Tom Gilson

“Why Atheism Will Replace Religion” — Psychology Today

Nigel Barber writes:

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people expect to die young. In social democracies, people who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives. So there is less need of religion.

[From Why Atheism Will Replace Religion | Psychology Today]

Interesting thesis. He hasn’t published his research yet, so we can’t assess the quality of the statistical analysis. Suppose it’s entirely proper and correct in methodology and number-crunching. Is there anything in his conclusion, anything that Jesus Christ himself didn’t tell us? Consider

  • Psalm 12:5
  • Psalm 34:6
  • Isaiah 25:4
  • Isaiah 61:1
  • Matthew 19:23-26
  • Luke 4:16-21
  • Luke 5:31
  • Revelation 3:14-22

In other words, this finding has no impact on the truth or falsehood of the Christian gospel. Barber predicts that religion will be a “salve for the difficulties and uncertainties in their lives.” He finds data that’s consistent with that hypothesis. It’s also consistent with Christianity’s message that God doesn’t force his way upon those who think they have no need of him. He helps those who ask him for it.

What about Barber’s opinion that atheism will replace Christianity? Suppose atheism is negatively correlated with fear and uncertainty. Does he think that’s going away any time soon? What social researcher could claim any credibility after saying this?

Why is religion in decline in fast-paced countries where ordinary people enjoy a good standard of living? It seems that with better science, with government safety nets, better health, and longer life expectancy, there is less fear and uncertainty in people’s daily lives. As a result there is less of a need for religion to help people cope with the feeling that they have little control over their lives.

The fast-paced modern world brings plenty of food, scientific medicine, climate controlled homes, reliable weather forecasts and many other innovations that put God out of business. The fast lane thus leads to atheism. Of that, there can no longer be any doubt.

Do these “many other innovations” include environmental control, so that we can predict no more hurricanes will hit New Orleans, no more earthquakes and tsunamis will strike Japan? Does modern medicine promise freedom from MRSA, or from car accidents? Does ten percent, or even thirty percent, longer life expectancy resolve the question of what follows death? Do government safety nets ensure universal human justice? Does all this mean that each person is relieved of having “little control over their lives”? Not yet, my friend. Not ever in the predictable future.

What then is demonstrated in this research? Not much. It doesn’t show the superiority of either atheism or Christianity, for the two systems of belief both predict the same outcome.

What conclusions can we draw from the conclusions that Nigel Barber himself draws? Not much again, but a little. We can observe that he is

  • Apparently ignorant of Christianity’s predictions with respect to religion among the poor and needy,
  • Amazingly naive with respect to the future of humanity, and
  • Surprisingly confident of his conclusions in spite of the above (“Of that,” he writes, “there can no longer be any doubt.”)

This is suggestive of his being

  • Blithely self-satisfied in his unawareness.

This is consistent with a pattern among atheists and skeptics that I myself cannot support with research but seems anecdotally evident (with all the caveats that apply to drawing conclusions from anecdotal experience).

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15 thoughts on ““Why Atheism Will Replace Religion” — Psychology Today

  1. I dunno.. one potentially interesting conclusion to take from this kind of data (assuming it holds up), could be that people really *don’t* have a “God shaped hole” in their hearts, as many Christians say.

    What this research could show is that people probably have something like an “existential security” “shaped hole”, that can be filled with any kind of X, illusory or real, which provides a sufficient level of existential security.

  2. It is more difficult to be poor in spirit in an increasingly wealthy world. Matthew 19:23–26 cited above. The closer we come to the end, the more people turn away from God. 2 Tim. 1-5. I would expect empirical research to support these scriptures.

  3. A few problems.

    * People’s needs do not necessarily remain constant – what satisfies one generation becomes the bare minimum threshold for life for another generation.

    * They don’t even stay constant within one lifetime. A person has different needs at 2, 12, 22, 62, etc. A life expectancy of 75 is encouraging at 20. How about at 70?

    * As usual, at least in the article, there’s (at least apparently) the usual confusion of irreligion with atheism, and of ‘religion’ with theism.

    * There are also a variety of other factors ‘fast lane’ countries have in common – particularly in terms of culture, media, and otherwise. This sounds like he’s compared where religion (meaning formal service attendance and the like) is popular versus where it isn’t, seen what the nations had in common, and weaved a story based on that.

    Now as ever, it’s rarely so simple.

  4. Oh, also.

    It doesn’t show the superiority of either atheism or Christianity, for the two systems of belief both predict the same outcome.

    I’d say atheism isn’t even in the running on that question, since atheism makes no predictions at all on that front.

  5. Even if there is some “existential security” shaped hole that needs filled, it doesn’t seem that it’s practically being filled at all by social “progress”. Check the number of Americans and Europeans on anti-depressants. It’s shocking. Seems to me they are filling their “holes” with psychiatric drugs.

