Religion is losing ground around the world. Political extremism might be filling the void | Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer
·4 min read

Contrary to what some of us expected, the COVID-19 pandemic has not brought about a religious revival. Membership in churches, mosques and synagogues has fallen to record lows, several polls show. While I’m not a religious person, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

According to a March 29 Gallup poll, membership in U.S. houses of worship has fallen to less than half of the population for the first time in nearly a century. Only 47 percent of Americans say they are members of churches, mosques or synagogues, down from 70 percent in 1999, and 73 percent in 1940.

In fact, growing numbers of people don’t identify with any religion. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have any religious affiliation rose from 8 percent two decades ago to 21 percent today, the Gallup poll says.

Also, younger people are more secular and much less likely to belong to a house of worship or to describe themselves as belonging to any religion, the poll says. But this doesn’t fully explain the overall decline in church membership. Older generations have shown roughly double-digit decreases in church membership from two decades ago, the survey says.

It’s a trend that is taking place across the West, and especially in Christian churches, experts say.

A separate survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 16 percent of Spaniards, 10 percent of Britons and 5 percent of Japanese say religion now plays a stronger role in their lives than before the pandemic.

My first reaction after reading these and other surveys was that most institutionalized religions deserve what they are getting. They have failed to keep up with the times. They have brought their current problems onto themselves by remaining stuck on old dogmas and rituals rather than on people’s spiritual improvement.

And far-right religious fundamentalist groups that deny science around the pandemic, are skeptical of climate change, attack gays and embrace divisive demagogues such as former President Trump or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are further alienating growing numbers of young people.

But, on further reflection, the decline of religion in America has a huge downside.

In a post-truth world increasingly devoid of values and in which populist demagogues have turned basic values upside down by normalizing lying, and political and racial intolerance, we urgently need a moral compass.

If religions aren’t around to teach us basic values — you shall not lie, you shall not be indifferent to oppression, etc.— who will do it instead? What institution in the modern world will take that role?

When I asked Shadi Hamid, the author of an article in the April issue of The Atlantic magazine entitled “America without God,” he told me that the decline of religions in the Western world is leaving a huge vacuum, which is being filled by political fundamentalism.

“New secular ideologies are taking the place of religion,” said Hamid, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “What was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief.”

The decline of religion in much of the world has not reduced people’s need to believe in something, because, “Human beings, by their very nature, are searching for meaning, belonging, coherent structure,” Hamid told me. And that won’t change. “Nobody can survive long without some ultimate loyalty,” he added.

The danger now is that religions will be replaced by secular political fanaticism. That, combined with Facebook, Twitter and social-media companies that profit from disseminating extremist views, is further polarizing our societies.

I hope that Christianity, Islam and Judaism will re-invent themselves, as any business losing clients or any civic group losing followers would do. Religions offer us ancient tales of wisdom — regardless of whether you consider them sacred texts or cohesive myths — that can serve as a much-needed moral guide.

But they have to adapt to modern times and focus more on values than on dogmas or rituals. Otherwise, their decline will continue, and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera