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.
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.