Religion flourishes but atheism looks sick

It will be forty years in April since Time magazine in a dramatic red on black cover put a question that certain western intellectuals had long since answered in the affirmative: Is God Dead? The idea that God had ceased to be a reality for modern people had been simmering away in Europe for at least a century and, after Time's airing of the subject, the movers and shakers in Western society proceeded as if it could now be taken for granted.

How surprising it is, then, that in Western Europe – where death-of-God talk originated – 60 per cent of people on average still say they are religious. How astonishing that 65 per cent in eastern and central Europe – so much of which was subject to communist repression for decades – also consider themselves religious, and that in Poland, Romania, Macedonia and Kosovo no less than 85 per cent are believers.

This evidence that religious feeling and even fervour lives on despite the most determined efforts to kill it comes from a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in over 65 countries last year.[1] Published on November 16 to mark the International Day of Tolerance, it was overlooked by most media –editors' minds no doubt concentrated on the impending decision of an American federal judge as to whether the concept of intelligent design was a way of smuggling God into science classes, and therefore a sin against the separation of church and state.

As every enlightened citizen of the twenty-first century knows, religion is a private affair. Religious rituals may be tolerated in public – for example, when disaster strikes or when royals are married or buried – but religion can have no influence on law or public policy. In any really important matter, whether it is the value of a human embryo or the meaning of marriage, we must behave in public as though we were all atheists.

Atheists only 6 per cent

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Gallup's Voice of the People survey shows that a mere 6 per cent of people in the world are convinced atheists, while 25 per describe themselves as "not a religious person" and 3 per cent don't know whether they are or not. These groups collectively are outnumbered by religious people two to one (66 per cent). These are not necessarily church-going folks but people who believe in a transcendent reality.

Hong KongTo be sure, atheists tend to pile up in certain places, rising from only 1 per cent of people in Africa and North America to 12 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region – also the least religious region at 50 per cent. It may come as a surprise that the most atheistic place on earth is not post-communist Russia or super-secular France, but shopaholics' heaven Hong Kong, where 54 per cent say they are convinced atheists.

That should make the former British colony congenial to the extant British atheist Ronald Dawkins, a scientist who considers religion "the root of all evil", according to the title of a television programme he presented this month. At the same time, the feverish commercialism of the world's most deregulated economy, too busy even to reproduce itself (Hong Kong's birth rate is 0.94 children per woman), seems a dubious place to demonstrate Dawkins' contention that getting rid of God makes us more human.

Nor do regional neighbours Japan and Thailand, where the percentage of non-religious people is highest (59 per cent and 65 per cent respectively), strike one as great advertisements for the benefits of indifference to God. These countries have their virtues, giving Japan one of the world's leading economies and Thailand one of its highest growth rates, but they are not where most of us would choose to live. Japan's population is ageing rapidly and has begun to shrink, while Thailand's problems with sex tourism, child trafficking and Aids take the shine off its economic performance.

What is it about these Asian countries that predisposes them to atheism and religious indifference? They are not without religious traditions – predominantly Buddhism – which many of their countrymen still practice to some degree, particularly to mark personal milestones such as birth, marriage and death. Yet Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion, making no claim to be divinely revealed and lacking the concept of a personal God. In this literal sense it is atheistic, or at least agnostic. Little wonder if people with such a tenuous grasp on religion discard it altogether when faced with the material promises and demands of a booming economy.

Religious – and optimistic

By contrast within Asia, religious identity remains strong in India, which is 80 per cent Hindu, and in the Philippines, which is 80 per cent Catholic. Eighty-seven per cent of Indians and 90 per cent of Filipinos in the Gallup survey described themselves as religious. Some might argue that is a measure of the material poverty of many Indians and Filipinos - "What else do they have but God?" – and it is true that religious belief is more prevalent among the poor, as well as those with little or no education, women and older people.

But Gallup data shows that, globally, socio-demographic differentials are not huge. For example, 70 per cent of those on the lowest incomes were religious compared with 62 per cent on high incomes. Education brings a larger gap – 76 per cent compared with 64 per cent, but here one has to take into account the prevalent bias against religion in higher education.

In any case one can say that religion has not prevented India from becoming a major world economy, and ranking among the most optimistic countries in the world in another recent Gallup survey.[2] The Philippines, the new "Asian tiger", was much more pessimistic – but less so than France, which is also less religious. Filipinos are better known for their cheerfulness and resilience as they carry out much of the menial work in more prosperous countries – a fact that can be traced to the strength of their religious culture.

Religious fervour may not guarantee material prosperity, but it does appear to sustain people along the way. This seems to be the lesson of Africa, which shows up in the Gallup surveys as the most religious and the most optimistic region of the world. Nine out of 10 Africans declare themselves to be religious (91 per cent) and the proportion rises to 94 per cent in Nigeria and 96 per cent in Ghana. Nigeria, for all its problems, is the fourth most optimistic country in world, level pegging with India and Venezuela. These are dynamic countries where religion is part of the struggle for human development, not "opium" for people who have given up.

Which way Europe?

Catholic church at Nowa HutaNo European country knows this better than Poland, where communism's attempt to extinguish religion met its sturdiest opposition – and, in Pope John Paul II, its nemesis. If 85 per cent of Poles today are religious it could well be because their struggle for freedom taught them that religion was central to their cultural identity. The same could be said of Orthodox Romania and states emerging from the former Yugoslavia. Oddly enough, it is not true of the Czech Republic, where a fifth of the people say they are convinced atheists and another 51 per cent say they are not religious. Whatever else this means, it is a reminder that persecution does not automatically strengthen people's faith – and prosperity can weaken it.

(Another oddity thrown up by the survey is the religious profile of Israel: 11 per cent atheist, 52 per cent non-religious, and only 33 per cent religious. Meril James, secretary-general of Gallup International, suggests that this signals rejection of the political connotations of "religious" in Israel.)

Communism, obviously, is not responsible for all the world's unbelief. The further north and west one goes in Europe the less religious it seems to be. In Greece 86 per cent of people say they are religious, in Norway, 36 per cent. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are also less religious than the average for Western Europe. This is often attributed to the (superior) scientific culture of the region and the practical materialism that goes with it. Attempts to have Europe's Christian roots acknowledged in the Constitution of the European Union came up against an obstinate secularism that uses the diversity of religions now represented in the EU as an excuse. "Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role," said former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who presided over the drafting of the constitution.

Can the religious fervour of Poland and other Central and Eastern European states survive in this atmosphere? Pope John Paul II insisted that Poland did not need to "join" Europe; it already was Europe – in the centre of Europe and at the heart of Europe. Joining the EU, which Poland did in May 2004, is basically an economic decision; the cultural consequences should be at least as free as the market consequences. It is an opportunity for believers, as well as a threat.

Scientific enlightenment, economic dynamism and human development in no way require people to turn their backs on religion. The great example of compatibility between humanistic values and religion is the United States, where 82 per cent of people believe in God.[3] If the more religious cultures of Europe need encouragement to hang onto their identity they should look even further west than the UK – across the Atlantic, in fact.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet

[1]Religiosity Around the World, Gallup International Voice of the People 2005 Press Release, Nov 16. [2]Voice of the People End of Year Survey 2005 Press Release. Gallup International, Dec 20. [3] Majority in U.S. believes in God, The Washington Times, Dec 25, 2005


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