Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Secularization, R.I.P.? Not even on Dec. 21, 2012

In his last novel F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Not true. “Reborn” like a zombie this week, the theory of secularization is seemingly back from the dead (at least in the American popular imagination …see the image above). Social scientist Rodney Stark has lamented, “For nearly three centuries, social scientists and assorted western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will ‘outgrow’ belief in the supernatural (“Secularization, R.I.P.” p. 249). This is a bit odd as people continue to speak of the theory “despite the fact that it never was consistent with empirical reality,” Stark notes (p. 249). Ironically, if you believe in the theory of secularization you are probably doing this mostly on faith. Great new data from Pew on global religious affiliation indicate this theory continues to be empirically challenged (my previous post explores some of the domestic implications of this study along with Gallups recent research on the topic). 

The theory of secularization assumes that human beings will become less religious over time as societies
modernize and undergo economic development that results in important cultural changes. This evolutionary framework predicts that rising levels of education and autonomy in these societies lead people to eventually reject religion after which religious institutions become less significant and eventually wither away. If this theory is accurate we would expect to see religion to be strongest in the “developing” world and weakest in those countries that have “modernized” under capitalist and democratic systems. The problem for this theory continues to be reality. When applied to data it often does not work as neatly as it is assumed. One representation of this is shown below in a scatter plot of Pew’s country-level estimates of the religiously unaffiliated by each nation’s GDP per capita. There is an upward sloping straight line through these data—just not many observations around it that would represent a powerful relationship. However, if you look closely you can see some other potentially important patterns that may deserve further exploration.

Notice that most of the world’s Nones were not fostered in the bright light of “reason” blooming in “modernized” countries. Instead most have been raised in states that actively and in some cases brutally suppress religion.

About 19% of the world’s population lives in China. At the same time this single country is home to 62% of the global unaffiliated. When one adds in other similar states it is evident that two-thirds of the world’s unaffiliated live under a communist regime. An additional six percent live in formerly communist countries adjacent to the former Soviet Union or China.

One commenter to the Huffington Post’s story on the Pew data wrote ,“Yay! Go non-religion go! Reason is pulling ahead in the curve.” Maybe this comment was posted via an iPhone along with many other seemingly celebratory tweets about “Nones being the 3rd largest (non)affiliation in the world.” How many of these people knew that the person who assembled their phone lives in the country that is singularly responsible for that 3rd-place “title”? Remove China from the numbers and the unaffiliated fall to a distant 4th—behind Hinduism (...all of this completely ignoring that many unaffiliated consider themselves religious and believe in a creator).

Of course there are other causal factors to explore than communist state repression of religion. For example, many of the countries with the largest numbers of Nones have historically had very low or immeasurable levels of affiliation with the world’s Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, or Islam). Three-fourths of the world’s unaffiliated live in such a country and all of these are in Asia. Nations that have had an
Abrahamic religious tradition represent a majority of the worlds population (55%) but contribute only 25% of the world's Nones.

Three-fourths of the world’s unaffiliated also reside in countries with a GDP per capita below $15,000. Yet the data may also reveal a weak pulse for secularization theory in the higher within-country unaffiliated percentages, on average, in nations with higher GDP per capita figures (i.e., last column in the table). Then again these percentages are in the teens and far below those seen in communist countries. Modernization is certainly not doing any of the heavy lifting in creating more of the religiously unaffiliated.

Stark once proposed that, “once and for all, let us declare an end to the social scientific faith in the theory of secularization, recognizing that it was the product of wishful thinking” (p. 269). Yet I don’t think the end is near. Predicting the demise of secularization theory is just as dangerous of predicting the demise of religion. Faith remains comparatively strong in both. I know some religion reporters who seem quite a bit fonder in the former than the latter which helps the theory of secularization thrive in popular culture even as belief in God in the U.S. has fallen only 5 percentage points since 1944.

The modern construction of the Mayan prediction ( resemblance to what they believed or understood) was indeed wrong. It’s December 21st and you, me, God, and secularization theory are alive and well in America.  

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