As countries develop, religious belief and practice decline (1). Affluence kills piety.
The good life in wealthy countries favors materialism and detachment from religious institutions. The Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Roman Empire, conform to this pattern. Indulgence in luxury and sensuality marked their respective peaks.
Absent the guiding light of religious morality, religious people argue, materially successful societies become decadent and fall apart. This is a pessimistic view of history. For it suggests that efforts to improve living conditions are futile - even self-defeating.
Up to the present, such pessimism is hard to fault on a historical basis. As far as we know, there has never been a period of prolonged prosperity for entire populations (as opposed to a small privileged elite). Only in the modern era do ordinary people enjoy good living conditions, with adequate nutrition and survival to old age being the norm.
If such favorable conditions persist, formal religion will slowly fade away and effectively disappear. If difficult and uncertain material conditions persist around the world, then religion is here to stay. Which outcome is more likely?
Breaking the cycle of growth followed by decay
What can rescue human civilizations from their depressing cycle of progress followed by decay? The answer, in a word, is globalization.
Up to now, human history has been a story of the fitful progress of urbanization. It began in modern-day Iraq with the development of irrigation-based cities. These early cities collapsed for one reason or another, whether ecological collapse, warfare, or infectious diseases. Globalization means that urban centers are interconnected and less likely to fail.
Every inhabited spot on the planet is now connected to every other spot via electronic communications, transportation, and trade. This process began with the establishment of worldwide shipping routes and was accelerated by the formation of worldwide empires by European powers. The colonies were primarily sources of raw materials but also served as markets for finished goods. Once worldwide trade took off, it placed the global economy on a trajectory of continued growth towards universal prosperity - and atheism.
The key difference between the modern world and urban civilizations of the past is that the global village has arrived: what is going on in one location on the globe is perceptible, and has practical consequences, everywhere else.
Communications is just one aspect of the globalization of our economy. Just as striking is the economic interdependence of far flung regions of the globe with an unprecedented degree of international trade in goods and services. With its abundance of wood, the U.S. is a cheap source of chopsticks for China, for instance. At the same time, China is the world’s main source of rare earth metals used in the manufacture of electronic products. China relies on the Middle East and Africa for oil and imports coal from the U.S. American companies manufacture the disk drives used in most computers but import their components from Thailand. When one examines how products in everyday use are made, their genesis provides an exhausting catalog of extensive international trade and mutual interdependence of distant countries from mundane kitchen utensils to complex electronic products.
The future of religion
The broad implications of a global economy are well known and widely discussed but the consequences for religion are less appreciated. Despite continued misery in various parts of the world, the global economy rides a seemingly unstoppable tide of increasing prosperity.
Half of the world’s population now resides in cities so that our future as an urban creature is pretty well settled. We no longer have a few isolated city developments, or a few prosperous countries but a world in which increasing economic activity in one country spurs development in many others. This level of mutual interdependence inhibits war and boils down to unprecedented global stability.
Skeptics may question whether prosperity will continue to increase. Some point to the environmental unsustainability of torrid development with its nasty consequences for specific ecologies, such as rainforests, and for the entire global ecosystem. Yet, the impact of global warming on economic growth (2) is likely to be too modest to prevent increased prosperity and secularization (1).
Religion no longer has a central place, or function, in Western Europe. Non attendance at religious services, non marriage, a declining market for religious counseling, etc., boil down to a dwindling market for religion. Organized religions is marginalized there and increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream secular population. Its descent into complete irrelevance seems inevitable, not just in Europe but throughout the global economy.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...
2. Stern, N. (2006). Stern Review Report on the economics of climate change (Pre-publication edition). HM Treasury website. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/.