How big of a role does religion play in today’s societies? And do people favour, more or less, the influence of religion in their respective countries? In answering these two quite loaded questions it is worth noting that overall today’s younger generation tends to be less religious than the generation of their parents, according to recent studies from numerous surveys across 27 countries throughout the world.
The majority of those surveyed think that religion plays a less important role today than two decades ago. There are, however, substantial regional and geographical disparities when it comes to answering this question.
Both North Americans and Europeans are particularly likely to claim that religion plays an ever less important role than in the past, with 58% in the US and 64% in Canada saying that religion plays a less important role in their societies today than it did in the 1990s.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a bit more than half – 52% – of the European public surveyed believes that religion plays a less important role in their respective countries. Only about 20% of Europeans find that the role of religion over the course of the past 20 years has remained the same.
The French are the most split on this question; 38% say religion plays a less important role today, while an only slightly higher percentage, 39%, say that it plays a more important role in their lives today.
Much like those in France, the population of the Asia-Pacific region is also very much split on their perceived role of religion in their respective societies. The majority in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India believe that religion has grown in its impact throughout the past two decades with 83%, 58% and 54%, respectively, holding this view.
The population in South Korea, Japan, and Australia tend to be of the opinion that religion has either become less important or that it has stagnated in terms of importance over the past two decades. In Africa, 65% of Nigerians and 60% of Kenyans believe that religion plays a more important role in their societies than it did two decades ago with 96% of the former and 93% majority of the latter believing that religion is very important in their lives.
How those surveyed in sub-Saharan African and Latin American evaluate the importance of religion depends largely on their level of education. Across both of these regions, adults with more education are, perhaps rather unsurprisingly, far less likely to claim that religion plays a more important role than it did 20 years ago. This educational divide is particularly distinguishable in Brazil, Nigeria, and Argentina where differences in answering this question between adults with higher and lower levels of education differed by up to 15 percentage points.
There is a global trend towards favouring a more impactful role of religion with 49% saying they are supportive of the increasing role of religion, with 13% opposed. Parts of the world, however, are susceptible to mixed sentiments on the subject. Such is the case for Europe, where a median of 32% is in favour of a more important role of religion in their respective societies. That is slightly surpassed by 33% who reject this idea.
The nations with the highest percentages of people opposing a growing role of religion are Sweden, France, and The Netherlands where 51%, 47%, and 45% of the public, respectively, voiced their concern about religion potentially becoming more important in their respective societies.
Europe tends to be the most religion-sceptic part of the world, whereas most other regions are more welcoming of an increased role for religion. Particularly prominent proponents of a stronger role of religion in the Asia-Pacific region are Indonesia (85%), the Philippines (58%), and India (53%). The single major outlier in the region is Australia, whose population is very much divided on the question.
The nations of Sub-Saharan Africa have a particularly high public approval for an increased role of religion with 75% of those surveyed in Kenya and Nigeria saying they would like to see religious institutions play a larger role in their countries. In Nigeria’s case, it is worth noting that a significantly larger majority of Nigerian Muslims (88% of those surveyed) who say religion is an important element of their daily lives. That number is far smaller than the country’s minority Christian population, where only 61% of those asked said that religion is a dominant force in their day-to-day activities.
In terms of age, older adults, defined here as adults aged 50 and over, tend to be more supportive an increased role of religion in 10 countries. The biggest difference between older and younger adults, defined here as adults aged 18 to 29, is in Italy where the younger population is far less interested in religious practices. This particular age gap difference can also be observed in Canada and the US, where older individuals are 19% and 22%, respectively, more likely to see a prominent role for religion in their lives.
The one exception is in the Philippines, where young adults are 15 percentage points more likely to approve of an increased role of religion in their country than older adults are.
On a global level, there is, as one would expect, a very strong correlation between those who say that religion plays a very important role in their lives and those who favour religion playing a bigger role in their societies.
As an example, 69% of Australians who say religion is very important in their lives also favour an increased role of religion in their society, compared to just 25% of those who say religion is not so important in their lives – a difference of 44 percentage points.
Those numbers can also be seen in other developed Western countries like The Netherlands, Canada, and the US where a wide gap, an increasingly polarised gap, exists between young people who want to see religion play a significant role in society and those who prefer an increasingly secular existence.