By Joe Perez
As religion declines in the U.S. and Europe, weighty issues arise about our collective human future. In “Protestant Ethic 2.0,” Joel Kotkin, executive editor of NewGeography.com, describes key aspects of the sociological significance of religiosity.
First, without a healthy religious base to a society, economic growth as we have known it may not be possible. He writes:
[I]n reality, the religious connection with economic growth may be still far more important than is commonly supposed.
Many in the pundit class identify religion as something of a regressive tendency, embraced by the less enlightened, the less skilled, intelligent and educated. Yet some scholars, such as Charles Murray, point out that religious affiliation is weakening most not among the middle and upper classes but among the poorer and less educated who traditionally looked to churches for succor and moral instruction. Secularism may have not hurt the uber-rich or the academic overclass so far, but it appears to have helped expand our lumpenproleteriat.
Some might be surprised to learn that religious affiliation grows with education levels. A new University of Nebraska study finds that with each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased by 15%. The educated, the study found, may not be eschewing religion, as social science has long maintained, even if their spiritual views tend to be less narrow, and less overtly tied to politics, than among the less schooled.
The decline of religion may also be associated with losing benefits of cohesive groups, which can encourage communal values, charity, and a strong value on education. Joel writes:
Overall the most cohesive religious groups — such as Mormons and Jews — still outperform their religious counterparts both in educational achievement and income. Both Jews and Mormons focus on helping their co-religionists, providing a leg up on those who depend solely on the charity of others or the state. In countries with a substantial historical Protestant influence such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands continue to outperform economic the heavily Catholic nations like Italy, Ireland and Spain, according to a recent European study. The difference, they speculate, may be in Protestant traditions of self-help, frugality and emphasis on education. None of this, of course, would have been surprising to Max Weber.
Religious people also tend to live longer and suffer less disabilities with old age, as author Murray notes. Researchers at Harvard, looking at dozens of countries over the past 40 years, demonstrated that religion reinforces the patterns of personal virtue, social trust and willingness to defer gratification long associated with business success.
Thirdly, Kotkin targets the connection between lower religiosity and the rise of individualistic materialism and the decline of an ethos of personal responsibility.
But perhaps the most important difference over time may be the impact of religion on family formation, with weighty fiscal implications. In virtually every part of the world, religious people tend to have more children than those who are unaffiliated. In Europe, this often means Islamic families as opposed to increasingly post-Christian natives. Decline in religious affiliation — not just Christian but also Buddhist and Confucian — seems to correlate with the perilously low birthrates in both Europe and many East Asian countries.
Singapore-based pastor Andrew Ong sees a direct connection between low birthrates and weakened religious ties in advanced Asian countries. As religious ideas about the primacy of family fade, including those rooted in Confucianism, they are generally supplanted by more materialist, individualistic values. “People don’t value family like they used to,” he suggests. “The values are not there. The old values suggested that you grow up. The media today encourages people not to grow up and take responsibility. They don’t want to stop being cool. When you have kids, you usually are less cool.”
It is going ahead of the evidence to suggest that the decline of religion will result in a destruction of personal ethics, cohesive families, collective cultures which value education, and economic vitality. But it is worth taking note of worrisome trends and asking: what role will the rise of World Spirituality play in ameliorating rather than compounding the potential pitfalls of secularism?
Also, how can leaders today, foreseeing the long-term destructive potential of a fully secular society, advance a World Spirituality that can attract a new generation of young people and families?
Many secular humanists and folks who check “none of the above” on surveys of religiosity are attracted to World Spirituality when they are presented with its affirmative, hopeful, and value-driven message. They see the embrace of the best wisdom of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern systems of knowing as a way of reclaiming what they lose by leaving their religion, and find in new enlightenment teachings a path forward to creating a world with a rejuvenated spirit.