Atheism as a Stealth Religion VI: Let's Break Out The Good Stuff!

03/09/2008 01:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Wine connoisseurs on a budget often have a bottle of "the good stuff" that they reserve for special occasions. I feel like celebrating the conclusion of my Stealth series by breaking out the equivalent of a fine bottle of wine: a book that actually does use science to shed light on the nature of religion.

The book that I have decided to open for you is Sacred and Secular, written by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in 2004, a very good year. The authors are political scientists who don't use the E-word, but their results are highly interpretable from an evolutionary perspective. Their goal is to evaluate the hypothesis that religion can be replaced by secular society. All of the major social theorists of the 19th century, such as Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud, believed that this would be the case. Yet, here we are in the 21st century and religion seems to be stronger than ever. Does this mean that religion will always be with us? Norris and Inglehart think not. They propose that religion can indeed yield to secularization, but only under certain environmental conditions. That is why they are thinking like evolutionists, even if they don't use the E-word.

They identify existential security as the key environmental factor that determines whether society will become religious or secular. If your life is likely to be disrupted by famine, war, disease, and major dislocations of all sorts, then you live in an environment that is low in existential security. Religion thrives in this kind of environment because it provides actual security (basic social services, including protection against other human groups) and also a psychological sense of security. If you confidently expect to go to college, start a family in your late 20s, have a job with health care, and live to a ripe old age, then you live in an environment that is high in existential security. Secularization thrives in this environment because religion isn't required to provide basic services and the psychological comforts aren't worth the costs imposed by religious membership. Religion stays with us because so much of the world remains wracked by existential insecurity. If we take a closer look, we should be able to see religion and secularization expanding and contracting, like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change.

How might one test such a hypothesis? Whenever I dive into a new subject area, I am often astonished at the sheer volume of research and the effort that was required to gather and analyze the data. Norris and Inglehart base their analysis on The World Values Survey (WVS), a global investigation of political and societal change that includes dozens of nations in four separate waves, beginning in 1981 and most recently in 1999-2001. This massive database allows three different kinds of comparison: 1) between nations at any particular point in time; 2) between time intervals for any particular nation; and 3) between age cohorts for any particular nation. The WVS includes questions that measure religious participation (e.g., "How often to you attend religious services?"), religious values (e.g., "How important Is God in your life?"), and religious beliefs (e.g., "Do you believe in life after death?" It and other international databases also contain voluminous information on the factors that comprise existential security for each nation.

Here are a few of the many results reported in Sacred and Secular:

• Variation in religiosity across nations is strongly correlated with indicators of existential security, regardless of the region of the world or specific religious tradition. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 63):

The extent to which sacred or secular orientations are present in a society can be predicted by any of these basic indicators of human development with a remarkable degree of accuracy, even if we know nothing further about the country. To explain or predict the strength and popularity of religion in any country we do not need to understand specific factors such as the activities and role of Pentecostal evangelism in Guatemala and Presbyterian missionaries in South Korea, the specific belief-systems in Buddhism, the impact of madrassa teaching Wahhabism in Pakistan, the fund-raising capacity and organizational strength of the Christian Right in the U.S. South, the philanthropic efforts of Catholic missionaries in West Africa, the crackdown of freedom on worship in China, or divisions over the endorsement of women and homosexual clergy within the Anglican church. What we do need to know, however, are the basic characteristics of a vulnerable society that generate the demand for religion, including factors far removed from the spiritual, exemplified by levels of medical immunization, cases of AIDS/HIV, and access to an improved water source.

• Within nations, religiosity is stronger in the more vulnerable segments of the population, such as women, poorer households, the less educated, and the unskilled working class.

• Longitudinal data is available for 22 industrial and post-industrial nations. Religiosity has declined in every one over the last few decades, with the exception of the USA, Ireland, and Italy.

• Religious values are learned primarily early in life, so that the religiosity of a given age cohort should be determined by the existential security during the period when the cohort was young. There is a strong cohort effect in post-industrial nations with the older cohort (born between the two world wars) more religious than the younger cohorts. There is no cohort effect in the poorest nations and if anything the youngest cohorts are more religious.

• The USA is the most religious of all the post-industrial nations, which makes it seem anomalous. However, the USA also has the highest income inequality of all the post-industrial nations. When these two variables are plotted against each other on a graph, they fall into a neat line (a strong correlation) with the USA at the top. Thus, the USA is not anomalous when it comes to the relationship between religiosity and existential security. Increase existential security and religiosity will probably decrease, in the USA no less than Nigeria. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 108):

Many American families, even in the professional middle classes, face risks of unemployment , the dangers of sudden ill health without adequate private medical insurance, vulnerability to becoming a victim of crime, and the problems of paying for long-term care of the elderly. Americans face greater anxieties than citizens in other advanced industrialized countries about whether they will be covered by health insurance, whether they will be fired arbitrarily, or whether they will be forced to choose between losing their job and devoting themselves to their newborn child.

• Religiosity and secularization are shifting their geographical distributions, exactly like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change. Secularization is spreading in the postindustrial nations (as noted above), but religiosity is spreading worldwide, in part because the least secure (and most religious) nations also have a much higher rate of population growth than the most secure nations.

For me, reading Sacred and Secular in comparison to books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great is like a fine Merlot compared to kerosene. True, the Merlot must be sipped slowly to be savored. Sacred and Secular describes the scientific process in detail, but this has the same fascination as watching the construction of a skyscraper, something that can become mesmerizing even if we are not the architect. And when it is finished, look at what has been built!

In contrast, take a slug of the new atheism and the primitive centers of your brain are immediately jolted into senseless action. That's exciting in a way, like gathering around a barroom brawl, but it leads only to injury and calling it science and reason is, well, sacrilege.

The new atheists defend their lack of scholarship by saying that their purpose is to raise consciousness and goad people into action. I would therefore like to end my Stealth series by issuing a call to action of my own. Science and reason are every bit as important for solving the problems of modern existence as the new atheists say, but they are not making their way into popular intellectual discourse or public policy. We justly disapprove of politicians when they manipulate the primitive centers of our brains, jolting us into senseless action that harms everyone over the long run. Yet, popular intellectual discourse is not much better, as we have seen in the case of the new atheists.

What books such as Sacred and Secular tell us is that the central problem of modern existence is how to increase existential security. That is something that everyone wants and the raison d'etre of religion, but achieving it in modern life on a worldwide scale is very much like building a skyscraper -- a collective and consensus effort, careful and methodical, based on scientific knowledge. Somehow, intellectuals and policy makers of all stripes need to focus on this fact. Everyone needs to swear off kerosene and learn to savor good wine. Fortunately, there is an entire wine cellar of books like Sacred and Secular, waiting to be opened. When it comes to the wine of science, we can all live like kings.