Despite the plethora of predictions for centuries by prominent scientists and intellectuals regarding the disappearance of belief in God, today it is evident that the secularization thesis has failed. In addition to supporting the claim that religion is as vital today as it was centuries ago, this article will try to provide a spectrum of the ideas and predictions great thinkers have conveyed about the prognosis of religious belief in human history and try to indicate some essential questions they have neglected, as well as some fallacies involved in these ideas.
In the nineteenth century, trapped in his nihilism, Nietzsche sends his God into the graveyard and declares “God is dead!” Then, he makes his madman cry out, “We have killed him-you and I. We are his murderers.” Despite his boldness and frenzy, Nietzsche is not celebrating, he is mourning. He feels abandoned in his dark cave of nihilism and loses hope. God is not there anymore watching over him above the clouds, and his despair makes him weep on behalf of humankind. Nietzsche suffers intensely because even if we are mistaken and God is actually not dead, we have killed Him and now we are doomed to live our lives without Him; Nietzsche realized that God is dead in the hearts of modern men-killed by rationalism and science.
Everyone was astonished at Nietzsche’s audacity; however, he was certainly not the first one to pronounce or predict God’s death. Voltaire, as early as the eighteenth century, had predicted that the end of religion would arrive within the next fifty years. Less than a century later, the French thinker Auguste Comte announced that, as a result of modernization and the emergence of the science of sociology, human society would soon outgrow the theological stage of social evolution and moral judgments would be based on social science rather than religion. Similar to the claim of Enlightenment thinkers, great names such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, as well as the pessimistic intellectuals of the post-World War II era, predicted the decline of religion and proposed that the secularization of the world was imminent.
Moreover, attempts to send God to the graveyard have continued in recent history, perhaps becoming even more impudent. The debate on the issue has gone so far as to feature on the cover of Time Magazine in 1966; the question “Is God dead?” was written in bold red on a black cover, leaving a lasting impact on peoples’ minds. During the psychedelic 1960s, a student magazine in Atlanta even ran a satirical obituary of God in newspaper style: “ATLANTA, Ga. , Nov. 9-God, creator of the universe, principal deity of the world’s Jews, ultimate reality of Christians, and most prominent of all divinities, died late yesterday during major surgery undertaken to correct a massive diminishing influence. Reaction from the world’s great and from the man in the street was uniformly incredulous.” During such a time of non-theology, the students were apparently not mourning the loss of God anymore; on the contrary, they were elated to send a disturbingly mighty authority to the grave. The striving, self-centered generation of the new era was denying its need for belief in God. Feeling a newfound power through scientific advancement and an unprecedented knowledge about everything imaginable, it was a fierce rebellion, a cry of freedom that would eventually end in despair.
Today, one cannot help but wonder if humankind is still rebelling against the existence of its creator or have we gone through a catharsis and found the God we had once lost? Have the rumors of God’s death reached the rest of the world? Could gigantic machines and tons of pages of knowledge stuffed into encyclopedias have made belief in God unnecessary? When meteorologists gained a more profound knowledge of the causes of thunderstorms and achieved the ability to predict them a week before they happened, did that disprove the existence of God? Could people live their lives overlooking the questions about existence that have always intrigued their minds?
It appears not.
Today, it looks as if everything has not turned out, in any way, to be as predicted. A contemporary sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, points out that the number of people who believe in God is very high today; this number is considerable, even in Europe where secularization originated.2 To support his claim, he gives the example of Iceland, which was claimed to be the first fully secularized nation. Based on the 1990 World Values Survey report, 81 percent of Icelanders expressed confidence that there is life after death, 88 percent said that they believe humans have souls, and 82 percent reported that they pray to God. The survey also reveals that in Iceland only 2.4 percent of the population describe themselves as “convinced atheists.” Moreover, recent studies report empirical data which show that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and that proportion has never dipped below 94 percent3 (Hadden 1987). In Religious Change in America, Andrew M. Greeley4 reports that in every Gallup Poll that has asked whether the respondent believes in God, more than ninety percent say they do. In addition, ninety percent of Americans pray to God, three-fourths believe in the possibility of life after death, and about seventy percent think that “people who have led good lives” receive some reward in the hereafter, while more than fifty percent also believe in hell. Importantly, neither of these percentages has changed significantly in the last fifty years. In addition to the statistics in the U.S., a study conducted among European scientists has found that the scientists who believe in God outnumber those who do not. In a 1996 study, Larson and Witham found that only 14.5 percent of eminent scholars in Europe said that they had no definite belief in God.5 The sociologist Peter L. Berger, who, after being a strong advocate for the secularization thesis during 1960s, felt compelled to recant his earlier claims and acknowledges that “the world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled the ‘secularization thesis,’ is essentially mistaken.”6 Similarly, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: “after nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and a misrepresentation of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’”7
In light of all these failed predictions and current statistical facts, one cannot help but wonder where those early scholars and their many followers were mistaken, and why and how belief in God is still so high today all over the world. From the very beginning of the debate, the predictions of the secularization thesis were twofold: since the Enlightenment, a decline in both individual piety and religious influence in state affairs has been expected by the intellectuals. As far as the influence of religion in the social system is concerned, the predictions have turned out to be partially true. The church lost its once secure and absolute authority in state affairs and accordingly its power in society also diminished. Europe then went through a metamorphosis and apparently emerged as a giant power that had grown too fast to be caught up with. This temporal relationship made many scientists speculate that it was God who had handicapped human advancement on earth. Marx claimed belief in God was the opium of the masses, which made people sedated, numb, pacified, and too content with the world. For him, belief in God made people accept their lot in life and it caused a lack of drive to succeed in a world which was mortal and worthless compared to eternal life in heaven. Consequently, once the opium were taken away from the miserable men, human advancement and the evolution of society would follow.
