In earlier posts (here and here), I documented a clear pattern where atheism blossoms in fast-paced developed countries but is virtually absent in less developed nations (1). The implication is that as countries around the globe get wealthier and more fast-paced, religion will decline. In a new study, I have found the most compelling evidence yet for this possibility.
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people expect to die young. In social democracies, people who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives. So there is less need of religion.
In a recent (2011) study of 137 countries (2) I found that belief in God was higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases, shortening life expectancy and condemning many to a long battle with chronic illnesses such as malaria. Fewer people believed in God in wealthy and well-educated countries where life is not so hard or uncertain. I also found that atheism increases for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates). Countries with a more equal distribution of income -- and hence less social problems -- had more atheists.
My study controlled for whether a country was mostly Moslem (where atheism is criminalized) or formerly Communist (where religion was suppressed). It accounted for three-quarters of country differences in atheism.
Yet, the 2011 study had a weakness. The data were not collected in the same way in different countries and were not strictly comparable. Instead, the data were compiled from numerous different studies. This introduces an element of "noise." The conclusions one draws are only as good as the evidence on which they are based.
Conversely, good data is the lifeblood of science. In a yet-to-be-published study (3), I analyzed Gallup data on the importance of religion in people's daily lives. As one might expect, there is a strong relationship between the proportion of people who believe in God in a country and the percentage who say that religion is "important" or "very important" in their daily lives (the statistical overlap being 80 percent).
The key advantage of the Gallup data is that the same polling methodology was used in each of the 114 countries for which they collected data in 2009.
My results in the new study mirrored those of the earlier one on belief in God. I found that more people agreed that religion was important in their daily lives in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases. Religiosity declined in countries having a well-developed welfare state. Residents of more developed countries were less religious and so were nations where third-level education was common. Countries with a more equal distribution of income were lower on religiosity also.
Why is religion in decline in fast-paced countries where ordinary people enjoy a good standard of living? It seems that with better science, with government safety nets, better health, and longer life expectancy, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives. As a result there is less of a need for religion to help people cope with the feeling that they have little control over their lives.
The fast-paced modern world brings plenty of food, scientific medicine, climate controlled homes, reliable weather forecasts and many other innovations that put God out of business. The fast lane thus leads to atheism. Of that, there can no longer be any doubt.
1. Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This book is not held by any U.S. Library.
2. Barber, N. (2011). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
3. Barber, N. (under review). Country religiosity declines as material security increases. International Perspectives in Psychology.