Can Atheism Really Replace Religion?

My blogs on this topic generated millions of hits and plenty of skepticism. Resistance to overwhelming scientific evidence for the decline in religion is nothing new. Objections come from religious people and some atheists who argue that there will always be weak people, unlike them, who need religion. Does either camp have a point?

In the past, some social scientists pushed back against the idea that economic development promoted atheism -- the secularization thesis. In recent years, the pattern became so clear that not even the most myopic social scientist could miss it.

The generalization that more developed countries are more secular is every bit as clear as the generalization that developed countries have smaller families. It is not impossible for people in modern societies to have large families, of course. It is just unusual. Similarly, it is not impossible for individuals to be deeply religious in developed countries. They are just thin on the ground.

Why Development Chills Religion

In my book Why Atheism Will Replace Religion, I lay out the evidence that religion (however measured) is in sharp decline in the most developed countries that enjoy the highest standard of living for most of the people, namely social democracies such as Japan and Sweden. It persists in undeveloped regions like sub-Saharan Africa.

The perceived importance of religion (or religiosity) declines predictably with development (however measured), allowing one to predict how long it will take for religion to become unimportant for the majority of the global population. It will take approximately a quarter-century. This boils down to about a 1-percent decline of religiosity each year.

Why is the global population turning secular? To answer this question, it helps to understand the emotional function of religious beliefs and rituals. Religion calms distress and thus functions like the security blanket from which a child derives comfort when upset.

The market for religious comfort is strongest in the most miserable places in the world, where life is hard, life expectancy is short and life can be expunged at any moment by infectious diseases, violent criminals, starvation, brutal political leaders or natural disasters.

In the most advanced social democracies, the quality of life is much better, with expectations of good health and long life expectancy. There is less need of the security blanket of religion, and its emotional functions are supplanted by medication, psychotherapy, sport and entertainment.

So the answer to the question of whether atheism can replace religion is clearly "yes." It not only can replace religion but has done so in the most advanced social democracies, such as Sweden and Japan.

The Counterargument

Secularization is real, but many religious people are loath to accept the facts, because it means that they are about to be on the wrong side of history.

Opponents point to the persistence of prophetic movements, new religions such as Mormonism, violent religious extremism and so forth, yet such phenomena are signs of rapid social change. Extremist sects are historical flashes in the pan, and those that survive become more moderate and mainstream -- as Mormonism is doing.

Other objections involve rarified theological claims about the meaning and purpose of life, the existence of God and so forth that are irrelevant to the secularization debate. Perhaps the silliest of these ideas is the argument that a gambling skeptic should put some money on God's existence just to avoid being wrong after death.

Can Secularization Reverse?

So economic development is weakening religion around the world. If the global economy went into a tailspin maintained over many decades, religion would unflatten itself like a cartoon animal after meeting a steam roller. Yet that is distinctly unlikely.

Global economic growth is on a torrid upward path that is being accelerated by technology, urbanization and globalized trade. The world is going secular. Nothing short of an ice age can stop it.