Is religion on the decline? To some degree this definitely seems to be the case; especially in the west. According to the Washington Post, “in 1990, 86 per cent of American adults identified as Christians, compared with 76 per cent in 2008” (now at 71 per cent) and “the share of those who are not affiliated with a religion has jumped from 16 per cent to about 23 per cent in the same time”. Other western nations are displaying a similar trend, such as the UK – according to the Huffington Post, Anglican Christianity, once the UK’s largest religion, has “fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1983 to 29 per cent in 2004 to 17 per cent last year ”. This purported decline of religious faith in the west has coincided with, or has arguably manifested itself as, what could be considered the liberalization of western culture, in which we find the loosening of conservative social norms, generally associated with traditional religious values (e.g. legalization of same-sex marriage, pro-choice policy, etc.). There are a myriad of other cultural phenomena seen as indicative of the decline of faith as well – including the increasing popularity of explicitly atheist public intellectuals (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) and even the rise of organized irreligion, such as the Atheist Alliance International, an organization that aims to promote and educate the public on atheism and secularism.
Yet, is this purported trend true on a global scale or is it merely purported? Or perhaps, it should be clarified as to what is meant by “religion” itself, as this word can be employed to refer to an enormous range of different, albeit related, cultural phenomena.
If by “religion”, one means traditional and conservative religious institutions, then it very well may be the case that religion is on the decline (at least in the west). Could religion not be simply taking another form? The phrase “spiritual but not religious” may be indicative of the decline of organized religion but not of religiosity or spirituality in general. According to a 2014 article by the New York Times around “7 per cent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians” identify as being “spiritual but not religious”. The rise of new age religious institutions and interests in syncretic spirituality is overwhelmingly evident in today’s world through the adoption of religious practices with a more secular “spin” (e.g. the secular use of transcendental meditation). Even some self-proclaimed atheists declare themselves to be spiritual. According to National Public Radio, Sam Harris, a virulently outspoken critic of organized religion and proponent of atheism, has said “spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary”. It seems that if one considers the term “religion” to strictly refer to organized and traditional religious institutions, then “religion” is seemingly on the decline – yet the mystical or more “spiritual” approach to life is still very much alive, at least if we take people at their word that they are “spiritual but not religious”. Yet, if one takes a closer look at the history of religion, it seems to be even more nuanced than this.
Religion/Spirituality has a history of oscillation both in its overall prevalence as well as in its “format”. The ancient world was chocked-full of shamanic faiths in which we find less emphasis on orthodoxy (right belief) as there is on orthopraxy (right practice) in which ritual and religious “experience” were more heavily emphasized than “proper” religious conception. The religious experience or practice was a tool to intuitively apprehend the divine, and the forms that the divine could take were not so set in stone as they are in some religions such as the Judeo-Christian faiths. There are still faiths of this nature to some degree today – Hinduism as well as neo-pagan religions are reflective of this syncretic approach to religiosity. But the more strict forms of religion that emphasize orthodoxy were just as prevalent in the ancient world as well (e.g. Judaism). Recent history is even more indicative of the changing nature of global religion, especially if one takes a look at global religious trends.
The authoritarian communist regimes of the 20th century were notoriously antireligious. In fact, according to the Russian Review (a Russian academic journal), the USSR made it an ideological objective to eliminate religion and replace it with universal atheism. The People’s Republic of China is still routinely accused of persecuting particular religious groups, specifically the Falun Gong Movement (a Buddhist and Taoist religious movement) – according to the Guardian, members of this movement have even been forced to work in labour camps. Yet, these once very atheist states are experiencing a religious revival of sorts. The Russian Orthodox Church is incredibly strong today and even notably influential in Russian politics (e.g. Vladimir Putin is a purportedly devout Orthodox Christian); a far-cry from its days as a completely marginalized, if not at times out rightly persecuted religious group in the USSR. In China, Christian religious groups are experiencing unprecedented growth for the first time – according to the BBC, they are poised to spring from one of the smallest religious minority groups in the nation to having the largest Christian population in the world by 2030 (250 million people). Yet, perhaps the best example of the unpredictable growths, declines and re-articulation of religious faith or spirituality would be the recent history of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church is arguably one of the world’s oldest global social institutions – as well as one of the most influential. The prevalence of the Church in social discourse has a long history of waxing and waning depending on the times but it has always been somewhat socially relevant. Take the role of the Catholic Church in Poland for instance. The church had long been marginalized by the communist government in Poland but according to many historians, the church played a pivotal role (under the leadership of Pope John Paul II) in spurring the political organization and activism that led to the downfall of communism in Poland – since then, political Catholicism has been an integral component to Polish public policy. Yet, it is Pope Francis that truly displays the capacity of a religious institution to both change as well as retain its centralized organization (and rituals) and increase its influence.
Francis hasn’t changed the church so much as he has changed its tone or temperament – but this has made an enormous difference. For instance, Pope Benedict was so diametrically opposed to same-sex marriage that many considered him to have alienated both those involved in the LGBT community as well as more liberal Catholics. Pope Francis on the other hand, has been more conciliatory in his approach to those groups that don’t completely line-up with traditional Catholic orthodoxy. In regards to homosexual Catholics, Pope Francis has said, “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge? We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.” According to National Public Radio, the Catholic Church may be one of the few traditional religious institutions poised for a “renewal” as Catholic seminaries in the US have had an astronomical rise in the amount of people participating under the age of 25. This may very well be somewhat due to the church’s capacity to reflect the demands of the time.
This all goes to say that the purported decline of religion betrays the more complex and nuanced history of religious institutions and spirituality in society in general. History has shown that there have been and likely will be in the future, many declines, revivals, as well as numerous re-articulations of spiritual faith.
Assistant External News Editor