Secularism, not religion, is threatened with extinction

Secularism, not religion, is threatened with extinction

David Quinn

Here is the script of history as it is supposed to play out. Religion was once the dominant force in the world, but then as the scientific view of the world began to take hold, religion began to fade.

Science led to secularism, causing more and more people to substitute for their religious viewpoint one that made little or no reference to God.

In the West it is already the case that most people now have a secular outlook rather than a religious one. As Western science and rationalism spread to the rest of the world, what happened in the West will happen there as well, this script tells us.

Within perhaps another 100 years at most, only a tiny and insignificant minority of mostly eccentrics and cranks will still believe in religion, as is the case in, say, Sweden today.

That's the script anyway, and it is a script that has been around for at least 200 years, and one that a lot of religious-minded people probably believe in deep down as well. They suspect they are part of a dying breed. It is especially easy to believe this if you are living in Ireland where religion, in its traditional forms anyway, seems to be dying on the vine.

But actually there is mounting evidence that this script is becoming worn, out-of-date, and just plain wrong.

For a start, religion outside the West is not declining; it is getting stronger. No one doubts that Islam is now a much stronger force than it once was. This has good and bad implications, as we know, but it is a fact just the same.

Hinduism, too, is showing no signs of fading; and Buddhism remains quite strong.

Christianity, of course, is growing by leaps and bounds outside the West, and not just in countries that remain poor, and so still have a "pre-scientific" view of things. For example, in South Korea, now a rich country, Christians make up something like 30 per cent of the population and Koreans now send out more missionaries into the world than any other country apart from the United States.

Speaking of which, as we know, America remains a stubbornly religious country. This is a society that is at the cutting edge of modernity and yet something like 40 per cent of its population attends church regularly.

In the recent presidential election this had a decisive effect. Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Bush, but so did a majority of Catholics and a clear majority of Mass-going Catholics.

What of Europe? It is true that Europe shows almost no sign of a religious revival, but it is going to pay a very high price for that, namely demographic suicide.

There is now a very clear correlation between religious practice and child-bearing. Couples who practise religion tend to have more children than couples who do not.

In America, for example, the states that voted for Bush have a birth rate that is 12 per cent higher than the states that voted for his rival, John Kenny.

Utah, one of the most religious states, has a birth rate that is almost twice as high as that of Vermont, one of the most secular US states.


In Europe, more people are dying than are being born and not one country has a birth rate at, or higher than, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple.

In places like Germany, Italy and Spain the birth rate is about 1.25 children per couple. In Eastern Europe it is even worse than that.

Ireland has the highest birth rate in the EU, standing at 1.97 children per couple. Has this something to do with the fact that Ireland has still not gone all the way down the secular path?

In 50 years time it is estimated that there will be 100 million fewer people in Europe. This allows for 600,000 immigrants per year, plus any children they decide to have. Were it not for immigration, the fall in population could be 150 million.

What this means is that secularism is destroying itself. Its philosophy of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die", won't invest in the future in the only way that really matters, by having children.

Most migrants coming to Europe from outside it are Muslim. This means that within a hundred years or so, perhaps half or more of the population of Europe will be Muslim. In other words, Europe will become religious again - it's just that it will be a new religion.

The upshot of this is that we are in need of a new script of history. This one tells us that religion isn't the force that is fading in the world. That role belongs to secularism.

David Quinn is religious and social affairs correspondent for 'The Irish Independent'. His article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic'.

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