Atheism is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Why do modern conditions produce atheism? Does this mean that religion is on the way out?
First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, an instructive pattern emerges. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism.1 Belief in God declines in more developed countries and atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%. (The U.S. is more religious than other developed countries with only about one person in eight expressing disbelief).
The question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non-belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence.
Atheists are more likely to be college-educated people who live in cities and they are highly concentrated in the social democracies of Europe. Atheism thus blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure. But why?
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives.2 In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.
In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage.3 Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed "atheist" countries, women have exceptionally small families and do not need religion helping them to raise large families.
Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. When people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion.
Moreover, sport psychologists find that spectatorship yields much the same kind of social, and spiritual, benefits as people obtain from church membership. Precisely the same argument can be made for other forms of entertainment with which spectators become deeply involved. Indeed, organized religion is striking back by trying to compete in popular media, such as televangelism and Christian rock and by hosting live secular entertainment in church.
The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in daily life 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.
The market has spoken. It is predicting more empty pews but only in developed countries. Religious belief continues unabated among poor countries. Ironically, these are the places with the highest fertility so that the number of religious people on the planet will increase along with the population explosion.
In the end, though, as African countries develop, they will become as godless as Europe.
Ultimately, organized religion is on the way out. The only thing that could prevent this from happening would be a sharp decline in global standards of living. That would require some form of ecological collapse. Think a very large asteroid, a very nasty epidemic, extreme global warming, or derivatives traders rum amok.
1. Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This book is not held by any U.S. Library.
2. Barber, N. (in press). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research.
3. Sanderson, S. K. (2008). Adaptation, evolution, and religion. Religion, 38, 141-156.