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Why Atheism Will Replace Religion

27 August 2012, 14:12

Please note that for this article "Atheism" also includes agnostics, deists, pagans, wiccans... in other words non-religious.

You will notice this is a statement of fact.  And to be fact it is supported by evidence (see references below).  Now you can have "faith" that this is not true, but by the very definition of faith, that is just wishful thinking.

Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe (Barber, 2012). In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists. In South Africa it is easy to see this split with our 1st / 3rd world mixture.  In economic hubs you will not be stoned to death for wearing a "I am Proud to be Atheist / Homosexual / Pagan ...." t-shirt; but venture off into rural areas and your t-shirt will spontaneously combust with the mixture of ignorance / superstition / blind faith / unscientific beliefs in the air.

Atheism is thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Why do modern conditions produce atheism?

First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (*6). 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%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%.  In United Kingdom "No Religion" has overtaken "Christians" in a 2007 poll.  Interestingly enough in Mexico separation of church and state is guaranteed by Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which also designates religious leaders as ineligible for public office, while the majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (89%); if only Mexico's neighbour can learn from this!  Further, non-religion has increased in the USA, South America, Oceania and Asia.  In Israel, 47%-50% of Israelis who were born ethnically Jewish consider themselves "secular" while >50% shy away from the traditional monotheistic faith.

The question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. 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 (*1).

Various studies (*1) have shown that atheists are more likely to be educated people who live in cities and they are highly concentrated in the social democracies of Europe. Atheism thus blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure. But why?

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.  The current economic and social uncertainty in the world certainly seems to polarize people more (*2).

In 2006, Jurgen Habermas wrote Religion in the Public Sphere, which commented on the post 9/11 Bush Era:  "Two days after the last Presidential elections, an essay appeared, written by a historian, and entitled ‘The Day the Enlightenment Went Out’. He asked the alarmist question: ‘Can a people that believe more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of the Enlightenment values . . . Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what then was modernity . . . Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the election showed that 75% of Mr Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11’.   Irrespective of how one evaluates the facts, the election analyses confirm that the cultural division of the West runs right through the American nation itself: conflicting value orientations - God, gays and guns - have manifestly covered over more tangibly contrasting interests".  This division can be seen daily on the News24 forums and is not unique the America.  It also largely stems from the influence American Evangelicals have in South Africa - think Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute with his hate speech and twisting of the facts by saying that homosexuals, feminists, and abortion led to the Marikana massacre.

And from Archbishop Desmond Tutu(*3): “If it were possible for anything to be more devastating than the unnecessary deaths that have accrued over the past 10 years, I would argue that the damage that has been done to global relations between the so-called Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds must be a candidate.”

And from religion scholar Karen Armstrong (*4) says it’s time for religion to be a force for good. “Ten years on, the world is even more dangerously polarized and religion, for obvious reasons, religion is seen not as part of the solution but as part of the problem.”

Sam Harris puts it beautifully when he says in an article (*5):  "Yesterday my daughter asked, ‘Where does gravity come from?’ She is two and a half years old. I could say many things on this subject—most of which she could not possibly understand—but the deep and honest answer is ‘I don’t know.’

What if I had said, ‘Gravity comes from God’? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it. What if I told her, ‘Gravity is God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire.  And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists’? No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why I shouldn’t say such a thing—or something morally equivalent—and yet this would be nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child. In fact, I have heard from thousands of people who were oppressed this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents."  This puts it beautifully why intellectually honest people are gravitating towards atheism.

In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage, according to copious data reviewed by Sanderson (2008). Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed "atheist" countries, women have exceptionally small families and do not need religion helping them to raise large families.  Where I live there are an alarming amount of people belonging a sect called the "Joshua Generation" church - they actively promote woman in the church to become "breeding bunnies".  The larger the family the more happy God will be, the more tithing he will get in future, the more dependant you will be on the church because you cannot really afford a large family and there will be dependent on the church.

Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. 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.  3rd World countries though still prefer or combine superstition and real medicine (*2); thanks in part to the Pope.

Moreover, sport psychologists find that sports spectatorship provides much the same kind of social, and spiritual, benefits as people obtain from church membership. See this comment of Daniel Wann [2001], a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors:  "The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration."

Sounds very much like an afternoon at Loftus?  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.

The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.

References:

*1 - See the following references: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201005/the-real-reason-atheists-have-higher-iqs  , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence , http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100224132655.htm , http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=402381

*2 - http://www.nomadit.co.uk/easa/easa2012/panels.php5?PanelID=1234 , http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2011-09-10/911-religion-islam-christianity/50354708/1

*3 - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/our-post-911-failures/2011/09/08/gIQACYa9BK_blog.html

*4 - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/time-for-religion-to-be-a-force-for-good/2011/09/08/gIQADmrHCK_blog.html

*5 - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/911-demands-intellectual-honesty/2011/09/09/gIQAYlp7EK_blog.html

*6 - Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This book is not held by any U.S. Library.

General References:

Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/

Sanderson, S. K. (2008). Adaptation, evolution, and religion. Religion, 38, 141-156.

Demographics of Atheism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism

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