The common narrative we hear today is that the world is becoming increasingly secularized, and that traditional religion is becoming a relic of the past.
But there’s a counter-narrative that’s gaining currency, namely, that secularism is in crisis, and that the world is on the cusp of becoming more religious.
The spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox Church—Patriarch Bartholomew I—recently gave voice to this counter-narrative at an international peace conference held in Cairo. There he said:
“Paradoxically, instead of the modernistic expectation of a ‘post-religious secular age,’ our epoch is in fact becoming a ‘post-secular period’ or even one of ‘religious explosion.’ Religion appears as a central dimension of human life, both at the personal and social levels. It claims a public role, and it participates in all central contemporary discourses.”
Bartholomew then identified several reasons why secular modernity has been unsuccessful in its attempt to rid itself of religion, such as that:
“Religion is connected with the deep concerns of the human being. It provides answers to crucial existential questions, giving orientation and meaning of life. Religion opens to human beings the dimension of eternity and the depth of truth.”
“Religion has created and preserved the greatest cultural achievements of humankind, essential moral values, solidarity and compassion, as well as respect of the whole creation.”
Almost ten years ago, the famous contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas similarly concluded that America and Europe could now be termed “post-secular”:
“In these societies, religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground.”
More recently, bestselling author and sociologist Rodney Stark has drawn upon extensive statistical evidence to argue in his recent book, The Triumph of Faith, that…
“The world is more religious than it has ever been. 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. In Latin America, Pentecostal Protestant churches have converted tens of millions, and Catholics are going to Mass in unprecedented numbers. There are more churchgoing Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else on earth, and China may soon become home of the most Christians. Meanwhile, although not growing as rapidly as Christianity, Islam enjoys far higher levels of member commitment than it has for many centuries, and the same is true for Hinduism. In fact, of all the great world religions, only Buddhism may not be growing.”
And what about America and Europe? It’s become popular to point to yearly Pew polls that supposedly show a decline in religious practice in the West. But Stark thinks there are good reasons to question the results of these polls. For one, the group least likely to attend church (less education, less income) is overrepresented in Pew polls. And two, Stark questions Pew’s linkage of being “religious” to church attendance. As he points out, “hardly any Europeans attended church in the Middle Ages”—a period considered the zenith of Christianity in the Western world.
It is often remarked that a widespread secularism is a relatively recent and unique phenomenon in human history. In looking more closely at contemporary trends, one begins to wonder if secularism has not only run its course, but if it was ever “widespread” in the first place.