„Secularization is the failure of transmitting religiosity across generations“

Religion has changed the world – but so has its disappearance. What effects does secularization have on society? Should secular culture copy the positive aspects of religion? Or do new phenomena of spirituality take over the role of conventional religions? An interview with a secularism researcher.

unique: We see a decline in church attendance in the Western world. Does this denote a decline in religiosity in general or simply in organized religions?
Dr. Ryan T. Cragun: The declining rates of church attendance do suggest declining religiosity. However, you are drawing an important distinction between religiosity and, I‘m assuming here, spirituality. Yes, people are attending religious services in the West at lower rates than they did in the past. That suggests people are less interested in participating in organized religion. Some have questioned, however, whether this means people are less “spiritual”. This requires disentangling a couple of terms. Organized religion typically refers to institutions – organizations that own buildings and hold regular services. Many are part of a larger body (e.g., a local Catholic church is part of the bigger Roman Catholic Church), but not all are. Involvement with organized religion is often referred to as “religiosity”. Since “religion” is necessarily communal (i.e., it involves at least two people), religion is an institution or organized. Thus, if people are showing less interest in organized religion, they must necessarily be less religious because religiosity is tied to institutional religion. However, “spirituality” is typically used to mean individual ways of engaging with something larger than oneself (e.g., meditating to attain Nirvana, using crystals to manipulate energy flows, etc.). Spirituality does not need to be individualistic, but it is often used that way. Obviously, religious people can be spiritual. But, in order for these terms to be meaningful, it needs to also be the case that: spiritual people can be nonreligious, and religious people can be nonspiritual. Thus, it’s possible that organized religion and religiosity could decline but spirituality could take its place and/or spirituality could even increase. However, what we are seeing in most Western countries is not actually a dramatic increase in spirituality as religion weakens. A small number of those who leave religions begin to identify as “spiritual but not religious” because it is safer than saying that you are “nonreligious” or an “atheist”. But not everyone who leaves religion or who is raised religious is spiritual. In short, people are attending religious services less frequently and that means religiosity is declining. Spirituality is not replacing it for the most part. Thus, both religiosity and spirituality are generally declining.

What percentage of the population is nonreligious and what percentage is atheistic?
Rates of nonreligion and atheism vary widely around the world. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, 99% claim both, to be religious and to believe in God. In other countries, like Estonia and Hungary, more than 50% of the population say they have no religion and also don’t believe in any god. The general trend in most Western, developed or developing countries is away from claiming a religious affiliation (that number is now about 25% of the US population; it’s over 50% of the UK population). There is also a shifting toward atheism and agnosticism, but these numbers aren’t quite as high in most countries as the percentage of people who report no religious affiliation. Though it is inverted in Scandinavia – lots of people say they have a religious affiliation, ca. 70%, but most never attend, ca. 95% almost never go, and upwards of 30% don’t believe in God. In the US, somewhere between 5% and 20% of the population are atheists; the estimates vary because of methodology.

Can we expect similar developments in non-western countries? Or will certain religions grow stronger?
In Western countries, we’re primarily talking about formerly Christian countries, either Catholic or Protestant. Other major religious bodies include: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Buddhism is a major world religion in some areas of the world but, aside from population growth in those areas, it is not seeing much growth. The same is true for both Islam and Hinduism – both are really only growing as a result of demographic forces: those who are currently Muslim or Hindu are having kids and their kids remain in their religion. As a result, the absolute number of Muslims and Hindus around the world is increasing. There is a growing shift toward nonreligion in India, though it is rather slow at the moment. In predominantly Muslim countries where people have freedom of religion, we are also seeing a shift toward nonreligion. However, many predominantly Muslim countries continue to prohibit conversion from Islam. As a result, it’s hard to say exactly what is going to happen in some countries. Most secularization theorists think that, were every country to allow religious freedom, we would probably see a shift away from religion. But we cannot say that for sure until countries that prohibit religious freedom change their laws.

How can we explain the rise in secularism? Is it mainly a generational shift or are many people actively leaving their religion?
Actually, it’s both. Back in the 1980s in the US, many people who were raised without religion actually joined a religion. But that isn’t happening today. Many people who are raised nonreligious stay nonreligious today. But many people who are raised religious leave religions. Thus, there is a net flow of people away from religion and toward nonreligion. However, and this is the second piece here, we see major differences in religiosity between generations. Young people are much less likely to be religious than are their parents or their grandparents. Thus, I have argued in some of my own scholarship that the “mechanism” of secularization is the failure of transmitting religiosity across generations. Parents who are religious have a hard time transmitting religion to their kids. Their kids, in turn, have a hard time transmitting it to their kids, and so on, until religiosity dies out. There are a number of reasons for this, I believe. One that is illustrative is that social values and morals have changed. It’s pretty hard, for instance, for a parent to try to convince their kid that they shouldn’t use birth control if they are Catholic while still allowing their child to have sex outside of marriage, especially if the parents are using birth control. The lack of conviction on the part of parents makes the transmission of religion very difficult because kids just don’t see the point.

There’s a strong negative correlation between a nation’s wealth and the religiosity of its population. Why is that? Access to education, quality of life (less suffering)…?
This is, unfortunately, a classic “chicken and the egg” problem or a question of causality. I have seen some studies suggest that development (higher education, better healthcare, etc.) leads to more secular people. I have also seen other studies that suggest the opposite – secular values lead to higher levels of development. I have yet to see a compelling study that shows definitively that one of these causes the other. For now, we simply know that more developed countries do tend to be less religious. The specific causal mechanism – which causes which – is too elusive to discern with confidence.

