have millions of Americans left the denominations in which they were raised for a more conservative church?” His answer will not surprise many of us, but it certainly will the theological sophisticates and elites who pity those of us who cling stubbornly to the old myths. Stark explains that blame lies with the very theologians and pastors who dumped their beliefs in sin, in the Divine Christ who did miracles, called for repentance and died for the sins of man. It is these who reject the historic Christian sexual ethic confined to the marital embrace of husband and wife and therefore “drove millions of their members into the more conservative denominations” because they are seeking a more “vigorous religious message.”
So regardless of what you read in the papers, know that the Holy Spirit is still getting it done and God’s Word will not and cannot return void.