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Sociologist got it wrong; religion is on the uptick

bookIn 1968, Peter Berger, a Boston University sociologist, told the New York Times that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture …. The predicament of the believer is increasingly like that of a Tibetan astrologer on a prolonged visit to an American university.”

In 1997, Peter Berger “gracefully recanted his belief in secularization.”

In the opening pages of The Triumph Of Faith: Why The World Is More Religious Than Ever (Intercollegiate Studies Press, 2015, 259 pages), Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, uses Berger’s original prediction and subsequent recantation as indicative of the way many intellectuals and cultural prognosticators view religion. According to these commentators, we live in “the age of atheism,” an age in which secular beliefs reign supreme and religious faith is dying. To such observers, religious faith seems less and less important, inhabiting a tiny dark corner of the public square.

Not so, contends Professor Stark. 

In The Triumph Of Faith, he concludes that religion is not shrinking around the world; on the contrary, it is growing — and rapidly. Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam in particular are increasing in the numbers of their adherents and what Stark calls “higher levels of member commitment.” And as Stark demonstrates, even those who neglect attendance in a temple, church, or mosque, or who turn their backs altogether on organized religion, are unlikely to become non-believers. The vast majority of Americans, for instance, who claim no religious affiliation “still pray and believe in angels!”

What sets The Triumph Of Faith apart from so many books on this subject is its empiricism. Stark is a social scientist, not a professor of theology, and in his arguments he relies on hard evidence rather than mere speculation: statistics, numbers, polls, and data. 

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To some readers, this approach may sound dusty and pedantic, but again such is not the case. The subject of religion, like politics, fascinates many of us, and Stark, a lively, engaging writer, has aimed his book both at scholars and the general public. In addition, the polls he cites provide some astounding insights into the beliefs and practices of people around the globe, insights often contradictory to our popular prejudices and beliefs.

In Latin America, for instance, Stark finds evidence of a religious revival among both Protestants and Catholics. Protestantism, which some South American governments banned even into the 20th century, is now thriving. Originally evangelized by Americans and Europeans, the native population now produces most of its own ministers and missionaries. Catholicism in many of these countries has also acquired a new vigor; the number of seminarians on this continent, for instance, has quadrupled since 1960, and the current pope, Francis I, is Argentinian. 

Other charts and statistics tell of the amazing growth of Christianity in such diverse places as sub-Sahara Africa and China. In the former, this growth is an often-unremarked phenomenon of our time. Not only do the great majority of people in such countries as the Congo, Kenya, and South Africa claim to be Christian, but they also attend weekly church in far higher numbers than their Western counterparts. In China, Stark believes that the spiritual deprivation of the people, which reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, accounts for the subsequent rapid growth of Christianity and Buddhism. Indeed, because of its large population, China may soon be home to the largest Christian community in the world. 

Given the current state of affairs in the Islamic world, Stark’s figures and charts are especially pertinent. For example, The Gallup World Poll found that in nearly every Middle Eastern country the more highly educated citizens were more likely to be found at weekly mosque attendance (the same holds true, by the way, in China). 

Regarding Muslims who endorse Shari’a, the pollsters discovered that great majorities of Muslims believe Shari’a should either be the only source of government legislation or a source of legislation. Polls cited by Stark also reveal the ongoing Muslim bias against Jews. In nine Muslim countries, for example, the number of Jewish residents declined from 848,000 in 1948 to 5,000 in 2015. Some of these Jews willingly immigrated to the newly founded state of Israel, but many were driven from their homes by their Muslim neighbors. Another poll shows the high levels of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab World. Interestingly, Iranians came in at 56 percent the Index of Anti-Semitism, the lowest of any of the countries surveyed. 

The chapters “The ‘Unchurched’ Japanese” and “The Hindu Revival” were particularly interesting to me, mostly because of my ignorance regarding the religious practices of Japan and India. 

Benjamin Disraeli once supposedly said: “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Certainly some scholars will take Stark’s empirical evidence and find flaws in it. One minor example: he writes that the record numbers of Muslims making their annual pilgrimage to Mecca signifies a greater religious fervency. I would agree, but it also seems likely more Muslims are undertaking this pilgrimage because of modern and less costly modes of travel.

But this is a quibble. The Triumph Of Faith, with its charts and data, and Stark’s engaging commentary, is an instructive and entertaining book. By exploding some of the myths concocted by certain scholars and writers regarding the death of religion and spirituality, Stark reminds us that we form our opinions within a tiny circle of friends and colleagues, and that these biases may crash and burn when they smack up against reality.

A thought to keep in mind in this election year of 2016. 

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