Failed predictions of the demise of religion

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The secularization thesis is the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialized world.

Dr. Rodney Stark's in his book The Triumph of Faith wrote:

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 unshakable faith in secularization that may be the most "irrational" of all beliefs." (p. 212).[1]

Stark wrote in his book Acts of Faith:

For nearly three centuries social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will 'outgrow' belief in the supernatural. This proposition soon came to be known as the secularization thesis.[2]

A 2003 paper published by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University entitled The Secularization Debate indicates:

The seminal social thinkers of the nineteenth century -- Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud -- all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society. They were far from alone; ever since the Age of the Enlightenment, leading figures in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology have postulated that theological superstitions, symbolic liturgical rituals, and sacred practices are the product of the past that will be outgrown in the modern era. The death of religion was the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century; indeed it has been regarded as the master model of sociological inquiry, where secularization was ranked with bureaucratization, rationalization, and urbanization as the key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern industrial nations. As C. Wright Mills summarized this process: “Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.”

During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has come under growing criticism; indeed secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs3. After reviewing these developments, Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims: “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 ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.” In a fierce and sustained critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepresentations 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.’”[3]

Emergence of new religions and religious expressions

Toby Lester wrote in The Atlantic:

In 1851 the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan announced to the world that Islam was "the last religious creation of humanity." He was more than a bit premature. At about the time he was writing, the Bahai faith, Christian Science, Mormonism, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and a major Japanese religious movement known as Tenrikyo were all just coming to life. Falun Gong and Pentecostalism—both of which now have millions and millions of members—had yet to emerge. Whoops.[4]

Peter Berger's abandonment of the secular thesis

In 1968, the American sociologist and author Peter L. Berger told the New York Times that by "the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture."[5]

Berger introduced the concept of desecularization in 1999.[6][7] According to Berger, "One can say with some confidence that modern Pentecostalism must be the fastest growing religion in human history."[8]

Eddie Tabash on atheist movements in the United States

The American atheist activist Eddie Tabash said at the 2010 Michigan Atheists State Convention:

In every generation there has been a promising beginning of a true vanguard movement that will finally achieve widespread public acceptance for nonbelief. Yet, in each generation there has been an ultimately disappointing failure to actually register the naturalistic alternative to supernatural claims in the public consciousness.[9]

See also



  1. Despite What You've Heard, World Is More Religious Than Ever, Christian Post
  2. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  3. The Secularization Debate
  4. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  5. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  6. Journal of Church and State, Desecularization: A Conceptual Framework by Vyacheslav Karpov, 2010
  7. Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999)
  8. Pentecostalism – Protestant Ethic or Cargo Cult?, Peter Berger, July 29, 2010
  9. Atheists Speak Up - Eddie Tabash