Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Atheists have long predicted the demise of religion, and recent reports of The Pew Research Center (see Notes below) indicate they are half right.  Fewer people are religious in the libertarian democracies of the West, but elsewhere in the world more people are religious, with Christianity growing but outpaced by Islam, which is now the fastest growing religion in the world and predicted to surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2070.

            Demographic, political, social and economic trends have shaped the changing religious landscape.  In America, Great Britain and Europe, where most believers are educated and middle class and libertarian values have transformed both politics and religion, Christianity is the predominant religion and it is in decline.  In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where most believers are less educated and poor and traditional tribal values take precedence over those of libertarian democracy, Islam is the predominant religion and it is growing.

            Where the growth of Islam is strongest, the influence of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law is weakest, and that spells trouble unless Islam transforms from a rigid and fundamentalist religion that denies individual freedoms into one that is compatible with reason and libertarian values.  That transformation depends upon Islamic Law (shari’a) being considered a voluntary code of moral standards rather than one of coercive laws.  The imposition of coercive religious laws like those of apostasy and blasphemy is a primary cause for religious and political conflict in a world of diverse and competing religions.

            Radical forms of Islam, or Islamism, represented by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, are notorious for imposing harsh forms of shari’a that deny fundamental human rights, not to mention killing unbelievers.  Lethal force has an important role in protecting people from Islamist violence, but the long-term remedy for Islamism requires government enforcement of fundamental human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.  In modern Islamic regimes—even in democracies—apostasy and blasphemy laws deny those fundamental freedoms that are a prerequisite for legitimacy in a world of religious diversity.

            Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam, and like fundamentalist sects in Judaism and Christianity it asserts the absolute truth of its holy book and laws as God’s perfect and immutable word, and condemns all unbelievers.  Religious fundamentalism is a rather recent phenomenon, a reaction to advances in knowledge, reason and the libertarian values of the Enlightenment of the 18th century that challenged the truth of traditional beliefs.  While Jewish and Christian fundamentalists are minorities in their religions, Islamists are in the majority in Islamic cultures.

            Ironically, the remedy for religious fundamentalism is the same as its cause.  Ancient religious doctrines and laws must be conformed to advances in knowledge, reason and the libertarian values of the Enlightenment for a religion to survive in the modern world.  That has happened in the West, but not in tribal Islamic cultures.  The Pew Forum reports indicate that such a modernization of religion weakens it.  But for Islam to be compatible with progress and modernity it must experience its own enlightenment, beginning with the rejection of apostasy and blasphemy laws and embracing the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression.  
            Religious fundamentalism will never be eliminated.  There will always be believers who seek certainty in their faith at the expense of reason and individual freedom; but fundamentalism is countered as religions become more progressive and conform their doctrines to advances in knowledge, reason and libertarian ideals.  That trend can transform Islamic cultures just as it has transformed libertarian democracies of the West into modern and progressive societies. 

            The downside to traditional religions becoming more progressive is that they lose members.  Some leave as nones (those who claim no religious affiliation) and others leave to go to more conservative denominations to maintain their traditional faith.  Since many nones retain an individualized faith, there is more religious diversity in the West. 

            Radical Islamism is thriving in Islamic cultures, but not in libertarian democracies where most Muslims seem to have assimilated to libertarian values (see Notes below).  The most violent forms of Islamism thrive in regions where there is little law and order and weak governments cannot (or do not) protect fundamental human rights.  Providing law and order by strengthening security forces must remain a top priority in countering Islamist terrorism, but the political legitimacy of any Islamic government will ultimately depend upon it supporting democracy, human rights and a secular rule of law.       

            The seeds for Islamic enlightenment have already been planted by Islamic scholars who offered the greatest commandmentto love God and one’s neighbor as oneself as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  That great commandment puts love over law, and in Luke’s version an apostate Samaritan is portrayed as a good neighbor to a wounded Jew (Luke 10:29-37).  That common word of faith is clearly in conflict with apostasy laws.

Notes and References to Resources:

See Blog/Archives for related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? Posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted April 12, 2015; and A Fundamental Problem with Religion, posted May 3, 2015. 

The Pew Forum Reports are The Future of the World’s Religions (April 2, 2015) and America’s Changing Religious Landscape (May 12, 2015), and they can be accessed at Pew Forum listed in Links at!links/cgir

On religious diversity in America, see Emma Green, American Religion: Complicated, not Dead, The Atlantic, May 12, 2015 at  See also David MacDougall, Is America Losing its Religion or are lines more clearly being drawn? Charleston Post & Courier, May 12, 2015 at

A survey by the Pew Research Center in May 2007 indicated that Muslims in the US are “highly assimilated, close to parity with other Americans in income and overwhelmingly opposed to Islamic extremism,” evidence that libertarian values in the US have moderated more radical and militant forms of Islam. See Alan Cooperman, Survey: US Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism,, May 23, 2007.  Alan Wolfe has argued that the so-called secular American culture is actually religious, but with a commitment to libertarian democracy and human rights that trumps any conflicting shari’a laws.  Based on a poll on wealth and religiosity Wolfe found that Islam in the West like other religions has become secularized by Western culture and accepts libertarian democracy, human rights and capitalism, so there is little religious extremism even though people remain religious.  Wolfe sees a moderation of radical Islam coming from Muslims in the West. See Wolfe, And the Winner Is…, The Atlantic, March 2008, p 56.  Cited at note 6 in Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law:Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights.

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