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Willreligioneverdisappear?

RachelNuwer

Science&Environment

ThelightingofacrossduringtheChristianLosEscobazosFestivalinSpain,celebratingtheconceptionoftheVirginMary
(GettyImages)

Atheismisontherisearoundtheworld,sodoesthatmeanspiritualitywillsoonbeathingofthepast?
RachelNuwerdiscoversthattheanswerisfarfromsimple.
Agrowingnumberofpeople,millionsworldwide,saytheybelievethatlifedefinitivelyendsatdeaththat
thereisnoGod,noafterlifeandnodivineplan.Anditsanoutlookthatcouldbegainingmomentum
despiteitslackofcheer.Insomecountries,openlyacknowledgedatheismhasneverbeenmorepopular.
Theresabsolutelymoreatheistsaroundtodaythaneverbefore,bothinsheernumbersandasapercentageof
humanity,saysPhilZuckerman,aprofessorofsociologyandsecularstudiesatPitzerCollegeinClaremont,
California,andauthorofLivingtheSecularLife.AccordingtoaGallupInternationalsurveyofmorethan
50,000peoplein57countries,thenumberofindividualsclaimingtobereligiousfellfrom77%to68%
between2005and2011,whilethosewhoselfidentifiedasatheistroseby3%bringingtheworlds
estimatedproportionofadamantnonbelieversto13%.
Whileatheistscertainlyarenotthemajority,coulditbethatthesefiguresareaharbingerofthingstocome?
Assumingglobaltrendscontinuemightreligionsomedaydisappearentirely?
Itsimpossibletopredictthefuture,butexaminingwhatweknowaboutreligionincludingwhyitevolved
inthefirstplace,andwhysomepeoplechosetobelieveinitandothersabandonitcanhintathowour
relationshipwiththedivinemightplayoutindecadesorcenturiestocome.

ApriestinUkraineholdsacrossintheruinsofKiev'sTradeUnionbuildingearlierthisyear(GettyImages)

Scholarsarestilltryingtoteaseoutthecomplexfactorsthatdriveanindividualoranationtowardatheism,
butthereareafewcommonalities.Partofreligionsappealisthatitofferssecurityinanuncertainworld.So
notsurprisingly,nationsthatreportthehighestratesofatheismtendtobethosethatprovidetheircitizens
withrelativelyhigheconomic,politicalandexistentialstability.Securityinsocietyseemstodiminish
religiousbelief,Zuckermansays.Capitalism,accesstotechnologyandeducationalsoseemstocorrelate
withacorrosionofreligiosityinsomepopulations,headds.
Crisisoffaith
Japan,theUK,Canada,SouthKorea,theNetherlands,theCzechRepublic,Estonia,Germany,Franceand
Uruguay(wherethemajorityofcitizenshaveEuropeanroots)areallplaceswherereligionwasimportantjust
acenturyorsoago,butthatnowreportsomeofthelowestbeliefratesintheworld.Thesecountriesfeature
strongeducationalandsocialsecuritysystems,lowinequalityandareallrelativelywealthy.Basically,
peoplearelessscaredaboutwhatmightbefallthem,saysQuentinAtkinson,apsychologistattheUniversity
ofAuckland,NewZealand.

YemenigirlsshowtheirhandsdecoratedwithtraditionalhennadesignsastheycelebratetheendofRamadan(GettyImages)

