09/07/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

Is Religion on the Way Out?

About three-quarters of the world's population feels that religion is important. Yet, this large majority is set to dwindle into minority status within a generation. The reason is that affluence kills piety, as I explain in a new book (Why Atheism Will Replace Religion).

Religion as emotion-focused coping

Conversely, under development promotes religion. The basic human problem solved by religious belief systems may be coping with the stress of uncertainty in our daily lives. Whether it is natural disasters, hunger, warfare, diseases, the loss of the people we love, or any other psychological threat, religion offers a psychological security blanket. Indeed, religious rituals reduce stress and bring down blood pressure analogous to the calming effect of a child's security blanket.

Religion does not make a home earthquake-proof but allows the faithful to feel better about the experience of sitting down in the rubble of their dwelling after the quake hits. In the jargon of psychology, this is emotion-focused coping rather than problem-focused coping.

As countries develop, they devise ever better methods for dealing with practical problems that threaten our existence or well being. Whether it is earthquake-proof housing, piped water, sanitation, pollution control, food safety, inoculation against diseases, the rule of law, or social safety nets, residents of developed countries have much more reason to feel secure in their person, livelihood, health, and freedom.

With practical problems solved, there is less need for the solace provided by religion. Problem-focused coping obviates emotion-focused rituals and beliefs. That is why atheism crops up only in developed countries where most people experience a good standard of living, such as Japan, or Sweden.

As the world economy continues to expand, and as each country becomes more and more integrated in the global economy, the standard of living of the entire planet will eventually catch up with that of contemporary developed countries that produce a secular majority. It follows that the entire world community will become secular.

I estimate that with the levels of economic development characteristic of the past thirty years, the secular majority will arrive by approximately 2038. That is a doubling of contemporary secularism but an increase of only 1 percent on an annual basis.

The rising tide of prosperity

Despite continued misery in various parts of the world, the global economy rides a seemingly unstoppable tide of increasing prosperity.

Half of the world's population already resides in cities so that our future as an urban creature is pretty well settled. We no longer have a few isolated city developments, or a few prosperous countries but a world in which increasing economic activity in one country spurs development in many others. This level of mutual interdependence inhibits war and boils down to unprecedented global stability.

Skeptics may question whether prosperity will continue. Some point to the environmental unsustainability of rapid development with its nasty consequences for specific ecologies, such as rainforests, and for the entire global ecosystem. Yet, the impact of global warming on economic growth is likely to be too modest to prevent rapid economic growth and consequent secularization.

Spirituality may also be a basic feature of the human condition that cannot disappear. Yet, it seems that organized religions are increasingly irrelevant to modern spirituality. People in developed countries are more interested than ever in basic questions about the origin and meaning of human life and in exploring world religions. They are also open to supernatural themes in fiction that rests on magic spells, time travel, vampires, and so on. Yet, they are increasingly disconnected from churches, priests, and dogmas that offer less to affluent societies.

Formal religion no longer has a central place, or function, in Western Europe, for example. Non-attendance at religious services, non marriage, a declining demand for religious counseling, etc., boil down to religious weakness. Thanks to secure living conditions, organized religion is marginalized there and increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream secular population. Its decline throughout the entire global economy seems inevitable.