Losing our religion

Losing our religion

More and more of the world’s population is turning its back on god. Graham Lawton asks why, and what an atheist world would really look like Losing o...

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More and more of the world’s population is turning its back on god. Graham Lawton asks why, and what an atheist world would really look like

Losing our


30 | NewScientist | 3 May 2014




N AN unseasonably warm Sunday morning in London, I do something I haven’t done for more than 30 years: get up and go to church. For an hour and a half, I sing, listen to readings, enjoy moments of quiet contemplation and throw a few coins into a collection. At the end there is tea and cake, and a warm feeling in what I guess must be my soul. This is like hundreds of congregations taking place across the city this morning, but with one notable exception: there is no god. Welcome to the Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” held every other week in Conway Hall, home of the world’s oldest free-thought organisation. On the day I went there were at least 200 people in the hall; sometimes as many as 600 turn up. Founded by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in 2013, the Sunday Assembly aims to supply some of the uplifting features of a religious service without any of the supernatural stuff. Atheism is also off the agenda: the Assembly is simply about celebrating being alive. “Our mission is to help people live this one life as fully as possible,” says Jones. The Assembly’s wider goal is “a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one”. And many do: from a humble start in a deconsecrated church in London, there are now 28 active assemblies in the UK, Ireland, US and Australia. Jones now works full-time to fulfil the demand for more; he expects to have 100 by the end of this year. The people I joined on that sunny Sunday

are a small part of the world’s fastest-growing religious identity – the “nones”. Comprising non-believers of all stripes, from convinced atheists like me to people who simply don’t care about religion, they now number more than some major world religions. In London, admittedly, they are nothing special. The UK is one of the least religious countries in the world, with around half of the population saying they don’t belong to any religion. But elsewhere, their rise is both rapid and remarkable. A decade ago, more than threequarters of the world’s population identified themselves as religious. Today, less than 60 per cent do, and in about a quarter of countries the nones are now a majority. Some of the biggest declines have been seen in countries where religion once seemed part of the furniture, such as Ireland. In 2005, 69 per cent of people there said they were religious; now only 47 per cent do (see diagram, page 33). “We have a powerful secularisation trend worldwide,” says Ara Norenzayan, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “There are places where secularisation is making huge inroads: western and northern Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China.” Even in the US – a deeply Christian country – the number of people expressing “no religious affiliation” has risen from 5 per cent in 1972 to 20 per cent today; among people under 30, that number is closer to a third. That’s not to say that they have all explicitly

rejected religion; only 13 per cent of people around the world say they are “committed” atheists. Even so, it means there are almost a billion atheists globally. Only Christianity and Islam can claim more adherents. And alongside them are another billion and a half who, for whatever reason, don’t see themselves as religious. A century ago, these trends would have seemed inevitable. The founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, expected scientific thinking to lead to the gradual erosion and eventual demise of religion. They saw the rise of humanist, rationalist and free thought organisations in western Europe as the start of a secular revolution.

Born to believe It didn’t quite work out that way. Although parts of western Europe, Australia, Canada and New Zealand did secularise after the second world war, the rest of the world remained resolutely god-fearing. Even the official atheism of the communist bloc didn’t really take hold at grass-roots level. If anything, at the end of the 20th century, religion seemed to be resurgent. Fundamentalist movements were gaining ground around the world; Islam was becoming a powerful political force; the US remained stubbornly religious. Increasingly, secular Europe looked like an outlier. Now, though, secularisation is back in business. “The past 20 years has seen a precipitous decline in religiosity in all >

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societies,” says Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. “We are seeing religion withering across the board. Yes, there are pockets of increased fundamentalism, but overall we are seeing rising rates of secularism in societies where we have never seen it before – places like Brazil, Ireland, even in Africa.” So is the 19th century prediction of a godless world finally coming true? Is it possible that one day the majority of people will see themselves as non-religious? And if that happens, will the world be a better place? To answer these questions, we need to know why people believe in god in the first place. For many, the answer is obvious: because god exists. Whether or not that is the case, it illustrates something very interesting about the nature of religious belief. To most people, probably the vast majority who have ever lived, belief in god is effortless. Like being able to breathe or learning one’s native language, faith in god is one of those things that comes naturally. Why is that? In recent years, cognitive scientists have produced a comprehensive account of the human mind’s receptivity to religious ideas. Called cognitive by-product theory, it holds that certain features of human psychology that evolved for non-religious reasons also create fertile ground for god. As a result, when people encounter religious stories and claims, they find them intuitively appealing and plausible. For example, our early ancestors were regularly on the dinner menu of predators, and so evolved a “hypersensitive agency detection device” – a fancy name for an assumption that events in the environment are caused by sentient beings, or agents. That makes evolutionary sense: when any rustle in the bushes might be a prowling predator it is better to err on the side of caution. But it also primes us to assume agency where there is none. That, of course, is a central claim of most religions: that an unseen agent is responsible for doing and creating things in the world.

