[ExI] Why the Gods are not winning

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Thu Mar 5 00:52:26 UTC 2009

Here's an article from 2007 which I only just found, which has a
wonderfully hopeful message about the future of atheism.

They talk about the relationship between socio-economic conditions and
religiousness. It's an inverse relationship. First world countries
trend toward secular. Except of course for one conspicuous outlier:

I liked this paragraph:
"Rather than religion being an integral part of the American
character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous
democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity
is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the
highest level of disparity. The other factors widely thought to be
driving forces behind mass faith—desire for the social links provided
by churches, fear of societal amorality, fear of death, genetic
predisposition towards religiosity, etc—are not critical simply
because hundreds of millions have freely accepted being nonreligious
mortals in a dozen and a half democracies. Such motives and factors
can be operative only if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently
poor to sustain mass creationism and religion."

But here's the article in full.


by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman

A myth is gaining ground. The myth seems plausible enough. The
proposition is that after God died in the secular 20th century, He is
back in a big way as people around the world again find faith. In 2006
Foreign Policy ran two articles that made similar, yet distinctive
claims. In the spring Phillip Longman's "The Return of the Patriarchy"
contended that secular folk are reproducing themselves, or failing to
reproduce themselves, out of existence as the believers swiftly
reproduce via a "process similar to survival of the fittest." In the
summer FP followed up with "Why God is Winning" by Samuel Shah and
Monica Duffy Toft, who pronounced that the Big Three— Christianity,
Islam and Hinduism—are back on the global march as secularism fades
into irrelevance. In the fall  Foreign Affairs joined the chorus when
Walter Russell Mead's God's Country? gave the impression that
conservative theism continues to rise in a United States jolted back
to the spiritual by 9/11. In American Fascists Chris Hedges warns that
hard-core Dominionists are accumulating the power to convert the
nation into a fundamentalist theocracy.

The actual situation, as is usual in human affairs, much more complex
and nuanced, and therefore much more fascinating. Let's start by
considering the analytical superficiality that mars the twin articles
in Foreign Policy. While Longman proposes that rapid reproduction is
the primary agent behind the resurgence of patriarchal faith, Shah and
Toft think it is mainly a matter democratic choice in which younger
generations reject their parent's secularism. In reality all these
claims are well off base. Religion is in serious trouble. The status
of faith is especially dire in the west, where the churches face an
unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence of organized faith
as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly little that can be done
to change the circumstances.

Shah and Toft cite the World Christian Encyclopedia as supporting a
planetary revival because its shows that "at the beginning of the 21st
century, a greater portion of the world's population adhered to
[Christianity, Islam and Hinduism] in 2000 than a century earlier."
They point to a table in the WCE that shows that the largest Christian
and largest nonChristian faiths, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and
Hinduism, rose from half to nearly two thirds of the world in the
1900s. But that it is a peculiar choice of sects. If every Mohammedan
and Hindu sect large and small is tallied, shouldn't every Orthodox,
Coptic and so on be too? Another look at the WCE table shows that all
Christians, Muslims and Hindus combined edging up a much more modest
60 to 66% (but see below correction) since the reign of Queen

What scheme of thought did soar in the 20th century? Although Shah and
Toft cite the WCE when it appears to aid their thesis, they seem to
have missed key passages near the beginning of the work. The
evangelical authors of the WCE lament that no Christian "in 1900
expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently
took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas
due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists….  throughout the
20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million
in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been
the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious
systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions:
agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere
0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the
extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are
likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of
their members are the children, grandchildren or the
great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were
practicing Christians" (italics added). (The WCE probably understates
today's nonreligious. They have Christians constituting 68-94% of
nations where surveys indicate that a quarter to half or more are not
religious, and they may overestimate Chinese Christians by a factor of
two. In that case the nonreligious probably soared past the billion
mark already, and the three great faiths total 64% at most.)

