Rodney Stark on The Triumph of Faith
Date: January 17th, 2016

The decline of religion around the world may be greatly exaggerated.  This is the assertion made by Dr. Rodney Stark — co-founder and director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and frequent guest on our program.  He backs his claim with extensive survey evidence from a number of polling organizations (namely the Gallup World Poll) and other bits of evidence from scholarly studies.  We take a tour de force of religion around the world to see that faith is as strong as ever, even in the United States.

Surveys by Pew Forum and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) have indicated religious practice is on the decline in the United States.  Tony asks Rod whether he has seen a similar trend in his own research using the Baylor Religion Study.  While there has been an increase in the number of individuals who claim “no religious affiliation” or the infamous “nones” discussed by Pew, Prof. Stark notes that this really affects religious affiliation and not necessarily belief.  His own examination of “nones” indicates that a substantial number of them still believe in God, pray weekly, and occasionally attend worship services.  He also notes that many individuals who proclaim no traditional religious affiliation believe in “non-conventional” forms of the supernatural such as various New Age ideas of spirituality or entities such as elves.  Tony points out that even in Iceland where attendance at church services is near the lowest in the Christian world, there is still a strong belief in elves to the point where people will hire clerics to investigate whether such creatures are inhabiting land they plan to build upon.  Our conversation at this point also covers some issues with survey methodology and Rod explains the reason he is relying upon the Gallup World Poll for much of his research data.

We then expand our exploration to the rest of the world outside of the US and Europe.  Whereas Europe has not seen any significant increase in religious practice or belief recently (outside of Muslim immigrants), the rest of the globe is experiencing a major explosion in religious affiliation, practice, and belief.  Rod lists a couple statistics to bolster this point, including 81% of the world population claiming to belong to some organized religious faith, 71% saying that religion is important in their lives, and 51% having participated in some organized form of worship in the past week.  Atheism rates remains relatively stagnant with only three countries registering more than 20% of the population as non-believers.  Attendance and affiliation remains most flaccid in Europe.  This continent registers low among individuals who attend religious services largely because Christianity was never deeply embedded in a number of these countries to begin with (particularly in Northern Europe) and monopolized state churches have little incentive to recruit and serve members, according to Prof. Stark.

Moving from the least religiously active part of the world, we then travel to Africa where religious practice has been growing exponentially.  This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa where there was nary a Christian on the continent in the late 1800s, but a vast majority now proclaim Christianity and attendance rates are the highest in the world.  Rod points out that this is not only due to missionary work by Europeans in the early 20th century who introduced the faith, but more importantly is the result of indigenous church growth — i.e., Africans developing and organizing their own Christian denominations.  Catholicism also shows strong growth in the region, surprising even the Vatican itself with its strong indigenous roots.  We talk briefly about Islam in Northern Africa, and how contact between Muslims and Christians has created unfortunate conflict in some parts of the continent.

Asia is our next region of focus.  Having recently co-authored a book with Xiuhua Wang on Christianity in China (see below), Rod explains how this country poses a unique challenge to secularization theory.  While China is modernizing rapidly, it is also Christianizing equally fast and despite attempts by the communist regime to suppress or control the growth.  Interestingly, the growth in religious practice is coming amongst the most educated and prosperous in Chinese society.  While the central regime in China is concerned about this religious growth, many local officials take a hands-off approach to the practice of house churches.  Tony speculates that there may be many parallels between what is currently happening in China to what went on in the pre-Constantine Church in the first three centuries.  Japan becomes the next topic of conversation.  Here, religious practice remains rather low.  Rod points out that even with high rates of unbelief, many people still rely upon Shinto priests to bless their autos, homes, and even military equipment (which Tony mentions from a previous podcast with Ron Hassner).

Our last two topics cover Latin America and Islam.  In the former, religious practice has increased dramatically despite the notion that Latin Americans have always been (since colonization) firmly Catholic.  Prof. Stark tips his hat to Tony’s own research on the region and how Protestant missionaries in the 20th century lit a competitive fire underneath the Catholic Church, which prompted this institution to better serve its parishioner base.  We discuss how the Latin American Catholic Church, whereas it used to rely upon imported priests, now sees significant growth in native seminarians and Rod provides an interesting anecdote from his time in California about how competition from Pentecostals motivated a Catholic parish.  We touch a bit on Islam noting that while religious practice has been relatively high in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, this faith has become “more intensified” in recent decades.  The display of religious symbols (e.g., hijab) has become more pronounced, and Rod discusses how Islam provides a great deal of internal religious competition that can give rise to this, particularly in an environment that is showing increased resentment of Western morals.

We finish off with some reflections on secularization theory and why this perspective is still so entrenched in the Academy.  Prof. Stark shares some comments on political correctness and encourages more honest research amongst intellectuals.  Recorded: December 30, 2015.


Rodney Stark’s website with bio and list of books.

The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever, by Rodney Stark.

America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, by Rodney Stark.

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark.

America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone… Including Atheists, by Rodney Stark (available November 2012).

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.


Rodney Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part I.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III.

Rodney Stark on The Crusades.

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