Baylor University Professor and writer Rodney Stark disagrees.
In The Triumph Of Faith: Why The World Is More Religious Than Ever (ISI Books, 2015, 260 pages, $24.95), Stark examines the state of religion around the world. Stark looks not just at Christianity, which is expanding rapidly in place like sub-Sahara Africa and China, but also at Islam, Hinduism, and the other major world religions. Using data and statistics from dozens of sources, Stark demonstrates to readers that a belief in some sort of god and commitment to religious practices is not shrinking. On the contrary, faith in some sort of power outside themselves is expanding among human beings around the planet. “The deeper one digs into the data,” Stark writes, “the clearer it becomes: the popular notion of an increasingly secularized world is not merely wrong but actually the opposite of what has been taking place.”
Using that data, statistics collected by a variety of groups, The Triumph Of Faith examines the growth of religious faith around the globe, ranging from Turkey to Japan, from the United States to China. Unlike many others who have addressed the decline of organized religion, a decline that is real in some mainline American Protestant churches, Stark includes the “unchurched” in his study, those who don’t formally belong to a religious body but who nevertheless belief in a higher power. He reveals that “Agnostic” Europe is a myth. He digs into the fervency of Muslims regarding their faith compared to 60 and 70 years ago. He shows readers why sub-Saharan Africa is swinging heavily toward Christianity and why certain countries in Latin America have more devotedly embraced their traditional Catholic faith.
One fascinating chapter — The “Unchurched” Japanese — particularly drew my attention. Previous investigation had convinced me that Japan was, as Stark puts it, a “post-religious society,” yet The Triumph Of Faith reveals that the Japanese hold to both Shintoism — “the way of the gods” — and Buddhism. Few of them claim membership in an organized religion, yet the vast majority of Japanese “use” Shintoism to ask blessings from the gods, to remember their dead, and to pay homage to their ancestors.
Stark concludes his chapter on the Japanese by citing statistics well-known to all familiar with today’s Japanese culture: the high suicide rates, the low birth rates, the aversion even to sex among large numbers of Japanese. He concludes his picture of the Japanese with uncharacteristic criticism regarding religious influence when he states that the highly individualistic systems of Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism “… offer no social support against loneliness and despondency.”
Stark is an academic — among other accomplishments, he serves as Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor — but his prose and his citations are eminently readable. Like How The West Won, Stark’s myth-busting account of the development of Western ideas reviewed last year in The Smoky Mountain News, The Triumph of Faith challenges much of what we accept as true regarding religious faith, not through polemics but through careful diagnosis. It is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the place of religion in today’s world.
On a lighter note, Michael P. Foley’s Drinking With The Saints: The Sinner’s Guide To A Holy Happy Hour (Regnery Publishing, 2015, 487 pages, $29.99) gives us reason to seek both the Holy Spirit and holy spirits.
Here is a book that serves several levels of “spirituality,” ranging from brief and often humorous histories of the saints to several hundred drink recipes. Drinking With The Saints is aimed at both the pure of heart and the delight of the spirit — or spirits.
Take the entry for June 4 as an example. This is the feast day of St. Francis Caracciolo, a holy man unfamiliar to me. Saint Francis C. battled a rare skin disease as a young man, and was renowned for preforming lowly duties “such as sweeping floors and washing dishes.” For this saint, Foley urges us to raise a glass of a brandy cocktail called “Lizard Skin.” He also directs us toward wine from the province of Chieti, where St. Francis Caracciolo lived.
Though clearly aimed at Catholics, Drinking With The Saints should appeal to anyone who enjoys cocktails, wine, beer, or history. Foley clearly is a master of mixology, ranging, for example, in just a few pages from the taste of wine from Italy’s Veneto region to a brief history of Drambuie, from various cocktail concoctions to quotations from Shakespeare and the Old Testament. In addition to these attractions, Drinking With The Saints is handsomely bound and contains hundreds of illustrations, and Foley’s wit, crisp as a properly made martini, provides continual amusement.
Three cheers for both these books.