11/02/2011 04:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

When Will Atheism Prevail Over Religion?

My blog posts on religion have attracted a lot of controversy. Religious people are annoyed by my claim that belief in God will go the way of horse transportation, and for much the same reason, specifically an improved standard of living.

The view that religious belief will give way to atheism is known as the secularization thesis. The specific version that I have described is known as the existential security hypothesis. The basic idea is that as people become more affluent, they are less worried about lacking for basic necessities, or dying early from violence or disease. In other words they are secure in their own existence. They do not feel the need to appeal to supernatural entities to calm their fears and insecurities.

The notion that good living conditions are associated with a decline in religious belief, importance of religion, church attendance, and so forth is supported by a mountain of evidence assembled by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book, Sacred and Secular,1 as well as numerous more recent works.2

We can be as sure of the relationship between material security and declining religious belief as we are of any other such connection in the social sciences. That does not prevent some serious scholars, like political scientist Eric Kaufmann,3 from making the opposite case that religious fundamentalists will outbreed the rest of us. Yet, noisy as they are, such groups are tiny minorities, and they will become even more marginalized as global prosperity increases, drawing existential security along with it. That is certainly what has happened in history up to now.

If we assume that prosperity is responsible for declining religiosity in the world, and that prosperity will continue to increase, it is possible to estimate the date at which the world will switch over from being a majority believing in God to majority atheist. I further assumed that once a country becomes as wealthy as the godless countries of today, it, too, will turn against religion.

For my analysis, I selected the 10 developed countries with the highest level of disbelief in God. They were Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K. Their average disbelief in God conveniently averaged at 50.0 percent, implying that these countries were at the transition between religion and atheism in 2004 when the data were collected.

Their average GDP (corrected for purchasing power) was $28,590, or 2.63 times the world average in that year.

I conservatively assumed that the world economy can grow at 2 percent per year, which is somewhat lower than the actual growth rate over the past 50 years, and only half the current growth rate, according to the World Bank. How long will it take until the average country in the entire world is as wealthy as the average godless country was in 2004?

The answer is that it would take about 49 years. Adding 49 years to 2004 means that the world transition to atheism will take place by 2053, or 42 years into the future. If the world economy were to continue plugging along at 4 percent, it would be as soon as 2038. A decades-long global recession would have the opposite consequence.

Perhaps the revelation that four decades along, the typical country in the world will have a religious composition and standard of living similar to that of contemporary Europe, or Japan, is not all that earth-shattering. Yet, it is highly optimistic in the sense that these countries enjoy the best standard of living ever experienced throughout human history.

If the rest of the world follows the lead of these countries, we can all look forward to a better future in terms of material well-being. Contrary to the claims of religious leaders, these are highly moral countries with an unusual level of social trust, so that the loss of religious belief is not something to be feared.4 But that is the subject of another post.

1. Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Barber, N. (2011). A Cross-National test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
3. Kaufmann, E. (2010). Shall the religious inherit the earth? London: Profile books.
4. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.