There is a really good article over at BBC Future by Rachel Nuwer that covers this question, and so I’m pointing at it for those curious enough to ponder over such questions. It is not a new article, it dates from Dec 2014, and so I’m pointing at it, not because it has suddenly popped up, but rather because it is a rather interesting question that is addressed quite well.
It is mostly based upon an interview given to Rachel by Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. He is not in any way religious, has no religious agenda, and so you might suspect that he would be promoting the idea that the demise of religion is inevitable. He is also a sociologist and so has a good understanding of why beliefs exist and thrive and so his take on all this is indeed rather interesting.
What is also made clear is that non-belief is growing and so in that context one can’t help but ponder over the idea of the momentum of such doubts persisting and continuing to grow to such a degree that religious beliefs completely fade, but to answer that we need to also grasp why humans are religious at all, and see if the pressures that drive it will vanish. If such pressures still persist, then we should indeed also doubt the triumph of doubt.
So here are a few snippets I’ve teased out from the article (which itself is quite long) …
Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,”
and yet it is just not that simple …
Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland
… The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity.
Humans are by nature inclined to be religious
The article delves into “dual process theory”, and so I’ll let you read the article itself if curious about the details of that. Basically that and other reasons lead many to conclude that religion arose as “a byproduct of our cognitive disposition” …
“There’s evidence that religious thought is the path of least resistance,” Barrett adds. “You’d have to fundamentally change something about our humanity to get rid of religion.” This biological sticking point probably explains the fact that, although 20% of Americans are not affiliated with a church, 68% of them say that they still believe in God and 37% describe themselves as spiritual. Even without organised religion, they believe that some greater being or life force guides the world.
Now it is about here that many of the religious get all excited or even religiously orgasmic because it appears to verify their belief, and plays to a prevailing religious mythology that we all do believe and that there are no non-believers. But no, that is not what this understanding is telling us at all. What it is actually saying is that the cognitive biases we have cause religious beliefs to naturally emerge and so when we encounter a belief it is simply a cultural arrangement that thrives by leveraging our human psychology, and persists because it promotes group cohesion and cooperation.
So will Religion Ever go away?
For all of these reasons – psychological, neurological, historical, cultural and logistical – experts guess that religion will probably never go away. Religion, whether it’s maintained through fear or love, is highly successful at perpetuating itself. If not, it would no longer be with us.
And even if we lose sight of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu gods and all the rest, superstitions and spiritualism will almost certainly still prevail.
… “There will always be people who believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain the majority.”
And yet it is not the status quo
The above is how the article ends, and yet clearly that is not the full story here, because something is happening and continuing to happen. Right across the world, there is a rising tide of doubt and so clearly something has changed.
As a species we are of course changing all the time as huge dramatic transformations in the way we think about things unfold over successive generations. Examples of this abound, once slavery was socially acceptable but it has now more or less been eradicated. Once homophobia was the social norm, but that now is also being rolled back. Once religious belief held a vice-like grip over everything, and yet no longer.
Much of this transformation has been brought about by our ability to persist and transmit ideas and information … speech, writing, printing, radio, television, the Internet … all has played a part in changing us, and in effect overriding our natural cognitive biases.
We might indeed still be highly irrational and have inherited many cognitive biases, but we are also evolving and overcoming much of that, so while I suspect that it is indeed true that in the short-term religions will persist, it need not be our inevitable long-term future,