This mentality that linked the birth of science and technology to the disappearance of God introduced science as the antonym of religion. As a result, the predictions that a decrease in belief in God would cause an increase in scientific advancement, while an increase in knowledge would bring about a decline in religion were supported by many. In other words, the assumption was that once the ignorance was eradicated, the opium would be unnecessary, and the secularization of the world would be imminent.
There was a major fallacy in their way of thinking as far as the origin of religion was concerned. Many thinkers assumed that religion and the idea of “God” were fabrications by the human species; they served as a vehicle for humans to make sense of the mysteries of natural and supernatural incidences. For them, religion was a solace for human suffering and powerlessness. According to their view, if God was nothing but a consolation in times of suffering, a safe harbor in times of powerlessness and scarcity, and a meaningful explanation for everything that happens out of our control, then God could just as well disappear and be replaced by knowledge and science. For instance, in the past it was understandable that when ancient tribes could not comprehend why their fellow tribesman had started to act strangely they had only one explanation: he was possessed by evil spirits.
The supporters of the secularization doctrine incorrectly imagined that once humankind had attained more information about neurotransmitters, hormones, and acquired the ability to interpret magnetic resonance imaging of brain waves, such advancements in science and technology should eradicate the need for supernatural explanations and also the need for god/s. Yet, it is apparent that science has not succeeded in replacing the belief in God in peoples’ lives.
In his famous book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute since 1993, suggests that the main deficiency with these predictions was the fact that they did not take into account the kinds of questions we humans ask, such as “Why am I here?” “Where did I come from?” and “What happens after I die?” From an evolutionary perspective, on which the predictions about the end of religion and particularly belief in God relied, these existential questions were unnecessary since all existence and life in the universe started by chance after the Big Bang. Accordingly, there was no specific purpose to existence in this world and thereby no such possibility of a Hereafter. All human distress, fear and weakness in this regard were the result of ignorance, and thus only a full knowledge of the universe would be able to eradicate them. However, despite enormous advancements in science and technology, people in the modern world do not seem to be fully satisfied with such answers. It is evident that the great steps that have been taken to eliminate human ignorance have not been able to prevent high rates of suicide, depression, or new searches for meaning, even in the most developed countries.
One of the reasons why belief in God has survived, whereas the idea of the secularization of the world has not, lies in the fact that, contrary to the cold and cruel answers of the materialistic perspective which dooms people into nonexistence forever, belief in God attributes a purpose for life and existence in this world by virtue of the afterlife. Death, a primal fear of human beings, in this regard, is not non-existence: things do not go into nothingness, they rather pass from one sphere of reality to another; they go from the manifest world to the world of the unseen; they turn from the world of change and transience to the world of eternity. Moreover, since the material aspect of the world is transient and mortal it is full of pain for humans. We human beings are endowed with a desire for immortality and an intense love for existence.
It is belief in God that fulfills this desire and love for existence by guaranteeing an afterlife. In addition, belief attributes purpose and meaning to all beings and events on the earth. The denial of an afterlife turns human existence into worthlessness and human nature can never be satisfied by such emptiness. Yet, without belief in a merciful Creator, all beings are condemned to meaninglessness. This meaninglessness produces a feeling of loneliness for humans, as all calamities and acts that incur evil or harm are attributed to chance alone. Belief in God, however, saves human beings from loneliness; the fears and grievous sorrows that loneliness produces can only be eliminated through reliance on God’s mercy. That is, believers know that there is One who listens to them, who is aware of their most trivial needs, and whose power encompasses everything with His boundless mercy.
Contrary to the unkind path that non-belief offers to people, belief in God appeals to the spiritual side of humans, a side that has been widely ignored for so long by Enlightenment thinkers, as well as by modern intellectuals and scientists. While science helps people partially to understand the questions of how, it falls short in explaining why: why I am here, why things happen the way they do, why they all end. Because these existential questions are perennial and the solutions are beyond rational determination, people today, as in the past, will find those answers in another realm: the realm of the Unseen.
1. Tillich, Paul. (1957). Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row.
2. Stark, Rodney. (1999). “Secularization, R.I.P” Sociology of Religion. 60(3):270.
3. Hadden, J.K.1987. Toward Desacralizing Secularization Theory. Social Forces 65:587-611.
4. Greeley, A.M.1989. Religious Change in America.Cambridge,MA.:Harvard University Press.
5. Larson, E.J., and L. Withan.1997.Belief in God and immortality among American scientists: A historical survey revisited. Nature 386:435.
6. Berger, Peter L (1999) The Desecularization of the World. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center.
7. Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. P.79