Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Is "God is Dead" Dead?

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche declared that “God is Dead.” With this statement, he didn’t mean that God has suffered a physical death of some sort, like slipping on an icy planet or something, but rather that humans had lost their ability to believe in God, and as such religions, like Christianity, had lost their moral basis and would not last long. Nietzsche wasn’t the first or last person to predict the decline of organized religion. Among the other predictions:

* In 1710, English thinker Thomas Woolston said Christianity would be gone by 1900
* Voltaire said in religion would crumble in 50 years
* Thomas Jefferson said in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian”
* Famous dead-white-guys Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Sigmund Freud each predicted that religion soon crumble
* Renowned sociologist Peter Berger wrote in 1968 that in “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”

Secularization is the idea that societies are transforming from the sacred to the secular, from religious beliefs to rational, scientific principles. As the quotations above suggest, secularization has been expected for hundreds of years by some very smart people, but contemporary evidence suggests that they were wrong.

Religion is perhaps as strong as ever. A simple ride down the road will usually turn up local church buildings, often full on Sundays. Worldwide, Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, Islam 1.2 billion, Hinduism 800,000 million, and Buddhism 350,000. Over two-thirds of all humans adhere to one of these four religions alone.

Here in the United States studies find strong evidence of continued religiosity. Around 85% -90% of Americans believe in a God, and over three-fourths affiliate with a religion. An interesting chart presented by Iannaccone graphs out the number of paid clergy in the United States since 1850. As you can see, it’s remained level and has slightly increased in recent decades.
Certainly some societies have transitioned from religious to secular-based forms of government. In the early 1990s, Turkey, for example, adopted an explicitly secular form of government. In contrast, other countries have made the reverse transition. Iran in 1979 went from the more secular Shah-led government to a government based on religious fundamentalism. A number of the Iron Curtain countries have seen a resurgence of faith with the fall of Communism and its insistence of secularism.

This isn’t to say, however, that secularization has not occurred in any way. It’s reasonable to believe that the church has less formal authority in many countries than it did in past centuries. Also, the way in which religion is practiced is changing around the world. For example, here in the United States religion is often experienced as a private, spiritual endeavor rather than a participation in an authoritative social institution. In an effort to be more effective, many churches are adopting business models of organization and presentation to society, moving them toward a more secular appearance. Some religious groups, such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA have transitioned almost completely into secular groups.

However, religion hasn’t gone anywhere, and it probably won’t be gone anytime soon. In fact, the failure of past predictions of complete secularization highlight the continued significance of religion in modern day society.


Ruud Vermeij said...

Where did you get the idea from, that the Salvation Army has transitioned almost completely into a secular group?
In my experience, this is absolutely not the case.

Layman said...

I wouldn't be so quick to write off the YMCA either, though its certainly much more secular than its founding.

Jay Livingston said...

When I taught crim (back in the 20th century), I would do a unit on history, especially the moral improvement movements of the late 19th century, a group that includes the YMCA. I would ask students if they knew what the letters YMCA stood for. Silence. After some prodding (and a hint to think about the first two words of a well-known song), they'd get the Y and M. But those last two letters stumped them, especially the C.

Brad Wright said...

Sounds like I overstated the change in both Salvation Army and the YMCA. In my several interactions with them they have operated as a social welfare group (and do a good job at it too), but it sounds like there's more going on.

Thanks for the info!