- - Wednesday, January 27, 2016


By Rodney Stark

Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $24.95, 272 pages

Faith is strong, especially faith in secularization.

In “The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever,” Rodney Stark challenges the popular notion that the world is becoming increasingly secular. Marshalling ample facts and figures, Mr. Stark, who serves as distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, dismantles what “everyone knows” in the “confines of the faculty lounge.” Recent carefully collected data primarily from sources such as the World Values Survey are used throughout “The Triumph of Faith” to demonstrate the increasing faithfulness of people across the globe.

Nearly all corners of the globe are assessed, and practically all faiths are examined, not just the familiar ones like Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism and Hinduism. After all, general beliefs in the supernatural and commitment to spiritual practices by individuals not aligned with any contemporary, traditional religion are far from secular. Yet, historically, secular investigators often lumped anyone not identified as conforming to a familiar, traditional faith into the secular — and at times, even atheist — column. This misidentification led to the past and present misunderstanding of adherence to religious beliefs.

Supported by survey results, Mr. Stark makes many profound conclusions in the book. Among his findings are: Condoning an “enlightened” clergy — one that doubts the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity, for example — is “a sure recipe for the decline of churches” because people attend church “in order to worship God; if that doesn’t happen, they don’t go — or, in nations where there are options, they go elsewhere.”

Churches thrive by “offering an appealing faith, not by trying to buy people off with political promises.” The secular mindset has proposed that the phenomenal growth in religion in South America, for instance, was because of churches taking care of congregants’ physical needs more than spiritual needs. Mr. Stark demonstrates the myth of this mentality. Explaining “spiritual deprivation,” Mr. Stark shows that social scientists “seem unable to free themselves from the iron grasp of deprivation theory as they continue to teach that the primary social function of religion is to provide people with relief from their material misery . Perhaps amazingly, the data have never properly supported this view.”

In a section titled “Lazy, Obstructionist State Churches,” which examines the situation in Europe, Mr. Stark points out that Europe “has a religious ‘market’ highly distorted by government policies of favoritism.” Once again, without a solid focus on an appealing faith, attendance at government-supported churches has been weak, even in medieval times.

The secret to robust churches is competition. Church growth thrives on pluralism. Competition among religious organizations “strengthens faith by weeding out the lax and unappealing denominations and energizing the others to maximize their outreach.” Mr. Stark had proposed this view in some of his previous works.

Mr. Stark tackles the secularist mantra that science and profound discovery do not thrive under a burden of devout religious faith. Recalling work described in his engaging previous book, “How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity,” Mr. Stark notes:

“Secularists insist on portraying science and religion as being in opposition. But the truth is that modern science arose because of religion. [Furthermore, science] began and flourished only in the West. Why? Because only Christians and Jews conceived of God as a rational creator and concluded that therefore the universe must run according to rational principles that could be discovered . 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.”

With religiously and ideologically motivated terrorism gripping the world, more and more people are having their deepest beliefs challenged, and perhaps strengthened. This dire situation may also understandably lead folks to guard their religious identity, keeping it a private affair. This may make accurate future social surveys — like the ones upon which Mr. Stark’s book is based — more difficult to obtain. But, the takeaway message from “The Triumph of Faith” is that faith in the supernatural will endure and thrive more so than a belief that the world represents a mindless happenstance only understood by sanctified secularists.

Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and author of “In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big to Fail” (Stairway Press, 2016).

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