Will humans become more religious or less religious?

I suspect that most of you reading this already know the answer to the question and might perhaps be surprised that I am asking it. So why am I asking it? Well basically because there are competing voices, some of which do argue for quite different answers and then when you ponder over why, you find that they draw upon statistical fiction to arrive at a distinctly different conclusion.

OK, so let’s work the question and see what we find.

David Robertson, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, writes in Christian Today the argument that the rise of non-belief is simply western, and that there is a bigger picture to consider …

But that is not happening. A Pew research study shows that by 2050 it is expected that only 13 per cent of the world’s population will not be religious, compared to 16 per cent today. Although the growth of the non-religious is expected to continue in the West. And therein lies the problem. This is all about a limited Western perception.

My main problem with this Western narrative is that it is so inherently smug, superior, self-destructive and indeed racist.

There is much more within his article and to be frank quite a lot of it is simply daft and ever so tempting to slice and dice, but the goal here is not to eviscerate his nonsense, but instead focus on a specific question. Basically his claim is an example of the idea that the rise of non-belief is simply “western” and apparently also “racist”, and that on the grander scale non-belief will decline. To back that up he points to a Pew research study.

OK, so let’s dig into the specifics here.

Claim 1 – The Pew Research Study that suggests non-belief will shrink not grow

I’ve written about this seriously flawed study before, and the problem with the conclusion it reaches is that it makes assumptions that are clearly not valid assumptions, and is also based upon a very incomplete data set …

These quotes were all lifted directly from page 187 …

  • The projections are what will occur if the current data are accurate and the trends play out as expected.
  • Many events – scientific discoveries, armed conflicts, social movements, political upheavals, natural disasters and changing economic conditions, to name just a few – can shift demographic trends in unforeseen ways
  • current patterns of religious switching are available for only 70 countries, which constitute 43% of the world’s population. The most populous omissions are China and India
  • This study does not attempt to model how religious switching patterns may change in the future as countries experience changes in education, urbanization, political governance and economic development. It is uncertain how economic growth might impact levels of religious affiliation.

So apart from the fact that they have huge gaps in their data, have made assumptions about things remaining exactly the same (which they don’t), and have not considered the negative impact that increasing prosperity and education has upon belief … it is all just fine … or to be brutally frank, it is actually not really telling us anything of any value at all.

We know something dramatic has changed in the past decade and so you simply can’t make the assumptions that this study makes.

Claim 2 – The rise of non-belief is just “Western” and also “Racist”

In a word … no. All around the planet non-belief is rising dramatically, this is not simply “western”, nor is the observation that this is happening either  “smug” or even remotely “racist” in any way.

Back in 2012 we had global statistics that clearly highlighted that things were changing …

The new poll is based on interviews (face-to-face, by telephone or online varying from country to country) with more than 50,000 people from 57 countries. The participants were asked this question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”

America remains way down the list of countries for self-reported atheism. China tops that list with 47 percent “convinced atheists,” followed by Japan (31 percent), the Czech Republic (30 percent), France (29 percent), and South Korea(15 percent).

… and yet that was then, so have things moved on, have we seen belief rise and non-belief shrink since then. If the assertion that the religious will simply out-breed the non-religious was factual, then the rapidly rising human population should since then have seen non-belief shrink.

No, because quite clearly non-belief is still expanding on a global scale to such a degree that we now have a new National Geographic article (just published) about non-belief being the world’s newest major religion.

The religiously unaffiliated, called “nones,” are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths.

There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture.

They do also make the observation that in sub-Saharan Africa the population is rapidly expanding and point to the flawed pew poll to suggest that the religious will simply outbreed the non-religious in that region, and yet fail to appreciate that the primary reason for the disruption of belief will also impact them as well. I also suspect that in 25 years time climate change will have greatly impacted their ability to sustain or retain a population that is being projected and that will inevitably lead to some rather dire consequences within the region, but that is a topic for another day.

Why is Non-belief rising dramatically?

What is it that has emerged within the past couple of decades, what one thing could have suddenly and very dramatically increased the flow of information to every human and pierces through the previously impenetrable walls that insulated people inside social bubbles of belief?

Hey I know how we can find out, let me go and google that … oh wait a moment …

Well yes it is the Internet of course, and if you look you will discover that the dramatic rise of non-belief correlates with the arrival of a vast flow of new information and new social interactions on a global scale.

This is not unique, whenever we as a species have worked out how to greatly increase a flow of information it has very rapidly transformed us. The ability to speak enabled us to communicate complex ideas very rapidly. The ability to write, enabled us to persist ideas and pass them on generation after generation. It benefited and perhaps nurtured religion itself because once you can persist religious ideas in a written form they can then thrive and proceed to infect each successive generation. The arrival of the printing press enabled us to scale up the production of written information to such a degree that it broke the grasp of power that religion had obtained, and enabled an age of enlightenment via the rapid spreading of new better ideas. Each step leads to the next and with each comes an even greater flow of information; telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and now many of us carry within our pockets a device that gives us instant access to all human knowledge and each other. Facebook has over 1.59 billion active users each month and it is still growing.

Religious ideas that once thrived because they could control the narrative have now lost that control and are being challenged as never before. It is a truly frightening prospect for those who once resided safely inside such walls of belief to find that not only have the walls been breached, but that their adherents are flooding out through such gaps.

To illustrate that last bit, Saudi Arabia has officially declared in law that non-believers are terrorists, and they are right to be frightened because the truth is that 1 out of every 4 in Saudi Arabia is not actually religious at all and so they now need to come to terms with the rather inevitable collapse of their religious dictatorship as these isolated individuals start to find each other.


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