What effects does secularization have on society?
I think I would frame this somewhat differently. As noted earlier, we aren’t entirely clear whether development causes secularization or secularization causes development. I think more progressive values, greater gender and sexual equality, growing sexual permissiveness, a greater desire for democracy, etc. are all linked with secularization. But I don’t know that secularization causes those changes. They may simply occur at the same time.
There are some clearer effects from secularization. Religions, which, in some places, have provided a sense of community, are declining and, with them, may be decreased opportunities to develop a strong local community. This doesn’t seem to have had dramatic consequences in very secular countries. But it is an effect of secularization on society. To what extent it will be a problem is unknown. Another clearer effect (though it is also a manifestation of secularization) is the disentangling of religions and governments. This is pretty apparent in the US, where several prominent secular organizations use legal resources to force a disentangling of religion from government (e.g., no faculty or staff led prayers in schools, no preference for Christianity on government property, etc.).

Should secular culture copy the positive aspects of religion?
If certain aspects of religions can be definitively shown to improve the physical, mental, social, or sexual health of people, then, certainly, those aspects of religion should be emulated. However, there is very little compelling evidence that religion contributes any clear benefits to physical or mental health and it is almost assuredly detrimental to sexual health. It does have benefits for social health, but that can be replaced and people who are socially engaged without religion are just as healthy as those who engage socially as a result of religion. Thus, the only notable and clearly demonstrable health benefit of religion appears to be its social nature (though the extent of the social benefit of religion is not that big). Should that be replicated by secular culture? That’s a great question for a politician or a philosopher. I would probably only suggest that, if it was decided that the contributions to social health from religions were worthy of emulation that care should be taken in how those benefits are replaced. Religion also causes a lot of harm by creating divisions between people. So, any efforts to replace religion should keep that in mind and ideally avoid the negative aspects of religion if the positives are to be replaced.

As society’s views, e.g. on gender roles and LGBTQ+ people, change and churches close, will the ones that survive be mainly those who adapt to this change or will it be the fundamentalists?
There are mixed views on this question among experts. Some think that the religions with the best long-term prospects are those that accommodate changing social values (i.e., more progressive religions). However, others disagree for a compelling reason. The more a religion looks like the rest of society, the less value there is in the religion for the members. Why go to a church that generically tells you to be a good person when you could get the same message from a Lizzo concert? Thus, some argue that the religions with the greatest likelihood of long-term survival are the more strident, strict, or fundamentalist religions because they make greater promises and provide greater rewards (in part, a stronger community because the members feel embattled by the rest of society). However, maintaining strong opposition to society is challenging. It’s hard being considered weird and maintaining that unless you literally cut off the outside world, like, for instance, the Amish. So, I think the honest answer here is, we don’t really know which of the two is more likely to survive.

How do religions regain power like e.g. the religious right in the US, the orthodox in Eastern Europe or Islam in the Middle East?
Each of those cases is quite different. In the US, the “religious right” hasn’t really “regained” that much power. If they had their way, the US would look a lot closer to The Handmaid’s Tale than it does. Women still work outside the home. Abortions are still legal in most of the US. We’re not explicitly Christian. Yes, it looks like the current administration is led by Christians (in part because it mostly is, Trump being a prominent exception). But, really, the Republican Party in the US, which, until the current administration, was largely run by wealthy individuals (it still is, but differently now), made a smart strategic decision. It decided to ally itself with social conservatives (i.e., those who oppose LGBTQ+ individuals, oppose women’s rights, oppose abortion, are more racist, are more anti-immigration, etc.) in order to gain power. Wealthy fiscal conservatives didn’t really care about the social issues but they needed votes to retain their power. So, they conceded the social values to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in exchange for tax cuts. In a sense, then, Christians in the US continue to be influential (but haven’t really regained power) because they allied themselves with the wealthy in order to try to push the country back toward greater inequality.
The Orthodox Church in Russia is really only gaining prominence because Vladimir Putin sees it as a useful tool to heighten Russian nationalism. Yes, more and more people in Russia identify as Orthodox, but attendance rates and belief in God have not increased. Putin is using the Orthodox Church to control certain aspects of society (very much in a Machiavellian way). Thus, the resurgence in affiliation with the Orthodox Church in Russia isn’t a shift toward higher religiosity except in the most superficial way.
There hasn’t really been in a growth in Islam in the Middle East in part because there hasn’t really been a decline. Similar to how Putin is using the Orthodox Church in Russia to heighten nationalism, Islam is used the same way in many countries in the Middle East. Many of the leaders in those countries are outwardly pious, but privately, they are just like Donald Trump – filled with vicissitudes and morally bankrupt if judged by the dogmas and moral codes of their claimed religion. They are gluttonous, dishonest, whoremongers who use religion to control the population while they do whatever they want. Thus, there isn’t really a resurgence of religion in the Middle East, either. It’s really just dictators creating personality cults that are fortified through ethno-nationalism that is interwoven with religion. And, when leaving the state religion comes with a death penalty, that artificially inflates the religiosity in those countries.

Which factors aid secularization?
Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Free speech. Gender equality. Sexuality equality. Education. Economic equality. Democracy. Science.

Ella conducted this interview in writing.


Dr. Ryan T. Cragun is a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa (Florida). He has written numerous articles and several books on religion, Mormonism, and atheism, including his 2013 book “What you don’t know about religion (but should)”.

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