What is the future of religion? During much of the 20th Century experts accepted the secularization hypothesis, which held that with increases in scientific knowledge and general education faith would decline in influence. In later decades the secularization hypothesis came under fire. It’s not dead, but it no longer represents settled opinion among demographers. In its place has grown a view we might call “faith is forever”: religion is a human universal and acceptance of religious doctrines varies little over time.
A new report from the Council for Secular Humanism suggests that the secularization hypothesis is alive and well. According to the report’s author, independent scholar Gregory S. Paul, social survey data clearly show religious belief declining throughout the United States. This echoes a drop in piety that already swept Europe and the rest of the West. Among the evidence: More than 16 percent of Americans now express no religious preference, a number that has more than doubled since the 1990s. Gallup polling data from the 1940s to today reveal that disbelief in God or a universal spirit has risen fourfold. Two recent Harris polls specially designed to counter unconscious religious bias found that a surprising 21 percent of Americans harbor doubts about God’s existence.
That’s not the world we see depicted in the research of Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, which proudly bills itself as a Baptist institution. Nor do we see it in an ongoing opinion research program that Stark leads at Baylor, which has enjoyed major financial support from the pro-religious John Templeton Foundation. In his popular book “What Americans Really Believe,” a report on the most recent Baylor research, Stark claims that his group’s data support the “faith is forever” view. Among other things, he claims that Americans’ level of belief in God scarcely budged over six decades.
Has disbelief in God quadrupled, or held steady? How can “the data” justify both conclusions? In the Council’s report, Gregory Paul asks, “Is The Baylor Religion Study Reliable?” Paul argues that Stark and his Baylor colleagues may have distorted data, choosing surveys selectively or in some cases omitting relevant studies, with the result that American religiosity appears healthier than it is.
For example, Stark relied on two early Gallup polls and data from a handful of other studies to show belief in God holding level since the 1940s. That’s what the data show, if one relies on that exact selection of studies. But track belief in God across a broader range of relevant surveys, including several later Gallup polls the Baylor group omitted, and the number of disbelievers quadruples.
Is religion a human universal? The example of Western Europe suggests otherwise. There, millions have abandoned religious identity and practice. Current data suggest many Americans are beginning to do the same. Yet it’s hard to find secular Americans – people who aren’t actively religious, but aren’t atheists either – in Stark’s data. Paul argues that Stark’s methods focus narrowly on outright atheists, tending to miscount all others as religious adherents. Nonpracticing doubters simply disappear. “Stark and his co-workers seem to suffer from the reluctance to admit the trend of rising secularization in America,” Paul concludes in his report.
Responding to Paul’s study in an interview with the Baylor University student newspaper, Stark dismissed Paul as “a militant atheist” (he’s not) who believes that “religion will disappear very soon” (he doesn’t). I hope Rodney Stark is more cautious in drawing sweeping conclusions in his work than he was in that interview. In fact Paul, an independent researcher with a broad range of interests, has spent years studying an area that mainstream social scientists have admittedly neglected. Men and women who live without religion tend to appear in studies of religious believers only as “none of the above.” Disbelief as a phenomenon in its own right has received far too little attention from sociology, an oversight Paul has attempted to address in his work. (Read more about the response from Stark and Baylor.)
Stark’s book and the Baylor study it reports on received broad, largely uncritical coverage in the media. In the Council for Secular Humanism’s report, Gregory Paul raises troubling questions as to this work’s reliability. Those who study or write about trends in religion should keep a close watch on what promises to be a growing controversy. Should reasonable people expect faith to hold steady, or gradually to lose ground? That dusty old secularization hypothesis may be poised for a comeback after all.
Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of its magazine, Free Inquiry.