The interplay of trauma, existential insecurity, and general woe, and the story of mankind’s belief in another life, in God or in gods, seems to persist throughout the ages. We have the Great Flood accounts in both Gilgamesh and in The Bible – given in one as a story of man’s correction by his gods, in the other as an account of the One True God’s solution to man’s waywardness. Then later on in the sacred Judaea-Christian texts, we have the account of the lessons learned by the Israelites about their God’s providence for them through the agency of plagues as they battle with a Pharaoh who has enslaved them. Later their woes in the desert continue to play a part in bringing them back to their supernatural senses as they stray and stray again from their divinely ordered path.
But alongside this persistent narrative we have the seemingly parallel story of mankind’s efforts to deny any agency to a Creator in our lives and a consequent story of punishment for our hubristic follies – from Babel to the Marxist-Leninist utopias of our own time. Are we in the entrance hall of another of these today? An article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs seems to suggest we might be.
Back in 2004 a book appeared, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan. They noted the argument of nineteenth-century social thinkers – from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim – that the progress of modernity entailed the decline of religion.
Modernization, the authors of Sacred and Secular argued, has involved the rise of rational-bureaucratic states and the gradual displacement of ecclesiastical authority with that of professional and technocratic elites. But they detected, in those early years of this century, a slow-down in this projection. The Tower of Babel projected by Marx had collapsed; that of Weber and Durkheim looked more doubtful in the face of what seemed to be a resurgence of religiosity and a reversal of what had looked like a global trend toward secularization.
This observation was based on what they described as extensive worldwide survey data. To explain what they thought was happening, Norris and Inglehart advanced an “existential security” thesis: the experience of people living in weak and vulnerable societies heightens the importance of religious values, whereas the experience of people in rich and secure societies lessens it. But, supporting their thesis, they found that in most developed countries church attendance and the authority of religious figures had continued to decline, despite what looked like an overall resurgence of religion worldwide.
But now, in 2020, Inglehart is revisiting and updating the data and finds that growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—seems to have joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, he sees several forces driving this apparent trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birth-rates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.
Some religious conservatives, he says, warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality. He disputes this, saying that the evidence doesn’t support the claim.
As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones. Needless to say, religion itself doesn’t encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.
But surely the polarisation and fracturing of modern societies, increase in suicide rates, family dysfunction and break-up, all place a big question mark over these assumptions? Rigorous and reasonably effective law-enforcement – brutal or not, depending on your point of view, – huge prison populations, may cover-up a multitude of sins.
Is the argument being advanced by Inglehart not flawed by its failure to take cognisance of one crucial element in the architecture of the reality that is the faith of a people – or peoples – in God? The modernist mind-set proposes a blanket denial of the validity of what theology proposes to us for consideration as truth. In doing so it fails to make any allowance for the very real forces which have driven the history of religion from time immemorial. Consequently, end-of-religion predictions are at best questionable, at worst, hopelessly flawed. One might have thought that the abysmal fate of Marxism in its raw communist form would have raised more questions in more minds than it has. Equally the slow pace of the unfolding of the Weber and Durkheim theses hardly inspires confidence – not to mention the doubts we should be having about the chaotic and pitiable pickle in which the neo-Marxist new morality of political correctness has landed us
It may be true that, as Inglehart says, for most people, religious faith is more emotional than cognitive. It may also be true that for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain and that religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. He says that as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory. When a child no longer needs the support and protection of a parent that does not cancel out the relationship and bond which nature has given them.
If the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mind-set. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures – with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events – still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events – and follies – of our times.
There can be no doubt but that, as Inglehart says, a quantifiable shift has occurred. Data collected in the World Values Survey over the years offer a glimpse of a deep transformation. The survey uses a ten-point scale based on each country’s acceptance of what might be called the core values of the secularist worldview, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. The numbers presented by this survey they say, while offering a simplified picture of a complex reality, still convey the scale of the recent acceleration of secularization.
But we should surely remind ourselves that the folly of mankind down the ages has come in many shapes and sizes. Not everyone sees divorce, abortion, and the varieties of abuse of sexuality – and the gender-bending which has come in its wake – as marks of progress for mankind. To those who accept the truth of what Revelation and Christian theology tell us about our nature, our society and our destiny, the lazy acceptance of all these things as normal surely needs to be questioned, regardless how many people we count climbing the Tower of Babel.
Inglehart concludes with this observation.
As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives, and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but the future is always uncertain. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 one reduce people’s sense of existential security. If the pandemic lasts for many years or leads to a new Great Depression, the cultural changes of recent decades might begin to reverse.
On balance, he thinks that shift remains unlikely, “because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven trend of growing prosperity and increased life expectancy that is helping push people away from religion. If that trend continues, the influence that traditional religious authorities wield over public morality will keep shrinking as a culture of growing tolerance becomes ever stronger.”
But the ultimate fallacy which this blinkered vision seems to lead to is that religion is held together among believers by a human agency wielding authority “over public morality”. Any overview of the history of the most durable religion on earth – the Judaea-Christian religion – will show that its persistence in the face of repeated onslaughts of fire, dungeon and sword, points to a much deeper and ultimately more powerful agency – the mystery of a belief in a man who said he was the Son of God, born of the Virgin, who suffered death by crucifixion and rose again, all to save us.
The limited vision of religion which seems to predict, once more, its slow demise, fails to acknowledge the power of a much longer-term factor in the equation – those mysterious forces in which mankind believes and for which theology gives us names and some understanding: divine mercy, divine grace and divine providence. Only if we take account of all this will serious sociology and political science offer us a reasonable basis for working out where we are going and how we might best set a path to the pursuit of true happiness for future generations.