To the secular intelligence – and actually to anyone with an educated sense of the nature of historical change – there seems to be a relationship between modernity and the decline of religious belief. Thus the many proofs of vitality among believers in the expansive religious institutions of the world beyond the liberal West are regarded as indications of a transient phase, until material development and mass education become the harbingers of enlightenment. Then men and women will emancipate themselves from the necessity of faith, a source of conflict in human affairs will be eradicated, and the world will become, if not exactly a better place, at least a more rational one. This was the sacral thesis of confident nineteenth-century progressives and twentieth-century educational technicians. Today it is the unstated assumption conventionally encountered among the intelligentsia. And it is, according to the authors of this valuable new study of religion in the modern world, a false assumption derived from an incorrect assessment of available data. If for no other reason, it must be said that their book is to be welcomed for providing religious statistics from many parts of the world. Statistical evidence for the practice of religion has been notoriously unreliable, since it is supplied by the religious bodies themselves. Just think of all those Anglican bishops who keep assuring us that green shoots of revival are thick upon the ground because every time they turn up at a church to conduct a confirmation or to preach a sermon there seems to be such an impressive assembly.
Despite its appearance of being a survey of religious institutions everywhere, this is in reality a study of American religion – ‘the genius of the Founding Fathers’ – and of its latter-day export to the rest of the planet. In its vulgar form this results in what John