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.
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.