Will nonbelief replace religion within 25 years?

September 15, 2015 • 9:30 am

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  —Karl Marx


Nigel Barber is an Irish psychologist who wears many hats besides psychology, including evolutionary psychology, popular writing, and the sociology of religion. And over at PuffHo’s Science section, he has a piece predicting when atheism will overcome religion. His date is 2038—less than a quarter-century away, which is quite surprising.

I share Barber’s optimism about the decreasing religiosity of the planet, but this due date is, I think, way too close, and it’s off because of Barber’s assumptions. First, though, let’s see the basis for his prediction. (I’ve added the references at the bottom, numbered as in his text, because they’re useful for many of us):

The view that religious belief will give way to atheism is known as the secularization thesis. The specific version that I favor (1) is known as the existential security hypothesis. The basic idea is that as people become more affluent, they are less worried about lacking for basic necessities, or dying early from violence or disease. In other words they are secure in their own existence. They do not feel the need to appeal to supernatural entities to calm their fears and insecurities.

The notion that improving living conditions are associated with a decline in religion is supported by a mountain of evidence (1,2,3).

I share the “existential security thesis,” (EST) which of course was suggested by Karl Marx in the quote at the top, and you can see the data supporting this thesis in the references at the bottom. (I particularly like Norris and Inglehart’s book, which has a lot of data, while I haven’t reader Barber’s books.) But “improved living conditions” can include a lot of factors. Greg Paul’s 2009 paper, which I’ve added to the citations below, shows a negative correlation between the religiosity of a society and its performance on the “successful societies scale” (SSS) that incorporates no fewer than 25 factors. Paul found, as have others, that the most “successful” societies are the least religious.

That supports the EST, but it’s just a correlation, and one could argue the contrary: that religion creates less successful societies instead of less successful societies being more susceptible to religion. However, other data suggest that the EST hypothesis is correct; these are highlighted in Norris and Inglehart’s book. One is the time course of religiosity and income inequality in the U.S. When income inequality (as measured by the famous Gini Index) goes up, religiosity also rises—but a year behind. The reverse is the case when income inequality goes down: religiosity decreases a year later. This lag suggests that income inequality, which is taken by many as a good measure of how “well off” people feel, is causal for religiosity rather than the other way around.

Paul’s “successful societies scale” incorporates 25 indices, all shown below (with some other socioeconomic factors) in Table 1 on p. 408 of his paper. Most of these factors taken in isolation show a significant correlation (either positive or negative) with religiosity among 17 first-world countries. (The data are presented as Pearson correlations of the levels of each factor with the country’s degree of secularism, including (+) and excluding (-) the US, with N the number of countries examined. Note, too, that secularism is highly positively correlated with acceptance of human evolution. That’s no surprise! Finally, per capita income is negatively correlated with religiosity, but not significantly so, while income inequality shows a much stronger (negative) correlation, and one that’s significant.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 8.35.55 AM
Table 1. Pearson r correlations bold type when socio-economic conditions or other factors improve or rise with increasing secularism, regular type when factors deteriorate or decrease with increasing secularism. No underline = correlation not significant, thin underline = correlation moderate, double underline = correlation strong, thick underline = correlation very strong.

One problem with these data is that multiple regression or factor analysis weren’t done, so these individual indices, many of which are surely correlated with each other, weren’t analyzed for their correlation with religiosity with all other factors held equal. 

But on to Barber’s paper. It’s a cute analysis, but uses only one factor to predict when atheism will outstrip religion: that is, when nonbelievers will become more numerous than believers. And that factor is income (per capita GDP). His analysis involves nine countries, and here are his conclusions (my emphasis):

The most obvious approach to estimating when the world will switch over to being majority atheist is based on economic growth. This is logical because economic development is the key factor responsible for secularization. In deriving this estimate, I used the nine most godless countries as my touchstone (excluding Estonia as a formerly communist country).

The countries were Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These nine countries averaged out at the atheist transition in 2004 (5) with exactly half of the populations disbelieving in God. Their gross domestic product (GDP) averaged $29,822 compared to $10,855 for the average country in the world. How long will it take before the world economy has expanded sufficiently that the GDP of the average country has caught up to the average for the godless countries in 2004?

Using the average global growth rate of GDP for the past 30 years of 3.33 percent (based on International Monetary Fund data from their website), the atheist transition would occur in 2035.

