This year marks the 58th anniversary of Time magazine’s controversial cover question: Is God Dead?

As a matter of fact, God should have ceased to exist around 1810, according to Voltaire’s predictions, and even earlier, according to the wishes of others. But how many theories, how many predictions, and how many years would it take for God to die? Now, isn’t it strange that in the postmodern age, like the writer Julian Barnes,[1] we exclaim, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”? What does that say about religion today?

The idea of the death of religion goes back much further than the 1960s, when the theory of secularisation took hold among sociologists and in the press. It was in 1710 that the English thinker Thomas Woolston predicted that religion would disappear by 1900. His French “counterpart” Voltaire, appalled by his English colleague’s prospect, said that religion would disappear from the Western world by 1810. From Max Weber to Friedrich Nietzsche, Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, Peter Berger, and many other thinkers who have shaped European and American politics and sociology, the apocalypse of religion through secularisation is a periodically-postponed and still-expected event. But there are also voices proclaiming a revival of religion instead. Are you confused?

The European religious landscape today is undergoing a process that cannot be explained by a single theory, such as that of secularisation, according to which the modernisation of societies, with all the changes it entails (urbanisation, democratisation, functional specialisation of societies, rationalisation[2]) will have a definite and increasingly negative impact on religion. On the one hand, Karl Marx explained that socio-economic modernisation and the expansion of social security will lead to secularisation, because fewer and fewer people will seek the security of the afterlife considering the fact that they can enjoy it in the present. On the other hand, modernisation was supposed to lead to secularisation by imposing a different paradigm of thinking, which would put scepticism, science, and reason first, leaving religion to a primitive age.

The effects have been there, but not as expected. Although more and more nations have been lifted out of poverty, have industrialised and modernised, the proportion of the world’s population that is Christian has not fallen dramatically compared to 100 years ago, and the number of followers of other religions, especially Islam, has increased even in the developed Arab countries. This is not to say that there have not been important changes, which we will discuss below, but it may be that many of them fit better into the paradigm of postmodernity than that of modernity. We are out of modernity and God is not dead. The theory of secularisation has been weakened.

The long road from theory to reality

In 1968, sociologist Peter Berger wrote in the New York Times that “by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”[3] Nearly 30 years later, Berger, a leading proponent of secularisation theory, declared: “I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularisation was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularisation and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularisation. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious.”[4]

The mistake of sociologists at the time was to see Europe as an example of secularisation in the making, and America, the freest and most “enlightened” nation of the time, as an exception. Sociologists cited the extremely low rates of church attendance in Europe as a massive decline from medieval times, when in fact people flocked to church at every opportunity. In America, however, attendance remained high since Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation in 1830 and even 100 years later. One explanation put forward was that American education was too outdated and superficial, and it was only a matter of time before people there woke up. Another explanation was that Americans didn’t care so much about the religious aspect as the ethnic aspect of belonging to a particular religious denomination. In fact, the problem was that the theory of secularisation was uniformitarian, did not take account of historical colour, and had only one plausible end. But Europe and America have very different histories, with different journeys through modernity and distinct ways of arriving at postmodernity.

America and Europe: sisters in faith, but not twins

The sociologist Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, said that Europe could never be de-Christianised because it was not Christian from the very beginning, at least not in the true sense of the word. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine led to the transformation of the Christian religion into a social and political movement that left Europe only nominally converted. Christianity in Europe meant the monopoly of a lazy church that did not proselytise among the people, but baptised kings and made alliances with the elites. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, the American sociologist of religion Rodney Star has shown that there is a link between the lack of true mission in that period and the lack of religious participation in Europe today.[5]

The Reformation, the Renaissance, and the invention of the printing press brought Europe out of a deep slumber and awakened will and reason. Then came the French Revolution, with new religious ideas from elites that challenged the orthodoxy of the Church. The Industrial Revolution brought the age of modernisation, leaving Christianity in the pre-scientific age. Many began to question the credibility of the Christian religion, wondering if God really existed and if miracles were possible. In Europe, the idea of rational thought went beyond the ability to think coherently and logically and became a new, non-religious paradigm for understanding reality through great scientific and economic theories, leading to the birth of secular humanism, Marxism, and communism. In contrast to America, in some European countries, political leaders rallied behind ideologies that effectively removed religion from both public and private life, further diminishing people’s connection with the divine.

