Sunday, December 06, 2009
One of the more irritating things which seems to crop up in popularizations of international trends is the idea that religion is reviving all over the world. It is probably not as plainly false as the idea in common currency from the Enlightenment down to the 20th century that religion will disappear in the generation to come, but it sure sells a lot of books. God Is Back is one of the more mindless and superficial books in this line of thought which has come out recently, but re-reading some of Samuel Huntington's books in the last few months it is clear that the idea there is a world wide religious revival did seep into the background assumptions of academics around the turn of the century as well. In fact, in Who Are We? Huntington operated under the assumption, and related data, that there was a mass religious revival occurring in the United States at the time that there was actually a second mass wave of secularization occurring since the 1960s (the reality was already evident from the data, but Huntington's theoretical filter or expectation led him to simply selection bias the data appropriately to fit his narrative).
Here's some data from the Pew Global Project. I've ordered by the biggest % drops between the young and middle aged cohorts:
Currently the data on cross-generational differences in religiosity resemble those of sex-differences in religiosity: either no difference, or one category (men or the young) is invariably less religious than the other. But here's another result which I haven't harped on quite as much:
This is the ratio of fav. to unfav. in relation to Christianity. It is no surprise that the United States is at the top. But look at how low China is on the list. Christians aren't special here, the Chinese tend to be unfavorable toward Jews and Muslims too. I think this is to some extent a measure of nationalism. But I also think it sheds light on the thesis of a book from a few years ago, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power. Evangelical Christians often claim that over 100 million Chinese are already Christian. The Chinese state gives numbers closer to 20 million. Independent estimates are somewhere in the middle. But the general thesis is China will follow in the wake of South Korea, and become a partly Christianized society. Though Christians remain a minority in South Korean society they are very influential, and the current President has been accused of bias in favor of Protestants. In terms of geopolitics the assumption is that an Evangelically-tinged China will lean toward a pro-Israel position against the Islamic world. I have argued before that this is all premature, and Christianity's success in South Korea is somewhat dependent on particular cultural and historical streams which may not be repeated in China. These data show that the Chinese population are still unfamiliar with Christianity, and do not view it positively, leaning against the likelihood of mass conversion in the near future (in South Korea Christianity was associated with the anti-colonial movement, and the colonial power, Japan, was non-Christian).
The connection between nationalism and religion explains I think what's going on with Turkey being at the bottom of the list. In the rest of the survey Turkey does show itself to be on the moderate/liberal end as far as Muslim nations go (only a minority of Turks have a positive view of Saudi Arabia, whereas most Muslims in the other nations surveyed had a positive view). But historically the identity of Turks has been connected to their role as ghazis, warriors for the faith, who are on the front line pushing into Christian Europe. Turkey's rivalry with Greece has clear civilizational aspects. Though Turks are by and large religious Muslims, and their attitudes toward Christianity and Islam are suffused with their perceptions of what it means to be a Turk, and their national identity. This makes sense when you see the numbers for Russia and the secular nations of Western Europe; despite the fact that Western European nations are now dominated by populations which dissent from the core propositions of the Christian faith their populations are still strongly connected emotionally to Christianity. The Christian religion is the religion that they are not.
I suspect all of this seems curious as unintelligible from the American perspective. Many authors who write about religion and its 21st century revival assume an American model, where religion is a matter of individual choice and personal fulfillment. In other words, religion can be treated as a consumer good of a sort, with more transcendent valence perhaps, but still a matter of individual volition in theory if not practice. This is less intelligible in other nations. Even atheist Americans can take these stances as a given. Consider the reaction to a book written about secularity in Denmark, to which the Danes reacted with irritation, as they perceived the American author as incorrectly assuming that the Danes were secular because they lacked strong religious beliefs!
Of course I do think religion can come back. This charts show how: