September 12, 2018

David Voas – The story of religious decline

David VOAS,
University College London


Religion is in decline across the Western world.  Whether measured by belonging, believing, participation in services, or how important it is felt to be, religion is losing ground.  Older generations die out and are replaced by less religious younger generations.  Modernization has predictable and permanent effects, one of which I call the secular transition. 

The idea that modernization erodes religious participation and the respect accorded to religion is called the secularization thesis.  One common objection is that the United States is modern but religion seems to thrive.  But there’s now good evidence that American religiosity has been declining for decades, and this gradual shift has been produced by the same process that lies behind religious change elsewhere in the West.

Another criticism is that what we see is change rather than decline: traditional Christian denominations are struggling, but belief continues to thrive, thanks to the rise of new churches, alternative forms of spirituality and non-Christian faiths.  Religion in the West has indeed been boosted by some new developments, particularly immigration from more religious parts of the world.  Their effects aren’t strong enough, however, to change the main trend.

An important question is how religious decline starts and then progresses.  Do people gradually become less observant and subsequently less believing, or do they start to lose conviction and then drift away from practice?  I’ll suggest some answers based on analyses of the ISSP 2008. 

It would be unsurprising if decline starts with churchgoing, as it takes time and effort.  In fact the story is probably more complicated.  Cracks start to appear when people no longer take the religious worldview for granted.  If we compare highly religious societies from Africa, Asia and Latin America with religious countries in Western Europe, there are striking contrasts in two variables in particular: certainty that God exists and the view that life is only meaningful because God exists.  These findings help to corroborate the hypothesis that secularization begins with the erosion of a God-centered (theocentric) worldview.

These differences in theocentrism are largest between country groups.  The differences within groups are relatively modest.  The national environment largely determines how far the religious worldview is taken for granted or regarded as being of central importance, whereas family upbringing is more influential in setting the level of religious activity.

On the face of it, religious decline via cohort succession appears to be an intractable chicken-and-egg problem.  If religiosity is largely a function of upbringing (parental and social), how does one generation produce another that is less religious?  Secular times will produce secular people, but secular people are needed to create secular times.  Part of the story is that the environment changes, for example through diversity, mobility, individualism, technological consciousness, and the sheer extent of secular competition in every aspect of life.  These forces reduce both the centrality and the taken-for-grantedness of the religious worldview.

Recognizing the role of general value change also helps to solve the puzzle.  The initial step is not necessarily away from religion, but away from obedience to authority.  Individual autonomy undermines the ability of traditional institutions to regulate belief and behavior. 

Societies become more secular not because no one is highly religious, but because diversity in religiosity increases.  More and more people do not attend regularly, and non-attenders are less and less likely to believe.  Growing numbers of people are substantially less religious than the most observant.

What links modernisation with religious decline?  Quite a few mechanisms have been discussed.  Prosperity brings choice, and an unwillingness to defer to traditional authority.  Secular and scientific worldviews displace religious worldviews.  Communications and geographical mobility bring people into contact with different beliefs and cultures.  Physical and material security may reduce the need for spiritual consolation.  Religion finds its functions progressively eroded by secular competition. 

Could the popularity of religion could be restored even in the West?  Faith promises benefits that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere: meaning, solace, justice, life after death, being reunited with loved ones, and so on. 

In the most highly developed countries, though, we are seeing a secular transition.  Certain major transformations—such as the industrial revolution or the demographic transition (the decline first in mortality and then in fertility)—occur exactly once in each society.  These transitions are very difficult to undo.  Back-tracking is exceptional and temporary: slavery isn’t restored after it’s been abolished, nor do women lose the vote once granted.  A transition is permanent, not cyclical or recurring; once out, the toothpaste won’t go back into the tube.  Secularization is such a transition.

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