Can atheism overtake religion?

New research suggests it’s possible. It’s really a matter of quality of life:

First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (2). 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%.

Some of the reasons the author, Nigel Barber, gives for this distinct distribution has to do with affluence, education, and a personal sense of security. First, poor nations very rarely have a notable occurrence of atheists. Rather, they tend to have marriage-encouraged families which help to produce high numbers of children. This is all pushed and protected and propagated to a high degree by religion. Of course, the inverse is that these families and their largeness creates a positive feedback loop that helps to increase religiosity.

Second, it is widely known that the more educated one becomes, the more likely one is to be an atheist. We even see most of the scientists of the world professing (or admitting, depending upon one’s view) their atheism. That doesn’t mean the religious are stupid. Nothing prevents a Muslim or Jew from becoming highly educated – and, in fact, many Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish – but the statistics are the statistics.

Third, and I think this is the biggest factor, people want to feel safe. They want a sense of security. They want to know they have control and that they aren’t just going it alone. Countries where its inhabitants are either wealthy or where social welfare programs are in high gear will tend to produce a higher percentage of atheists than other countries.

Of final note, I have three more things. First, as a token of good faith, I realize that much of this plays into confirmation bias. It’s long been a belief of mine that people largely turn to religion because it offers comfort. One only need to look at those who hit rock bottom, whether in society or in prison, to see correlative evidence of such. Second, this article does leave out other reasons why people cling to their religion. It’s difficult for one to let go of something so ingrained. We all have a web of beliefs. It’s easy to alter the beliefs not fundamental to how we define ourselves, but to get at the core and make a change is difficult. (That’s one reason we have creationists in the world.) This tendency to cling is important because the number one factor indicating what one will believe is what one’s parents believe. And to go outside one’s family, the next big factor to indicate what people will believe is region. It’s another positive feedback loop – one’s core beliefs are reinforced by their group and their group is reinforced by their core beliefs. Third, I know there are some of the more aggressive theists out there who will be willing to spin this to mean that atheism is a luxury of the wealthy, and in a way it is. But that isn’t a negative thing. Education, creature comforts, long-term well being, financial security, and health security are some other luxuries of the wealthy. This are all things which enable individuals to have all the more freedom and more peace of mind.

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7 Responses

  1. […] More from Google Blogs]: Can atheism overtake religion? « For the Sake of Science […]

  2. America being the anomaly for some reason. Gallop says that 92% of Americans profess a belief in God. There has to be a bit more to it than just economic and social security.

  3. And indeed, 20%ish of Nobel winners have been jewish, or so wiki tells me.

  4. Just one other thing, where did they get the numbers in your first block quote. I can’t find any numbers remotely near them, at least not indicating anything about the number of Atheists.

    As more than half of the people in Sweden for example, believe there is some kind of spirit or life force. Plus the ones that outright believe in God.

    Have I been operating under a false premise? Can one be an Atheist and believe in such things?

    http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

  5. Nothing prevents a Muslim or Jew from becoming highly educated – and, in fact, many Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish – but the statistics are the statistics.

    Many of those Jews are atheists. They are cultural Jews.

    In general, a large percent of Jews in the US are non-religious or minimally religious. Reform Judaism is not very religious at all.

  6. I just happened to stumble upon this article and realize its a little old but your first paragaph conflicts what I’ve experienced in Peru.

    “Rather, they tend to have marriage-encouraged families which help to produce high numbers of children”

    Their ‘families’ may be larger than American ones but the vast majority of parents are not married. Secondly, the elderly are so diseased that they can’t help support the parents either.

    So I don’t know where you got this from

  7. Most poor nations tend to encourage marriage. Peru, as well as other parts of Central and South America, provide for some outliers, but that doesn’t change what happens in the majority of the world.

    Also, concerning average family size, the data I’ve Googled shows a lower rate in Peru than the U.S.

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