Well, of course there are many problems with this, the most obvious being that average income in the “half-atheist” countries will itself rise over time, and is it kosher to use average GDP at the present time to predict atheist transitions in the future? But a more severe problem is the use of GDP as the single predictive factor, which (at least on its own) is less correlated with religiosity than is income inequality—or factors like child mortality and abortion rate? Finally, the countries surveyed were all First World nations whose believers (except for Japan, which is largely atheist) are Christian. Will this hold in all the diverse countries of the world? I doubt it, as many factors beyond GDP must promote religion in those nations.

A problem that Barber himself brings up is that his index of a country’s religiosity is the proportion of its inhabitants who say they “believe in God.” He notes that some belief may be superficial, and so he redid the analysis using as an index of religiosity the Gallup-poll criterion: whether people say that religion is important in their daily lives. Using this criterion makes the “50% godless countries” Spain, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland, Uruguay, Germany and France. His estimate of when the average country in the world will achieve their current per capita GDP was 2041.

To get the 2038 figure that represents Barber’s transition date for majority godlessness, he simply averaged the 2041 and 2035 figures. He notes that although this may seem too soon, it represents only a 1% reduction per year in the level of belief.

Well, this is all very cute and clever, but there are sufficient problems in extending data taken from only a few First World countries to the world as a whole, including places where religiosity must surely be driven by factors beyond mere GDP. So while I agree with Barber’s existential security hypothesis, and am pretty confident that the world is becoming more secular, I’m not at all confident that the Atheist Tipping Point will occur within a quarter of a century.

But I do agree with Barber’s final paragraph:

Is the loss of religious belief something fear? Contrary to the claims of religious leaders, Godless countries are highly moral nations with an unusual level of social trust, economic equality, low crime and a high level of civic engagement (5). We could do with some of that.

Indeed! These data give the lie to the claim that religious belief is essential for a harmonious and well-functioning society. In fact, the data say the precise opposite. I won’t repeat the tortuous arguments that believers use to dismiss this inconvenient truth, but they are, like most apologetics, unconvincing.


1. 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/
2. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Barber, N. (2011). A Cross-National test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
4. Kaufmann, E. (2010). Shall the religious inherit the earth? London: Profile books.
5. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

Also:  Paul, G. 2009. The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional social conditions. Evolutionary Psychology 7:398-441.


h/t: Barry

48 thoughts on “Will nonbelief replace religion within 25 years?

    1. Nice research. I would say this IQ correlation is tied to educational level which in turn is tied to overall economic health and social stability. It’s another indicator of EST.

  1. I think that what will ultimately kill off religion (and its bastard cousin Spirituality) is that its claims aren’t true — and people with the money and leisure to have access to a wide variety of other people and their opinions are going to get down to that. But the correlation of well being and secularism has long been noted even by the religious. That’s the basis for their No Atheists in Foxholes argument: God can only reveal itself to the properly humbled. That apologetic is a double-edged sword for them. It indicates the irrational nature of religious belief.

    I’m also skeptical though about this prediction. Like most things, “it’s more complicated than that ” is a good rule of thumb. Probably too soon.

    1. Your comment is pretty much what I had intended to say. It’s encouraging news, and one can’t deny that non-belief is closely pegged to economics, but religious is too complicated a construct to pin on one variable, IMO.

      1. +1. Religiosity is decreasing, and the date may be correct if applied only to First World countries, but it’s going to take a lot longer to break its grip in the Third World, especially theocracies. There are few lengths they won’t go to to retain power.

    2. people with the money and leisure to have access to a wide variety of other people and their opinions are going to get down to that.

      AFAIK urbanization does correlate with tolerance and liberalism, but I’m not sure wealth and leisure do. Cofounders like education may make it difficult or impossible to really answer that question.

      1. I set a low bar. People who are struggling desperately for mere survival and/or constantly working just to get by generally don’t have the time to get into discussions on topics like religion or politics with people who aren’t already in their own hopefully supportive community. If nothing else, they have no computer and therefore no internet. Not enough money for that.

        A low bar indeed.

        1. A lot of people I know just don’t have the time or inclination to think about things like whether god is real. It’s what they were taught as kids and they just go with it. A lot of what they see on TV supports “there’s something out there” and they have no reason to think differently most of the time.

          1. True. But eventually enough time spent on the internet or around diverse people will at least break the bubble enough for them to know there are bubble-breakers out there.

            1. Yeah. People I know are losing their religion in their 40s and 50s once the kids are teenagers and they have a bit of time to and for themselves.

  2. I’m somewhat reminded of this cartoon. What if we improve every country’s score on the SSS, and it doesn’t lead to more atheism? I think I’d still declare that outcome an enormous success.

