Opinion polls make very interesting, if unreliable, reading.
This is demonstrated in the WIN-Gallup Religion and Atheism survey. Based on responses from 51,927 participants in 57 countries during 2012 it seems to indicate a decline in religion since 2005. The global average indicates a rise of 3% in those claiming to be atheists and a decline of 9% in those describing themselves as religious. Stand-out figures include the results from Ireland, which indicate a 22% drop in those claiming to be religious since 2005, coming second to Vietnam which experienced a 23% drop. Of interest to Western evangelicalism is the drop of 13% in those claiming to be religious in the United States, from 73% to 60%. How will that translate into America’s cultural exports of films, books, sit-coms and pop music? More detailed figures from the UK 2011 census fit the pattern and indicate that 25% of our country does not consider themselves religious.
So how do we interpret this information? One claim might be that atheism is winning the culture wars, and Christianity is fading away. But statistics can be misleading. After all, Richard Dawkins presumably would not claim credit for the decline of religiosity in Vietnam. In fact, while Vietnam showed the greatest decline in those considering themselves religious, it also showed a 0% rise in those claiming to be atheist. What does a survey participant mean when they say that they do not consider themselves religious? I am a Christian. I teach theology. I pastor a church. Am I religious? It’s not a term I like to use!
Less nominal faith?
The decline in numbers of those considering themselves religious is not directly translated into an increase in atheism or in the popularity of some of the new atheists’ diatribes about Christianity. The fact is that the decline in religiosity may be a good thing. It may represent a questioning of nominal faith and traditionalism, which, in the long run, could sharpen real, biblical Christianity. The figures from Ireland are instructive here. The dramatic decline in religiosity in Ireland are probably directly related to the scandals that have rocked her institutional church. Who needs Richard Dawkins when we have churches that behave like this?
No increase in atheism
Theo Hobson, writing in the Spectator (April 2013) under the title ‘After the new atheism’, comments: ‘Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies’. As the dust settles, it is far from clear that the new atheists ever generated more light than they did heat. Hobson comments: ‘Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out’. The decline in religion has not been matched by a rise in atheism.
What do we have to offer?
There is an interesting anomaly in the American figures. In a Gallup poll in May it was revealed that 77% of Americans believe that religion has lost influence in culture. But the figures also showed that a staggering 75% of Americans believe that this decline is a bad thing and believe that America would be better off if more people were religious. These figures show that, while people are rapidly losing personal confidence in churches, they remain positive about Christianity as a force for good. Our culture stands at a crossroads. The polls show that institutional religion is not in favour. Being counted religious seems old fashioned or antiquated. But atheism has not taken the helm. The decline of religiosity is a decline in formal religious influence. Now is the time not to offer our nation religion; it is tired of that. But this is the time to offer true, personal, living faith grounded in the real historical reliability of the Bible. Now why is it that whenever these polls are conducted no one ever asks me my opinion?
Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel, lecturer at Moorlands College and has written a new book released with IVP : The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Old Testament.
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