Thank You God, We'll Take It From Here: Why the World Is Becoming More Secular

After years in which religious observance was on the rise, new studies show a global trend toward secularization. Maybe in Israel, too

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
 A nun awaits the pope’s general audience at the Vatican this month.
A nun awaits the pope’s general audience at the Vatican this month. Credit: Andrew Medichini / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

St. Patrick’s College, a seminary in Maynooth, Ireland, is that country’s oldest institution for the training of priests. In the past, it was the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the world, producing hundreds of newly ordained clergy in every graduating class. In the past two decades, enrollment at the college has plummeted, and then, in 2016, it was on the brink of closure, in the wake of an astonishing scandal: Seminarians who began to use Grindr encountered several of their teachers there. Faculty at the seminary had been leading a double life: Even as they preached chastity in the classroom and branded homosexuality a grave sin, they were arranging sexual rendezvous with students. Accordingly, the archbishop of Dublin decided that no more seminarians from that city would be sent to the distinguished institution. In the 2017 class, the number of enrollees fell to just six.

The problem discovered at St. Patrick’s touches on the most important issues occupying the Catholic Church today, first among them, homosexuality among priests. Precisely because homosexuality is in general considered to be more legitimate today than ever before, Western society demands that gays be open about their sexual inclination, and is often hostile to those who conceal it. More than anything else, this is an era of zero tolerance for double standards – a development with far-reaching implications for the future of established religion.

The Protestant Reformation, which began 500 years ago, jolted the Catholic Church but never threatened its very existence. However, the demand for full openness and authenticity constitutes a challenge that in some parts of the world is threatening the future of Catholicism – and of other religions, too. In the past, conventional wisdom held that the force imperiling faith was science. But in the third decade of the 21st century, it’s possible that the issue of sexual morality is a more acut threat to the future of religion.

And their future definitely appears to be in danger. The latest edition of Foreign Affairs features an lengthy article titled “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion.” The author, Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist from the University of Michigan, presents data that seems to attest to an unequivocal trend: The level of religiosity among the world’s population has been declining in recent years. The findings are based on comprehensive, longitudinal surveys he conducted, in which respondents were asked to rank the importance God has in their life. The pollsters found that out of the 49 countries they examined, 43 had become less religious. The tendency is particularly pronounced in wealthy countries, but is not exclusive to them.

These findings may come as a surprise to people who follow the forecasts about the rise of religion in our time. As Inglehart notes, following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, academics, the media and public figures declared that there was a return of religion. The rise of radical Islam, the growing influence of evangelicals in the United States and other trends that occupied the press and public opinion, seemed to paint a clear picture: a mounting religionization among humanity. The secular ideologies of the 20th century seemed to have receded and to have been replaced by a new era of faith.

According to Inglehart, a rise in the level of religiosity was indeed perceptible until the end of the first decade of this century. But a shift occurred around 2007. In his view, not only has a tendency toward secularization risen in developed countries since then, but the same trend is evident among countries that are not wealthy and in some cases are actually poor, such as Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Nigeria.

The tendency described by Inglehart is not present everywhere. In Russia, the level of religiosity has increased somewhat. Religiosity is also apparently gaining strength in most of the Muslim world, and even more so in India, where political Hinduism is also surging. On the other hand, in the forefront of the weakening of religion are the two world powers. China is experiencing a moderate decline in the level of religiosity, but the sharpest drop is in the United States, which until recently was one of the world’s most devoutly believing countries.

America has long been considered the case that proves that modernity, technology and capitalism do not conflict with religious devotion. But among the younger generations in the U.S., the picture is changing for the first time in history. During the past decade, the proportion of Americans who categorize themselves as Christians has plunged by 12 percent, and now stands at 65 percent.

A synagogue at Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Among the “millennial” generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, 40 percent describe themselves as not having any religious affiliation. One of the explanations Inglehart puts forward for people moving away from Christianity is political polarization. He argues that the fact that the Republican Party in the United States has come to be identified with Christianity has had an unexpected consequence: Democratic voters have distanced themselves from the church in general. In addition, the pedophilia scandals exposed in recent decades in the Catholic Church, causing a decline in the status of priests, has also had a substantial impact. Fully 27 percent of American Catholics testified that these revelations prompted them to go to church less frequently – or to abandon it altogether.

Still, there is one important reservation here. Religiosity is a very difficult quality to define. Inglehart based his studies on the question of the degree to which one believes in God, but that question is not appropriate for all the world’s religions. Nor does leaving the church necessarily attest to a decline in religiosity; studies from recent years indicate that many people may stop attending services, but that this doesn’t mean they feel they have lost their faith. Contemporary social and cultural trends are particularly threatening to the religious establishments, which are considered hypocritical and corrupt. But only time will tell what impact they will have on the self-perception of the coming generations.

Rabbinical anxieties

Israel was not included in the study conducted by Inglehart. On the surface, at least, it would appears that the secularization trend has not reached the Holy Land. Public discourse deals principally with the trend toward increased religious belief and practice. But in fact, the picture is not unequivocal.

A 2018 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies shows a growing movement from more religious to the less-observant streams of Judaism. Datlashim – a Hebrew acronym for “the formerly religious” – are among the most significant social phenomena of the past generation, and are also of great concern to the rabbis. Only recently, rabbis affiliated with the religious-Zionist movement expressed alarm over the fact that about 40 percent of the graduates of state-religious schools do not classify themselves as religious. Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, termed it a disaster comparable to the burning of the Temple.

Moreover, if we take into account the deep-seated factors that underlie the secularization trend, we can assume that here, too, a regression from religiosity can be expected in the future. Orthodox Jewry in Israel also has institutions that parallel those of the Catholic Church. In principle, the above-mentioned Catholic seminary in Ireland is no different from the hesder yeshivas that combine religious study with army service. It is also possible to assume that scandals linked with a double standard in the sexual realm will also eventually erupt in ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist circles. And here, too, the clerical establishment will have a hard time coping with them.

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