Modern and pre-modern religious values: an update

In a recent post, I presented revised estimates for trends in the prevalence of atheism and religiosity for 110 countries over the last 40 years. This was based on a new analysis of the 2021 release of combined data for the WVS and EVS in the Integrated Values Surveys (IVS) 1981-2021 [1, 2]. The main revision to the dataset was to correct an error in the data for the USA. This post summarizes my updated analysis of modern and pre-modern religious values and for the first time  I have also carried out an analysis of time trends from 1980 to 2020. See here for full details of the construction of a revised latent variable for modern values and the analysis of time trends.

My earlier post discusses in some detail the conceptualization and operationalization of modern and pre-modern religious values. I here give a very brief overview of this in terms Kohlberg’s three stages of moral development. Stage 1 moral values focus on absolute rules, obedience and punishment and an individual is good in order to avoid being punished. In stage 2, the individual internalizes the moral standards of the culture and is good in order to be seen as a good person by oneself and others. Moral reasoning is based on the culture’s standards, individual rights and justice. In stage 3, the individual becomes aware that while rules and laws may exist for the greater good, they may not be applicable in specific circumstances. Issues are not black and white, and the individual develops their own set of moral standards based in universal rights and responsibilities. As moral values evolve through the three broad stages, the size of the in-group (“us”) with which an individual identifies typically expands from tribe to ethnic group or nation to all humanity.

Because pre-modern religious teaching is expressed and interpreted in mythic terms, it may appear to conflict with scientific understanding of the natural world. A person with pre-modern values may thus reject scientific findings, whereas another with modern values will understand that the myths communicate aspects of the human condition, but are not to be interpreted literally, and that the domain of religion relates to meaning, values, ethics, and does not generally conflict with the domain of science.

In revising my analysis of pre-modern versus modern religious values, I have slightly revised the set of questions used to construct the latent variable. I added a question concerning sexual freedom (approving of sex before marriage). In pre-modern times when high fertility was important to ensure some children survived to reproductive age, societies strongly regulated reproductive behaviours and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality. I previously excluded sexual freedom questions from the analysis on the grounds that the demographic transition to low child mortality and low fertility is very recent and many cultures have only begun to adapt to this change. However, this is actually an argument to include at least one sexual freedom variable since it is a sensitive indicator of modern versus pre-modern values.   

There is a general trend of increasing modernity in the culture zones associated with Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and former Soviet regions, excluding the Orthodox East.  I have grouped these together as a single larger zone labelled “West” and the other regions are grouped as “East”. The following plot shows the trend in modernity (population average) for West and East from 1980 to 2020. There is a sustained increase in modernity in the West at a close to linear rate of increase over time. Despite the flat trend in the Sinic East and Orthodox East, the overall trend in the East is decreasing modernity with a somewhat faster decline during the years 2005-2010. These two trends largely cancel each other out, so that at the global level there has been little change in the average level of modern versus pre-modern values over the forty-year period.

The following plot shows the co-evolution over time for religiosity and modernity by culture zone from 1980 to 2020. For most regions, religiosity and modernity have evolved towards the upper right. Those regions where it has evolved in a different direction have arrows indicating the direction of time.

For the Reformed West, Old West, Returned West, North America and Latin America, modernity has increased over time with religiosity (ie. with reducing religious belief and practice) at almost the same rate across all these regions. The Orthodox East in contrast has experienced a change in religiosity towards increasing religious belief (non-practicing) at the same time as modernity has slightly increased. This reflects the fact that in this culture zone in the post-Soviet period, “orthodoxy” has become an expression of national identity rather than increased religious belief/practice. The Sinic East has experied some reduction in religious belief/practice, with little change in modernity.

In contrast, the Islamic East, Indic East and Sub-Saharan Africa have all evolved in the opposite direction towards higher prevalence of pre-modern religious values and greater religious belief/practice.  As a result, there has been negligible evolution of religiosity and modernity at the global average level.


  1. EVS (2021): EVS Trend File 1981-2017. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7503 Data file Version 2.0.0, doi:10.4232/1.13736
  2. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].

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