I just got around to reading this very nice article by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman, which we godless heathen ought to find reassuring and optimistic. They describe how religion is fading, even here in the United States, and that it is a natural consequence of economic trends. In particular, the main reason atheism is growing isn’t that we’ve got lots of wild-eyed proselytizers, it’s simply that security and an absence of fear make religion irrelevant and even unattractive.
Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity. The other factors widely thought to be driving forces behind mass faith–desire for the social links provided by churches, fear of societal amorality, fear of death, genetic predisposition towards religiosity, etc–are not critical simply because hundreds of millions have freely accepted being nonreligious mortals in a dozen and a half democracies. Such motives and factors can be operative only if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently poor to sustain mass creationism and religion.
I’d just have to add a qualifier to that. Just as you can’t say that atheism doesn’t lead to amorality because hundreds of millions of people demonstrate that it isn’t so, we have to be careful about oversimplifying the forces driving religious belief. Fear and uncertainty are strong factors in pushing people into seeking affirmation in religion, but lots would resent that characterization. For many, tradition is a bigger influence. When I was growing up, I went to church because my parents and grandparents sent me there, and because Scandinavian-Americans were expected to be members of the Lutheran church … and to like accordion music and eat lutefisk on holidays. And if you told me I was going to church because I wanted reassurances that there were spiritual ways out of my economically fragile situation, I’d have looked like an uncomprehending fish as I tried to puzzle out what the heck you were talking about.
Millions of prosperous people are willingly and enthusiastically religious, too, and for that reason it’s also risky to claim socio-economic factors are the major contributing element to religious belief. Another piece of the puzzle, I think, is that we are social animals and there is always going to be a part of our makeup that is concerned about the behavior of the others in our group. I suspect that another motivator of the hyper-religious is that busy-body reflex: religion is a good knout to use in flogging other people and getting them to conform. That’s how I see the filthy rich televangelists and far right Republicans, anyway — religion is a tool for controlling the herd (which may, ultimately, be an economic issue, too).
So while very few individuals would say that they are religious because they are poor, and would probably be rather cranky about it if you tried to pin their faith to something so crass and materialistic, if those same individuals had more wealth and leisure, I think it’s generally true that religion would be less pressing or interesting … and education in general gives people the intellectual tools to consider the foundations of their beliefs a little more deeply, and at least leads them away from the more knee-jerk forms of religion.
I do like this next bit. We wicked materialists don’t even think of religion as spiritual!
To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.
Their conclusion, while positive, is a little worrisome. It’s like they’re handing over the formula for what not to do to the religious.
In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern.
Wait … that last sentence is wrong. How can you not notice what is going on in this country? We’ve had people working to widen the gap between rich and poor, we’re seeing public education under assault, and the people who have been doing most of this have been blatantly religious. It’s obvious how the other side is working to shift the pattern in their favor — by making America more of a banana republic than ever before.
The authors make a good point about overall trends leading towards a loss of faith — the mega-churches are a product of consolidation rather than overall growth, and look, the Southern Baptists are losing membership — but what they’re missing is that many of the new churches are extremist in thought, and fraught with a sense of being under siege by the culture, something that they encourage and exaggerate in themselves. They could wither away … or they could explode. Remember the lesson of the Library of Alexandria that Carl Sagan gave.
Also note this: secularism thrives in an environment that is economically strong, where good education is the norm. Faith thrives on economic uncertainty, and grows best in ignorance. Guess which one of those conditions is easiest to generate and maintain? Cultivating a healthy society that can grow and sustain itself, with a well-informed democratic populace, is hard work. Producing an economic rathole inhabited by frightened sheep is easy — elect a few incompetent leaders, throw away resources on futile, bloody projects, and unchain rapacious business interests to exploit short-term personal gains at the cost of sustainability, and you’ve got a recipe for a fast slide back into the dark ages.
But we don’t know of any country that would do anything that stupid, do we?