The growth of atheism

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.

21 thoughts on “The growth of atheism

  1. 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.

    the limited stuff i’ve seen on europe on the ‘supply side’ model doesn’t seem to support it. e.g., the czech republic’s extreme secularity seems to have deep roots pre-dating the communist period.

    1. My family is Czech and it’s been my experience with the memories of my grandparents and those of their generation that the Czech people were not secular before the communist era; rather, Christianity was the dominant religion.

  2. 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.

    There really isn’t limited competition even in European states with a national church. Gregory Paul’s work supports Barber’s view.

  3. Will religion win out in a long term perspective?

    If you believe religion is heritable, it may. However, I don’t see (from your article) that Rowthorn tested his hypothesis. Meanwhile, the hypothesis that religion is mostly not heritable tests well.

    In Abrams’ et al model, non-linear effects may at best save religion from extinction in the modern world. Their work support Paul’s and Barber’s.

    There really isn’t limited competition even in European states with a national church.

    The very thought. Where I grew up [Sweden], free churches littered every village large enough to have regular streets.

    At the time the church-state separation [-00-ish], many of these had dwindled in importance while televangelists US type was increasing. I’m fairly sure statistics will bear out my anecdotal “evidence”, and I’ll say there is still a lot of supply around.

    1. I might have to concede the competition argument for the moment and get to grips with the data available. However, I’m a long way from convinced of the causal link between inequality and religion. The United States simply appears to be too much of an outlier for that gap to be explained on that basis.

      And thanks for the article link – it looks interesting, although I am moderately confident from twin studies that religiosity is heritable.

  4. atheists give atheism a bad name

    atheists do not know what atheism is ..

    a-theism, the summum bonum of a spiritual quest based on truth and reality .. it is a hugely mystical awakening .. not merely the negation of a belief in “god”.

    so childish, atheists. fundamentalists preachers, defined by what they oppose. lol

  5. I think it’s important to distinguish between “religion” and “religiosity” here. The former seems to be shorthand for “membership in a recognized, usually organized, faith community (e.g. the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism),” whereas the latter could encompass a broad range of other behaviors and beliefs, not necessarily theistic (I doubt most batters who engage in elaborate warm-up rituals “for luck” are necessarily doing it to get Jesus’s attention, for example). There’s a lot of evidence that religiosity is highly heritable, but I am not so convinced when it comes to religion. Seems to me that people who inherit a strong tendency to religiosity in one of these developed countries may just end up buying a bunch of crystals and hanging out at the local homeopathic medicine shop rather than “getting religion.” So, the higher fertility rates among the religious may not save religion after all. YMMV.

    1. Fair point – although I suspect that those who go the crystal hanging route have significant (heritable) personality differences compared to those attracted to, say, Christianity.

  6. @Jason
    In what respect is the US an outlier? Based on Gini co-efficients the US has more inequality than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Russia. (And, come to that many Asian & African countries). So based on the hypothesis above the US *should* see more religious affiliation than those countries despite being more developed than many of them.

    I’d agree with the other Europeans above that the notion only one religion is available

    1. The United States has far higher belief in god than most developed countries. From Lynn and colleagues’ paper (which Barber used in the regression) 10% of people from the United States do not believe in god, compared to over 40% for the United Kingdom and Germany. The regression shown in Table 2 of Barber’s paper suggests that a change in the Gini coefficient from 0 to 1 (its full range) will change the rate of disbelief by 3.2 per cent. The United States is too much of an outlier for the Gini coefficient to be the major factor. Even if we accept that there is a causal link (as opposed to correlation), over 90% of the variation comes from elsewhere.

  7. Thoughtful religious thinkers – C.S. Lewis, Martin Buber, Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine for instance – distinguish between religion and superstition. For instance, Aquinas says that superstition is: “a vice opposed to religion by way of excess; not because in the worship of God it does more than true religion, but because it offers Divine worship to beings other than God or offers worship to God in an improper manner”.

  8. The most religious countries include places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are characterized by very high levels of income inequality, few if any rights of females, no government safety net, high levels of violence and high child mortality. The least religious, Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Japan etc., have the opposite characteristics.
    The most religious groups in the US are pushing policies that move us toward the former group. As they are still quite strong in the US, it goes a long way toward explaining our outlier position (relatively high child mortality, high violence, high income inequality) in social measures in spite of our high GDP.

    1. What a bunch of drivel that is. The religion/denomination/sect/ branch or whatever you wish to call it……..Calvinistic Protestant basically holds the following to be true..

      While all people are created equal in value in the eyes of God they are all endowed with different gifts or aptitudes [should be obvious to any sentient adult] Therefore there will always be a difference in income as you point out. The difference between atheistic thinking and religious thinking is that religious thinking holds that those who are more “blessed” materially are to share with those who are not. Atheistic or post modern thought would say that the government should take care of those who are disadvantaged, thereby negating personal responsibility for our fellow man.
      AFA rights of females………..surely you jest.. I don’t know what “religious” groups you are using as reference but it is nothing mainstream. My wife would beg to differ with you. Again, reference the fact that our very founding documents were based on religious premise that “All men [meaning mankind] are created equal.
      The Bible defines true religion as “taking care of widows and orphans”. In other words, believers are the safety net not the government. {There’s that pesky personal responsibility thing again} True religion is therefore defined as taking care of someone who is unable to take care of themselves and expecting nothing in return. Atheistic thought would have us believe that everything we do is done for our own betterment IE: natural selection and Darwin’s theory and flies in the face of altruistic behavior.
      Violence? Mmmmm have you ever heard the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers”? Where do you think that comes from? Some atheistic new letter?
      Childhood mortality? A true believer will realize that all life is sacred because it is of God. A person holding to that belief does not and never will abandon or fail to seek everything good for children. In fact let’s think for a moment about the true travisty of child abuse in the USA called abortion. How many atheists are pro-death …er…choice? How many religious “zealots” are believers in the sanctity of life even before that life can be held in the arms of it’s mother.

