The Comforts of Modernity Lead to Atheism

That’s the fascinating thesis of psychologist Nigel Barber, supported: (1) inductively, by research he’s been conducting; and (2) deductively, by a rather straightforward syllogism, which I would put this way:

  • Religion thrives on fear and insecurity.
  • Where people have it good, there is less fear and insecurity.
  • Therefore, where people have it good, religion goes into decline.

I don’t see any correlation-causation fallacy at work here; it seems pretty plausible to me. If religion is a fear-management device and you remove the fear, then the need for the device is removed. Here’s how Barber puts it:

Why is religion in decline in modern democracies 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 otherwise uncomfortable 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.

Therefore (drum roll, please):

The comforts of modernity lead to atheism.

If you’re an atheist, it seems to me, this should make for hope that, given time, your side will win (with or without formal intellectual argumentation). With the progress of science, technology, social democracy, and the growth of secular-oriented social groups, traditional religion, if the above syllogism is in accord with reality, must necessarily droop and wither of its own accord.

In this sense, an issue like Obamacare becomes, not just a healthcare issue, but an issue for advancing a more secular union and weakening religion’s grip on the collective human psyche. Likewise, the Preamble to the American constitution, written by Thomas Jefferson, becomes an agenda for quietly, but quite relentlessly, subverting Big Woo.

__________

Psst. Here’s the atheist conspiracy’s secret weapon. Pass it on.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to The Comforts of Modernity Lead to Atheism

  1. Alan says:

    This explanation is woefully insufficient as it fails to explain the circumstances surrounding the invention/founding of religion(s), fails to explain the apostasy initiated at the height of insecurity in revolutionary France or Russia, its increase through the travails of the world wars and Cold War engulfing most of the twentieth century.
    Lastly, it fails to predict the decline and eventual demise of any state which abandons religion.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Alan,

      I don’t disagree with you that it is simplistic, but what about the thesis if it merely weakens religion? Maybe it just depends on the KIND of religion your society consists of (the anxious kind or the secure kind). A comfy Anglican bishop, well educated and with health care, is not an outright atheist, but he’s quite different from a poor fundamentalist in Pakistan.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Maybe the thesis, less severely stated, is better put this way:

      The comforts of modernity lead to more liberal attitudes–more out of the closet liberal religionists and atheists in a society.

      • Staffan says:

        The question is whether this comfort is part of the human condition or an abnormality of our time. If it’s not then it seems more reasonable to think of atheists as closeted religious people. Because in the long run, fear and uncertainty can’t be escaped with material comfort – we are wired to experience fear and uncertainty. If it isn’t there we’ll make it up. Something psychiatrists have cashed in on when they target upper middle class people – the worried well – who don’t have much to worry about. They can easily be persuaded that they suffer from some disorder that needs years of therapy.

  2. Staffan says:

    This theory makes sense to me. The supposedly atheist revolutions are clearly full of religious overtones.

    I find it interesting to note that one conclusion that can be drawn from it is that atheism is irrational. Because the data suggest that material comfort and safety is the major causal factor in the forming of this attitude, rather than rational thought.

  3. Alan says:

    I will suggest that a better model which predicts both phenomenon – atheism and ‘social justice’ (they are correlated through a common cause). Consider that religion is an institution of leadership, albeit an expensive one – figure 10% of your time plus 10% of your income to be donated to support the cause. Leadership can provide many useful things, as inspiration, motivation, direction and teamwork. Organized religion works to a large degree by bringing people of the community together on a periodic basis and reminding them how they were expected to behave and what they were expected to accomplish with their lives.
    Then came the industrial revolution and people started getting jobs which had managers and a hierarchy of leadership. Leadership which reminding them how they were expected to behave and what they were expected to accomplish with their day. To the limit of social behavior and an-the-job productivity this system has proven superior to the leadership of religion – domestic violence has dropped as dramatically as industrial productivity has risen. Social spending has increased due to the increased wealth industry brings. People feel this in their bones and in their guts. Dropping religion often feels like a no-brainer. Why pay for an institution of leadership when they now have one paying them?
    The short sightedness of following you gut shows when you look at the longer term consequences – something our guts are not evolved to respond to. Industrial leadership and its motivations end at the office door when the workers slip out for happy hour and all manor of self indulgence. Countries with high atheist populations are nearly all in population and military decline. Not a problem, you may say as they have America to continue protecting them and plenty of religious immigrants to buffer the population. That works so long as you only worry about yourself – the decline is slow and your country will probably outlive you. Perhaps by a generation.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Linking industrial management and atheism is a new idea to me. That’s an interesting thesis. Do you know of a philosopher or sociologist who fleshes it out?

