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Monday, June 7, 2010

Will Atheism Eventually Replace Religion?

Belief in a personal god seems to be on the decline.

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.

16 comments:

  1. Oops, you're out of date here. David Milliband is not UK foreign secretary. His party (Labour) was ousted from power early last month. We now have a coalition government of Conservatives (traditionally to the right) and Liberal Democrats (centre). The deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats is Nick Clegg, an 'out' atheist. Asked in the election campaign if he was 'a man of faith', Nick replied 'no, but my wife is'.
    (Think about it!).

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  2. I can only hope that atheism will be the way of things to come since societies that reach a rational mode of thought naturally tend to do better: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

    The only danger I see is that human beings being the irrational dumb beasts they are will glom on to some other type of woo or delusion.

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  3. CNeil,

    Thanks for the correction.

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  4. Regarding Barber's first point,"Religion is no longer necessary to cope with economic and health-related uncertainties," I am not particularly sanguine. The Great Depression aside, the twentieth century was a period marked by rapidly rising prosperity and a rapidly rising human population. This is a trend that is simply not sustainable. I fear that the twenty-first century could be the period when the chickens come home to roost, when everything goes all to hell. The Great Recession of 2008 could be merely a curtain-raiser. I have already read anecdotal accounts of people who have lost their jobs turning to religion as a coping mechanism.

    If things really do go to hell in coming decades as I fear, Barber's third point, "Religion is less popular with the more educated," may also become less relevant as fewer people are able to afford the luxury of acquiring advanced educations.

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  5. I can't wait for the day when atheism replaces religion. But you Atheists better be careful for what you wish for. If there is no religion, that would mean you'd have to find something else to blame all your problems on. And you wouldn't have mean Christians to compare yourselves to, to make you feel so good about your morality or about how smart you are. Just look over to your right at all the "labels", what da hell are you gonna bitch about?

    But I can see some good in the fact that you guys can finally get an Atheist in the White House. And parents will finally let the godless babysit their kids. Also a public High School might actually win a state title in football?

    I can see it now the brand new Atheist Memorial Hospital. Right next to the Richard Dawkins Homeless shelter. Well, I almost forgot, in a world with out religion the sick and homeless problem will be snuffed out. Now that Christians aren't there to impede progress.

    And all those times when you were at a wedding reception and the D.J. played Y.M.C.A by the Village People and you refused to dance because you had to make the letter C. You can just change the lyrics to Y.M.A.A and have fun with normal people again.

    It will be like Heaven. (oops, sorry if the word heaven offended any one). I mean it will be real nice. The only real problem that could arise is that if we were to become a free thinking society many free thinkers might have to question their lack of beliefs and become theists?

    Peace out girl scouts, feeno

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  6. I would just like to see fanatical fundamentalism die. I have no problem with those who hold a more liberal faith.

    Less dogma and more healthy skepticism.

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  7. Actually, most Muslims are fundamentalist in the Western sense of the word and the more "moderate" version still takes the Koran as the literal word of God--with all of its notions of violence and conquest thoroughly intact. Of course, many of the Muslims here are "tolerant" of Americans but thats only because they lack in numbers.

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  8. Walter: "I would just like to see fanatical fundamentalism die. I have no problem with those who hold a more liberal faith."

    Who defines "fanatical fundamentalism"? Who defines "liberal faith"?

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  9. I am not saying that religion should be outlawed. I am saying that in my opinion, the world would be better off without it. Yes, I realize that not every Muslim is a terrorist. I never said that they were. But if one was able to wave a magic wand and make Islam disappear, it would take away many conflicts. Not only with regard to radical Islam vs. the West but also the conflicts due to Sunni vs. Shia, and lets not forget about Islamists vs. Hindus in places like India.

    Eliminating these conflicts and taking all the money that is devoted to religion and redirecting it to a better purpose would make the world much better. Is that going to happen? No, not in my lifetime and probably not ever since man is a religious animal.

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  10. I think someone had a horrible experience with religion and may be extrapolating that experience too far.

    Can religion be harmful? Yes. Can any ideology taken to the extreme be harmful? Yes. Eugenics, Communism, National Socialism....

    Politicized religion is as much a social by-product as Communism.... where there is great injustice and inequality - there are extreme ideological reactions to it.

    Hindu ideology is inherently against harming living beings. Why then do Hindus take up arms? It's not Hinduism that ought to be blamed as the culprit. Look for resource conflicts, in-group/out-group mentality, and the inherent conflict between those who have power and those who do not have it.

    Atheism isn't going to change the nature of resource conflicts, in-group vs out-group, nor haves vs. have nots.

    Atheism is not going to bring about some magical utopia. From one extreme to the next, Ken. Caute.

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  11. Dan asks:

    Who defines "fanatical fundamentalism"? Who defines "liberal faith"?

    My example of a fanatical fundamentalist would be just about every conservative Calvinist that I have ever had the displeasure of interacting with. A good example of a liberal Christian whose blog I read regularly would be Dr. James F. McGrath found over at exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com. He has a "questioning" kind of faith that I find very refreshing compared to the extremely dogmatic Fred Phelps types that I usually butt heads with.

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  12. Dan, and Walter,

    I think these terms are extremely subjective. I personally would define "liberal" spiritually as someone with unitarian, or even diestic like views.

    Does Dr. McGrath affirm the Nicene Creed of the church? If so, then I wouldn't consider him particularly liberal.

    But, that's my opinion.

    It also seems to me that it's quite possible to be open, and questioning within a more orthodox paradigm, for want of a better term, and to be dogmatic, and judgmental within a spiritually progressive worldview.

    To me, it depends more in how a person has come to their view, and especially their attitude, and response toward those who may disagree.

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  13. Grace says:

    I think these terms are extremely subjective. I personally would define "liberal" spiritually as someone with unitarian, or even diestic like views.

    My definitions are subjective since I am simply giving my opinion about what I would like to see happen. Others will surely disagree.

    Does Dr. McGrath affirm the Nicene Creed of the church? If so, then I wouldn't consider him particularly liberal.

    He does not believe that Jesus was the literal incarnation of Yahweh. So yeah, I would say he is not very orthodox.

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  14. "Eliminating these conflicts and taking all the money that is devoted to religion and redirecting it to a better purpose would make the world much better. Is that going to happen? No, not in my lifetime and probably not ever since man is a religious animal"


    I guess that wood be a interesting experiment. But if you have it your way it seem that to be consistent, you got no God, so no ultimate moals, so no truth, so everyone can make the world in a way that wood be the best for them to survive. So now it come down truth being what is decided on in each comunity or cultere.

    So now you are right back to us vs. them, because as we all know, my moral belives are way better than yours, hence my comunity is better.

    "Say what? You say yours is better? Wanna fight about it...?"

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  15. "It is doubtful that a person could be elected as President of the United States who admitted he or she was an atheist."

    50 years ago it was probably just as doubtful that a black person would be president of the United States. But it happened! And, both of his parents were atheists, so we are currently one degree of separation from having an atheist president.

    I think we might have an openly atheist president in 50 years. At least, I hope so.

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  16. People saying that Islam is the problem and not Christianity are conveniently ignoring the continent of Africa, where Christianity inspires people to accuse and torture children for witchcraft, and the American right-wing has been instrumental in pushing for capital punishment for homosexuals.
    Just because Christianity has been tempered by the Enlightenment in the West doesn't mean it's horrors can't rise again in other parts of the world.

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