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Religion is not doomed

Books Contrary to what secularists believe, a new book argues that ‘the world is more religious than ever’ | Rodney Stark
Rodney Stark is a sociologist and historian of religion who at age 81 remains a distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University. Stark’s clear writing—he was a newspaper reporter before going to graduate school—distinguishes him from most academics. His argument that Christian practice wasn’t as common in the Middle Ages or in 18th century America as we like to think distinguishes him from some church-oriented historians. The argument in his new book, The Triumph of Faith, that “the world is more religious than ever,” distinguishes him from “new atheists” who seem ready to take a victory lap. Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion(HarperOne) was WORLD Magazine’s 2012 Book of the Year. I also interviewed him back in 2007. Here, with permission from the publisher, ISI Books, is the last chapter of The Triumph of Faith, published last month. —Marvin Olasky Conclusion: 
Why Faith Endures Whether or not it is so, the universe testifies to intelligent design. Even the militant atheist Richard Dawkins agrees that “living systems give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[1] Of course, Dawkins goes on to argue that this is a false appearance—that the whole universe is an accident without purpose or meaning. But the point stands that life, indeed the entire physical universe, seems so complex and yet so orderly that to regard it as a pointless accident seems absurd. Again, the truth of intelligent design is irrelevant to my purpose here. That design seems self-evident to most people is sufficient.

To assume intelligent design is, of course, to assume a creator, and this, in turn, supposes that there is a supernatural consciousness. Thus have humans repeatedly “discovered” the existence of a god or gods. And if people accept the existence of a supernatural consciousness, it is inevitable that they will seek its blessings, for the supernatural is a plausible source of many things humans greatly desire, some of which are otherwise unobtainable. Many of these desires are for tangible things such as good crops, protection against the elements or enemies, health, and fertility, and potentially tangible things such as life after death. People also desire intangibles, such as happiness or that there be meaning and purpose to life. In pursuit of all such rewards, people will attempt to enlist the aid of the supernatural, which raises the question: what does the supernatural desire? Sometimes this question is answered through reason (theology), sometimes through trial and error; and sometimes people experience what they perceive to be communications from the supernatural (revelations).[2] This is how religion arises and endures. I have analyzed this process of the origin and evolution of religion at great length elsewhere.[3] Here it is sufficient to consider several basic issues. Perhaps the most important is the claim that religious faith is irrational, an assumption based in part on the additional premise that religion was originated by ignorant and irrational primitives and thus is rooted in crude superstition. Religion and Rationality There are two rather different claims involved in the charge that it is irrational to be religious. One is that religious beliefs are, in and of themselves, irrational because they are demonstrably untrue. The second is that people do not reason about their religious choices but simply take them for granted based on the culture into which they are born. Both claims are easily exposed as false. 
Although endlessly proclaimed by professional atheists, the charge that religion is intrinsically irrational is based on the ignorant claim that scientific “laws” about the material world govern the immaterial realm postulated by religion. Carl Sagan frequently and smugly asserted that miracles can’t happen because they violate laws of nature. For example, the Red Sea could not have parted to allow Moses and the Israelites to escape from Egypt because no physical principles involving tides or currents could have made it possible—as if that would come as shattering news to the religious believer. What Sagan could not grasp was that nothing qualifies as a miracle unless it violates laws of nature. The Old Testament does not claim that Moses chose the very moment of a rare tidal phenomenon to lead his people out of Egypt; it says that God worked a miracle and parted the sea just long enough for the Israelites to pass. It may be that this miracle didn’t happen, but to say it could not have done so because it violates the laws of nature misses the point entirely. More generally, the claim that science disproves religion is nonsensical. Science is limited to study of the natural, empirical world. It can say nothing about the existence or nature of a nonempirical realm. Of course, one is free to argue that there is no nonempirical world, but one may not cite “scientific proof” of that claim. Secularists insist on portraying science and religion as being in opposition. But the truth is that modern science arose because of religion. Science began and flourished only in the West. Why? Because only Christians and Jews (also Muslims) conceived of God as a rational creator and concluded that therefore the universe must run according to rational principles that could be discovered.[4] 

Elsewhere in the world it was assumed that the universe was an incomprehensible mystery, an object suitable for meditation only. The uniquely Judeo-Christian notion of a universe functioning according to rational principles inspired a group of learned figures—mostly very religious people—on to groundbreaking scientific discoveries. A study of the fifty-two most important scientists of the era known as the “Scientific Revolution” (1543–1680) demonstrated that thirty-one were extremely devout (many were clergy members, in fact), twenty were conventionally religious, and only one (Edmond Halley) was irreligious.[5] As to whether or not people are rational about accepting and practicing their religion, consider that 44 percent of Americans have adopted a religious affiliation different from that of their parents.[6]

