Courtesy: Author Sandhya Jain and
The flight from faith
By Sandhya Jain on December 25, 2012
A Catholic pilgrim touches a column inside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on Christmas eve. (AP photo by Adel Hana)
A startling consequence of the global financial meltdown, particularly the rising levels of unemployment, spiralling prices, decline in living standards, and growing insecurity of the middle class and marginalised sections of society, has been an unprecedented flight from religion. Amongst the monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism have witnessed a huge exodus of adult adherents who have moved into a category of ‘no religious affiliation’, according to a study on the size of world faiths.
Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, revealed findings that people with no religious affiliation now rank third after Christians and Muslims on a global scale; Hindus take fourth place. The study, The Global Religious Landscape, is based on extensive data for the year 2010. It notes that while 84 per cent (6.9 billion) of the eight-billion-plus world population still identifies with a religion, the ‘unaffiliated’ category is drawing huge numbers, and already exceeds 15 per cent of the adult population. These include those who profess no faith or have spiritual beliefs unlinked to any traditional faith.
According to some observers, the findings suggest that the ‘no faith’ group could be as large as one billion already; certainly it is recording the fastest growth. As the globalisation of poverty and other issues make people question their traditions and beliefs, increasing numbers of people no longer identify with their traditional faith, do not practice it, but often continue to claim affiliation to their natal faith as their religion, if asked. This group is expected to join the explicitly ‘no faith’ group by the time of the next worldwide study on faith adherence.
The study shows that Islam and Hinduism (concentrated in India) are the two faiths mostly likely to expand in future; Judaism currently has the weakest chances of growth. Christianity is evenly spread all over the globe, but is facing huge challenges.
The Pew study has startled most, as normally a financial crisis, coupled with a decline in public morality and failure of public institutions to respond to the needs of society, tends to be accompanied by a steep rise in religious piety and a hunger for the certitudes provided by faith. That this has not happened in our contemporary era should prompt deep introspection.
So far, this new non-religious adult population has not articulated its views and concerns on social, economic, or political issues. It has not spelt out the reasons for its disillusionment with religion, or vision of an alternative to religion. Does this group have a public vision and will to pull society out of the current straits? Can this take the form of public mobilisation against war (as during the Vietnam War) or take off from the failure of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and challenge the dominance of the ‘One Percent’ that controls the world economy?\
What is almost certain is that there will be a backlash from organised religion against its rejection. No major leader of any of the organised faiths has given a call for reform; hence a reworking of doctrine to appeal to the people can be ruled out in the first instance. It is more likely that there will be a growing rigidity of doctrine, which in the case of Christianity in the West will involve increased politicisation of believers. Similarly, Jews will intensify their ethnic loyalties and support for political Zionism, yet these responses may be unsustainable in the long term.
Scholars of religion note that the economic crisis has not triggered a quest for religious solace. This is largely because, in the West, neither the mainline churches nor synagogues can offer help in terms of concrete needs of their followers, such as solutions to mortgage foreclosure, bankruptcies, unemployment, loss of savings or pensions. In fact, even fast-growing churches like the apocalyptic, Pentecostal, Charismatic or Born Again Churches have not been able to attract adults in the past two decades.
Experts feel that the rise of non-religious adults in the past two decades is not related to greater education, urbanisation or exposure to rationalist thought as that has remained constant over this period. The qualitative difference comes from rising discontent over declining incomes among wage and salaried workers, steep rise in inequality, endless wars all over the planet, and the loss of prestige and credibility of major political and economic institutions. In America, as many as 78 per cent citizens have a poor opinion of the US Congress and the banks, especially Wall Street. In this scenario, religious institutions and religious faith are viewed as irrelevant or complicit in the collapse of the social and economic lives of ordinary citizens; the polity is seen as inextricably enmeshed with the corporate world.
Yet Islam and Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) are attracting new adherents. This could be because of the more tightly-knit familial and social structures of both, with the attendant moral, social, and economic support in times of crisis. The two major monotheistic faiths, on the other hand, have for long fragmented family and society down to the level of the individual; these were together controlled by the authoritarian church and state. Now both have lost credibility, with consequences that will play out in the future.