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The Future Of Religion

Religious people, that is, people who say that religion is important in their lives, have, on average, higher subjective well being. They find a greater sense of purpose or meaning, are connected to stronger social circles and live longer and healthier lives. Why, then, are so many dropping out of organized religion?

Last year a team of researchers led by Ed Diener tried to answer this question. They found that economically developed nations are much less likely to be religious. On the other hand, religion is widespread in countries with more difficult circumstances. “Thus,” the authors conclude, “it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and subjective well-being depend on the characteristics of the society.” People of developed nations are dropping out of organized religion, then, because they are finding meaning and wellness elsewhere.

The real paradox is America, where Nietzsche’s anti-theistic proclamation went unheard. 83 percent of Americans identify with a religious denomination, most say that religion is “very important” in their lives and according to Sam Harris 44 percent “of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.” In fact, a recent study even showed that atheists are largely seen as untrustworthy compared to Christian and Muslims.

Why does the United States, one the most economically developed countries in the world, deviate from the correlation between religion and wealth? One answer is that trends always contain outliers. As Nigel Barber explains in an article: “The connection between affluence and the decline of religious belief is as well-established as any such finding in the social sciences…. [and] no researcher ever expects every case to fit exactly on the line… If they did, something would be seriously wrong.”

Whatever the reasons, a recent article by David Campbell and Robert Putnam suggests that Americans are catching up to their non-believing European counterparts. According to Campbell and Putnam, the number of “nones” – those who report no religious affiliation – has dramatically increased in the last two decades. “Historically,” Campbell and Putnam explain, “this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population… in the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge.”

A study by Daniel Mochon, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely bodes well with this observation. They discovered that, “while fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion-atheists and agnostics.” It’s possible the “nones” Campbell and Putnam speak of are motivated to abandon their belief by a desire to be happier and less conflicted with their lives. This might be too speculative, but there are plenty of stories, especially in the wake of the New Atheist movement, of people who describe their change of faith as a dramatic improvement for their emotional life. In a recent interview with Sam Harris, for example, Tim Prowse, a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years, described leaving his faith as a great relief. “The lie was over, I was free,” he said, “…I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years and tomorrow looks bright.”

What does this say about the future of atheism? Hitchens and others suggest that a standoff between believers and non-believers may be inevitable. “It’s going to be a choice between civilization and religion,” he says. However, grandiose predictions about the future of the human race are almost always off the mark, and it’s likely that the decline in religion will remain slow and steady. It’s important to keep in mind that this decline is a recent phenomena. It wasn’t until the 17th century, the so-called Age of Reason, when writers, thinkers and some politicians began to insist that societies are better off when they give their citizens the political right to communicate their ideas. This was a key intellectual development, and in context to the history of civilization, very recent.

To be sure, radical ideologies will always exist; religion, Marx suggested, is the opiate of the people. But the trend towards empiricism, logic and reason is undeniable and unavoidable. Titles including God Is Not Great and The God Delusion are bestsellers for a reason. And if Prowse’s testimony as well as Campbell and Putnam’s data are indicative, there is a clear shift in the zeitgeist.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Superstitious folks tend to avoid reason and science. Instead, they get their fears and paranoia fed by Fox News and hate radio.

    March 1, 2012
    • There is a lot more reason on the religious side than you think. Perhaps you could say something intelligent so that I may respond and perhpas show you someday.

      March 2, 2012
      • Sorry, Bobby, but after 50-plus years of trying to find a reasonable superstitious person, I’ve come to realize that you folks just don’t have any facts to bring to the table. But if you ever locate any real gods, just call CNN and I’ll be happy to watch that interview with god.

        March 2, 2012
        • Ok, if that’s what you’ll give me to work with, here goes…

          Your 50 year qualitative, n=however many people you have met in your life, experiment is more reason-based and reliable than 2000+ years of philosophical inquiry in to what makes for a good society? Also, you think it reason based to deny everything you don’t see on CNN? (ok, that last one was a little tongue-in-cheek)

          Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. Both sides are guilty of this belief and it frustrates me to no end. It’s a symptom of how poorly our schools have taught us to think and use logic. That is why I appreciate Sam’s work.

          March 2, 2012
          • Bobby, yes, our schools have failed to teach American children about evolution, even though it’s been more than 150 years since Darwin published overwhelming evidence . Otherwise there would be no old folks being duped into sending their money to tell-a-lie-evangelists. I would still watch for that interview with god, but I don’t see any evidence that she ever existed outside of fairy tales.

            March 2, 2012
            • Jim, we agree our schools have failed. Good, but my concept of failure is not reliant on a particular argument, one way or another. The failure is that whichever argument they provide lacks sophistication. The same is true in the larger debate on religion vs. secular humanism/supranaturalism. The lack of evidence argument is one that troubles me because there are tons of things we accept that we have never before seen. We’ve never seen an idividual atom. It’s only been a couple years that we have had pictures of molecules ( yet nearly all of our modern science is dependant on the quantam leap of faith that such things exist. If the physicists of the world took your position of, I’ll believe it when I see it on CNN, we would all still be living in the Newtonian era. There is vast evidence for God’s existance, many just choose to ignore it.

