I’ve rediscovered a piece from 2007 that reads like the best news ever about organized religion: “Why the Gods Are Not Winning”, by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman. The authors find that secularism is eating away at religion, and will eventually swallow it whole.

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never before has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when only one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive activity rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when no major faith is proving able to grow as they break out of their ancestral lands via mass conversion, and when securely prosperous democracies appear immune to mass devotion? The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

Many people have reported a resurgence of religiosity since 9/11. Paul and Zuckerman counter that there is no evidence for this.

Since 1900 Christians have made up about a third of the global population, and are edging downwards. No growth there. Hindus are coasting at a seventh the total, no significant increase there either even though India adds more people each year than any other nation. The WCE predicts no proportional increase for these faiths by 2050. The flourishing revival of two megareligions whether by democracy, edification, or fecundity is therefore a mirage. Having shrunk by a quarter in the 20th century, Buddhism is predicted to shrink almost as much over the next half century. Once rivaling Christianity, paganism — whether it be ancient or modern as per New Ageism and Scientology — has over all contracted by well over half and is expected to continue to dwindle.

The reign of Bush II certainly saw an acute rise in public religiosity, including a full-scale war in Iraq that was theologically justified. P & Z’s statistics imply that although the voices of piety have become louder, they have not grown in number.

A decade and a half of sampling finds conservative (thought to be about two thirds to four fifths of the total of) evangelicals and born-agains consistently stuck between a quarter and a third of the population. The majority that considers religion very important in their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare majority in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton era. But instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping again.

Tell me more!!!

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. … Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it. From a high of three quarters of the population in the 1930s to 1960s, a gradual, persistent decline has set in, leaving some clerics distressed at the growing abandonment of small churches as the big ones gobble up what is left of the rest. Weekly religious service attendance rose only briefly in the months after 9/11 — evidence that the event failed to stem national secularization — and then lost ground as the Catholic sex scandal damaged church credibility. As few as one in four or five Americans are actually in church on a typical Sunday, only a few percent of them in megachurches.

Wow. To what do you attribute this trend?

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

But we are a 1st world nation that is still pretty religious.

It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy; before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

We’re religious because our health insurance is crappy?

In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal existence.

Now, wait a minute. You guys started out with statistical facts, but this is pure speculation. And it assumes that people really believe, and act on, religious propositions such as “God is love” and “Good people go to Heaven.” As I demonstrate in my upcoming book, there is little reason to think that religious “beliefs” are anything more than mechanically parroted phrases.

So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition. … 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. … 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.

Ouch. Is the U.S. really that different, in terms of the average person’s experience? Makes me wonder again about moving to Canada, or Holland.

Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It’s guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation.

Yes, that does seem to be what they want.

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.

Well, I still think you have misunderstood what “religious belief” is. But from the international, statistical point of view, that probably doesn’t matter. And even if your speculations regarding its causes are false, the trend seems to be strong. Thanks for the best news I have heard in years.

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