(RNS) — The claim that religion is declining and giving way to secularism may not seem so controversial these days.
But it’s a relatively new one for many American sociologists who have held that the example of the United States — a modern, wealthy and industrialized nation that is also highly religious — is proof positive of religion’s staying power.
As recently as 2008, the late sociologist Peter Berger argued that the example of the United States represented “the big nail in the coffin” of the theory that modern countries are all becoming increasingly secular.
Now three sociologists have penned a primer showcasing data from around the world that proves religiosity is undeniably declining in most if not all modern industrial countries — at least when measured by beliefs (in God or the Bible), belonging (to a particular congregation) and behavior (such as church-based baptisms or weddings).
In “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society,” Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman and Ryan T. Cragun lay out a theory that can be summed up in a simple phrase: “Modernization creates problems for religion.” They explain that countries that have gone through a process of “differentiation,” or the separation of religion from government, and “rationalization,” or the emphasis on modern, scientific ideals, have seen dramatic drops in the levels of religiosity.
Further, they argue that once countries undergo those processes, the likelihood that secularization can be reversed and religion regain its footing is very small. In one chapter, they examine four countries on four different continents where secularization has taken root: Chile, Norway, South Korea and the United States. Conversely, they say, countries with low levels of development and high levels of government regulation of religion are the most religious. Among them: Bangladesh, Rwanda, Yemen.
Religion News Service spoke to the three sociologists on Zoom about their book and their theory that secularization is ascendant around the world. (According to the scholars, more than a billion people around the world are now secular.) The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why did you want to write this book about secularism now?
Ryan Cragun: There was this debate that has been happening in the sociology of religion for the past 30 years about whether the U.S. is an exception (to secularization). We decided the data are overwhelming. It’s time to end the debate on this. It’s “beyond doubt.”
Some prominent 19th-century intellectuals first proposed the theory of secularization. How are today’s theories of secularization different from those advanced earlier?
Phil Zuckerman: You have the classical theorists who predicted the demise of religion. But they didn’t offer any theory of secularization. There was no proposition or testable claims. There were no hypotheses. They didn’t have the data. We have decades of data and it seems to bolster earlier claims. There’s no new explanation for secularization. We’re saying the data bolsters these claims.
One thing you don’t address in the book is the political situation in the U.S.
Christianity is ascendant on the political level, especially at the Supreme Court, which is arguably more influenced by religion than ever. Why?
Phil Zuckerman: Our book is not about the politics of faith. Our book asks if people are more or less religious than in the past. If you have a society full of nonreligious people but those in power are religious, is that a religious society? Trump had the most religious Cabinet of any in the United States. But simultaneously, the citizens of the United States are less religious than they’ve ever been. So both things can happen simultaneously. These things are actually related. As the U.S. becomes more racially and ethnically diverse and more secular you’re going to see the white Christian nationalists assert their dominance. If we could do it over again, we would add a chapter on the U.S. secularizing and simultaneously, these power players exerting even more of their religious zealotry on all of us.
Isabella Kasselstrand: There’s no evidence that people are becoming more religious as a result of this.
Poland is another interesting case. The Catholic Church enjoys a privileged position among its political leaders and gets a ton of financial support from the government. The country recently put in place a draconian abortion law.
Ryan Cragun: There are instances where you could potentially see a reversal of secularization. We talk in the book about Russia and the former Soviet republics, where you have a collapse of the economy and rise of authoritarian governments, Those governments often turn to religion to provide the justification of the new government. People need a sense of identity, and religion provides a sense of identity. As people lose religion they have to turn somewhere else for a sense of identity. For many people, it’s politics. But I don’t think there will be a reversal of secularization in Poland.
One country where there is a clear reversal of secularism is Israel. Have you considered it at all?
Phil Zuckerman: You’re absolutely correct. Israel was way secular and that’s completely changing, and it’s mostly a matter of babies. Haredi Jews have 12 kids per couple and secular Jews have three. Demographically in the next 40 years the Orthodox will outnumber secularists. Also, Israel conforms to the theory we talk about, which is cultural defense. Any time a society is threatened from the outside by another religion or national ethnic group, we expect that religion will be stronger. Ireland was the least secularizing part of Western Europe because it had centuries of Protestant domination and oppression at the hands of the English. In Israel, you’ve got a small, Jewish ethno-nationalist state surrounded by Muslim, Arab ethno-nationalists. So Jewish and Israeli identity all become heightened.
I’d also say, I’m not one of these people who say secularism theory has to be right 100% of the time. It is possible a nation can buck that. If Israelis are becoming more religious for other reasons — not about birthrates or cultural defense — we would have to acknowledge that as an exception.
You cite the 2015 Pew Research study showing the world’s share of religious people will likely increase by 2050. What are the implications of secularization in the future?
Isabella Kasselstrand: There are demographic models that the world will get more religious. That assumes these countries will not secularize. We would argue that if these countries go through this process of modernization, they will see religious decline. But we’re not saying religion will go away.
Ryan Cragun: Freedom of and from religion is key in those instances. In countries where you’re not allowed to leave Islam, for example, it’ll be harder to see a decline of religiosity. Those things have to change. The theory is contingent on those changes. We want to establish that secularization is happening and the evidence is overwhelming and we want to formalize the theory and allow people to move forward and test it.