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Choosing God

The increasing fragmentation of society and looser connection between religion and the state in some regions sees more of us turning to God to help define who we are

There has always been a desire to counterbalance choice and individual responsibility with a sense of moral certainty.  This goes some way to explain the growing trend toward faith.  As John Micklethwait and Adrain Woolridge point out in their book, “God is Back”, “In a world of ever greater competition displacement and opportunity, faith has become a useful attribute for prosperous people.  But religion also fulfils a role lower down in society providing support for those who have lost out in global capitalism or feel bewildered by it.”  This probably explains why, across the globe, belief in god is on the increase.

Looking at a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, it is clear that a general belief in religion is widespread and expanding.  The US is one of the most religious nations in the Western world with 92% of Americans believing in the existence of a god or a universal spirit -70 % are certain of God’s existence, in Pakistan 95% believe religion is very important and even, in China, a state historically tied to secularism, religion plays an important role with 31% of the population regarding it as “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives and only 11% stating that it is not at all important. Europe alone is wrapped in secularism with only 21% of Europeans saying religion is very important to them; this number would be even lower if the migrant population is taken out of the equation; in London 44% of the people going to church are African or Afro Carribean. Christianity is on the move and 60% of practising Christians now live in the developing world – in 1900 80% lived in Europe.

Faith is a powerful generator of social capital and there is a marked correlation between religion, health and happiness.  Pew shows that Americans who attend religious services once or more a week are happier (43% very happy) than those who do not. This trend has been fairly steady since Pew started the survey in the ‘70s and is more robust than the link between happiness and wealth.  Attending religious services weekly rather than not at all has the same effect on happiness as moving from the bottom quartile to the top quartile of the income distribution and, as Micklethwait and Woolridge point out, is a lot easier to do. For the first time in history, more of us are choosing our religion rather than sticking with the one we were born into.

Christianity and Islam are the two global religions and in the 20th century Islam has done much better than Christianity in the popularity stakes. The Muslim population has grown from 200 million in 1900 to 1.5 billion today. In comparison Christianity has declined in the centre (there are more Catholics in the Philippines than there are in Italy) whilst Islam is resurgent across the Arab world and some Christian scholars predict that Islam will overtake Christianity as the world’s biggest religion by 2050.  Muslim countries are also profoundly Muslim in a way that Christian countries are not – 99 % of Indonesians and 98% of Egyptians say religion plays an important role in their daily lives.

That is not to say that the global spread of American style Evangelical Christianity has been slow.  Indeed Pentecostal denominations, including charismatics, are the world’s fastest growing religious movements comprising a quarter of the world’s Christian population compared with just 6% 30 years ago.  According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, about 17m Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400m, or over a third of Africa’s population.  Going forward many see this increasing in number and influence: They are now having a noticeable effect on public-policy debates such as abortion, homosexuality and the rights of Muslims to convert to Christianity.

There are numerous reasons for the rise in spiritual belief.  From a practical perspective religion can act as an informal club.  Signs of religious commitment are generally speaking hard to fake so provide a reliable signal to others, this produces trust and so makes business easier to transact.  This is having impact in surprising places.  In a recent paper Professor of International Business Economics at Beijng University, Zhao Xiao argues that China’s economy is benefitting from the spread of Christianity saying that “from the perspective of human society the most successful model is church + market economy. That is to say the happy combination of a market economy that discourages idleness together with a strong faith (ethics) that discourages dishonesty and injury”.   Xiao’s assertion is that Christianity is a sign of higher ideas and progress and that spiritual wealth and material wealth go together. Certainly the growth in the Christian fellowship is noticeable. According to the latest surveys done by China Partner and East China Normal University in Shanghai, there are now 39 – 41 million Protestants in China – a rise from 14 million in 1997. It should also be noted that China is not only open to Christian philosophies; it actually has as many Muslims as Saudi Arabia and nearly twice as many as the entire EU. By 2050 China could be the world’s biggest Muslim as well as the biggest Christian population .

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the generosity of the welfare state and the success of religion.  As the state takes on more responsibility for health, education and so on, the need for religious based charities declines.  This may be an additional reason why religion is enjoying growth in many developing countries which are too needy to afford Europe’s welfare provision or are philosophically disinclined towards a state welfare model – China and South Korea in particular.  Of course religious philanthropy is not exclusive to the Christian faith – the Taliban also use social welfare as way of engaging with the local population for example by funding and stocking hospitals. This philanthropic approach however may also shed light on why more wealthy countries with a strong welfare state are generally more secular – take France for example.

Religion provides an anchor for the millions of migrants who are leaving their traditional villages for the new megacities. Large numbers of young men, who come to the towns looking for work, have few traditional structures to keep them under control. Religion can offer a sense of identity and purpose. This is particularly important for the Muslim population in Europe which looks set to continue its growth trajectory given the number of Europeans of working age will decline by a projected 7%, the number of retired people will rise by 50% over the next 10 years or so leaving Europe little choice but to import workers from the Muslim societies on its southern borders where birth rates are high and job opportunities are limited.  The problems associated with this are multiple as many immigrants have to pick up the low skilled or short term jobs that Europeans don’t want any more.  Understandably this can lead to a sense of marginalisation and isolation.  Small wonder the hope and security of a religious faith is attractive.

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