Across the Atlantic, however, “Christianity was transformed and renewed,”[6] writes Stark. By 1776, only 17% of the inhabitants of the 13 colonies were members of a church, but by the early 1800s America had become, according to Tocqueville,[7] the country where religion had the greatest influence on the human soul. If the initial low levels of religious participation were merely a reflection of the low levels the colonists brought with them from Europe, after the War of Independence the state religions were abolished and new Protestant religions, many of local origin, entered the market. By 1850, for example, a third of Americans belonged to a local church, and the number continued to grow.

Another theory that attempts to explain the impact of modernity on religion is the theory of the marketization of religion through the diversification of cults and sects, proposed by several sociologists (Finke, Stark, Iannaccone, Pickel, Chaves) since the 1990s.[8] According to this theory, the vitality of the religious landscape is directly influenced by the degree of separation between religion and the state, the degree of religious freedom people enjoy, and the degree of pluralism of those who come to satisfy market demand. Modernisation, therefore, would not lead to the disappearance of religion, but rather to its development.

The fact that a dose of competition between religions is beneficial, and that monopoly diminishes the religious vitality of society, is demonstrated by American history, but this theory says that pluralism is a consequence of modernisation, whereas historians point out that pluralism in America preceded modernity. And even if this theory can explain some aspects of the American religious landscape, it is already showing its inadequacy in Europe. For example, it cannot explain why countries emerging from communism and embarking on a process of adaptation to the modern, democratic world have not developed a religious market, but have reverted to culturally established religions rather than seeking out new movements. Thus, analysts studying the situation in developed countries have concluded that this model is irrelevant for explaining religious trends.[9] Therefore, we have two theories, neither of which can explain the impact of modernisation on religious space. Moreover, the shift from modernism to postmodernism has further complicated the landscape, and a third theory is needed to explain the new trends.

From Godless churches to a churchless God

Today, cultural, political, and religious beliefs are globally dispersed. People use technology to form and maintain relationships and tend to be organised around demographic similarities and interests rather than geographical proximity. Developed economies have shifted from producing goods to providing services. Living standards and life expectancy are higher than ever and we have more choices than ever before. As national borders and allegiances lose their meaning, consumption and loyalty to brands, companies, and ideas have come to the fore. The family, as the basic unit of society, was once an easy concept to define. Now, as Western society becomes increasingly fragmented, there are more and more alternatives about what family means. The Church is struggling to engage with a world whose experience of the family is very different.

And it’s not just about the family. What used to be clearly understood values, based on claims to higher truths such as the Ten Commandments, has become a series of fragmented and highly personal statements based on what we feel is right. The age of postmodernism is the age of the supremacy of the individual who creates his or her own personal values. “The Christian era is over. The Church is no longer the respected centre of our culture. In an age of individual freewill and choice, many consider institutional Christianity irrelevant and outdated,” says a Lausanne report on religious and non-religious spirituality in the Western world. Does this mean that the West is turning away from Christianity? Ironically, while interest in organised religion is gradually declining, interest and active participation in spiritual activities have increased, says the same report.

In many parts of the Western world, the declining influence of the institution of the church is clearly evident in the declining numbers and increasing age of those who still attend church. The decline in attendance by those under 40 is evident in parts of Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and is beginning to show signs in the U.S. But what has once again prompted the media to proclaim the victory of secularism and the death of religion is the rise in the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated, meaning those who do not belong to any religious denomination. In 2010, there were 1.1 billion of them, or 16% of the world’s population.

Most of the world’s unaffiliated are concentrated in Asia and the Pacific, but 12% live in Europe and 5% in the United States. Relative to the number of people living in Europe and the U.S., the percentage of the unaffiliated is the same for both regions at around 18%. Those who continue to talk about the death of religion are only focusing on the fact that this growing group includes atheists, agnostics, and those who do not tick any religion in opinion polls (and who form the majority of the group), but not on what lies behind their separation from organised religion.

Although the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow, with one-fifth of the general public and one-third of those under 30 declaring themselves unaffiliated, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport suggests that America is on the verge of a religious renaissance and will become more religious, but in a different way. This is also the conclusion of the Lausanne report for the Western world as a whole. As modernity has improved our quality of life, which is secularising on the one hand, the emphasis on materialism has increased the hunger for the spiritual on the other. This hunger has been accompanied by a growing frustration with institutionalised forms of religion, which are seen as part of the problem, an extension of modernity: remote, uncaring, inadequate, materialistic, and results-oriented. Yet interest in God remains. This explains why 68% of the American unaffiliated say they believe in God or a “universal spirit” with varying degrees of certainty, nearly 40% describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and 21% pray every day. The figures vary from country to country, depending on history, culture, political, and social context, but the phenomenon is repeated. For example, in France, one of the most secularised countries in the world, where Eurobarometer data from 2010 shows that only 28% of citizens say they still believe in God, a third of unaffiliated adults share the same view.

