The growth of atheism


Jason Collins


July 16, 2011

Nigel Barber of The Daily Beast (Psychology Today) has posted on a forthcoming article in which he shows that the level of atheism increases with the quality of life. Barber explains the trend as follows:

The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people’s daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific belief.

Barber pulls out some interesting evidence in support of his claim. For example, he argues in the article that superstition increases in the face of uncertainty:

Gmelch (1974) found that different positions in baseball evoke varying levels of superstitious behavior: When players fielded they were less superstitious than when batting or pitching, and this difference was attributed to the fact that fielding errors are rare whereas even good batters miss the ball more often than they hit it. Recently Burger and Lynn (2005) supported the uncertainty hypothesis by finding that major league baseball players engaged in more superstitious behavior the more that they believed the outcome was determined by luck. Interestingly, men and women become more religious when they view pictures of attractive same-sex mating competitors, another possible case of uncertain outcomes (Li, Cohen, Weeden, & Kenrick, 2010).

This is one of those articles where I am happy to agree with the results. However, on Barber’s longer term prediction of increasing atheism as developing countries develop, Barber did not discuss the higher fertility of those with religion and the heritability of religious belief.

Take the United States. Religiosity has undergone significant long-term decline, consistent with Barber’s findings. However, among the remaining religious people in the population, fertility rates are higher. With religiosity heritable, it is open to ask which dynamic will win in the long-term - the decline due to higher quality of life or the higher fertility of those who maintain religious beliefs despite the increase in quality of life. As the security dynamic has largely played out in most people’s lives in developed countries, my money is on the latter.

One way of putting this might be to consider the increase in quality of life as a shock. Some people respond to this shock by dropping their religious belief. As they form the majority of the population, the rate of religious belief initially drops. However, those who are immune to the shock maintain their religious belief. As those with religious belief have higher fertility, they eventually come to form the larger proportion of the population - as Rowthorn suggested in a paper I previously posted about.

From this, we would support Barber’s prediction that as the quality of life in developing countries increases, religiosity might decrease. In developed countries however, the trend will start to head the other way.

As a final thought, Barber finds higher levels of atheism where there is less income inequality and higher taxation rates. While Barber also puts this down to the security hypothesis, I wonder how much of this can be attributed to state involvement in religion. In European countries with high taxation rates, the church is often state sponsored, with limited competition between religious offerings. In such an environment, it is no surprise that there are not more takers for the moribund religious alternatives.