God is not dead. But he might just be sick with worry about us. If a team of respected scientific researchers is right, religious belief is headed for extinction in at least nine nations.
This projection, somber to some and soothing to others, got a lot of play during the recent annual meeting in Dallas of the American Physical Society. First reported by the BBC, the findings came in the form of a highly technical account of group dynamics based on a mathematical model. They would spark little public interest if the subject were bowling leagues or bocce enthusiasts. Religion, to put it mildly, is different.
A fair historian would acknowledge that faith has been on trial since the beginning. The centuries have seen intense, sometimes violent, conflicts among competing creeds. But the most intense conflicts of the 20th century weren't among groups of religious believers, but among political cultures that believed human rights to be of divine origin and others that placed their trust in a state that bowed to no God.
States founded on the divine authorship of human dignity and freedom waged defensive struggles against the claims of officially atheistic ideologies such as communism and Nazism. Marx framed his ideology as a permanent endpoint of human development where religion, the opiate of the masses, at last had been destroyed.
Hitler envisioned a thousand-year reich of Aryan supremacy, where the altars of Europe would be stripped of their Bibles and crowned with his racist manifesto, "Mein Kampf." Western democracies were slow to awaken to the implications, responding only when their own survival was threatened. The abiding faith of Americans, of Britons and free French, of the entire Western enterprise, rose to the surface in these circumstances. At the end of World War II, the people of Great Britain seemed to stand as one to hear "A Song of Thanksgiving," composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' stirring choral prayer celebrating the defeat of Hitler. The libretto deployed verses from Isaiah — "they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations" — to summon a war-torn nation to recovery.
Existential threats still have that effect on populaces with a national memory of faith. Remember the fullness of America's churches in the months after 9/11? A profound sense of peril sharpens the spiritual sense, or at least spurs the spiritual search.
But the faith that springs up in the dust of calamity may be dispersed in the breezes of better times or the whirlwinds of scientific atheism. The excesses of religion also fuel the revival of cynicism (although how swiftly we forget atheistic expressions of modern terror, among them Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s). Scandals of money and sex dispirit millions and destroy entire congregations. The "religious" motivations of today's worst terrorists provide fodder to celebrity intellectuals anxious to promote the idea that religion itself is the enemy of, and not the answer to, the highest aspirations of humanity. Mao and Stalin certainly disprove that idea. Monstrous deeds come in garb both sacred and secular.
So are the researchers with their math model right? Is religious belief on the rocks? Strictly speaking, they examined a grand total of nine countries, most European. The decline in church attendance there is well documented. But religious tides roam worldwide, and demographics — adherents bearing adherents — still matter. Islam is growing and so too are Mormonism and Pentecostalism.
What about the United States? Despite all the noise about surging atheism, more than 60 percent of Americans do not doubt the existence of God. Almost 40 percent frequently attend church. Even with an increase in those who decline to affiliate with a particular faith, the majority of us hold to some religious belief. It's also debatable whether those claiming "none" on surveys of religious affiliation actually are irreligious. The Pew Religious Landscape Survey for 2007 found that about 16 percent of the U.S. population was non-affiliated. But only a quarter were either atheists or agnostics. Half of the remainder said religion was either somewhat or very important to them.
Perhaps brick-and-mortar churchgoing is in decline, while individual spirituality is not. In such an environment, the future is volatile.
Churches that are lax on self-policing may reform. Personal faith may seek sustenance in community. And, as tsunamis and Middle East uprisings remind us, existential threats may arrive at any time. Mathematicians who bring special talents to quantum mechanics can't take us any further than others in the quest for meaning. People are not particles. Heaven's heartaches begin when we act otherwise.
Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.