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Will Atheism Replace Religion in America?

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Belief in God, eternity, and other basic religious assertions are questions that have dominated public opinion surveys for some time, but there are some who now believe that non-belief may become the new default. According to a recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of more than 54,000 adults, the number of people willing to identify themselves as atheist and agnostic rose from under 2 million in 2001 to 3.6 million in 2008. When you leave out the labels "atheist" and "agnostic," ARIS found that over 18 percent of Americans (as many as 40 million) do not profess a belief in God.

Looking over the data, evolutionary psychologist Dr. Nigel Barber attempts to argue that atheism will actually replace religion sooner rather than later: "Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe. In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists," he recently wrote in Psychology Today. "Atheism is thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon."

Why are modern societies fertile ground for blossoming unbelief? With a flair you would expect from a psychologist, Barber gives four reasons:

1) Religion is a comfort blanket for the fearful. In modern societies, social welfare programs abound. These programs reduce public fear, and therefore, reduce the need for religion.

2) Religion may promote fertility since it exalts marriage. But large families are more valued in agrarian societies, not modern ones.

3) Religion is therapy. As Karl Marx famously said, religion is the opium of the people. Modern societies, however, turn to psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors to cope with their emotional and psychological needs.

4) Religious communities are social organizations. In modern societies, however, there are other ways to meet one's social needs (e.g., sport spectatorship).

"The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms," Barber contemptuously concludes. "First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs."

Is Barber correct, or is there more to the story? Is religion, specifically the Christian faith, nothing more than a comfort to coddle, a pacifier to meet our innate human needs that can be easily replaced? While he may be correct that there are some sociological forces at work that promote religious majorities, there may be more to this story that Barber overlooks.

For example, Barber mentions that modern societies provide other avenues for social expression. While true, he seems to brush over the fact that pre-modern societies had many alternative avenues, as well. In fact, one might argue that in a technological age that promotes isolationism where teenagers play video games for hours on end, modern societies actually do the opposite.

Most notably, Barber ignores the unrivaled work done by people of faith throughout history. No other social organization can report the miracles, life-change, healing, and hope produced by faith communities. There is a new generation rising up to meet the brokenness of the world with innovative and, one might say, supernatural solutions. No sports team or therapy group can claim that.

Non-belief may become normative in the near future, but that doesn't undermine belief itself. As we engage in conversations about faith in the 21st century, we must be realistic about where things seem to be headed, but we should also judge faith fairly. Faith is more than a comfort blanket, a fertility enhancer, a therapist, or a community group. Unfortunately for believers, that may not be enough to maintain the majority.

Have you witnessed a growth in unbelief in your lifetime? Does the possibility that non-belief could become normative scare you, sadden you, or excite you?

Jonathan Merritt is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (2010).