Religion, but not as you know it


A few weeks ago I wrote a longish blog post arguing that for many people in the developed world environmentalism has become a religion, filling up the gap in spirituality left by the decline of Christianity. I don’t claim any originality or new insight in this observation; it has been noted many times before, including by my friend, former artilleryman and now man of God, Rev Donald Sensing, and it has made an appearance quite a few times subsequent to my piece, a propos Greta Thunberg’s performance at the United Nations and the reaction it inspired around the (developed) world.

Today, I chanced upon another interesting analysis by Pew Research Center, about religious belief and commitment around the world. Results are not surprising but are nevertheless interesting, including this world map:


Unfortunately, Pew does not provide additional data on those for whom religion might be “important” or “somewhat important” so as to paint a slightly fuller picture of religious sentiment, but the results illustrated above are probably quite indicative. The developed world is well and truly secular now, with the United States and Greece being the only outliers (and by a long mile), while most of the developing world (with the notable exception of China after seven decades of communism) remains extremely religious. Thus, Pew notes that “if current trends continue, countries with high levels of religious affiliation will grow fastest. The same is true for levels of religious commitment: The fastest population growth appears to be occurring in countries where many people say religion is very important in their lives.”

As the main topic of this Pew study is the age gap in religious faith around the world, it should be noted that the younger generations in the developed world are even less religious than their elders, often significantly less, putting the already low rates across the West in an even starker perspective (by contrast, throughout most of the developing world, there is little, if any, gap in religious commitment between the young and the old).

The authors of the study offer this broad explanation for the differences across the globe:

As the map above shows, the countries with the highest shares of people who say religion is very important in their lives are in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America, while those with the lowest shares are in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia.

This has led many researchers to observe that people in poorer parts of the world are, on average, more religious than those in societies with advanced economies. Other indicators of economic development – such as education, life expectancy and income equality – also tend to align with measures of religious commitment.

Pew Research Center data show, for example, a clear correlation between life expectancy at birth in a country and the percentage of its people who attend religious services weekly. That is, the higher the life expectancy in a country, the less likely people are to attend services frequently.

Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, examining findings from the World Values Survey, attribute the pattern of higher religious commitment in poor places to stark differences in existential insecurity – that is, the degree of safety and security people feel as they go about their daily lives.

As their theory goes, in places where people face a constant threat of premature death due to hunger, war or disease, feelings of vulnerability tend to drive people to religion, which in turn provides hope and reduces anxiety. In countries with advanced economies, meanwhile, people are more likely to feel safe – in part because technology and infrastructure investments in these societies have helped people overcome many common health problems, cope with severe weather, and deal with other types of emergencies that can cause existential anxiety. Norris and Inglehart contend that people in these countries rely less on religion for emotional support or for explanations of the unknown.

To me, that’s only partly right. It’s pretty clear that economic development – together with other, related, indicators like education, and health and well-being – correlate inversely with conventional religious belief. Prosperity and progress tend to make people lose their religion, as Norris and Inglehart and many others have argued. With the previously mentioned exceptions, particularly the United States, the West has been largely de-Christianised.

But there is the other half of the story: as being better off, healthier, better educated, more secure and more comfortable makes us less inclined to share the long-established supernatural beliefs, it does not necessarily mean that the seemingly deep-seated (and perhaps hard-wired) inclination towards spirituality and the need for belief disappear altogether. I think there is a good case to be made that instead of being focused on the supernatural of Christianity (or Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism and some others) it shifts to the very much natural and material: ethics, politics, ecology and so on. Strong commitment to philosophies and movements like socialism, feminism, environmentalism (but also fascism, nationalism, racism) essentially serves the same purposes that conventional religious commitment once had; it provides a sense of community and shared destiny, it provides a moral guidance as to the right and wrong, it also provides an identification with something if not exactly transcendental than certainly bigger than a mere individual and more important than crude personal satisfaction and self-interest.

Whether developed or developing world, religions continue to be important to people – they are just different kinds of religions.