Existential comfort Humans have evolved other quirks that encourage the spread of religious beliefs. Notions of a benevolent personal god, higher purpose and an afterlife, for example, help people to manage the existential dread and uncertainty that are part of being human. We also have a tendency to imitate highstatus individuals – think of modern celebrity culture – and to conform to social norms, both 32 | NewScientist | 3 May 2014


Religious belief helps us cope with death, but we are only likely to have it if our parents do


of the world’s population is religious of which promote the spread and maintenance of belief. We are especially impressed by what social scientists call CREDs or “credibilityenhancing displays” – costly and extravagant acts of faith such as fasting, self-flagellation or martyrdom. Finally, people who think they are being watched tend to behave themselves and cooperate more. Societies that chanced on the idea of supernatural surveillance were likely to have been more successful than those that didn’t, further spreading religious ideas. Taken together, the way our minds work makes us naturally receptive to religious ideas and extremely likely to acquire them when we encounter them. Once humans stumbled on the idea of god, it spread like wildfire. Cognitive by-product theory is a very successful account of why humans gravitate towards religious ideas. However, it has also been turned on the opposite problem: if belief in god comes so easily, why are there atheists? Until quite recently, it was widely assumed

that people had to reason their way to atheism: they analysed the claims of religion and rejected them on the grounds of implausibility. This explained why atheism was a minority pursuit largely practised by more educated people, and why religion was so prevalent and durable. Overcoming all of those evolved biases, and continuing to do so, requires hard cognitive work. This “analytical atheism” is clearly an important route to irreligion and might explain some of the recent increase in secularity. It certainly flourishes in places where people are exposed to science and other analytical systems of thought. But it is by no means the only flavour of irreligion. In the US, for example, among the 20 per cent of people who say they have no religious affiliation, only about 1 in 10 say they are atheists; the vast majority, 71 per cent, are “nothing in particular”. “There are many pathways and motivations for becoming atheist,” says Norenzayan. “Disbelief does not always require hard cognitive effort.” So if people aren’t explicitly rejecting religious claims, what is causing them to abandon god? To Norenzayan, the answer lies in some of the other psychological biases that make religious ideas so easy to digest. One of the main motivations for

Religion in decline A global poll asking people if they are religious shows a dramatic change in just seven years



more poor people describe themselves as religious



of non-religious people in the US are “apatheists”

2012 Ghana


Kenya India Cameroon Poland Ecuador South Africa

abandoning god is that people increasingly don’t need the comfort that belief in god brings. Religion thrives on existential angst: where people feel insecure and uncertain, religion provides succour. But as societies become more prosperous and stable, this security blanket becomes less important. By this reckoning it is no coincidence that the world’s least religious countries also tend to be the most secure. Denmark, Sweden and Norway, for example, are consistently rated as among the most irreligious. They are also among the most prosperous, stable and safe, with universal healthcare and generous social security. Conversely, the world’s most religious countries are among its poorest. And within countries, poorer segments of society tend to be more religious, according to the Global Index of Religion and Atheism. The link is supported by laboratory studies showing that making people aware of existential threats such as pain, randomness



