Published January 13, 2021
EPPC Faith Angle Forum Director Josh Good authored the following essay, which appears as a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement, published in December 2021.
The world is a very religious place. Of 7.3 billion people on the planet, according to Pew Research Center, approximately 2.3 billion are Christians, 1.8 billion are Muslims, 1.1 billion are Hindus, 500 million are Buddhists, and 400 million practice folk religions, while only 1.2 billion are religiously unaffiliated (Hackett 2017).
But for Western sociologists and demographers in the second half of the 20th century, this reality was by no means expected. During those years, the so-called “secularization thesis” was firmly entrenched, insofar as the vast majority of social scientists believed post-Enlightenment modernity would lead almost inevitably to religious decline. The argument ran that, with greater prosperity, reliance on religious faith would no longer be compelling for more and more people. Larger homes, more disposable income, new technologies, and greater leisure opportunities would replace the “hold” that the church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or other houses of worship had on individuals and communities.
One of the US’ foremost sociologists, the late Peter Berger (1929–2017), firmly subscribed to this secularization thesis, arguing in much of his prolific early career that major increases in prosperity and productivity would lead to religious decline. But over time, as he continued to look carefully at worldwide data about wealth, poverty, and institutional changes, quite a different pattern emerged: Global poverty in fact fell, sharply—but religious practice did not.
Josh Good is the director of EPPC’s Faith Angle Forum, which aims to strengthen reporting and commentary on how religious believers, religious convictions, and religiously grounded moral arguments affect American politics and public life.
Josh Good is the director of EPPC’s Faith Angle Forum.