This article first appeared in the 1 March 2007 edition of The Irish Catholic and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Looked at from a global perspective, Ireland and the EU with their declining religious beliefs are the real minority.
Because organised religion appears to be in retreat in Ireland, there’s a danger of thinking this is part of a worldwide trend in which faith is wilting in the face of modernity and rational scepticism. However, even if this perception is true of Ireland and Europe, in the rest of the world religious belief and practice is flourishing.
“Is God dead?” Time magazine asked in 1966. The answer today is a resounding no!
At the beginning of the 20th century, 50% of the world population adhered to the four main religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, or Hinduism. At the beginning of the 21st century that number has increased to nearly 64%. It is estimated by the World Christian Encyclopaedia that this figure will be close to 70% by 2025. As these statistics cover only the four main religions, they clearly understate religious observance. The World Values Survey, which covers 85% of the population of the world, confirms that religious belief is growing. According to Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (authors of Sacred and Secular: Politics and Religion Worldwide): “the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views then ever before, and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population”.
What many have missed is that the decline in religious belief in the EU (which may be beginning to reverse) is not only different from what is happening in the US, but is also very different to what is happening in the rest of the world. Marked increases in religiousity are clear now in Asia (in China and India), in Russia, in Nigeria, South Africa and in almost all the countries in Africa, and in Central and Latin America.
Professor Martin Marty (the renowned Lutheran minister and theologian) forecasts that by 2025 the number of Christians in the world is expected to rise to about 2.6 billion, with 67% of those located in Africa, Latin America and Asia, in other words outside the US and the EU. The growth in Christianity in Africa and Central and Latin America and the US is attributed by many to the growth in what has been termed “revivalist” Christianity – Pentecostal denominations and “charismatics” in traditional Christian denominations.
In a recent survey of Pentecostalism, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life states that “renewalist” movements are the world’s fastest-growing religious movements. The World Christian Database shows that renewalists now make up about 25% of the world Christian population, compared to just 6% thirty years ago.
In explaining some of this success, Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, called Pentecostalism “turbo–charged Evangelicals”. Harvey Cox of Harvard University points out that Pentecostalism offers a “third way” between scientific rationalism and traditional religion. This need for a different approach is now seen by a growing number of people, including, in his own fashion, Pope Benedict XVI.
Whatever one’s views of these developments, two things are clear. First, what is happening currently in the EU in general, and in Ireland in particular, is not the norm in religious observance and is likely to be reversed. Second the dimly-understood need for an “other” dimension in all our lives, beyond that of secular modernity, “retail therapy” or our growing drug dependence, becomes more evident and necessary by the day.
As Canon Ian Ellis put it in The Irish Times recently: “Religion has a healthy future, it appears, even if its overall, global character will not be what we in Ireland might immediately associate with church life”.