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Mar 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.

2 comments

  1. 1
    kuraL

    There is some warrant for this hypothesis. The Quiet Revolution of Quebec of the ’60s saw the state assume welfare responsibilities that were almost entirely the domain of the RC Church. And it – I would like to think – also stamped out the last vestiges of traditional French Catholic anti-Semitism and Fascistophilic tendencies which for years had found refuge in Quebec after the Gaullists mercilessly stamped it out in Free French territories of the WW2 and post-WW2 France. Charles de Gaulle while being a committed Catholic was also an uncompromising secularist of the French mold. Trudeau came close.

  2. 2
    Brian Iverson

    In Response to your series ‘Why Atheism is Winning’. I wish I enjoyed your optimism for the US & religion but I have severe reservations. I do not see the restoration of economic and social security in the US anytime soon. Nor am I convinced that we will use the “ubiquitous global communication” to overcome the wealth, power and beliefs of the oligarchy/plutocracy in place.

    I see the problem as that of true believers.

    I see the continuing erosion of the middle class and the impending economic collapse of the middle class (projections are for continuing declines in home prices due to more foreclosures, short sales etc); the highly financed (Koch Brothers)union busting activities (Wisconsin, then Ohio, maybe Michigan) that are aimed at lowering wages and reinforcing the plutocracy being more firmly entrenched will only cause people to lose jobs, their home, & their dreams. And when hope is gone in lock-step this will strengthen the pull of the churches.
    No one is asking, if all the states are cutting public employee wages and and making their states more business attractive, what is the end game? What jobs are we fighting for? What will the pay be like? What will our public schools be like? Well, the pay will like the pay of the people that are working for the businesses that are paying so much less than what public employees are paid Now. Who wins this game? With the money and more control and limitations on the exchange of information, private schools, etc, modernity will not even be a consideration.

    The most baffling thing is the almost religious belief by poor people, people who have been hurt financially, people who are struggling, believing that by lowering middle class wages and benefits and then lowering taxes on the rich and businesses, that the billionaires and big businesses will really help by creating more jobs.
    The reality is that businesses and the wealthy
    are accumulating more wealth now than any time in the last hundred years and are in fact spending their free cash on buying back their company stock and investing overseas. Any new jobs created are at much lower wages.
    The churches will be preaching that this life is not important, that you must work to save your soul. And our democracy will be lost because no matter who is elected, the rich will be there to sway their opinions.
    And this combination of religious and political extremists that are true believers will cause great havoc. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups. Whether it is to save their souls, or believing the sales-pitches of the anti-government, unfettered capitalistic billionaires, reality just does not have a place. And what the US has that other countries do not are a lot of very wealthy capitalistic people who want more; that want it all.
    And when conditions do not improve, the anger of the religious and political extremists will be directed at “others” as the cause, because that is what will be preached, that is what the news pundits will say.
    Chicken little? Maybe. I hope I am woefully wrong and in a few years people will make fun of me for being so fearful and negative.

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