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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 comparison with the end of the Roman Empire.

In the United Kingdom, 77% of the population declares itself Christian. The Anglicans are in the majority, but the number of Catholics who go to Church is higher than that of the Anglicans in absolute numbers. In Great Britain, 14% say they have no religion.

In the Scandinavian countries -- Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway -- Catholics are a growing minority thanks to the arrival of new immigrants from the Philippines and Korea.

In Denmark, those with no religion are 11%, 11.6% in Norway, and 12.7% in Finland. In these countries, on one hand there is secularization, and on the other, the worship of nature, of pagan influence, which regards nature as sacred.

In Germany, a distinction must be made between the East and West. Sixty percent in the former republic of the East say they have no religion, while in the West this percentage is 15%, found especially in large cities.

In Poland, there are very few nonbelievers. But one can say that Marxist materialism is being replaced by consumerist materialism and this is the greatest problem.

In Hungary, of 10 million inhabitants, only 887 people say they are atheists. But the majority of the population live their religion in their own way.

In the Czech Republic, half the population declares itself atheist or without religious confession, while Slovakia is Catholic in the majority.

Q: In terms of statistics, what can be said about the Muslim countries?

In countries of Muslim majority there is no reliable data because if one is not a believer, one cannot declare it. This is the reason why all the numbers are false.

Q: After tracing this map, what conclusions do you draw?

Cardinal Poupard: Militant atheism is receding, but there is a drop in active membership in the Church. Unbelief is not growing in the world, with the exception of the countries where the secularized cultural model prevails.

Religious indifference is growing in the form of practical atheism. From the pastoral point of view, what is most worrying is that atheism and unbelief is growing among women. For millenniums, the faith was transmitted in the family by mothers, while now we are witnessing a break.

Moreover, there is a new fact: the growth of those who are indifferent, that is, men and women who believe without belonging and belong without practicing.

There is an increase in those who say they are religious but do not go to Church, and who believe in a whole series of practices, which border on the magical.

Q: Given this situation, are there signs of hope for the Catholic Church?

Cardinal Poupard: Of course, I point out especially the new religious movements: Neocatechumenals, Focolarini, Communion and Liberation, Charismatic Renewal. For a quarter of a century we have seen them expand numerically and geographically. I meet them everywhere in the world, and they have also grown in spiritual intensity and depth.

It is a reaction of life inspired by the Holy Spirit to respond to the secularized culture. At a time when there seems to be a dissolution, they show a strong sense of aggregation and belonging, witnessing a strong religiosity rooted in the ecclesial and personal encounter with Christ: in the sacraments, in prayer, in the liturgy, in the celebration of Mass.

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