For over ten years I have been making fun of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2009 book God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that anyone who was looking at the data could see the period between 2000 and 2020 has witnessed a massive secularization in the most powerful nation in the world. Being generous to the metrics for religion, the United States has become twice as secular in a single generation (i.e., 10% “no religion” in 1990 vs.
20% in 2020).
This was a surprise to social scientists. If you read Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge’s The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, written in the mid-1980s, descriptively it seems that the United States went through a cultural change in the 1960s where many marginal Christians ‘defected’ to irreligion, “New Religious Movements”, or nominal adherence (e.g., no church attendance), but that by the 1970s that trend had played itself out and a ‘new normal’ equilibrium had been established.
This is the story you are told in Barry Kosmin’s 1993 One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the 1990 “Religious Identification Survey.” America was an 85:5:10 nation. 85% Christian, 10% “Nones” and 5% “Other religion” (the largest proportion of these being Jews). Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, assumes this as a background condition. But by the time that the book was published, there was already evidence in the data, including from Kosmin’s follow-up surveys, that the old equilibrium was changing.
Rodney Stark, who by the 2000s had become a semi-Christian apologist, who has a “supply-side” religious framework which argues that secularization couldn’t happen anymore, actually came out with research trying to show that actually American’s weren’t getting more irreligious. But these attempts seem to have stopped by 2010 when scholars couldn’t ignore the writing on the wall.
By the end of the 2000s, Robert Putnam assembled the data and presented a causal hypothesis in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam and his coauthor offer a simple story: as American Christianity became politicized in a polarized culture war, many defected. This is the case particularly for those with more liberal or Left ideologies, and younger people. Whether you believe this story is irrelevant to the descriptive reality. And 2016, with the election of Donald J. Trump, illustrates that secularization has even started to work its way into the Republican party.
And it’s not just America, though to be frank, we’re the most important dynamic. Despite the fact that the 2000s were focused on Islamic terrorism, the Arab world is now undergoing mass disillusion with religion. Believe it or not, “New Atheism” is still relevant in the Muslim world! Richard Dawkins is viewed negatively by much of the Western intelligentsia today for his dim view of Islam, but he is still a heroic figure to freethinkers in the Muslim world. It’s still 2006 in places like Bangladesh or Algeria. Religious violence against freethinkers is actually a sign of secularization because freethinkers are getting bold enough to express their views in public.
Then there is China. In 2003 Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China And Changing the Global Balance of Power was published. Written early in the George W. Bush administration this book was catnip for Christian conservatives, presenting the vision of a China which was substantially Christian, and whose conservative Protestant Christianity would result in a pro-Israel orientation!
I’ve tracked the numbers and read some books on the topic of religion in China today, and overall it’s a complicated story. Obviously, China is not undergoing “secularization,” but neither are mainland Chinese becoming devout Christians in the same way that the religion is dominant (if still a minority) in a place like South Korea. Jesus in Beijing suggests that 10% of Chinese were Christian by the year 2000, but the best estimates put the figure close to 5% today (more conservative estimates would put it at 2%…it’s complicated not just because of “high churn” “House Churches”, but because some “Christians” are pretty heterodox. Google “Eastern Lightning”). There is a revival of “traditional religion” in China as well. But, I don’t think anyone can assert that China is more religious in a deep sense any more than they were in 2000.
Which brings me to Russia. Recently the World Values Survey came out with its 2017-2020 “wave.” You can find out many interesting things from this website (also, you can pull down the raw data). For example, ~20% of mainland Chinese in the survey believe in God. The figure is 80% for self-identified Protestants and Muslims in China (the sample sizes are ~50 for these two groups), the same proportion as self-identified Buddhists (N~250 for that religion)!
But, what is striking me to is that over the past 30 years Russia has become far more religious, while the USA has gotten less religious. Here are results for selected nations (the exclusion only makes a difference for Japan):
These results pass the qualitative “smell test.” The USA and Spain have both gotten more secular in the last generation. While Russia seems to have embraced religious social conservatism under Vladimir Putin.
We need to be careful about how we interpret these data. For example, if you ask if people “belong” to a church, 90% of Russians say they do not. The figure for Americans is 40%. And 32% of Americans are avowed “active members” as opposed to 3% of Russians. Russians have a strong identity with Orthodox Christianity in 2020, but they are not actively practicing Christians in a way that American Protestants would recognize.
One question you might ask is that is this about age effects? No. If anything, very young Russians seem a bit more secular. It seems that the generation that came of age under Gorbechev and Yeltsin was raised without religious identity, has proactively embraced it as adults as they have aged.
Is God back? Not necessarily. But the average is definitely over.