    1. I’d also consider another significant endpoint: the acceptance of “atheism” as just another conclusion or philosophical position, one which either says nothing about character … or indicates a good character.

      One huge factor in that will no doubt involve the majority personally knowing a lot of atheists. Another probable requirement is some explicit pushback on the idea that religious faith indicates a good character.

      1. This suggests that there might be a threshold for acceptance of atheism beyond which the decline of superstition might accelerate. It would be interesting to see some numbers on rates of change in different environments. When, for example, did northern Europe become secular and how rapidly did the change occur? In a severely stressed or war-torn country like Vietnam or Korea, how rapidly does atheism become dominant. I suspect a delaying factor would be the passing away of the generation raised under the old regimen.

        1. The Pew-Templeton worldwide religion survey predicted in 2010 (wotking off 2006 data for New Zealand) that it would take us until 2020 to reach 39% unaffiliated. The 2013 census showed we were already at 42%. I think it’ll take a lot less than 25 years to reach the tipping point here, and I think 2020 is a likely date, but worldwide, 2038 is too soon imo.

    2. Whether the atheism is explicit or not, the secular attitude is becoming pervasive regardless of personal beliefs.

      911 – some blamed the gays or Jews, for example, and the criticism of those blamers was relatively small. Today you could not blame any disaster on gays without being ostracized. This is greater secularism

      Hurricane Katrina – prayers for relief were rampant in the press; not much criticism. But by the time Sully saved 1549 there was a flurry of criticism towards those who said God saved the plane (why didn’t the Geese just take another route)

      Public expression of prayer and thanking God are on the way out…much faster than the rise of explicit secularism. I predict a long quiet time where secularism prevails but the faithful hang on, cloistered and personal…the way Jefferson probably intended.

  3. Many here, including myself, believe that religion will eventually pass, but many here, including myself (and I believe our host), don’t think that it’s possible that it will happen in our lifetime. Lately though, I’m encouraged, and I’m reminded of one of Andrew Sullivan’s last posts when the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage. I think Greg Mayer linked to the same piece from WEIT.


    “I never believed this would happen in my lifetime when I wrote my first several TNR essays and then my book…

    “… I never for a millisecond thought I would live to be married myself. Or that it would be possible for everyone, everyone in America.

    “But it has come to pass. All of it. In one fell, final swoop.”

    Just maybe unbelief will get here sooner than we think.

  4. When I see statistics like this, I always wonder about the difference between Western Europe, where presumably humanism has had a big impact on the move to godlessness, versus Russia and China, where presumably Communism had historically had a big impact. Where do Russia and China fit in on the godless scale? What’s the impact of the philosophical under-pining rather than just the economics of development?

    1. China is tricky because of the millions still involved in what are sometimes called “folk religion”. And I understand there have been massive religious revials in Russia – including political-religious alliances for homophobic purposes and other unfortunate matters.

    2. At least as important as economics and political philosophy is free expression and the resulting free flow of information and ideas. Neither Russia nor China ever had that under communism.

  5. I see existential insecurity as pretty much built into us by virtue of having evolved in a world that basically wants to eat us. Ramping up of real-world security can meliorate the problem, but I don’t see it ever going away.

    1. Thirty years ago, when I was teenager, I formed a simple these about religion: everyone would be happy if they were existentially secure.

      The truth is most anyone who holds a belief based on faith is logically bound to be pretend that faith to be true and yet know it is possible that it might not be, i.e., doubt. This doubt has led to much killing of our species.

      1. Yep. I agree with Pascal that there’s an “infinite abyss” in our psyches. But what it is is that built-in, haunting sense of threat, not a vestige of the absence of God. If it’s God-shaped, it’s because we’ve tried to whittle our gods to fill it. And, indeed, they don’t fill it very well. The fact that every Christian I’ve ever known has the same insecurities the rest of us have proves that.

  6. A clear weakness in the assumption that religion will continue to decline because economic security will increase is the assumption that economic security will continue to increase. Climate change and population growth pressures will have something to say about that.

    1. This was at the back of my mind while reading the article as well. The assumption that the world is becoming more healthy along with the humans that inhabit it is just dumb. Income inequality is growing with no end in sight and climate change will stress the human condition in ways that can’t be predicted. In 25 years, will half of Florida be underwater? Will the west be burned to a crisp? Will there be water wars? What about energy crisis? None of these issues are addressed. If stability = less religion, then I see the people of the future becoming more religious, not less.

  7. The Pew Research Center projects the opposite:


    …and notes a slowdown in the creation of a global middle class:


    Add to these the consequences of climate change (famine, drought, migration), and we could see a decline in societal cohesion that would make people more religious, even if we somehow manage to reverse the trend towards income/wealth inequality.

