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Religious Unbelief in the World

Cardinal Poupard Draws a Sobering Sketch of Rising Secularism

VATICAN CITY, JULY 15, 2004 (Zenit) - Religious unbelief isn't uncommon anymore, says the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

"Unbelief is no longer a phenomenon reduced to a few individuals but a mass phenomenon," warns Cardinal Paul Poupard. It is manifested especially "in countries where a secular cultural model prevails," he adds.

In an interview with us, the French cardinal sketched a map of religious unbelief in the world, a problem analyzed by the culture council during its assembly last March in the Vatican.

Q: Aren't many sociologists talking about a "return to the sacred"?

Cardinal Poupard: Many talk about a "return of the sacred" without specifying that this is rather the emergence of a new weak religiosity, without reference to a personal God, something more emotional than doctrinal.

We are witnessing the de-personalization of God. This new religiosity does not coincide with a return to the faith and it is a real challenge for Christianity.

Q: What relation does this religiosity have with atheism?

Cardinal Poupard: Militant atheism is receding in the world. But there is a phenomenon of practical unbelief which is growing in cultural realms penetrated by secularism.

It is a cultural form that I would describe as "neo-paganism," in which religion is an idolatry of material goods, a vague religious feeling that is rather pantheistic, which is at ease with cosmological theories, such as those of New Age.

Evidently, it is necessary to reflect on this phenomenon, which is typical of the secularized cultures of the West.

Q: What are the results of the study made by the assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture?

Cardinal Poupard: The situations vary from country to country, from continent to continent.

In Africa, unbelief affects the population of European origin and its influence is felt in the large cities. In a country such as South Africa there are more than 6,000 different churches. It is difficult, therefore, to speak of unbelief.

For North America, in the United States the self-confessed atheists are 1%, while those with "no church" are 15%. The majority of American citizens pray, while only 1% state that they never pray.

In Latin America, Cuba is the only country where there is still an officially atheist regime in power. It is significant that after 40 years of atheist education, 86% of Cubans say they are believers, although only 15% go to Church.

Another singular case is Mexico, where for 70 years a regime governed that was controlled by Masonic groups of anti-clerical orientation. Yet, 90% of Mexicans are Catholics and 100% are devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe. This gives an idea of the profound roots of popular religiosity.

In Central America, popular piety resists the sirens of the secularized model.

In Brazil, where the greatest number of Catholics in the world reside, we are witnessing the move of believers from the Catholic Church to other Christian groups. In the '50s, Catholics were 93.5%; today they are 73.8%. In the same period, the Christian churches have grown to 15% from 0.5%.

In Argentina, 4% of the population declares itself atheist and 12% agnostic.

In Asia, the situation is altogether different. As an Asian bishop has commented: "There is no phenomenon of unbelief because there is no belief."

In Japan, for example, there is a real supermarket of religions. If we add up the number of Shintoists, Taoists, Buddhists and Christians, we reach a percentage of 125% of the population, as many say they follow several religions.

In the Philippines, the only country in Asia with a large Christian majority, with 82.9% Catholics and 4.57% Muslims, only 0.3% leave blank the box in the questionnaire on religion.

South Korea is an interesting country, with the largest number of conversions to Catholicism.

Q: But where is the phenomenon of unbelief manifested?

Cardinal Poupard: Painful news comes from Europe, with notable differences between the Mediterranean area, the center and the north.

In Italy, 4% declare themselves atheist and 14% indifferent. The majority are believers, but only participate every now and then in the life of the Church.

In Spain, a process of cultural and religious pulverization is taking place, supported by governments of Socialist culture.

In Central Europe we come across the three countries with the highest number of persons without religion: Belgium with 37%, France with 43%, and the Netherlands with 54%.

France is the country with the greatest number of atheists: 14%. In this case I am tempted to make a ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Alan
    2 years ago

    Although I am Episcopalian, my interest is in the health of orthodox, catholic Christianity. It is definitely under siege, especially in the developed world, and most especially in European countries which appear to be on their last legs spiritually. Thank you for your useful and candid discussion.

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