Why is religious belief fading?

| May 2, 2007 | 45 Replies

In an Edge article titled “Why the Gods are not winning,” Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman characterize the belief that religion is gaining ground in the 21st century as a myth.   First, they present some real life statistics:

The evangelical authors of the WCE [World Christian Encyclopedia] lament that no Christian “in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists….  throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world’s religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians” (italics added). (The WCE probably understates today’s nonreligious. They have Christians constituting 68-94% of nations where surveys indicate that a quarter to half or more are not religious, and they may overestimate Chinese Christians by a factor of two. In that case the nonreligious probably soared past the billion mark already, and the three great faiths total 64% at most.)

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

Then, they ask why and they come to a remarkable conclusion.  It’s not that religion takes care of poverty and economic disparity.  It’s the other way around.  Substandard socio-economic activity is the fertile soil for the sprouting of religion.  If you bring the people the chance to live the good life, religion withers away:

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.

We can also explain why America is has become increasingly at odds with itself. On one hand the growing level of socio-economic disparity that is leaving an increasing portion of the population behind in the socially Darwinian rat-race is boosting levels of hard-line religiosity in the lower classes. On the other hand freedom from belief in the supernatural is rising among the growing segment that enjoys higher incomes and sophisticated education. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are typical upper crust disbelievers.

The practical implications are equally breath taking. 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. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged.

Their conclusion?

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. . . . The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century . . . The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout.

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Category: Culture, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (45)

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  1. Ben says:

    I'm not sure what to make of Tim's harsh treatment of the Catholic University which was *planning* to censor the Students newspaper.
    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1266#comment-

    I think denouncing the school *could* be construed as acting in an aggressive/offensive manner. (Which I fully support, in this case.)

    On the same token, I noticed that Tim agrees that Climate Change is not getting enough merit… and presents a brilliant idea for changing people's beliefs. What Tim didn't mention is that FEAR and DENIAL of SCIENCE a CORNERSTONE of Christianity.
    http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1202

  2. Erika Price says:

    I know many people have weighed in on Vicki's thoughts already, but I'd like to throw in, too: You bring up that many religious people do great things, so their religious affiliation should not matter. Should we focus solely on "converting" everyone to a freethinking mindset before bettering the world? Of course not. But a big area of confusion arises when we say that those good-doing religious people help others and make the world a better place because of their religious faith. Fear of an invisible world of punishment or reward doesn't do much to motivate a person's behavior, as we can see from the countless believers who do more harm than good.

    Regardless of that fact, much of our cultural landscape tells people that in order to live a good, meaningful life, they must commit themselves to religious decency even before highlighting decency in the real world. That doesn't seem fair, nor does it seem productive in actually motivating people to make the world a better place. Do decent, yet religious people deserve praise for their great contributions? Of course they do! But we should actually give them credit for doing good things of their own free will, not because of their religious beliefs, which have nothing to do with it!

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    Erika, I have to say whoooa! Hold on just a cotton-pickin' minute.

    Let's look at this. I have heard from a number of people here, (including you I believe, but forgive if me if I'm wrong) that religious belief is the motivation of much evil and suffering in the world. No argument from me.

    But when I point out that religious people have done and are doing some really great and progressive things, their religious beliefs have nothing to do with it. Huh?

    So when the Freedom Riders integrating the Greyhound bus line sang: "We know as freedom fighters that we may go to jail, but when you fight for freedom, the Lord will go your bail…" their religious belief had nothing to do with their resolve to withstand threats of arrest and beatings for a cause they believed in?

    I don't think there's a hard and fast line separating religious belief (or lack of), culture, and life circumstances in forming our world view and motivating our actions. Many people recognize that they could do good outside the framework of a religious community, but simply feel that they are more effective and supported working within it.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    I think Tim hit the nail on the head: to presuppose a conflict between theism and science, or theism and progressive values, is dysfunctional in a time when all people of

    "good faith"need to work together if we are going to survive the 6th great extinction.

    Erika: yes there should be more recognition that one can act ethically without religious belief.

    Erich: You worry that I am not concerned about the large numbers of dysfunctional religious believers out there. I am, I just think that the locus of danger is the punitive world view of the typical fundamentalist believer, rather than belief in supernatural powers as such. I think that someone who is comfortable in their religious tradition does not worry too much that others are not following their particular moral code. They may feel superior to others (what in-group doesn't) but they don't think they need to impose their code of behavior on others.

    Fundamentalism is based on a deep anxiety about the modern world, in which, as Marx points out "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." The need to have a fixed, absolute moral code which everyone must acknowledge and abide by, or face both temporal and eternal punishment is very strong in fundamentalism. And it is based on fear: fear of change, fear of people who are different, fear that they could be wrong after all.

    By all means, go ahead and criticize beliefs or behavior that you consider dysfunctional or ridiculous. I don't think that people who are emotionally secure in their religious faith will be threatened. Though they may be irritated if you make sweeping generalizations about history or culture.

    Also, the Christian right did not gain power in the US through some kind of religious mojo, but common or garden variety political organizing. It can be opposed by the same means.