    In short, I’m skeptical.

    1. Seems that their predictions are mostly predicated on differences in today’s fertility rates. I don’t know see why it should be assumed that those rates will remain the same.

      1. Fertility rates across countries change over time, of course. Richer and more urban populations routinely undergo a fertility transformation to lower birth rates. These places are where non-belief has the best chance.

        But population growth in poorer countries will continue to outstrip secularization growth in richer ones, at least until the rest of the world goes through this demographic transition. And that transition is not accelerating as fast as it was a decade ago.

        It’s also the case that half the world’s atheist/non-religious population lives in China, and China’s population is growing at a rate below the world’s average, as well as being older than the world’s average.

        1. It is likely, in the near future, the world’s secular population will control or establish virtually all of the world’s GDP. And the religious, who may outnumber the secular, will work for the non-relgious. Sounds like slavery, but the omission that needs not being reinforced here is that secularism is correlated to higher education.

          Those who know nature will control it. Those who do not will be controlled.

          Mitigating inequality in our future can only come with better education and free birth control. A TFR(*) of <2.1 is a must.

          (*) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_fertility_rate

          1. I’m all for free birth control. And I prefer science babes to science burqas. But education, while delivering higher average incomes, alone does not reduce inequality.

            A uniformly highly educated workforce can still see its share of GDP decline relative to capital’s.

            Fighting inequality requires better fiscal and monetary policy.

    2. I think there are a lot of problems with that survey. It’s majorly wrong on NZ as I pointed out above. Much as I respect Pew, I can’t help wondering if the fact they did this in conjunction with Templeton meant important factors weren’t taken into account.

      One of the biggest factors in the spread of atheism is internet availability imo. No-one seems to be looking at that.

      1. I share your concerns about the JTF, and I’m happy that Pew was wrong about NZ. Here’s why I still don’t think that we’ll see an atheist tipping point until long after today’s newborns are gone:

        The population projections that Pew used are too conservative, even in relation to United Nations’ conservative projections.

        Most Islamic states show great resistance to secularization even under rising incomes. Almost as much with Hindus in India.

        Credible predictions that Christianity will grow its share in China.

        Worldwide, central banks are killing GDP growth rates by targeting inflation at a too-low 2%.

        Instability caused by global warming and inequality.

        I hope that universal internet access can increase the rate of secularization, but I’m doubtful that it can overcome the broader demographic trend. Religious countries have higher birthrates.

        1. I agree with all your reasons why the Pew/Templeton survey is likely wrong. I feel like Templeton was trying to find data that supports their ideal of a world of faith.

          1. I find it hard to believe that a respected entity like PEW would be influenced in that way. I suspect Templeton put up the money for the study, but PEW would have run it and charted it.

            1. I think Templeton advised the data they wanted investigated, knowing what the result would be, and paid handsomely for the investigation to be done. I think the Pew survey itself would’ve been conducted under scrupulous conditions.

  8. If the “existential security thesis” is predictive of secularization, then global warming and concomitant resource depletion and their effects on global and local economies are going to throw the biggest monkey wrench you’ve ever seen into that theory.

    Sometime in the next two to three decades (by many informed estimates, around 2030) the s**t is going to hit the fan and it is going to keep on getting worse. If we are unlucky, it will keep on getting worse for centuries, if not one or two millennia.

    Enjoy the next fifteen years, folks – they may be the best the world as we know it will ever see.

  9. I’ve a really big problem with his assumption of sustained 3.33% economic growth.

    That growth has, historically, been powered by a parallel ~3% growth in petroleum production. But there’s not enough petroleum left in the ground for 3% growth for another quarter century; were we to attempt to maintain a 3% growth, we’d run out in a decade. Holding production steady has us running out in a quarter century. Beginning a 3% decline is much more reasonable and likely, and puts us back to about where we were in the ’90s a quarter century from now.

    The big question is whether or not electric vehicles and solar electric generation can take up the slack. They’ll certainly take up some…but I have a very difficult time thinking they’ll take up all of it.

    As such, I think it’s pretty safe to suggest that the days of simply assuming 3% growth are now behind us.

    If we make it through the transition, solar has the potential for unimaginable growth rates…but there’s no guarantee we’ll make that transition.


    1. And even if 3% growth continued, it’s not equitable. Any growth in the US has gone straight to the top (and I think this is true of most contemporary economies). And since income inequality leads to instability, then the assumption is wrong either way.

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