Modern and pre-modern religious values: an update

In a previous post, I developed a continuous latent variable for pre-modern/modern religious values based on data for waves 5 to 7 country surveys in the  World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS). I used this data to estimate average values of the latent variable for 104 countries for the period 2017-2020. I have recently re-analysed the combined updated IVS dataset released earlier this year [1-4]. In a recent post, I presented revised estimates for trends in the prevalence of atheism and religiosity. The main revision to the dataset was to correct an error in the data for the USA which had led to overestimates of atheism prevalence in my original analysis.

My earlier post discusses in some detail the conceptualization and operationalization of modern and pre-modern religious values. I will give a very brief overview of this in terms of Kohlberg’s three stages of moral development. Stage 1 moral values and  related religious 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 IVS questions used to construct the latent variable. I dropped the question concerning belief in heaven and added a question concerning sexual freedom (approving of sex before marriage). Belief in heaven is highly correlated with belief in hell but has a somewhat higher population prevalence and is less discriminatory between modern and pre-modern values. In constructing the previous version of the modernity latent variable, I argued that sexual freedom issues were associated with the pre-modern values of the era when high fertility was important to ensure some children survived to reproductive age, and societies thus discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality. I excluded sexual freedom questions from the analysis on the grounds that the demographic transition to low child mortality, low fertility and widespread availability of reliable contraception is very recent and values are still changing in this domain. However, this is actually an argument to include at least one sexual freedom variable as a sensitive indicator of modern versus pre-modern values.   

I have revised the estimation of the modernity latent variable (referred to hereafter as “modernity”) based on the categorical responses to the 12 questions shown in the following plot. This plot shows the item response cut-points for these questions on the estimated latent variable scale. The analysis was implemented as an ordered probit model using the stata procedure gsem for generalized structural equation models. The model was fit to the entire IVS dataset, not just the most recent survey waves 5 to 7 as previously.

For ease of presentation in the following plots, I applied a linear transformation of the estimated modernity values latent variable by multiplying it by 6 and adding 4.5. This resulted in the average value of the latent variable  at country level ranging from 0.28 for Pakistan to 9.54 for Sweden in the year 2020. At individual level, 90% of values of the values latent variable for all respondents in all surveys fall in the range –0.21 to 9.60 with a median value of 4.52.

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.

In every culture zone, practicing religious people have the lowest score for modern religious values, ie the most pre-modern values) and modern religious values increase with decreasing levels of religiosity. The variation across culture zones is approximately as substantial as the variation across religiosity categories.  To examine the combined evolution over time of religiosity and modern religious values, I also recomputed the religiosity latent variable that I previously estimated (see here). I also applied a linear transformation of the estimated religiosity latent variable by multiplying it by -1.22 and adding 5. This also reversed the direction of religiosity so higher values are associated with lower levels of religious belief and behaviour. This resulted in the average value of religiosity  at country level ranging from 9.6 for Ethiopia to 1.55 for Sweden and 0.20 for China in the year 2020. At individual level, 90% of values of religiosity for all respondents in all surveys fall in the range –2.2 to 11.2 with a median value of 4.9.,

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 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 experienced 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.

Note on uncertainty

These plots, and the country or culture zone comparisons show broad patterns but specific small differences should not be over-interpreted. I have not attempted to estimate uncertainty ranges for these statistics because for surveys implemented in many countries by different study teams the most important contributors to uncertainty of statistics are generally not the survey sample size or sampling issues but other less quantifiable differences in survey implementation, design and translation. Also important and difficult to quantify are differences in translation, interpretation and choice of question response categories in different populations. Most of the IVS surveys are representative samples of adults with sample size ranging between 1 and 2 thousand.  This is quite similar to the typical national opinion poll where uncertainty of statistics is typically around 2 or 3 percentage points.

There are a substantial number of countries where the WVS and EVS both conducted a survey in the same wave. I’ve assessed the median difference between the two surveys for a country to provide some quantification of the typical variation induced by sampling methodology, survey design and implementation. It will not include cross-national differential response associated with language, translation and response category cut-point shifts.

For the religiosity categories at country-level, average prevalences differ by around a median 10% (relative difference). This drops to around 5% at culture zone level.  There is an additional layer of uncertainty added in the estimation of latent variables due to the uneven prevalence of missing questions and values across survey waves, with generally large proportions of missing values in earlier survey waves. So smaller differences and trends in results shown here should not be over-interpreted.


  1. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
  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:].
  3. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  4. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
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