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Ben writes:

    Is typing a blog considered an action? If it is, you are quite an activist, not that that is a bad thing.

    I tend to think that this type of back and forth should not be considered a substitute for political action in real life. I think it is more what Erich called "sharpening the saw" – staying informed, figuring out where you stand on certain issues, learning to state your position clearly.

    That's probably a hopelessly old-school attitude.

  6. Ben says:

    I don't think Erica was implying that faith has "nothing to do with" the good deeds performed by Christians. On the contrary, it seems like Erica is saying that giving faith too much credit *causes* much confusion for most (rational) people.

    Indeed, we all know many religious folks go through life acting like saints (or what they THINK a saint is) because they believe in a greater power and want to be sent to heaven not hell. But, we have atheists and Christians doing things for *different* reasons. The deeds of the "other side", whether good or bad, are not at all predictable because they come from a foreign source. Confusion and conflict often arise because of the unpredictability of faith. (This is not to say that science will always provide all the correct moral decisions, it is just more predictable than faith, imo)

  7. Tim Hogan says:

    Science doesn't provide moral decisions, Ben. Science is not more "predictable" than faith in providing correct moral decisions. People make moral decisions. Some choose poorly, others choose wisely.

    What's at issue is how do humans formulate morality, whether from some belief in ourselves alone as generators of morality or of some other source which gives us guidance, which some call God or some fusion of the two.

    I was not endowed with faith while in the womb. Even though brought up Catholic, I constantly questioned what I had been taught. I explored other faiths, and returned to Catholicism after those journeys. I don't believe in any purity of my faith or superiority over any other faith, or the lack of the same.

    I have made a choice for me. I still question my faith, and its teachings. I have Raymond Burke as my archbishop, who chooses to ignore any other teaching of the Church, except his version, of the "culture of life"– which I believe is a scandal upon the Church in the strictest sense.

    In the Burkian world, its OK to wage aggressive and unjust wars resulting in tens (maybe hundreds of) thousands of dead and wounded, execute children and the mentally impaired or mentally ill, allow access to healthcare to be denied the unborn and recently born resulting in cruel and unnecessary deaths or diminished quality of life, and he openly supports Republicans despite their failures to take up his issues while in majorities in the US House and Senate, and having the Presidency.

    If we are to evolve ethically or morally in the post-Cold War era, we must seek to create a fabric of understandings which support our continued survival and development as a species. At every juncture in our past, when there has been a large development of culture and innovation in our ability as a species to destroy ourselves, we have developed some new system of ethics or morals to pospone or prevent destruction. In the era where we had developed the unltimate ability to wipe ourselves out as a species, I assert such an ethical or moral breakthrough has not yet been generated. I have replied on this issue before. If what you see is an eternal conflict among believers and un-believers, perhaps such a breakthrough is not yet possible. Too bad for you, I still believe we will do it.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Tim writes, "People make moral decisions. Some choose poorly, others choose wisely."

    I am curious what Tim means by the juxtaposition of those two sentences. In a moral decision, what does it mean to choose "poorly" versus "wisely?" Aren't moral decisions about choosing "right" from "wrong," not "poorly" versus "wisely?" The latter terms apply to logical decisions, where correct logic demonstrates some choices to be better (more wise) than others. Moral decisions refer to situations in which there is ambiguity about what is "wise" and what is not. Abortion for example, is considered a moral issue, yet we do not say, "Some choose poorly, others choose wisely."

  9. Ben says:

    Well, I should point out that it was science which proved that racism is just a figment of our imaginations. In fact, we are all the *SAME* race as proven by the human genome project. The Bible *could* have led us there, but ALAS, it has been used as a tool of oppression once too many times for MY taste!

    Also, SCIENCE PROVED that WOMEN are EQUAL to MEN!

  10. Ben says:

    Also, its Science, NOT religion which tells us that we are in danger of destroying our atmosphere. Tim, most of the deniers I talk to, proudly say things like "God intended it and He has a plan". Religion is where the denial comes from, faith that God would not harm His creations.

    Too bad for you, that you can't see the obvious conflict with a rational eye.

    Give science the same reverence you place in Archbishop Burke and we will be halfway there.

  11. Erika Price says:

    Vicki: you make a very good point. How can we blame religion for negative actions, and give it no credit for positive ones? That doesn't seem to make any sense. Actually, religion probably just serves as an underlying factor in both cases.

    Take for instance harm done in the name of religion. As we've discussed here at Dangerous Intersection before, most people who claim to "hate fags" for religious reasons probably just find homosexuals disgusting, and have dug out a convenient biblical example for their feelings of disgust. In the past, the Bible justified slavery, but white plantation owners probably didn't own slaves because the Bible told them to. The did it for personal reasons, and the Bible just helped to justify it.

    Or take one of our favorite big religious crimes: the Crusades. Again, you could even chalk the Crusades up to pure racial intolerance and ethnocentrism, only justified and explained through religious reasoning, not caused by it.