Although a few American sons and daughters of religious parents choose to drop out of religion entirely, the majority of those raised in irreligious homes choose to become religious.[7] Moreover, even those who don’t leave the religion in which they were raised choose whether to be active or inactive in pursuing their faith, and this is true around the world. Choose is the critical verb; it assumes rationality. But to assume rationality is not to assume that human beings follow the path of pure reason in all ways at all times. No competent social scientists who begin their analysis of human behavior with the assumption of rationality believe our brains are little computers that always choose to gain the most at the least cost. Instead, everyone knows that humans are subject to many factors and forces that affect their decisions. It is more accurate to say: Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans attempt to make rational choices. The first part of this proposition—within the limits of their information—recognizes that we cannot select choices if we do not know about them, and that we cannot select the most beneficial choice if we have incorrect knowledge about the relative benefits of choices. The second part—within the limits of their … understanding—acknowledges that people must make choices based on a set of principles, beliefs, or theories they hold about how things work. Such baseline assumptions may be false, as the history of science demonstrates, but the rational person applies his or her principles because these are, for that moment, the most plausible assumptions. 
Finally, of course, people may select only from among available options, and the full range of choices actually available may not be evident to them. If humans attempt to make rational choices, why is it that they do not always act alike? Why don’t people reared in the same culture all seek the same rewards? Because their choices are guided by their preferences and tastes. This helps us understand not only why people do not all act alike but also why it is possible for them to engage in exchanges: to swap one reward for another—as a child I often traded my dessert to my sister in return for her second pork chop. Of course, not all preferences and tastes are variable—clearly there are things that virtually everyone values regardless of their culture or upbringing: food, shelter, security, and affection among them. Obviously, too, culture in general, and socialization in particular, will have a substantial impact on preferences and tastes. It is neither random nor purely a matter of personal taste whether someone prays to Allah or Shiva, or, indeed, whether one prays at all. Still, the fact remains that within any culture, there is substantial variation in preferences and tastes. Some of this variation is at least partly the result of socialization differences—for example, we probably learn our preferences concerning highly liturgical services as children. But a great deal of variation is so idiosyncratic that people have no idea how they came to like or dislike certain things. 
As the old adage says, “There’s no accounting for tastes.” Finally, as implied by the word attempt in the phrase “humans attempt to make rational choices,” people don’t always act in entirely rational ways. Sometimes we act impulsively—in haste, passion, boredom, or anger (“I really didn’t stop to think about what I was doing”). Sometimes human also err because they are lazy, careless, or neurotic. All that said, most of the time normal human beings will choose what they perceive to be the more reasonable option, and whenever they do so, their behavior is fully rational, even if they are mistaken. It follows that the religious choices people make are as rational as their other choices: religion offers things most people very much desire and does so with considerable plausibility. Little of what people know about the world is the result of their own experience. For example, few have an experiential basis for knowing that the earth is round, let alone that the stars are distant suns. People “know” these things because they have been taught them by others in whom they have confidence. 
The same applies to religion: people are confident in a religion because others whom they respect express their confidence in it. People not only testify to their certainty in the truth of a religion but also often enumerate personal “proofs” that religion is true. Recall from chapter 10 that 55 percent of American adults believe they have been “protected from harm by a guardian angel.” Twenty percent testify that they have heard “the voice of God speaking.” In addition, 23 percent claim to have “witnessed a miraculous, physical healing,” and 16 percent say that they themselves have “received a miraculous, physical healing.”[8] This is not peculiar to Americans; in most other major religions in most of the rest of the world, similar testimonials abound. For most people, such proofs that religion is true are as convincing as claims by scientists that, for example, the universe came into being suddenly via the Big Bang—this, too, most people must accept on faith alone. Critics such as Richard Dawkins would challenge this comparison by noting that, although laypeople must rely on testimony concerning the Big Bang, the scientists on whom they rely have firm empirical evidence for their claims. But many who offer testimonials as to the truth of religion believe they have firm empirical evidence, too: if you were sure you had been grabbed by invisible hands and saved from falling into traffic, might you tend to believe you had solid proof of the existence of angels? In any event, it is hardly irrational for most people to believe in religion, even if they are wrong. 
Primitive Philosophers All the early social scientists, including Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), and Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), agreed that the religion of primitive societies was crude to the point of being absurd. Spencer claimed that early humans were unable to distinguish their dreams from their experiences while awake, were “without curiosity,” and even lacked any notion of cause and effect. Hence, their religious ideas were ignorant and “childlike.”[9] Tylor agreed that primitive humans lived in a “childish” world, cluttered with spirits.[10] Durkheim even dismissed the idea that religion involves the worship of a god or gods, claiming that the actual object of religious worship is always society itself—even if the worshippers remain ignorant of this “fact.”[11] These early scholars went further. They held that what was true of primitive religion was also true for the religions of modern times—even if this was obscured by elaborate theologies. Moreover, they believed that the flaws of primitive religions were “a weapon which could be used … with deadly effect against Christianity.”[12] As Charles Darwin put it in a letter to Tylor, upon having read his book Primitive Society, “It is wonderful how you trace [primitive religion] from the lower races up to the religious beliefs of the higher.”[13] Then came a shocking development. After studying a mountain of trustworthy reports from anthropological field studies of primitive tribes, Andrew Lang (1844–1912) revealed that most such tribes had a quasimonotheistic religion based on high gods: “moral, all-seeing directors of things and men … eternal beings who made the world and watch over morality.”[14] That is, rather than being crude and ignorant, the religions of even the most primitive groups reflected a clear concern to explain the meaning and purpose of life. In 1927 the distinguished anthropologist Paul Radin (1883–1959) published Primitive Man as Philosopher—a collection of interviews with members of preliterate societies (before any contact with missionaries) on the great philosophical questions about the origin and meaning of life. A Greenland Eskimo explained: “Thou must not imagine that no Greenlander thinks about these things. … Certainly there must be some Being who made all these things.”[15] Lang’s and Radin’s work caused a wholesale revision of anthropological claims about primitive religion—but it has been met with the counterclaim that all religious answers to existential questions are primitive and pointless.[16] 
The Need for Meaning Just as many of the secularization faithful continue mistakenly to believe that primitive people could not engage in “sophisticated” thought, these same academics generally assume that few people around the world today ever think about the “big” philosophical questions such as the meaning and purpose of life. It is widely claimed that most people simply believe what they are told, accepting without further reflection the answers provided by the religious culture into which they were born. But that’s not so, as shown in Table C–1 (download). The overwhelming majority of people on earth do think about the meaning and purpose of life. China is lowest, but even there half the population say they think about the meaning and purpose of life. Nearly everywhere else, three-fourths or more do so. Regional variations are modest, ranging from 89 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa to 76 percent in Asia. When people think about the meaning and purpose of life, what do they conclude? Do many end up agreeing with Richard Dawkins that life has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”?[17] Whatever else one makes of this claim, it certainly is not a view that people will be eager to embrace; not even Dawkins’s most dedicated readers will find this claim sets their hearts soaring. People want life to have some purpose. And hardly anyone agrees with Dawkins that life does not serve any purpose, as can be seen in Table C–2 (download). Comparisons with Table 1–8 [from Chapter 1] (download) show that the percentage of people who think life serves no purpose is comparable to (but even lower than) the percentage of atheists in a country. Around the world, nearly everyone thinks their life has an important purpose or meaning, as shown in Table C–3 (download). Only in Hong Kong (62 percent) and Taiwan (66 percent) do fewer than 70 percent of the people think their life has an important purpose and meaning. In only a few nations is the percentage below 80, and in a great many it is above 90 percent. The Global Religious Awakening Contrary to the constant predictions that religion is doomed, there is abundant evidence of an ongoing worldwide religious awakening. Never before have four out of five people on earth claimed to belong to one of the great world faiths. Today there are millions of devout Protestants in Latin America; not so long ago there were none. Even so, Latin American Catholics are far more religious than ever before. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to more churchgoing Christians than anywhere else on earth, and North Africa and the Middle East are ablaze with Muslim fervor. Hinduism has never been stronger, and India’s transport systems are straining to meet the demands of pilgrims. The Chinese have rebuilt tens of thousands of temples destroyed by the Red Guards, and millions have converted to Christianity. Only in parts of Europe are the churches still rather empty, but this is not the reliable sign of secularization it has long been said to be; it is, rather, a sign of lazy clergy and unsuitable established religions. As has been said, Europe is a continent of “believing non-belongers.” The three tables [mentioned above] (C–1, C–2, and C–3) help to reveal why religion endures. People want to know why the universe exists, not that it exists for no reason, and they don’t want their lives to be pointless. Only religion provides credible and satisfactory answers to the great existential questions. The most ardent wishes of the secularization faithful will never change that. Secularists have been predicting the imminent demise of religion for centuries. They have always been wrong—and their claims today are no different. It is their unshakeable faith in secularization that may be the most “irrational” of all beliefs. From The Triumph of Faith. Reprinted with permission by ISI Books. 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 GOD’S WORLD PUBLICATIONS Home View this article on the full website. Religion is not doomed,

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