March 15, 2011
Why atheism is winning-10: Religion and insecurity
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In this post, I want to look at what is happening in the US and why. The US is the outlier nation in that it still maintains high levels of religiosity despite its modernity.
Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in their article titled Why the gods are not winning say that this is likely a temporary phenomenon and that the US will eventually fall in line with the trends in other modern developed states. As I have discussed earlier, the data suggest that this is already taking place.
The authors suggest that one factor that will drive this increasing disbelief in the US is that men are less likely to go to church. "Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation."
Paul and Zuckerman point to another factor that distinguishes other developed societies from the US and that impinges on religiosity. The security of middle class life in those societies leads to less of a dependence on god.
Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.
The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.
Compared to people in the rest of the industrialized developed world, Americans have little sense of security. For most Americans, they are only too aware that they are just a pink slip away from dropping out the middle class and one major illness away from bankruptcy and even homelessness. In that climate of anxiety, religion finds a welcoming niche, providing soothing, if fraudulent words of comfort.
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… 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.
Paul and Zuckerman conclude, "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."
The overall rise in modernity even in the face of increasing disparities within countries due to the growth of the transglobal oligarchy will lead to the inevitable decline of religion, even in those countries that are currently the most superstitious, such as the US and much of the Islamic world. The factors that favor religion's continuance are the fecundity of some religious groups and fears of economic and social insecurity while what is working against religion is modernity.
The internet and ubiquitous global communication tends to increase levels of modernity while breaking down the isolation that results in people thinking that their own beliefs are the only ones that matter or even exist. When looked at dispassionately, religion is nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in modern dress. What it has going for it is the determined efforts of some people to make the superstitions seem to have some plausible basis. But it will go the way of other similar superstitions such as fear of black cats or the number 13 or walking under a ladder. A few people may take them seriously enough to take actions based on them while for most it will be at most a casual concern.
To be religious and believe in gods will increasingly be seen as anachronistic.
Next: Some concluding thoughts.