      Your ignorance of true religion is hanging out all over the place. Maybe one could conclude that the “religion” that predominates the countries you mention is not really a religion at all but merely a means of control………..

  9. Religion can be a very strong tribal bond, as can secular cults such as the worship of Ivy League diplomas, the possession of which assures baptism into an elite. Or the cult of one or another college fraternity, ensuring a spiritual bond with the brothers, just as in a Roman pagan cult. As religion declines the need to form brotherhoods and sisterhoods persists. The wonderful thing about ancient or modern cults is that many of them can turn what are vices in Christianity into pious practices, such as sex, cruelty, excess drinking, and the shameless superiority of material gain.

    Religions can create community in otherwise bleak cultural wastelands or isolated areas.

    Perhaps religion will survive best where religion is entrepreneurial, as in the US South. Young pastors have to go out, found a church and convince people not only to join but to be actively involved and to donate 10% of their earnings. Additionally these entrepreneurial pastors are often able to build what we call mega-churches but which might better be called community churches, because building communities is what they do well. Their churches actually operate as community centers. Most people, especially young families and the elderly, prefer neighborly involvement over isolation. In some place they can then go to community building churches.

    I sometimes suspect that entrepreneurial pastors from US evangelical outfits, trained at church and community building rites and practices at evangelical universities, could convert many areas of Europe where many people feel adrift and isolated or alienated. On the other hand, in some secularized places, such as France, the local municipal sports center serves as an effective community builder. And in other places, such as Toronto and some neighborhoods in Boston, community schools serve as effective community builders . Community schools operated by a municipal agency; they take over public schools in the evening and boards made up of neighborhood people decide what activities to develop and offer: sports, drama, crafts, dance, meditation, Alcoholics Anon, GED programs, cooking, etc.

  10. Prosperity almost always produces a pride and arrogance that takes people away from God. Especially in the second and subsequent generations. Just check out the history of Israel for proof of that. Virtually every time Israel became prosperous through their history, though they are the chosen ones, they drifted from their God. What keeps many people from drifting is a genuine ‘mystical’ experience. In other words God has probably done some sort of personal miracle in that person’s life in order to ‘save’ them or deliver them from a life of self or other destruction. There is literally no way to forget God in their lives. Since most people don’t have that type of experience or are the children of someone like that and thus don’t have that type of experience, it is natural for them to drift away from the source of that experience. Especially when the person who did have the experience begins to live life on the straight and narrow, gets blessed for it and passes those life skills onto the next generation. That generation then goes on to living the good life with none of the siritual basis for the inspiration and thus they don’t have the same anchor in the God that inspired it

  11. Israel is an interesting case, where secular Jews have a fertility rate little above replacement level but the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) Jews have a very high rate. Furthermore, this strand of Judaism appears to be strongly heritable.


    ‘The Haredi fertility rate was 6.49 from 1980–82. In 1990–96 it actually rose to 7.61 and has remained there. By 2020 Haredi will double their share of the Israeli population to 17%. Shortly after 2050 they’re projected to be the majority of Israeli Jews, even in the unlikely event that their fertility converges with that of secularists by 2030. […]

    ‘According to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics for the Ministry of Education, a third of Jewish schoolchildren will be studying in Haredi classrooms by 2012. That’s compared to a few percent in 1960, 12% in 1992 and 27% in 2007. (Addendum, 12/29/2010:

    ‘The New York Times reports that “If current trends continue, it said, 78 percent of primary school children in Israel by 2040 will be either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.” Israel returns to its Middle Eastern roots. There is widespread concern about this in Israel because 60% of Heredi men and more than 50% of Heredi women do not work. “Most are dependent on welfare payments like income support, child allowances or married student stipends.” They are also reluctant to join the military, although the military has made allowances for them in recent years.)’

    Although Israel is a reasonably prosperous nation, the Haredim live in an alternate economic universe, often below the poverty line, where they are substantially untouched by the nation’s prosperity. But according to, this is creating an increasing economic problem for the nation. It will need some sort of resolution well before the Haredim become a majority of the population.

  12. Fear not. A recent survey, on behalf of Christian churches, of teen students in Christian schools found that only 14% of them plan to raise their own offspring as they are being brought up. We may confidently expect that proportion to decline as they enter the secular world.

  13. The weight of proof for evolution is so crushing and is so daily confirmed by genetic, biochemical and fossil evidence that if you’re a creationist you’re have your head in the ground. When are people going to wake up? I suspect that it takes many years and generations to break free of the scourge that is religion. Infants brainwashed at an early age never really given the tools to make true choices or informed decisions.

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