Macedonia Romania Peru

Pakistan and death temporarily strengthens their belief Colombia in god. It seems to hold in the real world too: Moldova after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Malaysia Argentina 80 Zealand – normally a stable and safe country with corresponding low levels of religiosity – Serbia religious commitment in the area increased. Lithuania Bosnia & Herz. Norenzayan refers to the kind of atheism Iceland Italy US that exists in these places as “apatheism”. Ukraine Switzerland “This is not so much doubting or being 70 sceptical, but more about not caring,” he says. Ireland “They simply don’t think about religion.” Counter-intuitively, he adds, apatheism could also explain the strength of religion in Bulgaria the US. In comparison to other rich nations, the US has high levels of existential angst. A Germany 60 South Korea lack of universal healthcare, widespread job Canada insecurity and a feeble social safety net create Russia France fertile conditions for religion to flourish. Spain Another important source of irreligion is Vietnam Finland “inCREDulous atheism”. That doesn’t mean Austria incredulous as in unbelieving, but as in not 50 being exposed to CREDs, those dramatic displays of faith. “These have a powerful effect on how religion is transmitted,” says Norenzayan. “Where people are willing to die Netherlands for their beliefs, for example, those beliefs become more contagious. When people don’t 40 see extravagant displays, even if they are surrounded by people who claim to believe, then there is some evidence that this leads to decline of religion.” Norenzayan has yet to work out the relative importance of these different routes 30 to atheism, partly because they are mutually reinforcing. But he says his hunch is that apatheism is the most important. “That is probably surprising to a lot of people who Czech think you get atheism by analytical thinking. Republic But I see striking evidence that as societies 20 become more equal and there are social Japan safety nets, secularisation follows,” he says. To some religious proponents, this is evidence that most of the “nones” aren’t 38 countries responded to the question: really atheists at all – a claim that is backed “Irrespective of whether you attend by a recent survey from UK-based Christian 10 think tank Theos. It found that even as formal a place of worship or not, would you religion is waning in the UK, spiritual beliefs say you are a religious person? are not. Almost 60 per cent of adults questioned said they believed in some form of SOURCE: WIN-GALLUP INTERNATIONAL GLOBAL INDEX OF RELIGION AND ATHEISM, 2012 higher power or spiritual being; a mere 13 per cent agreed with the line “humans are 0% > 3 May 2014 | NewScientist | 33

“The world’s least religious countries are also among the most prosperous, stable and safe”

Nones on the run Will the trend continue? On the face of it, it looks unlikely. If godlessness flourishes where there is stability and prosperity, then climate change and environmental degradation could seriously slow the spread of atheism. “If there was a massive natural disaster I would expect a resurgence of religion, even in societies that are secularised,” says Norenzayan. The Christchurch earthquake is a case in point. It is also not clear that European secularisation will be replicated elsewhere. “The path that countries take is historically contingent and there are exceptions,” says Stephen Bullivant, a theologian at St Mary’s University in the UK and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Nonetheless, he says, there is widespread agreement that if prosperity, security and democracy continue to advance, secularisation will probably follow. Ireland’s shift towards irreligion coincided with its economic boom, says Michael Nugent, chairperson of Atheist Ireland. Interestingly, Ireland is showing no signs of a religious revival despite its recent economic woes, suggesting that once secularisation gets going it is hard to stop. Ireland’s experience also suggests that the most unlikely of places can begin to turn their back on long-held beliefs. “Ireland was always one of Europe’s exceptions. If it can happen there it can happen elsewhere – Poland, or even the Philippines,” says Bullivant. And then there’s the fact that the US seems to be moving away from god. The “nones” have been the fastest growing religious group 34 | NewScientist | 3 May 2014

FOUR KINDS OF ATHEISM Mind-blind – can’t comprehend religion Apathetic – can’t be bothered InCREDulous –isolated from extreme acts of faith Analytic – explicitly reject religion there for the past 20 years, especially among young adults. One explanation for this is one of those historical contingencies: the cold war. For decades, Americans defined themselves in opposition to godless communists and atheism was seen as unpatriotic. The generation that grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are the most irreligious since records began. Interestingly, after the cold war Russia rebounded in the other direction. In 1991, 61 per cent of Russians identified as nones; by 2008, that had dropped to just 18 per cent. But even the Russians now seem to have joined the recent secularisation trend: according to the Global Index of Religion and Atheism, only 55 per cent of people polled there in 2012 regard themselves as religious. Bullivant thinks the secularisation trend will continue for another reason: the way religion is passed down the generations. “The strongest predictor of whether a person grows up to be religious is whether their parents are,” he says. A child whose parents Natural disasters like the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand appear to strengthen faith

are actively religious has about a 50 per cent chance of following them. A child whose parents are not has only about a 3 per cent chance of becoming religious. “In terms of keeping people, the nonreligious are doing very well indeed,” says Bullivant. “It is extremely unusual for somebody brought up in a non-religious household to join a religion, but it is not at all unusual for somebody brought up with a religious affiliation to end up as nonreligious.” In the UK, for every 10 people who leave the Catholic church, only one joins – usually from another Christian denomination. Bullivant also points out that religiosity tends to be fixed by the time people reach their mid-20s. So the 30 per cent or so of young people in the US who don’t identify with any religion are unlikely to change their minds as they get older, and are likely to pass their irreligion on to their own children. “The very fact that there is such a group, that it is quite big and that there wasn’t such a group before is an indicator of secularisation,” says Bullivant. So can the world really give up on god? “I think it is possible,” says Norenzayan, “because we are seeing it happen already.” What would a world without god actually look like? One oft-voiced concern is that religion is the moral glue that holds society together, and that if you get rid of it, everything collapses. “That position is constantly articulated in the US – even secular people buy into it,” says Zuckerman. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2009, Zuckerman ran a global analysis comparing levels of religiosity in various


