Friday, May 18, 2007

Losing Our Religion

What's the fastest growing religion in the world? Many people say Islam. But if you're talking about world-views, the fastest growing belief is non-belief whose ranks have swelled considerably over the last few hundred years. A non-believer is anyone who identifies himself as an atheist, agnostic, or a non-believer in God and their population figures might surprise you.

Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the number at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. Although smaller than the three most popular religions, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, that figure is nothing short of miraculous when you consider that non-belief is a relatively recent world-view, with origins in the 18th century.

In other words, given the last 300 years there are roughly half as many non-believers as Christians. Forget about Islam, or any other number of so-called expanding religions, non-belief's rate of increase dwarfs them all.

Non-belief has one unique element on its side; it can draw numbers from any religion, while it is extremely unlikely that a practicing Christian will ever convert to another faith. It is more likely that they will abandon their faith altogether.

A leading theory explains the sharp rise in non-belief by advances in food production, health care, and housing. Non-belief is especially prevalent in Europe and other modern countries (except America, of course). In countries where food is scarce, health care is lacking, and life is more precarious, religious belief remains high. Perhaps man truly cannot serve both God and money.

I've witnessed how security affects religion first-hand. I once took a mission trip to a Haitian village where there was at least one funeral a day for someone who died probably from lack of food or basic health care. The Christians in that village worshiped God with a passion and sincerity I have never found among even the most feverish American Christian, probably because they really believed their fate depended upon God’s grace.

In countries like Haiti many continue to starve or are afflicted with disease, and they pray all the more while people in modern, secular countries have longer life spans, higher per-capita-income, and higher literacy rates than their counterparts. The correlation is often made between high non-religious populations and higher societal health. Does religion augment an unhealthy society? Or does a healthy society naturally do away with the need religion? Is the increase in unbelief responsible for so-called healthier societies? Or did the healthy societies come first? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. The results, however, are unambiguous.

Here in America preachers like Rick Warren, a man not wanting for food, will have you believe that there is a purpose for your life. Many find it comforting to take that idea one step further and believe there is a reason for everything. But for every one person who runs in this direction, many more run towards pragmatism. There is simply too much injustice in the world for most people to cope with and praying about it doesn’t seem to yield much fruit. Perhaps what makes unbelief so popular is in its miracle: people are fed, and cured, when other people resolve to make it happen. Perhaps non-believers are people who believe in what people can do.

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