Faith in decline

27 Aug 2012


In Canada, where I am currently, I have been frequently asked about, the 11-year old Christian girl from Islamabad facing prosecution under our draconian Blasphemy Laws. I’m sure other Pakistanis abroad must be facing the same predicament. How do you defend the indefensible?

What makes it all so much worse is the fact that she is not only illiterate, but is suffering from Down’s Syndrome that affects mental balance. A rag picker, she came across a few pages she couldn’t read on a garbage dump, and allegedly destroyed them without being aware of their religious significance. Canadian friends have repeatedly asked how the young girl could be accused of blasphemy under these circumstances. The question unasked and left dangling in the air is: what’s wrong with Pakistan?

In four words, an excess of religiosity. We always suspected things were getting worse, but in a recent WIN-Gallup International poll for the Religion and Atheism Index, this impression has been confirmed and quantified.

According to this survey, conducted in 57 countries with over 50,000 polled, there is a 9 per cent decline in those declaring themselves religious between 2005 and 2012. In the same period, the number of atheists has gone up by 3pc. In Pakistan, however, this trend is reversed, with the number of those declaring themselves to be religious going up by 6pc from 78pc to 84pc.

Interestingly, and somewhat intriguingly, 2 per cent of the Pakistanis surveyed see themselves as atheists, up from 1pc in 2005. If this is indeed an accurate reflection of religious attitudes in Pakistan, then there are nearly two million atheists in a country being torn apart in the name of religion. I am impressed by the fact that 2pc of the 2,700 surveyed in Pakistan, or 54 brave persons, declared they had no religious beliefs at all.

Unsurprisingly, China leads the world in the number of atheists, with fully 47pc of the population declaring they didn’t believe in God. And yet, both the left and the extreme religious right acclaim China as Pakistan’s best friend. Clearly, in this case, birds of a feather do not flock together.

Another unsurprising finding of the survey is that the poor tend to be more religious than the rich: 66pc of the poorest fifth of those surveyed see themselves as religious as against 49pc among the richest 20pc. This reveals the truth of Karl Marx’s dictum about religion being the opiate of the masses.

This trend is reinforced by the finding that religious belief weakens with educational levels. 68pc of those without any, or very little, education saw themselves as religious as against 52pc of those with a university education. 19pc of those in the latter category are self-declared atheists. In another survey among American college campuses, there was an even stronger linkage between high educational qualifications and atheism.

While 74pc of all Muslims surveyed saw themselves as being religious, 82pc of Hindus viewed themselves to be practising believers. These figures are dwarfed by the 97pc of the Buddhists asked the same question. By contrast, only 38pc of the Jews in the poll saw themselves as religious.

This survey, while capturing religious beliefs around the world, does not specifically address the attitudes of Muslim migrant communities in the West. This lack is partly redressed by Doug Saunders in a long article in the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading dailies. He informs us that out of France’s 4.7 million Muslims, 8-15pc regularly attend religious services, with only 5pc going to a mosque every Friday. 28pc say they never pray, and 20pc claim no religious affiliation. Astonishingly, 42pc support the ban on hijabs in the classroom.

So clearly, the integration of Muslim migrants with their host communities is occurring at a faster pace than many right-wing opponents of immigration would admit. This also reveals that Muslims in the West are diverging from the attitudes of their relatives back home.

Much of Europe today is going through a post-religious phase with attendance in churches plummeting. And for many of those who do attend service on Sundays, being in church is more of a social gathering than going to a place of worship. Despite the lack of religiosity, ethical and moral standards are generally far higher than in societies that are outwardly very religious.

So what do these trends reveal? Clearly, as societies progress and prosper, and citizens attain higher levels of education, the need for comfort in the form of faith and dogma weakens. The poorer one is, the greater the belief in a life after death where suffering on this earth will be redeemed. Heaven will be the reward for accepting one’s lot in this world, while hell awaits those who have been arrogant in their wealth and power.

But as poverty is reduced, so too is faith in an afterlife. And with fewer believers, social attitudes are undergoing a profound change. For instance, the number of couples living together and the number of children born out of wedlock is increasing rapidly in the UK, while those getting married are decreasing. But there is no longer any social stigma attached to those born to unwed parents, especially among the working classes.

In the United States, some 60pc see themselves as religious, while 30pc declare themselves to be ‘not religious’ without calling themselves atheists. Out of the first category, a significant number are evangelists, and ‘born again Christians’. Many of them are Republicans and fiercely pro-Israel. In a recent survey, a majority of Republicans were suspicious of Muslims, and questioned their loyalty to the United States.

Surprisingly, despite appearances to the contrary, Pakistan does not figure in the 10 most religious countries in the world. This will probably cause considerable chagrin among our clerics. But this does not alter the fact that we seem to be so certain of the strength of our faith that we happily kill in its name.

Our minorities and women are permanent hostages to our religious fervour. Girls like the 11-year-old from Islamabad and women like Asia Bibi are routinely targeted for alleged blasphemy, as though any sane person would deliberately commit the act in such a violent society. Perhaps education and progress will change some of these primitive ideas.