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Imagine No Religion? It’s Harder Than You Think

This year, the stunning a cappella group Pentatonixwhich last year topped the Christmas album charts—has claimed John Lennon’s classic hit “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

And so on.

It’s an easy choice. The song’s visceral appeal has endured, and Pentatonix has refreshed it with lush harmonies and a compelling visual narrative around current identity questions. But how has its central premise fared over the years?

When Lennon released ‘Imagine’ in 1971, his vision of a religion-free world was less a dream and more a growing consensus.

When Lennon released “Imagine” in 1971, his vision of a religion-free world was less a dream and more a growing consensus. To be sure, the atheistic regimes of the day were far from “living life in peace,” but sociologists found it easy to “imagine no religion” in a rapidly modernizing world. The logic was simple—in Western Europe, modernization had bred secularization. That trajectory would continue, and where Europe led, the rest of the world would follow.

There was only one problem with this “secularization hypothesis.”

It was wrong.

Failed Hypothesis

Far from ushering in a religion-free world, the early 21st century has witnessed what leading sociologist of religion Peter Berger (1929–2017) called the “empirical falsification” of the secularization hypothesis. In Western Europe and North America, the proportion of people identifying as religious has indeed shrunk, and looks set to shrink further. But at a global level, not only has religion failed to decline as prophesied, but sociological projections actually paint a picture of an increasingly religious world.

The latest sociological projections suggest that by 2060, Christianity will still be the largest global belief-system, having slightly increased from 31 percent to 32 percent of the world’s population. Islam will be a close second, having grown substantially from 24 percent to 31 percent. Hinduism is expected to decline slightly from 15 to 14 percent, and Buddhism from 7 percent to 5 percent. But here’s the unexpected twist: by 2060 the proportion of the world without religious affiliation (including atheists, agnostics, and “nones”) will have declined from 16 percent to 13 percent. Yes. Declined.

By 2060 the proportion of the world without religious affiliation (including atheists, agnostics, and ‘nones’) will have declined from 16 percent to 13 percent. Yes. Declined.

For those of us who grew up under the secularization hypothesis, this comes as a surprise—pleasant or otherwise. So what is happening?

Religion Is Thriving

Part of the answer lies in the link between theology and biology: people who believe in God typically outbreed those who don’t. This may be a comfort to secularists, who would rather imagine believers out-breeding them than out-thinking them.

Indeed, people are forced to think more in the modern world, because fewer people live in religiously homogeneous communities. Still, this change hasn’t resulted in a death blow to religion, or even its liberalization. Indeed, in North America the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are being swelled predominantly by nominal, cultural, and theologically liberal Christians, while full-blooded Christianity and traditionalist Islam are thriving in the modern world.

Moreover, while it’s true that in the West many are abandoning cultural Christianity, the traffic isn’t all one way. In America, nearly 40 percent of those raised non-religious become religious as adults, while only 20 percent of Americans raised Protestant switch in adulthood. In other words, my secular friends are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians than I am to raise children who become non-religious.

My secular friends are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians than I am to raise children who become non-religious.

But the biggest shock to the secular system is the story of China—a country that has tried hard to imagine no religion. It’s difficult to collect accurate data about religious practice in an officially atheist country, but Christianity is spreading in China at a remarkable rate. Indeed, Fenggang Yang, one of the world’s leading experts on sociology of religion in China, estimates that China will be home to as many Christians as America by 2030, and could be a majority-Christian country by 2050.

Secularization: White, Western Myth?

Christianity has been accused of being an instrument of white-Western imperialism. Regrettably, there are times and places where this accusation is deserved. But the white-Western narrative crumbles in light of the global church. Radical ethnic and racial diversity was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry, and today, Christianity has the greatest racial and cultural spread of any belief system.

The first African convert to Christianity is recorded in the New Testament (Acts 8:26–40), and by 2060, 40 percent of the world’s Christians are expected to be living in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in some of the countries least associated with Christianity, gospel roots go deep: the church in India traces its lineage back to the second century, while the Christian communities currently suffering in Iraq and Syria are among the oldest continuous churches in the world.

Radical ethnic and racial diversity was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry, and today, Christianity has the greatest racial and cultural spread of any belief system.

Christianity isn’t a white, Western religion. But in a twist of profound irony, the secularization hypothesis turns out to have been a white Western myth, based on the assumption that the world would follow where Western Europe led.

Waking from the Dream

Fenggang Yang argues that the academic world needs to undergo a paradigm shift, much like a scientific revolution, as we awake from the dream of secularization. If we take the best projections seriously, the big question for the next generation isn’t “religion or secular humanism?” but “Christianity or Islam?”

So, imagine no religion if you like. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the Pentatonix remix. They’re pretty irresistible! But don’t hold your breath for a secular utopia: that dream is still a fantasy.

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