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the
devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the
spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no
historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12
million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of
Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

Yet Longman, and especially Shah and Toft, left readers with the
impression that Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are each regaining
the international initiative against secularism. Again we can turn to
the WCE, whose results are presented in the pie charts (with the above
adjustment, and with the proviso that the stats are inevitably

Since 1900 Christians have made up about a third of the global
population, and are edging downwards. No growth there. Hindus are
coasting at a seventh the total, no significant increase there either
even though India adds more people each year than any other nation.
The WCE predicts no proportional increase for these faiths by 2050.
The flourishing revival of two megareligions whether by democracy,
edification, or fecundity is therefore a mirage. Having shrunk by a
quarter in the 20th century, Buddhism is predicted to shrink almost as
much over the next half century. Once rivaling Christianity, paganism
– whether it be ancient or modern as per New Ageism and Scientology —
has over all contracted by well over half and is expected to continue
to dwindle.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in
a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050.
Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally
impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where
democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to
Allah.  Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because
Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex. The absence of a
grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free
choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated
— the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a
consistent, global basis.

It is well documented that Christianity has withered dramatically in
Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The failure of the
faith in the west is regularly denounced by Popes and Protestant
leaders. Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and
pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions
of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority
of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by
the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some.

In his paper "Christianity in Britain, R. I. P." Steve Bruce explains
that the recent rise of pagans is not nearly sufficiently to make up
for the implosion of the churches, which are in danger of dwindling
past the demographic and organizational point of no return. A
commission of the Church of England agreed, proposing that little
attended Sabbath services be dropped, and concluding that the advent
of modern lifestyles "coincides with the demise of Christendom." The
church commissioned Making Sense of Generation Y study advised the
clergy to "avoid panic." Perhaps that response would be appropriate
considering the absence of quantitative evidence of a significant
Christian revival in any secularized democracy. God belief is not dead
in these nonreligious democracies, but it is on life support. The
ardent hopes of C. S. Lewis and John Paul II to reChristianize Europe
have abjectly failed.

EuroMuslims may become a theological plurality by outnumbering active
Christians in a few decades, but that does not mean much in the
context of a shrinking Christian minority. In most western nations
Muslims are less than one percent to under three. The only exceptions
are the Netherlands at five percent, and France at ten, and the native
French have the highest birth rate in western Europe.

The mass loss of popular faith in the Eurocultures is often waved away
as an isolated aberration in a world still infatuated with the gods.
After all, who cares what the "old Europe" of France and Sweden is up
to? This is a big mistake. Such a thing has never been seen before in
history. And where it has happened is critical to the future of faith.
Aside from constituting proof of principle that religion is
dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do
best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous
directly falsifies the Shah and Toft thesis that these factors are the
allies of religiosity.

But hasn't the loss of faith in old Europe been matched by a great
revival in new Europe? In his account of his voyage along the Siberian
Lena River, Jeffrey Taylor in River of No Reprieve observed that the
locals remain atheistic, and the religious minority seems more
nationalistic than devout. This premise is applicable to former KGV
officer Putin's embrace of the Russian Orthodox church, which had
tight connections with the Czarist secret police. Just a quarter of
Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion
is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may
be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech
Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which
religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism,
just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives,
and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out
that the "new" Europe is not turning out particularly godly.

The Central Kingdom has never been especially religious, became
atheistic under communism, and is striving for world dominance via
materialistic consumerism. The finding by the Shanghai university poll
that religious Chinese lifted from 100 million in the 1960s to 300
million resulted in headlines along the lines of "Poll Finds Surge of
Religion Among Chinese." But the 300 million figure is far below the
600 million religious estimated by the World Christian Encyclopedia,
and is less than a third of the adult population. Nor should
monotheists be particularly comforted. The survey uncovered 40 million
Christians, about half the inflated estimate in the WCE, and just 4%
of the adult population. Most religious Chinese are Buddhists and
Taoists, or worship the likes of the God of Fortune, the Black Dragon
and the Dragon King. By the way, The Economist says women are using
religion as a way to battle traditional Chinese patriarchy. If the
survey is correct that over two thirds of Chinese are not religious
then they may approach a billion in China alone, expanding the global
total even further.

Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but
even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to
over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important
in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and
education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces
successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the
vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble
for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not
highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been
highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs.
In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don't believe in
God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify
themselves as strongly religious.