      As for population issues, I think you’re right that religious people make more babies than secular people and it certainly accounts for religion thriving through history. Fecundity and religion do seem to go together.

      But when 90% of the 9 billion humans that will be here 100 years from now are living in cities and are hyperlinked via trade, the internet, and technology, do you really think that religion is going to be more fundamentalist than today? By fundamentalist, I mean insular, isolationist, prone to violence.

      I don’t. I think the globe will be far more like pluralist, open, and prosperous. Like California. Not like Pakistan. And it will be sufficiently fecund to sustain its population. Short of a catastrophe (global plague, a comet hitting the Earth, a nuclear war, unanticipated environmental collapse of the atmosphere), I just don’t think any trend lines are moving toward greater levels of religious conservatism, insularity, and violence.

      Even in the Islamic world, the people living there are fed up with Taliban-style Islam. I think Egypt will, for example, slowly move more toward a Turkey-style economy and culture than an Iranian one. And I think that Iran will also evolve in the right direction if we manage its transition sanely. Pakistan and Afghanistan, I don’t know. And Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. Islamic states with nuclear weapons are certainly wild cards in the deck of our collective future.

      –Santi

      • Alan says:

        It’s my idea, and I’m slowly fleshing it out. For some reason, the past is far easier to predict than the future, but I do not see any for the most conservative religious sects. I see them, as I suspect do you, as fear-driven. In my optimism for a less populous world, I predict education and atheism will both spread (lowering birth rates below replacement). In our cleverness, we will adapt our economy to thrive on stagnant and aging populations displacing the current model that relies on growth, and the current technological lead of today’s increasingly atheist states is enough to offset our competitive decline (that is we can reduce our competitors religiosity as they catch up, slowing them down to our rates before we are surpassed). Finally, before things slide too far, a new revival/reformation catches on allowing those future humans to soldier on in peaceful cooperation.

        I do not think that nuclear armed rogue states are game changers, unless you happen to be Israel. Larger states (such as India – a potential target of Pakistan) will survive and recover. We (the industrial world) survived WWII, I don’t expect anything that bad again – short of any more Bush Brothers as presidents.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I don’t disagree with anything you said.

        A hundred years from now, I think we also have to consider the very real possibility that human beings will be transitioning to a cyborg-like existence. Robots will do a lot of things for us and humans will have replaceable parts and synthetic enhancements. As humans become part human / part computer / part robot, they’ll obviously be far more intelligent and capable of processing information than we are. Probably our descendants will also be genetically enhancing themselves a century from now. All this has to have a huge impact on stupid and ill-informed forms of religion.

        A hundred and fifty years from now, when all “humans 2.0” have an IQ of, say, 200 or more, imagine one of them watching old televangelist sermons from our time on YouTube. That person will probably whisper, “How sad! Thank God I didn’t live back then!”

        Then they’ll turn it off and go back to reading Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things.”

        –Santi

  4. conservative says:

    Do atheists have anything else except the same old stereotypical arguments that religion is based fear and ignorance? Does that include their religion too? Because atheistic humanism is a religion. You have your “saints” too.

    The arguments that atheists use are so stupid and overused. I know the arguments that many atheists use. The atheist tells everybody that there is no ultimate foundation for ethics, that life has no meaning, and that there is no free will. Does that mean you had to be an atheist? Don’t you see how ridiculous this is?🙂

    The atheists claim life has no real meaning since there is no transcendent reality, but they fill their lives with meaningful things. They say there’s no real foundation for ethics, but they appeal to ethics when they are affected by wrongdoing. This is not only inconsistent, it’s also hypocritical. For a very long time, atheists presented themselves to the world as open minded and highly intellectual, they still claim to be like that. They are not even close. All they have is silly infantile arguments and bitterness at God.

    Do you ever consider the arguments of Christian apologetics champions like William L. Craig and Lee Strobbel?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree with you that atheism is in crisis. On atheism, free will does not exist. I think you’re right about that. The vast majority of atheists who think it through reach that conclusion (then ignore it).

      I also think, however, that theism is in crisis as well. After the Holocaust, please tell me how one prays or believes in God.

      The truth is that we live in a fog and our solutions to our most urgent existential questions all have serious problems of sense and justification. It seems one has to ignore a lot to live.

      –Santi

      • Alan says:

        After the Holocaust, do you believe in the devil? Can you believe a devil would allow such things to happen?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Ah, no, because the devil would have to be a created creature.

        Who created him?

        –Santi

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