Religious faith and personal optimism go together concluded an Angus Reid World Poll based on a survey of 20 nations in late 2006. "Despite variations across the globe, spirituality clearly does seem to have an influence on the way people actually feel about life day-in and day-out. 60 per cent of global respondents who expressed optimism about the future say religion is very important to their daily lives. Conversely, 63 per cent of respondents who felt pessimistic about their outlook think religion is simply not that significant."
The Angus Reid Poll found that religion was on the decline in both Europe and Canada, which is no surprise to those who pay attention to these things. Indians, South Africans, Mexicans and residents of three Middle East countries still consider religion an important part of their lives. France was at the bottom of the list, with only 17 per cent of respondents expressing an interest in religion, with Britain at 23 per cent, Germany at 24 per cent and Spain at 31 per cent. Italy is the lone exception among continental European nations with 51 per cent having an interest in religious faith. One can understand why Pope Benedict XVI is deeply concerned about "Christian" European culture and its future when these numbers are put into some critical context.
Saudi Arabia was the most religious country of the 20 nations surveyed at 96 per cent, followed by Egypt with 89 per cent and South Africa with 70 per cent. Lebanon and Mexico were at 65 per cent each and India at 55 per cent. (This last number surprises me having made several trips to India in the 1980s.) Moving to North America, the proportion of Canadians who say religion is very important in their lives has declined from 61 per cent in 1992 to only 39 per cent today. (The laws and common morality of Canada have both slipped precipitously during this same period of time, making Canada increasingly more like Europe than like their American neighbors to the south.)
A similar decline in the United States, however, showed that religion being very important in people’s lives had moved downward from 83 per cent to 63 per cent. Mexico is the only predominantly Catholic country where more than 60 per cent of respondents expressed a real interest in religion.
What does this kind of data really mean? Perhaps not that much but one thing does seem quite clear. When you divorce religious practice from everyday life the results will usually be a rise in pessimism and nihilism. Western cultures are plainly losing their Christian foundations while a Christian revival in the global south and Africa is causing religious faith to grow exponentially. In Asia the same is increasingly true. One can only wonder what this picture will look like in another 10 to 15 years, given these kinds of trends. It seems clear that the West will grow increasingly secular, thus more pessimistic, while other major population centers might experience just the opposite effect. Could God be altering the landscape of the world and a different, and increasingly less-Eurocentric, faith will become predominant? Most believe this will be the case.
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The connection between faith and pessimism is an interesting one and worth exploring as we share our faith with non-Christian friends. John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine” in which he touts a world without heaven has always struck me as profoundly dark and pessimistic. Many people whom I know, however, consider it an expression of hope. How can that be? There is a disconnect somewhere that I do not understand.
If God is not significant, then human life and history are like a giant truck hurtling down the road without a driver. To remain optimistic while riding in that truck, one would have to be a fool. But nonbelievers are not all fools. I just wonder how anyone can maintain their hope without personal faith in a God who is significant.
David Wells, in his book “No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?”, presents reasons for the spiritual malaise that ultimately leads to the hopelessness that you describe. His theses (crudely put) are that this pessimism results from our preoccupation with self and the church’s abandonment of theology (defined simply as (1) a confession of belief and doctrine, (2) reflection on the confession, and (3) working out a world view and structure for living in line with #1 and #2).
(Let me admit that I do little justice to Dr. Wells’ book.)
In his address at the 2006 Desiring God conference, Dr. Wells speaks to the altering that you speak of. For example, he says there may be more Christians in China than America.
God is, of course, not Eurocentric, not Afrocentric, nor any other self described orientation. Thank God He is apart from, and above, our self-absorbed world view.
I take heart that Christian men and women, including Drs. Armstrong and Wells, are prayerfully considering these matters and making the results of their prayer and study available to us. Thank you.
As a minister of the gospel one part of me gets disheartened to hear about the loss of interest in religion. The other part of says that the fields are ripe for the harvest. Think about Jesus among the Samaritans in John 4. How do I respond to it? I try to give my heart to studying and teaching the Bible with optimism in my heart and my faith engaged. I train my 5 children to be servants of God’s word from a young age, sending them to public school so they can communicate to the unbelieving world. I dedicate my family and home to evangelism. I have hope that America will not take the way of Europe. We have a foundation in Bible believing faith. Surely a revival will happen among us in God’s time. We simply must be faithful to the task that God has called us in our small part of the world.
Good insights fom you all. Thanks for these helpful expansions on my original post.