There is a market for religion just as there is a market for material goods. The primary function of religion is to help people feel better about their lives. Competing feel-good products include psychotherapy, anti-anxiety drugs, and entertainment. As the number of competitors grows in developed countries, religion declines in importance.
Religion Helps People Cope With Anxiety
Considered as a product, organized religion appears to have the primary function of emotion-focused coping. To be more specific, religion helps people cope with anxiety.
I made the case for religion as an anti-anxiety device (or "downer") in an earlier post, and the idea is exhaustively developed in my book Why Atheism Will Replace Religion. The case for religion as a sort of security blanket that soothes anxiety is relatively straightforward and is supported by abundant scientific evidence as well as being intuitively compelling.
Health researchers know that religious rituals, such as prayer and meditation, reduce blood pressure, with potentially beneficial health consequences. Religiously active people have more robust immune systems than their counterparts who do not attend church. They are better at managing stress. Such conclusions are controversial, of course, and the putative life extension from religious practices ranges from eight years or more to nothing, even in apparently well-conducted studies.
Anxiety-packed situations also evoke a religious response. Religious people pray when their flight encounters a bad patch of turbulence. Natural disasters raise the religious temperature of the populations affected. That may be why virtually everyone is religious in countries where living conditions are difficult -- where life is nasty, brutish, and short, as English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expressed it.
Residents of sub-Saharan Africa are challenged by many different disease epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, chronic debilitating illnesses such as malaria, frightening parasites such as Guinea worm, and biting insects that are vectors of sleeping sickness and many other diseases. It is hardly surprising that the overwhelming majority are highly religious.
Conversely, when living conditions improve due to economic development, religion declines in importance. Indeed, some of the social democracies of Europe have secular majorities. One reason that religion declines as the standard of living improves is that daily life is less harrowing, so there is less need for religion as an anti-anxiety mechanism. Another likely reason is that religion encounters more competition in the marketplace for feel-better products.
In developed countries religion has many rivals in terms of products that help customers deal with anxiety. Some of the more obvious are psychotherapy and anti-anxiety drugs (including tranquilizers, sleeping pills, alcohol, and other recreational drugs). All of these produce a calming effect or act as pharmacological downers.
Less obvious competitors include entertainment and viewing sports events, which provide an escape from everyday anxieties. A person who identifies with some sports hero, movie star, or soap-opera character spends less time worrying about his own problems, and most popular entertainment provides an escape hatch from the troubling issues of real life. Watching a lot of television is probably not a recipe for happiness, and it may have a depressant effect, rather like excessive use of alcohol or other anti-anxiety drugs. The immediate effect is nevertheless pleasant.
Psychologists are waking up to the fact that escapist activities, such as playing video games, can actually have beneficial effects that are at least the equal of widely prescribed anti-anxiety drugs. Moreover, it seems that the psychological advantages of being a sports fan are similar to those of belonging to a religious community in terms of integration in the community.
The Future of Religion
It might seem odd to equate religious rituals with sports events, but there are actually many striking similarities, ranging from ritualistic fan behavior (like body painting) to a celebration of the struggle for perfection. It is also probably no accident that sports spectatorship is conspicuously on the rise in countries where religion is in decline.
As one looks around the modern world, it seems obvious that religion is losing out in the competition with rival feel-good products. That may be either because there are more and better competitors or because religion itself is getting less appealing.
Both explanations probably work. When one looks at the vast resources poured into modern entertainment, it seems likely that religion is unable to compete. However hard religions struggle to be modern, relevant, and entertaining, they seem destined to fall behind in the sense that attending church has become an exercise in self-imposed tedium.
In secular countries like Denmark, religious congregations have shrunk to a handful of elderly individuals who are poorly adjusted to current conditions. The is happening in the U.S., where a large majority of the population does not attend church regularly.
So the future of religion is predicted by its failure to compete with rival products in developed countries. As the poorer countries of today become more affluent, the same secularization process will unfold there also.