This split between religion and spirituality is best explained by Luckmann’s 1963 privatisation theory. Unlike his “secularist” colleagues, Luckmann foresaw that secularisation would require the transformation, not the elimination, of religion. This perspective argues for the decline of institutionalised forms of religion, but not the decline of personal religiosity, but its migration towards “privatisation,” leading to a society that “believes but does not belong.”[10] The revisionists of secularisation theory who accepted this idea (Hunter, 1983) went further, proposing the “deinstitutionalisation of religious reality” in modern people’s worldview. This suggests that the privatisation of religion will encourage religious fluidity until forms of organised religion disappear, with religious symbols and keys to decoding the world no longer relevant to modern man except in certain contexts of private life.

Historians of religion have pointed out, however, that it is not privatisation that has encouraged religious pluralism in America. Rather, American religious individualism is a nineteenth-century phenomenon, with liberal Protestant groups emphasising a direct and personal approach to God and removing the mediating role of church and clergy.

The changes brought about by the privatisation of religion and the separation of religion and spirituality are by no means clear, as there are still no clear definitions of the two concepts. Spirituality often means whatever the author wants it to mean, both in press articles and in studies and surveys, where there is no adequate vocabulary to enable researchers to truly understand those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Will they cause the death of religion—or its reformation?

Pew analysis predicts that although the share of the world’s population that is unaffiliated will fall from 16 per cent in 2010 to 13 per cent in 2050, demographic trends mean that in America and Northern Europe it will rise by as much as 10 per cent in the coming decades. What we need to bear in mind is that the religious state of the world depends on economic, political, and social factors that can change so rapidly that none of the theories discussed so far will be relevant, but the human quest for the divine proves time and again to be a force that is difficult to extinguish.

Pluralism seems to be the proven key to maintaining the vitality of religious life in America, even on a downward slope, and may be the salvation for many European countries that only mimic a free market of religions, while governments favour one religion and discriminate against hundreds of smaller religious groups through policy guidelines motivated by various arguments. Not surprisingly, France also has the highest level of restrictions on the practice, exercise, or choice of religion by law, policy, or administrative action of the state among Western countries, according to the U.S. government’s International Religious Freedom Report.[11] But even successful pluralism in a truly free religious market will not spare the historic churches from the need for a profound reassessment.

The institution of the Church is in a poor position today and is likely to continue on this downward trajectory unless it finds ways to reach out to people who no longer respond to a rationalist worldview but base their spirituality on the senses, intuition, and self-exploration. Theological-scientific arguments and debates now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with DIY spiritualities. The Lausanne report concludes that the Western church is to blame for failing to present God as both transcendent and immanent to the postmodern world, and for neglecting the impact of technological progress, which throughout history has created a vacuum in which alternative spiritualities have flourished. “Attempts to grow the Kingdom by short-term ‘revival’ remedies have and will continue to fail because Christian expectations of how to connect with non-Christians are unrealistic and disconnected from their experiences of life. We are living in a time of enormous transition that touches the whole fabric of our societies. Until we understand our time and honestly reappraise some cherished assumptions about evangelism and apologetics, the Church will struggle to survive in the Western world,” the report concludes.

Eliza Vladescu is a communications specialist and was previously part of the ST Network permanent team. She currently works as an online communications consultant.

[1]“Julian Barnes, ‘Nothing To Be Frightened Of’, Jonathan Cape, London, 2008.”
[2]“Gert Pickel, Kornelia Sammet, ‘Transformations of Religiosity’, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2012.”
[3]“Rodney Stark, ‘The Triumph of Christianity’, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.”
[8]“Gert Pickel, Kornelia Sammet, op. cit.”
[9], “Ibid.”
[11]“Rodney Stark, op.cit.”

“Julian Barnes, ‘Nothing To Be Frightened Of’, Jonathan Cape, London, 2008.”
“Gert Pickel, Kornelia Sammet, ‘Transformations of Religiosity’, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2012.”
“Rodney Stark, ‘The Triumph of Christianity’, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.”
“Gert Pickel, Kornelia Sammet, op. cit.”
“Rodney Stark, op.cit.”