purely material beings with no spiritual element”. Some scientists – notably Pascal Boyer at Washington University in St Louis – have even claimed that atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think. They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul. To Norenzayan, this is all semantics. “Labels don’t concern me as much as psychology and behaviour. Do people say they believe in god? Do they go to a church or synagogue or mosque? Do they pray? Do they find meaning in religion? These are the variables that should interest us.” By these measures, most of the nones really are irreligious, meaning atheism is much more durable and widespread than would be the case if the only route to atheism was actively rejecting religious ideas.


chance a child will be religious if neither parent is

Godless societies still have a strong sense of community, as shown by Sunday Assembly’s popularity


countries with measures of societal health: wealth, equality, women’s rights, educational attainment, life expectancy, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, STI rates, crime rates, suicide rates and murder rates. “On just about every measure of societal health, the more secular a country or a state, the better it does.” The same holds for the 50 US states. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that secularism creates a healthy society: perhaps the rise of apatheists is a consequence rather than a cause. “But it allows us to debunk the notion that religion is necessary for a healthy society,” says Zuckerman. He goes further, however, arguing that secularisation can lead to social improvements. “I now believe there are aspects of the secular world view that contribute to healthy societies,” he says. “First, if you believe that this is the only world and there is no afterlife, that’s going to motivate you to make it as good a place as possible. Number two is the emphasis on science, education and rational problem-solving that seems to come with the secular orientation – for example, are we going to pray to end crime in our city or are we going to look at the root causes?” It is also hard to discuss mass atheism without invoking the spectre of the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge, North Korea and many other regimes that suppressed or banned religion. Is there a risk that a majority secular world will be more like Stalingrad than Stockholm? To Zuckerman, there is a very good reason to think not. “I distinguish between coercive atheism that is imposed from above by a dictatorial regime, and organic atheism that emerges in free societies. It is in the latter that we see positive societal health outcomes.” Perhaps a more credible worry is what would happen to our physical and mental health. The past 20 years have seen a great deal of research into the benefits of being religious, and most studies claim to find a small association between religiosity, health and happiness. This is usually explained by religious people leading healthier lifestyles and having strong social support networks. Some researchers have therefore jumped to

the conclusion that if religion brings health and happiness, then atheism must come at a corresponding cost. Yet the link between religion and health is nowhere near as well established as is often claimed. A meta-analysis of 226 such studies, for example, found a litany of methodological problems and erroneous conclusions. What’s more, the little research that has been done on atheists’ physical and psychological health found no difference between them and religious people. And at a societal level, of course, a greater proportion of atheism is associated with better public health. But if you think an atheist world would be a paradise of rationality and reason, think again. “When people no longer believe in god, it doesn’t mean they don’t have intuitions that are powerfully connected to the supernatural,” says Norenzayan. “Even in societies that are majority atheist, you find a lot of paranormal belief – astrology, karma, extraterrestrial life, things that don’t have any scientific evidence but are intuitively obvious to people.” That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It is important to appreciate that there are powerful psychological reasons why we have religion,” says Norenzayan. “We can’t just say ‘it is a superstition, we need to get rid of it’. We need to find alternative solutions to the deep and perennial problems of life that religion tries to solve. If societies can do that I think


chance a child will be religious if both parents are

atheism is a viable alternative.” Godless congregations like the Sunday Assembly can help, by serving the needs of nones who yearn for a sense of community and a common moral vision. They also articulate secular values and get the message across that godless societies can be healthy ones. If that means accepting a certain level of new-agey irrationality, then so be it. All of which adds up to a vision of an atheist future rather different from the coldly rational one that Weber and Durkheim – and more recently Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists – envisaged. A bit happy-clappy, a bit spiritual, driven more by indifference to religion rather than hostility to it – but a good society nonetheless. In fact, a society not unlike modern Britain. And as I walk back to my car on a sunny Sunday morning, I can’t help feeling that wouldn’t be so bad. ■ Graham Lawton is deputy editor of New Scientist 3 May 2014 | NewScientist | 35