Yetdeclineinbeliefseemstobeoccurringacrosstheboard,includinginplacesthatarestillstrongly
religious,suchasBrazil,JamaicaandIreland.Veryfewsocietiesaremorereligioustodaythantheywere40
or50yearsago,Zuckermansays.TheonlyexceptionmightbeIran,butthatstrickybecausesecularpeople
mightbehidingtheirbeliefs.
TheUS,too,isanoutlierinthatitisoneofthewealthiestcountriesintheworld,butalsohashighratesof
religiosity.(Still,arecentPewsurveyrevealedthat,between2007and2012,theproportionofAmericanswho
saidtheyareatheistrosefrom1.6%to2.4%.)
Decline,however,doesnotmeandisappearance,saysAraNorenzayan,asocialpsychologistattheUniversity
ofBritishColumbiainVancouver,Canada,andauthorofBigGods.Existentialsecurityismorefalliblethan
itseems.Inamoment,everythingcanchange:adrunkdrivercankillalovedone;atornadocandestroya
town;adoctorcanissueaterminaldiagnosis.Asclimatechangewreakshavocontheworldincomingyears
andnaturalresourcespotentiallygrowscarce,thensufferingandhardshipcouldfuelreligiosity.Peoplewant
toescapesuffering,butiftheycantgetoutofit,theywanttofindmeaning,Norenzayansays.Forsome
reason,religionseemstogivemeaningtosufferingmuchmoresothananysecularidealorbeliefthatwe
knowof.

InthePhilippines,survivorsofSuperTyphoonHaiyanmarchduringareligiousprocession(GettyImages)

Thisphenomenonconstantlyplaysoutinhospitalroomsanddisasterzonesaroundtheworld.In2011,for
example,amassiveearthquakestruckChristchurch,NewZealandahighlysecularsociety.Therewas
asuddenspikeofreligiosityinthepeoplewhoexperiencedthatevent,buttherestofthecountryremainedas
secularasever.WhileexceptionstothisruledoexistreligioninJapanplummetedfollowingWorldWarII,
forinstanceforthemostpart,Zuckermansays,weadherebytheChristchurchmodel.Ifexperiencing
somethingterriblecausedallpeopletobecomeatheists,thenwedallbeatheists,hesays.
Themindofgod
Buteveniftheworldstroublesweremiraculouslysolvedandweallledpeacefullivesinequity,religion
wouldprobablystillbearound.Thisisbecauseagodshapedholeseemstoexistinourspecies
neuropsychology,thankstoaquirkofourevolution.

ArabbireadsduringPurimfestivities(GettyImages)
Understandingthisrequiresadelveintodualprocesstheory.Thispsychologicalstaplestatesthatwehave
twoverybasicformsofthought:System1andSystem2.System2evolvedrelativelyrecently.Itsthevoice
inourheadthenarratorwhoneverseemstoshutupthatenablesustoplanandthinklogically.
System1,ontheotherhand,isintuitive,instinctualandautomatic.Thesecapabilitiesregularlydevelopin
humans,regardlessofwheretheyareborn.Theyaresurvivalmechanisms.System1bestowsuswithan
innaterevulsionofrottingmeat,allowsustospeakournativelanguagewithoutthinkingaboutitandgives
babiestheabilitytorecogniseparentsanddistinguishbetweenlivingandnonlivingobjects.Itmakesusprone
tolookingforpatternstobetterunderstandourworld,andtoseekmeaningforseeminglyrandomeventslike
naturaldisastersorthedeathoflovedones.

AnIndianSikhlightscandlesduringBandiChhorDivas,orDiwali(GettyImages)

Inadditiontohelpingusnavigatethedangersoftheworldandfindamate,somescholarsthinkthatSystem1
alsoenabledreligionstoevolveandperpetuate.System1,forexample,makesusinstinctuallyprimedtosee
lifeforcesaphenomenoncalledhypersensitiveagencydetectioneverywherewego,regardlessofwhether
theyrethereornot.Millenniaago,thattendencyprobablyhelpedusavoidconcealeddanger,suchaslions
crouchedinthegrassorvenomoussnakesconcealedinthebush.Butitalsomadeusvulnerabletoinferring
theexistenceofinvisibleagentswhethertheytooktheformofabenevolentgodwatchingoverus,an
unappeasedancestorpunishinguswithadroughtoramonsterlurkingintheshadows.
Similarly,System1encouragesustoseethingsdualistically,meaningwehavetroublethinkingofthemind
andbodyasasingleunit.Thistendencyemergesquiteearly:youngchildren,regardlessoftheircultural
background,areinclinedtobelievethattheyhaveanimmortalsoulthattheiressenceorpersonhoodexisted
somewherepriortotheirbirth,andwillalwayscontinuetoexist.Thisdispositioneasilyassimilatesintomany
existingreligions,orwithabitofcreativitylendsitselftodevisingoriginalconstructs.

AnIndianHindudevoteeadayaheadoftheChhatfestival(GettyImages)

AScandinavianpsychologistcolleagueofminewhoisanatheisttoldmethathisthreeyearolddaughter
recentlywalkeduptohimandsaid,Godiseverywhereallofthetime.Heandhiswifecouldntfigureout
whereshedgottenthatideafrom,saysJustinBarrett,directoroftheThriveCenterforHumanDevelopment
atFullerTheologicalSeminaryinPasadena,California,andauthorofBornBelievers.Forhisdaughter,god
wasanelderlywoman,soyouknowshedidntgetitfromtheLutheranchurch.
Forallofthesereasons,manyscholarsbelievethatreligionaroseasabyproductofourcognitive
disposition,saysRobertMcCauley,directoroftheCenterforMind,BrainandCultureatEmoryUniversity
inAtlanta,Georgia,andauthorofWhyReligionIsNaturalandScienceIsNot.Religionsarecultural
arrangementsthatevolvedtoengageandexploitthesenaturalcapacitiesinhumans.
Hardhabitstobreak
Atheistsmustfightagainstallofthatculturalandevolutionarybaggage.Humanbeingsnaturallywantto
believethattheyareapartofsomethingbigger,thatlifeisntcompletelyfutile.Ourmindscravepurposeand
explanation.Witheducation,exposuretoscienceandcriticalthinking,peoplemightstoptrustingtheir
intuitions,Norenzayansays.Buttheintuitionsarethere.

AzerbaijaniMuslimsprayattheendofRamadan(GettyImages)

Ontheotherhand,sciencethesystemofchoicethatmanyatheistsandnonbelieverslooktofor
understandingthenaturalworldisnotaneasycognitivepilltoswallow.ScienceisaboutcorrectingSystem
1biases,McCauleysays.WemustacceptthattheEarthspins,eventhoughweneverexperiencethat
sensationforourselves.Wemustembracetheideathatevolutionisutterlyindifferentandthatthereisno
ultimatedesignorpurposetotheUniverse,eventhoughourintuitiontellsusdifferently.Wealsofindit
difficulttoadmitthatwearewrong,toresistourownbiasesandtoacceptthattruthasweunderstanditis
everchangingasnewempiricaldataaregatheredandtestedallstaplesofscience.Scienceiscognitively
unnaturalitsdifficult,McCauleysays.Religion,ontheotherhand,ismostlysomethingwedonteven
havetolearnbecausewealreadyknowit.
Theresevidencethatreligiousthoughtisthepathofleastresistance,Barrettadds.Youdhaveto
fundamentallychangesomethingaboutourhumanitytogetridofreligion.Thisbiologicalstickingpoint
probablyexplainsthefactthat,although20%ofAmericansarenotaffiliatedwithachurch,68%ofthemsay
thattheystillbelieveinGodand37%describethemselvesasspiritual.Evenwithoutorganisedreligion,they
believethatsomegreaterbeingorlifeforceguidestheworld.

BuddhistmonksfiletowardsaceremonyatSampovTreileakpagodainCambodia(GettyImages)

Similarly,manyaroundtheworldwhoexplicitlysaytheydontbelieveinagodstillharboursuperstitious
tendencies,likebeliefinghosts,astrology,karma,telepathyorreincarnation.InScandinavia,mostpeople
saytheydontbelieveinGod,butparanormalandsuperstitiousbeliefstendtobehigherthanyoudthink,
Norenzayansays.Additionally,nonbelieversoftenleanonwhatcouldbeinterpretedasreligiousproxies
sportsteams,yoga,professionalinstitutions,MotherNatureandmoretoguidetheirvaluesinlife.Asa
testamenttothis,witchcraftisgainingpopularityintheUS,andpaganismseemstobethefastestgrowing
religionintheUK.
Religiousexperiencesfornonbelieverscanalsomanifestinother,morebizarreways.AnthropologistRyan
Hornbeck,alsoattheThriveCenterforHumanDevelopment,foundevidencethattheWorldofWarcraft
isassumingspiritualimportanceforsomeplayersinChina,forexample.WoWseemstobeoffering
opportunitiestodevelopcertainmoraltraitsthatregularlifeincontemporarysocietydoesntafford,Barrett
says.Peopleseemtohavethisconceptualspaceforreligiousthought,whichifitsnotfilledbyreligion
bubblesupinsurprisingways.
Theingroup
Whatsmore,religionpromotesgroupcohesionandcooperation.ThethreatofanallpowerfulGod(orgods)
watchingforanyonewhostepsoutoflinelikelyhelpedtokeeporderinancientsocieties.Thisisthe
supernaturalpunishmenthypothesis,Atkinsonsays.Ifeveryonebelievesthatthepunishmentisreal,then
thatcanbefunctionaltogroups.

AdevoteeatThailand'sVegetarianFestival(GettyImages)

Andagain,insecurityandsufferinginapopulationmayplayarolehere,byhelpingtoencouragereligions
withstrictermoralcodes.Inarecentanalysisofreligiousbeliefsystemsofnearly600traditionalsocieties
fromaroundtheworld,JosephBulbuliaattheUniversityofWellington,NewZealandandhiscolleagues
foundthatthoseplaceswithharsherweatherorthataremorepronetonaturaldisastersweremorelikelyto
developmoralisinggods.Why?Helpfulneighbourscouldmeanthedifferencebetweenlifeanddeath.Inthis
context,religionevolvedasavaluablepublicutility.
Whenweseesomethingsopervasive,somethingthatemergessoquicklydevelopmentallyandremains
persistentacrosscultures,thenitmakessensethattheleadingexplanationisthatitservedacooperative
function,saysBulbulia.
Finally,theresalsosomesimplemathematicsbehindreligionsknackforprevailing.Acrosscultures,people
whoaremorereligiousalsotendtohavemorechildrenthanpeoplewhoarenot.Theresverystrong
evidenceforthis,Norenzayansays.Evenamongreligiouspeople,themorefundamentalistonesusually

havehigherfertilityratesthanthemoreliberalones.Addtothatthefactthatchildrentypicallyfollowtheir
parentsleadwhenitcomestowhetherornottheybecomereligiousadultsthemselves,andacompletely
secularisedworldseemsevermoreunlikely.
Enduringbelief
Forallofthesereasonspsychological,neurological,historical,culturalandlogisticalexpertsguessthat
religionwillprobablynevergoaway.Religion,whetheritsmaintainedthroughfearorlove,ishighly
successfulatperpetuatingitself.Ifnot,itwouldnolongerbewithus.
AndevenifwelosesightoftheChristian,MuslimandHindugodsandalltherest,superstitionsand
spiritualismwillalmostcertainlystillprevail.Moreformalreligioussystems,meanwhile,wouldlikelyonly
beanaturaldisasterortwoaway.Eventhebestseculargovernmentcantprotectyoufromeverything,says
McCauley.Assoonaswefoundourselvesfacinganecologicalcrisis,aglobalnuclearwaroranimpending
cometcollision,thegodswouldemerge.
Humansneedcomfortinthefaceofpainandsuffering,andmanyneedtothinkthattheressomethingmore
afterthislife,thattheyrelovedbyaninvisiblebeing,Zuckermansays.Therewillalwaysbepeoplewho
believe,andIwouldntbesurprisediftheyremainthemajority.