According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) over 12 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheist or agnostic and another 12 percent as deistic. That means close to one quarter of the US population (the most religious country in the first world) does not believe in a God that can be known or that has spoken to man.
The situation in Western Europe is even more dramatic.
Belief in God declines in more developed countries and is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%).
The above quote is from a a provocative article in Psychology Today, "Why Atheism Will Replace Religion", by Nigel Barber. He gives four reasons why atheism is growing faster than religion in today's world.
1. Religion is no longer necessary to cope with economic and health-related uncertainties.
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.
2. Religion is no longer necessary to cope with physical, emotional and psychological problems.
In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion.
3. Religion is less popular with the more educated.
This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence.
4. Religion is no longer necessary to fulfill the social and entertainment needs of people.
Moreover, sport psychologists find that sports spectatorship provides much the same kind of social, and spiritual, benefits as people obtain from church membership. In a previous post, I made the case that sports is replacing religion. Precisely the same argument can be made for other forms of entertainment with which spectators become deeply involved. Indeed, religion is striking back by trying to compete in popular media, such as televangelism and Christian rock and by hosting live secular entertainment in church.
Jonathan Merritt, in an article in The Huffington Post, disagrees with Barber. He writes:
Barber ignores the unrivaled work done by people of faith throughout history. No other social organization can report the miracles, life-change, healing, and hope produced by faith communities. There is a new generation rising up to meet the brokenness of the world with innovative and, one might say, supernatural solutions. No sports team or therapy group can claim that.
I think the demise of religion has been exaggerated by Barber. It is true that more and more people feel the freedom to publicly announce their unbelief but atheism still carries a stigma in the USA. It is doubtful that a person could be elected as President of the United States who admitted he or she was an atheist. On the other hand, though, the UK may soon have an atheist as prime minister. David Miliband has an excellent chance to one day be the Prime Minister. So things are changing, but Europe is decades ahead of the US.
In addition, as I pointed out in a previous post entitled, Is Religion Cognitive-Emotional Cheesecake, religion still has a lot of appeal. I think religion will continue to evolve, as it always has, and accommodate itself to a more scientifically-oriented culture, but it will not disappear any time soon.
Would the world be better off without religion? I tend to think it would. Just imagine if we could wave a magic wand and make Islam disappear. Many (but not all) of the world's conflicts would no longer exist. While Christianity is not as big a threat to world peace, it does in my opinion, siphon off resources that could be much better used. Hopefully, man will one day realize that to focus attention and resources on this world rather than on a future world is in all of our best interests.