We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In For the Long Haul

In a report entitled, "Beliefs about God across Time and Countries," Tom W. Smith concludes on the basis of extensive data that, "while there is a drift towards lesser belief in God consistent with secularization theory the changes are modest in magnitude and mixed in scope. Countries have shown and are likely to continue to show huge differences in levels and trends about belief in God and a homogenization of belief (or disbelief) is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future."  Belief in God is decreasing, but it is doing so only slowly at different rates in different countries and with different intensities.  Consistent with data from many other sources, Smith finds that the U.S. ranks among the highest nations in belief  in God and the lowest in unbelief.  Table 1 in the report shows that in 2008 only 3.0% of Americans agreed with the statement, "I do not believe in God," while 60.6% agreed that, "I know God really exists, and I have no doubt about it."  Smith's analysis of the data also found that 35.0% of Americans were "Strong Believers in God" (Table 4) and only 1.2% were "Strong Atheists" (Table 5).  Only two nations ranked higher than the U.S. in their number of strong believers and just four countries showed fewer strong atheists.  For the years 1998-2008, Smith shows a very slight decrease in atheism in the U.S. and a slight increase in the number who are certain God exists (Table 6).

In sum, religious faith is not going away any time soon, but the context in which we speak about faith is changing.  In the U.S., that change seems to be relatively slow when it comes to belief in God as such.  Participation in religious organizations, however, is declining and at a much higher rate than the decline in belief in God.  As I noted in a recent posting (here), even in relatively conservative Lewis County, NY, almost 60% of the population is "unclaimed" by any church.  The context churches face today is that faith in God's existence is no longer a given, such as it once was.  Trust in churches as places of importance is also no longer a given.  The importance of "going to church" on Sunday morning is similarly no longer a given.  The challenge we face in the church today, in any event, is not to get people to believe in God.  It is to get people to believe in churches.