    Almost exactly as written by Aldous Huxley.

  6. It is true that the “rich” (those who have money comfort and security) can feel that they do not need God. This was stated in the Bible thousands of years ago. The question is whether this is really adequate in the long run. I do not have any statics on the subject, but my experience, to be admitted largely anecdotal, is that it does not. If anything in spite of our riches we seem the most discontented people in history.

  7. Mike:

    Oddly enough, if by “we”, you mean US citizens – well, America is the anomaly – we’re rich AND religious. So one might draw similar conclusions about religion in the US – that its not adequate, in the long run, at fulfilling the needs of people. IIRC, we don’t exactly rank very high in comparison with other western nations, when it comes to personal happiness.


    I don’t think this single piece of research, considered all by itself, is conclusive or persuasive of much on its own – even if all its numbers and methodologies are sound. But there is a growing body of scientific information out there on human happiness, and it is beginning to give us the outline of a picture of what *really* makes human beings happy – and so far, what produces happiness seem to be many of the virtuous things that religions and mystical traditions have tried to promote throughout the ages (love, empathy, etc) – though actual belief in a God, doesn’t seem to be very relevant. This sort of research can be viewed as another puzzle piece in that overall picture.

    Now maybe this isn’t enough to change the mind of one committed to the Christian narrative.. but one thing strikes me as odd about the Christian narrative:

    If prosperity, in general, leads people to reject religion, and widespread rejection of religion is a sign that the second coming is imminent… well that means human prosperity may be what brings about the second coming. And that’s quite a strange thing given theism – that God will end the world, just as human beings are entering their most prosperous age. That certainly seems counter-productive!

  8. d,

    This is just one piece of research, you’re right about that. The overwhelming body of work on this topic shows strong correlations between spirituality and human flourishing. You can google it easy enough if you’re interested.

    Prosperity does not lead people to reject religion, and it won’t bring in the second coming. Sin leads people to reject Christ. Prosperity tends to allow people a sense of comfort or satisfaction while rejecting Christ. It is that act of rejection that results in judgment. But Christ’s second coming is not “the end of the world” except for those who reject him; for those who welcome him, it is the new beginning.

    I don’t find anything counter-intuitive in this. If you think that prosperity is the great good, then you might; but what about love, justice, mercy, compassion, worship, truth, and beauty? These are far greater goods, and there is no sign that we’re entering a golden age on these counts.

  9. Tom:

    I think a genuine prosperity would encompass all those things (sans the worship, depending on what you mean by it). Mere economic prosperity, however, might still come with a great many woes. But referring back to the science of happiness, it’s somewhat evidenced that a genuine prosperity need not include belief in God.

    But I’m not so sure economic prosperity actually has the effect of increasing sin, or making more people comfortable in their sin. Its well-known that poor economic conditions result in higher crime rates, including violent crime rates. It could be just the opposite, in many or most cases – prosperity (even just the economic kind) could lead to less sin overall.

  10. If you think genuine prosperity encompasses all these things, then I call on you to show me why anyone should think the world is moving forward in them all together.

    You are partly right in your second paragraph. Economic prosperity has the effect of increasing certain kinds of sin, whereas poverty tends to elicit others. There’s a pithy, early statement of that principle in Proverbs 30:7-9.

  11. Unsurprising results. I’ve read many studies in which religiosity is negatively correlated with education and income level, which tend to serve as mediators for the negative correlation between religiosity and psychological well being. Of course since religious beliefs do not rest on empirical evidence, it’s easy enough to refute these types of studies with some argument like “these statistics are of the devil!”

  12. I don’t know that the world is moving forward to a greater level of genuine prosperity – that’s a really hard thing to quantify. Surely, its a given that material prosperity has increased.. but, as we know, that’s only one aspect of what it takes to genuinely flourish in prosperity.

    I think there’s a good case to made that we’re better off than most of our forebears in history, given the amount of struggle in daily life that used to exist. But its a very complicated story – technology that increases comfort and luxury is usually a double edged sword – bringing with it a new set of challenges. I’m sure we all agree there.

    I’d like to think that we are moving that way, or that at least some of us are.

    I mean, it wasnt so long ago that having mere appendicitis was a death sentence, or that to eat, one had to spend 12 hours a day tending farm or working in a factory. I’m sure people coming from those times would look with envy at any existential malaise or other first world problems that arise from the relative comfort of modern life, and despite them, might call what we have today an increase in prosperity. But maybe not.

  13. Barber wrote:

    “In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people expect to die young. In social democracies, people who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives. So there is less need of religion.”

    What “new atheists” like about the idea that when people are coming atheists – they are doing normally so not because of their rational thinking but because of circumstances?

  14. Atheism have long time ago replace religion, not as you say its beginning in this modern era.Its not because of progress or science, its due to the factor that human have been running away from truth, they took the wrong route. They are paving the path of (((HELL)))

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