Doesn't America, the one western nation where two thirds absolutely
believe in God, and nine in ten think there is some form of higher
power, show that religion can thrive in an advanced democracy? Not

A decade and a half of sampling finds conservative (thought to be
about two thirds to four fifths of the total of) evangelicals and
born-agains consistently stuck between a quarter and a third of the
population. The majority that considers religion very important in
their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare
majority in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton
era. But instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping

Those who feel the opposite about religion doubled between the 1960s
and 1970s, have been fairly stable since then, but have been edging up
in recent years. American opinion on the issue of human evolution from
animals has been rock steady, about half agreeing, about half
disagreeing, for a quarter century. What has changed is how people
view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments
literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of
history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the
Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism
decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and
skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues
the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple
of decades.

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of
sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate
effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for whom the
old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon and sing some
old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather than boosting church
membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it.

>From a high of three quarters of the population in the 1930s to 1960s,
a gradual, persistent decline has set in, leaving some clerics
distressed at the growing abandonment of small churches as the big
ones gobble up what is left of the rest. Weekly religious service
attendance rose only briefly in the months after 9/11—evidence that
the event failed to stem national secularization – and then lost
ground as the Catholic sex scandal damaged church credibility. As few
as one in four or five Americans are actually in church on a typical
Sunday, only a few percent of them in megachurches.

In his Foreign Affairs article Mead noted that conservative Southern
Baptists constitute the largest church in the states, and they are
among the most evangelical. Mead did not note that a Southern Baptist
church release laments that "evangelistically, the denomination is on
a path of slow but discernable deterioration." The greatest born again
sect is baptizing members at the same absolute yearly rate as they did
half a century ago, when the population was half as large, and in the
last few years the overall trend has been downwards.

Rather than Amerofaith becoming deeply patriarchal as Longman thinks,
it is increasingly feminine. Women church goers greatly outnumber men,
who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up
their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical
youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious
and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation.

One group has experienced rapid growth. In the 1940s and 50s 1-2%
usually responded no asked if they believe in God, up to 98% said yes.
A Harris study specifically designed to arrive at the best current
figure found that 9% do not believe in a creator, and 12% are not
sure. The over tenfold expansion of Amerorationalism easily outpaces
the Mormon and Pentecostal growth rates over the same half century.

America's disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well
educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews,
Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than
Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than
the evangelicals.

The rise of American rationalism is based on adult choice—secularists
certainly not growing via rapid reproduction. The results can be seen
on the bookshelves, as aggressively atheistic books such as Sam
Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard
Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell,
break the mainstream publishing barrier onto the best-sellers lists.
Long disparaged as neither moral or American, the growing community is
beginning to assert itself as a socio-political force.

What is actually happening here and abroad is a great polarization as
increasingly anxious and often desperate hard-core believers mount a
vigorous counterrevolution via extreme levels of activism to the first
emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major religion is expanding
its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances,
much less educated democracy. Disbelief in the supernatural alone is
able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion.

It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where wealth is
concentrated among an elite few and the masses are impoverished that
the great majority cling to the reassurance of faith.

Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the
west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set
of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control,
anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative
rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that
emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and
welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased
leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress
reduction, and so forth.

As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle
class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors
beyond their control. It is hard to lose one's middle class status in
Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible
regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the
attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably
satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically
reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect
them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at
least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us
(Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the
process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue
of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that
enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high
level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed
sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that
lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural
creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal
from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended
illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy;
before you know it a typical American family can find itself
financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of

In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent
financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing
economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is
engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which
failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of
psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look
to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls
of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful
eternal existence.

The effect can be more direct. For instance, the absence of universal
health care encourages the utilization of faith-based medical
charities. The latter, as well intentioned as they are, cannot provide
the comprehensive health services that best suppress mortality at all
ages. But charities extend the reach of the churches into the secular
community, enhancing their ability to influence society and politics,
and retain and recruit members.

