In the contemporary Western world, people tend to believe that religion is on the decline and that faith in a higher power or supernatural force will eventually become a thing of the past. Dwindling church attendance and academic theory support this view. At the same time, there has been a large increase in people reporting on censuses that they have no religion – the so-called “nones”. However, the argument about secularization is a complex one with a number of different ways to interpret, or argue against, the theory.

What is very important to consider is that despite statistical fluctuations, eight out of 10 people worldwide still self-identify with a religion. In many places,the role played by faith and religious culture in public life is increasing. In these contexts, faith groups exercise authority, strengthen social bonds and provide services; they advocate for change and mobilize communities.

Although within the mass media, faith groups are often portrayed alongside negative commentary on the role of religion in cultures and societies, this is not the full story. There are radical groups; some of which are faith-based, some political or ideological. However, looking at the big picture, the large middle ground has a positive impact, and they often support local, national and transnational cooperation to alleviate human suffering and address very real world issues.

Adding to this, it is also important to consider the role of personalized faith within people’s lives. Just because an individual is not going to a church, mosque, temple or synagogue does not mean that they do not have faith. In fact, there is growing evidence to support the argument that for large percentages of the population, faith is an important part of their identity. It moves them to act in certain ways, and guides their values and principles.

To this end, when we consider the challenges facing today’s world and ask what faith has to do with tackling them, the answer is: a lot. The Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith’s recent survey confirmed that while many people in the West were leery of organized religion, they also recognized the significant role faith can play in dealing with critical issues. Our council aims to cast a different light on the place religious belief holds in public life, and foster a renewed understanding of religion in today’s society.

Read our report, Does Faith Matter? Leaders on the Role of Faith in Society

Author: Christopher Helland is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at Dalhousie University in Canada; and member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith

Image: A devotee holding a rosary prays during Sunday Mass at Santo Nino Church in Tacloban city, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha