What Makes Religion Popular—Or Not

jesus-thumps-up1From Gregory Paul, a freelance paleontologist, researcher, and artist:

Although there has been contention between the forces of supernaturalism and the (until recently small number of) rationalists going back to ancient times, the struggle ramped up 150 years ago when On the Origin of the Species scientifically removed the need for a great designer. Since then, it has widely been assumed that the spiritual portion of the culture war is primarily an ideological struggle in which the side with the better arguments, or public relations campaign, will win. This view is unsubstantiated, however, in that it is not based on a scientific analysis of data published in the technical literature. Instead, it is the sort of conversational opinion that too easily becomes the conventional wisdom.
I am increasingly fed up with conversational opinions of all stripes, and for the last few years have been working to solve some of the basic problems concerning popular religion—why is it popular, why is it failing in the Western democracies, and do societies need religion to be successful as theists contend (to the degree that nonbelievers are the targets of discrimination in much of the world)?
Sociological research by me and others is producing results that at long last are answering some of the basic questions about popular religion and secularism. The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth happened to see the publication of an unprecedented number of technical papers on the subject, four, which were built upon a series of earlier studies. It is becoming increasingly clear that much of the conventional wisdom about religion is wrong. Most people do not believe or not believe in the gods because they have examined and weighed the arguments, or even because they have been persuaded by propaganda from one side or the other, or are following their heritage. Nor do highly religious societies perform better than those that have abandoned supernaturalistic faith in the context of democracy.
A remarkably clear pattern provides the critical information for understanding why religion is and is not popular.
About a dozen nations that enjoy First World status based on a large middle-class majority feature universal health care, job and retirement security, low levels of income disparity, and relatively low rates of social pathology, including lethal crime, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, and adverse consequences of sexual activity. Without exception, these socioeconomically successful countries have seen severe declines in popular religion, to the degree that strong majorities do not believe in gods and an afterlife in the least dysfunctional democracies.
It is not hard to figure out why this is happening. It has long been understood that people do not feel as great a need to seek out the aid and protection of supernatural entities when they feel sufficiently safe and secure in their daily lives. So the majority of the populations of most First World nations have abandoned the churches. Even in the United States, only a quarter or less attend church on most Sundays, and just half have an absolute belief in a personal God, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It follows that it is literally impossible for well-run societies to be highly religious because the mere achievement of low levels of social and economic problems (which humans naturally aspire to) consistently and dramatically reduces the popularity of religion.
Basically, folks are usually more focused on their daily lives than they are on matters divine and theological. Most people are vulnerable to turning to the supernatural only when they’re under strong psychological pressure to relieve stress and anxiety created by a defective environment. That religion is a form of mental self-medication in response to adverse environmental conditions is not all that surprising—and is far more plausible than the idea of the supernatural being real (much as crop circles are far more likely to be the result of pranksters having a good time than they are messages from extraterrestrials).
Religion is not, therefore, universal or deeply set in the human psyche, so fear of death or hell and a desire for a pleasant afterlife cannot be the primary motivating factor for mass faith. Nor is there a “God gene” or a “God module” that compels people to be pious. It is mainly a matter of socioeconomics. What humans are really strongly genetically programmed for is the materialism that our opposable thumbs and big brains evolved for and that civilization arose to satisfy. It is also becoming understood that people are not all that rational—that’s why three-quarters of Americans believe in something paranormal, whether it be ghosts or ESP, and why investment programs repeatedly devolve into pyramid schemes doomed to collapse.
Because the level of popular religion is largely the side effect of socioeconomics, the contest between nontheism and theism is not primarily an ideological contest, and partisans on both sides have much less ability to directly alter the course of events via argument and PR than they may wish or realize. This fits with what happened in Western Europe and other secular First World nations in the last few decades: With little fuss or bother, hundreds of millions casually dropped religion as their personal circumstances and safety improved. There was little in the way of a grand culture war. The churches proved impotent to stop the great Western secularization; even wildly popular John Paul II found he could do little about it. Nor was any major pro-atheist movement necessary to de-Christianize nations.
If the entire planet enjoyed the same level of secure prosperity seen in France and Sweden, there is little doubt that the number of devout believers would sink to the teens or single digits, no matter what organized religions did to save themselves—even if nontheists did little to promote secularization.
In principle, a mass education campaign to inform the world that successful societies cannot be strongly religious might have some impact. But because many would remain mired in a dysfunctional environment that favors supernaturalism, and because people are not highly rational, many if not most would reject the information as propaganda, much as many believe evolution and CO2-driven warming are deceits perpetuated by liberal secularists. (That billions believe in a loving, moral God despite massive suffering from disease and other “acts of God” is another example of mass defective thinking.) In realistic terms, the ability to educate people about the inability of religion to produce better societies is somewhat limited—consider the mediocre scores on tests of science and history knowledge even in the advanced democracies. But it is well worth the effort.
Efforts to change societies by incremental, democratic means work at the margins by persuading more of the fence sitters to join the movement than are recruited by the other side. Assuming that real-world evidence continues to demonstrate that a majority belief in the gods does not produce superior societies—as a scientist I will continue to favor this conclusion only as long as the evidence does so—and assuming that the public becomes increasingly aware of this fact, then the theists’ attempt to promote faith should lose ground. But an information campaign is not the core means to achieve success.
In the end, the churches, temples, and mosques will be emptied, and creationism will become a minority opinion, as a side effect of making America and Second and Third World nations into more equitable, stable, and secure middle-class consumer societies where people do not live in excessive fear of financial ruin due to losing their job, a serious illness, or old age. That sort of society, which has practical benefits to ordinary citizens, happens to be deadly to faith across the theological spectrum. The change can occur with startling swiftness. Spain was still a Catholic fascistic state ruled by the dictator Franco the year Saturday Night Live premiered. Now it is a prosperous democracy so secular and liberal that gays can get divorced and married.

Category: Expert Opinion


8 Responses

  1. You write that “If the entire planet enjoyed the same level of secure prosperity seen in France and Sweden, there is little doubt that the number of devout believers would sink to the teens or single digits, no matter what organized religions did to save themselves—even if nontheists did little to promote secularization.”

    If this is right, I wonder, then, why some very financially well-off, and otherwise psychologically stable people still find religion a valued and practical activity to participate in. Perhaps formal religion as we know it, using traditional institutions as we seem them now, will go away, but I find it hard to believe people will forgo positing transcendental postulates about reality.

    For example, even mathematicians, a bunch known to be committed to efficiency and minimalism, argue vehemently about whether or not Platonism is a necessary metaphysical stance when dealing with the profound usefulness of mathematics for describing the concrete world.

    I can only imagine that if just this one area of abstraction is up in the air for debate, then how much the more things like morality, consciousness, and beauty will create metaphysical opportunities for transcendental posits.

  2. David H-T says:

    I feel that Gregory Paul made good points about how people have lost sight of God having become content with what they can do for themselves. Current lifestyles have lead people to want what others have, causing a commercialization of society. People have less time for God when they are out trying to make money, at which point they award themselves for their success not God. People have forgotten we are the original tools, the tools of God, so our successes must be associated with God. To think of times where Religion is majority are times when unfortunate circumstances apply directly to local homelands. People were fast to turn to God again after Katrina, 9/11, and Haiti, yet when these events don’t directly affect us we are able to ignore the notion of God and continue making money. Had we still maintained belief some events may not have even transpired, but nobody can ever prove that. The only way to stay optimistic loving of all God’s creatures is to love God directly and not lose sight of that.

  3. What we need to do is investigate what it is about faith that is necessary and then how a particular faith develops in modern society.

    1) Faith is not necessarily religion. However, religion is an institutional faith. As we develop, we ask questions “why am I here?” “How did this get created?” etc. Just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, someone gives us an answer and we take it as gospel (so to speak). Our definitions of the world are created into a paradigm so that it makes sense.

    Just look at how hard a simple paradigm shift was with the planet Pluto. For 40 years, I was told it was a planet and that there are 9 planets in our solar system. Now there are eight. A strongly believed world view, which seemed an unquestioned truth was changed. That creates disequilibrium.

    When a child becomes an adult, the myths of childhood fall away. We know there isn’t a Santa Claus anymore. For some this includes the stories of their faith religion as well. They choose logic or their own ego imagination to create their definitions of what is and what isn’t. And while some choose to turn away from their religion, others find that they like the definitions they were raised with.

    2) Which comes to the question of how it spreads through society. Collective thought is empowering. It is much easier to believe in something unexplainable when there is a group consensus on it.

  4. David H-T says:

    Science is ever changing, although an example Pluto being demoted as a planet is not very similar to people agreeing on the existence of God. The development in computer technology has changed math and science greatly through being able to solve problems that were too hard by hand. However technology as advanced as it will ever be, can not prove nor disprove an existence in a God. People need faith in their lives, and faith can be religion as long as it is applied to the the question of God’s existence. Faith can be adhering to the beliefs of Christianity but believing you will just die and decompose in the ground is faith as well, just faith in something else. Religion can never be proven it is just the strength of one’s faith. The world existed before we did, how can we know everything about it and define it, that is like asking a baby it’s mother’s name. Since we can’t even define and comprehend what we have here on a physical Earth, how can we hypothesize about spiritual existence, we need to just keep faith.

  5. meryl steinberg says:

    I totally understand how one might rant on about fanatic, dogmatic sectarianism. And yet, that is not religion. Just because someone points at a cat and calls it a goat, doesn’t make it so. The religion of the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, St. Francis, Mother Theresa is about love, giving, expansiveness and light–it is the pursuit of our highest and best nature… our common divinity. Not so bad, eh?

  6. Amigo says:

    I’m saddened to see that anyone is still giving Gregory Paul’s “research” any press. A simple search will bring up two things: 1. Atheists/Secularist blogs or Skeptic type magazines lauding his research, 2. Statisticians, Sociologists, etc. talking about the faulty methodology, errors, dogmatism in his own views, etc.

    Here’s a representative example by George Gallup Jr.: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=18-10-061-r

    There are plenty of other critiques from professors in pertinent fields online.

  7. Amigo says:

    It should also be noted that this well-known skeptic of religion is an “expert” in terms of paleontology and art. His education consists of a few years at a community college and “informal research” as an artist assisting with dinosaur drawings/models at John Hopkins.

  8. Roger A. Sawtelle says:

    The idea that material security will lead the demise of religion reminds me of warmed over Marxist theory. It seems to me that atheists need to explore the reasons why the Communist “experiment” seems to have failed in Russia, Germany, China, Cuba, Serbia, et al before they speculate about the future of religion in capitalist countries.

    Bro. Paul seems to be obsessed with the issue of evolution/creation. The issue for today is climate change, which is not addressed by Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. Extinction is a normal process according to Darwin. On the other hand most people of faith are concerned about the future of life on God’s green earth.

    Bro. Paul seems to bound by western dualistic thinking, creation vs evolution, science vs faith, while life is not bound by black vs white dualism, but a whole spectrum of ideas, faiths, and life styles. The world is not headed for a monochromatic western atheistic point of view, but a diverse society with many points of view, if we are able acheive understanding and mutual respect for each other, rather than dismissal of different points of view.

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