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character,
the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy
that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because
we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of
disparity. The other factors widely thought to be driving forces
behind mass faith—desire for the social links provided by churches,
fear of societal amorality, fear of death, genetic predisposition
towards religiosity, etc—are not critical simply because hundreds of
millions have freely accepted being nonreligious mortals in a dozen
and a half democracies. Such motives and factors can be operative only
if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently poor to sustain mass
creationism and religion.

So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is
the default mode inherent to the human condition. What about the
hypothesis that has gained wide currency, that competition between the
plethora of churches spawned by the separation of church and state is
responsible for America's highly religious population? Australia and
New Zealand copied the American separation between church and state in
their constitutions, yet they are much more irreligious. Meanwhile the
most religious advanced democracies in Europe are those where the
Catholic church is, or was, dominant.

To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual
matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially
economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long
term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the
gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed
prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies.
There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only
disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the
benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith
prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social,
economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic
of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

We can also explain why America is has become increasingly at odds
with itself. On one hand the growing level of socio-economic disparity
that is leaving an increasing portion of the population behind in the
socially Darwinian rat-race is boosting levels of hard-line
religiosity in the lower classes. On the other hand freedom from
belief in the supernatural is rising among the growing segment that
enjoys higher incomes and sophisticated education. Bill Gates, Warren
Buffet, Ted Turner, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch are typical
upper crust disbelievers.

The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time a
nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian
education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That is
why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms
their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from
socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is,
of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular
community should be more encouraged.

Skepticism of the transcendent has not swept the planet with the
completeness expected by some in the 20th century. Doing so would have
required the conversion to atheism of an unattainable 50 million
people a year in a world where the great majority chronically lack the
high level of science-oriented education, secure prosperity, and
democracy that spontaneous disbelief depends upon. The expectation of
global atheism was correspondingly naïve, and will remain so as
billions live in, or fear living in, substandard conditions. Which
should not comfort theists. Even so, theists are equally naïve when
they dream that faith can retake the entire world.

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never
before has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced
a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized
religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when only
one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive activity
rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when no major faith
is proving able to grow as they break out of their ancestral lands via
mass conversion, and when securely prosperous democracies appear
immune to mass devotion? The religious industry simply lacks a
reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

Even though liberal, pro-evolution religions are not at fault for
unacceptable social policies, organized faith cannot reform itself by
supporting successful secular social arrangements because these
actions inadvertently suppress popular religiosity. They are caught in
a classic Catch-22. And liberal churches are even less able to thrive
in advanced democracies than are their more conservative counterparts,
so if churches, temples and mosques become matriarchal by
socio-politically liberalizing they risk secularizing themselves into
further insignificance.

In Commonweal Peter Quinn contends that Stephen Gould, Richard
Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have sanitized the social
philosophy of Charles Darwin, which was not sufficiently kindly and
tolerant to produce "the sole and true foundation for a humanistic
society, free of the primitive and dangerous irrationality of
religious belief."

Aside from the above nontheists never having promoted Darwin's
personal world-view as the sole fountain of societal goodness, Quinn
is making the even bigger mistake—the same mistake nearly everyone is
making—of believing that the contest between popular faith and
secularism is an epic struggle of ideas that then determines the
quality of societies. But the level and nature of popular faith is
really set by economic conditions, and only secular egalitarian
prosperous democracies that reject extreme social Darwinism can
produce the best practical conditions.

Assuming America continues to secularize towards the 1st world norm
then what can we expect? The decline in faith-based conservative
ideology is predicted to allow the country to adopt the progressive
policies that have been proven to work in the rest of the west, and
vice-versa. Even Wal-Mart has come out in favor of universal medical
coverage as bottom-line busting health care expenditures compel the
corporations to turn towards the system that has done so much harm to
the churches of Europe. If and when religion declines in the states
Darwin's science will automatically benefit enormously as it has in
ungodly Europe, but Darwinistic social policies will not fare as well
as they have in Christian America.

In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of
economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or
reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and
physical security to the population, the fewer that will be
religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with
these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces
will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little
that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern.


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