    But without religion, people would have only had real-world justifications for their actions, which unlike religious claims, must meet rational arguments and make sense. Most people don't attack religious arguments the way they attack factual or logical statements. Religion gets some kind of special pedestal, above all requirements of reasoned discourse. If you take away that free-pass to illogic, keeping slaves, discriminating against gays, and forcibly converting people suddenly doesn't have such a strong case. So many of these terrible things done in the name of religion wouldn't have happened, or persisted as long as they did.

    Yet without religious justifications, the good things that people do in the name of religion would still occur! Why such a disparity between good and bad things? Well, benevolent action has plenty of logical and emotional pulls in its favor even without religion. Most of us like to feel like good people, and enjoy seeing other people happy (if even for our own benefit, evolutionary-psychology wise). We don't need religion to motivate or explain good deeds to us. So if you take away religion, you weaken the defenses for malevolent behavior, yet somehow the good in people persists. So religion does not get the credit.

    Just because a person says religion makes them do something doesn't mean that it actually does.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: You didn't read Tim's comment carefully. Tim said that Archbishop Burke is awful (my choice of words, not Tim's). Therefore, don't tell him to show science the same respect he shows Burke!

  13. Tim Hogan says:

    Whether one chooses wisely is a matter of perspective and it is subjective. Perhaps I chose poorly in including that particular language in my comment.

    Science has my respect, Burke does not. In older times his conduct of picking and choosing which Church doctrines to promote and which to diminish was not held in high regard by the Church. I see the man as a modern day Savoronola.

  14. Jason Rayl says:

    Tim says: "Science doesn’t provide moral decisions, Ben. Science is not more “predictable” than faith in providing correct moral decisions. People make moral decisions. Some choose poorly, others choose wisely.

    What’s at issue is how do humans formulate morality, whether from some belief in ourselves alone as generators of morality or of some other source which gives us guidance, which some call God or some fusion of the two."

    I agree with just about every piece of these two paragraphs. Your conclusions, however….

    The thing you left out is this: making decisions of any kind depends on the information you have. Science does not provide moral answers, but it can give us the basis for a higher moral application. The whole notion of separate human races, which in previous centuries has allowed for a kind of self-justifying isolation of conscience, is dispelled by science. The bigot may say "I choose to hate that person because his skin is a different color and his eyes are differently shaped, therefore he is not of my race" but biologist calls him a liar. The creationist may say "I believe the world was created in 4004 B.C. by the god of the bible" but science says he is in profound error. Extreme religionists may claim "AIDS is a judgment of god and the people who contract it are sinners" but science shows that it is just a disease, like any other, and all diseases are just nature trying to get along at our expense.

    Science takes the guess-work out of establishing criteria for judgment.

    Science may not be more "predictable" for making moral decisions, but it's a damn sight more reliable when determining what is or is not a false basis of decisions.

  15. Ben says:

    Erich, you alone have the luxury of making edits… after hitting submit. :P You have proven correctly that I wrote my entire *response* after reading only a *few* lines into Tim's comment. Se la vie.

    Even so, if Tim worshipped science (while disdaining Dawkins et al.), maybe he would see my point of view better. Likewise, I am constantly getting better at putting myself in the shoes of others.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: I don't believe that "race" is a useful term, except for some very narrow medical research issues. 99% of uses are destructive and unwarranted, in my view. On the other hand, I recently caught this article on the Discover site: "Is There a Genetic Basis to Race After All?"

    Although which genes were present didn’t differ dramatically between the Asians and the Europeans, their expression did. And that expression was governed by single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)—one-letter changes in DNA­—in nearby regulator regions that determine how much of a gene’s product is made. Overall, 25 percent of the genes seem to show different levels of expression in Asians versus Europeans, and SNPs in regulatory regions probably account for much of the difference. In the case of one gene, researchers found that Caucasians expressed it at 22 times the strength that Asians did.

    http://discovermagazine.com/2007/may/is-there-a-g

  17. Ben says:

    "In fact, we are all the *SAME* race as proven by the human genome project."

    I still think that there is a nice ring to this statement. Further, I think that it is still a useful argument against racism. Thanks for raining knowledge on my parade though, always welcome, even if it means I may need to change the tune a bit.

  18. Ben says:

    “AIDS is a judgment of god and the people who contract it are sinners”

    We also saw this with the recent disasters of Katrina (Ivan, Dennis, Francis) which punished those all those fornicators in New Orleans. The Mega-Tsunami which killed 300,000 thousand sinners in SouthEast Asia, and don't forget those sinners on Wall Street who received a negative judgement from God on 9/11. And those who barely survived by "miracle alone" are now seen as saints. Somebody please give me a deer pistol, this is too much for me!

  19. Dan Klarmann says:

    If you can precisely define a category separator for race (or species, for that matter), then such a popularly accepted distinction can be scientifically accepted.

    I mention species because no micro-but-not-macro-evolution believer has ever come up with a definition that defines a difference between species (that "cannot" evolve) without biting them in some distinction between breeds (that demonstrably have evolved).

    It seems that "race" is a humans-only word for "breed", only defined by some particular physiological distinction that has no consistent genetic basis.

  20. Erich Vieth says:

    Here some mitochondrial DNA research showing that American Indians are not descendants of the Israelites. Sorry, Mormons. http://www.irr.org/mit/southerton-response.html

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