‘The world is more religious than it has ever been,” Rodney Stark writes in his new book The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever.
Around the globe, four out of every five people claim to belong to an organized faith, and many of the rest say they attend worship services.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: The triumph of religion looks like a grave and deadly thing these days. What are your thoughts about the rise and growth of religion at a time when barbarism and mass murder is being perpetrated in God’s name?
Rodney Stark: Perhaps it is fitting to get this question out of the way at the start — even though it is worded as if written by Richard Dawkins. Throughout the book I give extensive and close attention to the dark sides of religious enthusiasm, often drawing on my recent book devoted to that matter: Religious Hostility. Unlike our president and the liberal press. I do not shy from the words “radical Muslim,” nor do I ignore the data showing that this is not a tiny group, but one that enjoys wide support in many Muslim nations. But, I fail to see how this phenomenon is connected to the enormous and rapid growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa and in China. Or to the new-found vigor of Latin American Catholicism (in response to the rapid rise of Protestantism). Or to the remarkable Hindu revival in India.
Stark: Anti-Semitism is much too high in Europe — a third in France scored high on a well-conceived measure of anti-Semitism in 2014, as did more than a quarter in Germany and Austria. Things are even worse in Eastern Europe — 45 percent scored high in Poland, 41 percent in Hungary. As to why, I don’t think this is something that happened recently, but is a hold-over from earlier times. The Holocaust was not the work of a few Nazis — it was the culmination of centuries of vicious actions against European Jews. Most Germans did know, and everyone in Europe knew of the brutalization of the Jews by the Nazis as soon as they were in power. Even so, in that same set of national surveys measuring anti-Semitism in 2014, 39 percent in Western Europe agree that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust” and 24 percent of Eastern Europeans think that the Holocaust “was a myth or an exaggeration.” How can this be helped? I know of nothing that hasn’t already been tried.
Lopez: The world is more religious than it has ever been. Really? Pew says America is becoming less religious. What is the discrepancy?
Stark: Even if Pew were correct about America, that would not alter the fact that huge increases in religious affiliation and participation are going on in most of the rest of the world. But, of course, Pew is wrong about America. For one thing, when surveys only manage to get about 10 percent of those originally drawn in their samples to agree to be interviewed (instead of at least 85 percent), it is impossible to put any confidence in the results. In fact, the group known to be most willing to be polled (less education, less income), and thus far overrepresented in Pew surveys, is precisely the group that has always been least likely to belong to or attend churches. More importantly, the group who say they have no religion (and is said by Pew to be growing) are mainly those who once gave a denominational preference, but who did not belong to a local congregation or attend. That seems a trivial change — especially since the overwhelming majority of those who say they have no religion also affirm religious beliefs, and many of them report frequent prayer. For most of them, “no religion” means no specific church membership, not that they are irreligious.
Lopez: Shouldn’t the world look different if people were really living their faith? Wouldn’t people living the Beatitudes lead the headlines and be impossible to miss?
Stark: Wouldn’t the world be a dreadful mess if even fewer people were living their faith? “Man loves wife and kids, tithes, gives to the poor, goes to church, and obeys the law.” Surely that is no headline. Any city editor would say, “So what’s unusual about that!” “Man kills wife, eats kids, and burns a church.” Now, there’s a headline. These same editors love and eagerly publish attacks on Mother Teresa!
Lopez: How many in the U.S. believe in angels and demons? What accounts for this?
Stark: According to a recent Baylor Religion Survey, conducted by the Gallup Poll, 61 percent of Americans say angels “absolutely” exist and another 21 percent say they “probably” do. As for demons, the numbers are 46 percent “absolutely” and 22 percent “probably.” Why do you think this needs any special accounting for?
Lopez: What accounts for the “seismic religious shift” toward Christianity in southern Africa?
Stark: First of all, the obvious inadequacy of the traditional tribal religions to cope with modernity and to offer hope and confidence. Second, the formation of more than eleven thousand African-originated and -led Christian denominations.
Lopez: What accounts for the “stunning awakening” of the Catholic Church in Latin America?
Stark: Rapidly growing Protestant competition eventually aroused an effective Catholic response. This was not Liberation Theology, which was a misguided mess of religion and politics, but the Catholic Charismatic Movement that met energetic and emotional religion with a Catholic version of the same.
Lopez: “If the percentage trend holds for another few years, there will be more Christians in China than in any other nation.” What can we do — the U.S., Christians in the West — do to help protect Christians in China from crackdown and otherwise help support them?
Stark: Very little. It probably would be best if we did not give the Chinese regime any reason to suppose that the growth of Christianity in China has any external implications. I am inclined to doubt that there will be any crackdown unless such links are apparent.
Lopez: You write that “nearly everyone in Japan is careful to have a new car blessed by a Shinto priest.” How much of this is robust faith and how much of it is superstition or nostalgia?
Stark: I specifically identified this as an instance of “unchurched supernaturalism” and mentioned it in the same sentence as the fact that “38 percent of the French believe in astrology.” I might also note here that it usually lowers their autoinsurance rate.
Lopez: What are some of the most important — and surprising — things you’ve learned about religion over your years of research?
Stark: The most important things all cluster; the rise of Western civilization was the direct result of Judeo-Christian religion. First is the belief in progress, that our history has an upward slope. In all the other major cultures, including Islam, history is regarded as headed downward. That not only discourages all efforts to improve anything, but justifies the suppression of improvements — both the Chinese and the Ottomans outlawed mechanical clocks. Second is the belief that the universe is rational — that it runs according to comprehensible rules — because it was created by a rational creator. Elsewhere the universe was believed to be an incomprehensible mystery, about which one could meditate, but it was absurd to suppose one could penetrate these mysteries. In the West, from early days, it was widely agreed that it should be possible to discover the rules by which Creation runs. And so we have and continue to do so.