              March 2, 2012
          • Callum James Hackett #

            Bobby, it really gets on my nerves when people say that scientists take a leap of faith. We’ve never seen atoms, we’ve never witnessed the big bang, and we cannot get our heads around quantum mechanics. But why do we subscribe to these ideas? Because the models work, the maths works out, and we know this for a fact because of experimental evidence and predictive power. We have never seen an electron, but it is electricity that allows the world to communicate. We have never seen a radio wave, but it is what brought us TV for decades. It is disingenuous to state that the things we cannot see with our feeble senses which science describes therefore allows us to postulate invisible beings. There is no experimental evidence for such a being, there is no predictive power or purpose, it lends nothing to society or culture, and the very concept has no intrinsic logical superiority to fairies.

            March 2, 2012
            • Callum, first of all, it shouldn’t get on your nerves because I am a scientist who is aware of the epistemology of all the core sciences. To say that we take something on faith is not to say there is no evidence of it. The point where we disagree is illustrated in your comment in the thread below. You deny all causation when it comes to goodness and religion. I am sure Sam is much more familiar with the psychological and epidemiological studies concerning quality of life and faith but the benefits of religion far surpass just these two areas. We have tested religion out in multiple laboratories (cultures, states, eras, etc.) and although there have been some negative effects, it is through reason, understanding of contextual history, human nature, science and economics that I believe that religion is by far superior at making good human beings.

              March 2, 2012
  2. Callum James Hackett #

    I’d be wary of making the implicit suggestion that it is the maintenance of religious belief that leads to longer and happier lives. It may well be correlated with religion, but I’m inclined to doubt it’s the root cause.

    March 2, 2012
  3. HowBow #

    Sometimes tags get in the way. A “believer” sounds positive. A “non-believer” sounds negative. But believers usually cannot tell you exectly what they do believe and why they believe it.
    They begin with a conclusion and work backward.
    “It’s how I was brought up.” An accident of birth.
    Science has shown us that we don’t need God to explain the universe
    and that we don’t need God to be good.
    John Stuart Mill said that religionists don’t have a religion because they believed it is true
    but because they wouldn’t know what to do without it.
    In other words they defend what they cannot understand because they were indoctrinated
    when they were children. St. Augustine warned that curiosity was a temptation to be avoided. He knew what would happen: science.
    “Naturalists” believe that everything that exists is within Nature.
    “Supernaturalists” don’t believe it.

    March 2, 2012
  4. G.K. Chesterton had many great insights on the shift of Western Europe away from religion and faith. He said, “When a man stops beliving in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing; he believes in anything.” I think that despite being so economically developed, America has resisted the trend described elsewhere in the world due to our unwillingness to allow our government to grow to the level it has in European nanny states. As you mentioned, there is a reason Marx hated religion. He knew that all men, no matter how rational and “enlightened”, can not deny the deeply innate messianic prophecy. The more secular states also have more social programs and the far less liberty compared to the US.

    March 2, 2012
    • Callum James Hackett #

      As a citizen of the UK, I would much, much, much prefer to live in a Western European country than in America, and particularly the Scandinavian countries are rightly held up as supreme examples of what our democracies should become. America denies its citizens the fundamental right to universal health-care, which is a democratic travesty, and the political system panders to religious fundamentalists, allowing insane candidates like Rick Santorum a popular platform. This is all despite secularism having been written into your constitution! Much of the American population is woefully ignorant of their history, despite it being such a young country. I find the U.S. frightening, and I wish it didn’t have so much power. Your image of Europe is one that has been fed to you by right-wing American politicians who like to spread fear of communism. In reality, you have the financial freedom to generate income equality and the OWS movement, and lack any social liberty that ought to be the staple of a 21st century society. The fact that there are people gaining such traction against gay marriage and abortion is a travesty to be ashamed of, and Europe laughs scornfully.

      G. K. Chesterton, by the way, quite evidently got it wrong. When a man is willing to believe in something without evidence, it immediately follows that he could believe in anything – in the pseudoscience of crystals and homeopathy and psychics. When a man stops believing in God, he very often does so because he founds his worldview on evidence, therefore he can only ever believe those things which are grounded in empirical fact.

      March 2, 2012
    • XmlQWi ckopikibfbue

      February 9, 2013
  5. Callum, I’ve been to the UK four times. I know that there is a philosophical gulf between you and I that can not be crossed here in this forum, especially if the comments take the long form and rely on multiple assumptions. Let me then at least address one assertion of yours. Our founders (your rebels) sought to establish a secular government. That is not to be mistaken with a secular society. They knew that there was a shift towards secularization in the societies of Europe at play and they made sure to put limitations on the power of the state so that the citizens would be able and free to maintain their faith in God. Even so-called deists like Jefferson and Edison were aware that in order for this American experiment to be successful, the people would have to maintain a solid foundation of faith in something other than the state. We are both running our own trials in secularization. You lot are a few hundred years ahead of us so we’ll see how this one turns out eventually.

    March 2, 2012
  6. HowBow #

    Jefferson said that the free exchange of opinions was our most important freedom because all of our other freedoms depended on it. Opinion is belief without evidence. Religious opinion is elevated to the more impressive term Faith. Religions have opinions that differ. All these opinions cannot be true. But they can all be false.
    I agree with Dostoevski who said he couldn’t believe in a god who would let children suffer.
    Why does god allow suffering? “It’s a mystery.”
    It would be better for god’s reputatuion if god didn’t exist.

    (I avoid “He” for obvious reasons.)

    February 9, 2013

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