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.