Do Democracy, Mass Education, and Economic Prosperity Weaken God Belief?

Michael Shermer thinks so, and he has some data that supports him. Writing at Scientific American, here he is on democracy and mass education:

One factor [in the decline of God belief internationally] is the dramatic spread of democracy around the globe over the past half a century. Most people surveyed agreed that democracy is a good form of government, with no differences across religious faiths. One of the features of a democracy is the disentanglement of the sacred from the secular because in religiously pluralistic countries no one can legitimately claim special status by faith membership. Democracies also have higher literacy rates and mass education that lead to a tolerance for the beliefs of others that, in turn, lowers the absolutism most religions in the past required, thus undermining the truth claims of any one religion over others.

And here he is on economic prosperity and God belief, noting that free trade replaces “zero-sum religious tribalism with nonzero financial exchange”:

Free trade and the division of labor constitute the greatest generator of wealth in history, and according to the Religion Monitor report using the survey data, “socio-economic well-being generally results in a decline in the social significance of religion in society and a decrease in the numbers of people who base their life praxis on religious norms and rules.” Why? One of the social functions of religion is to help the poor, so as a country’s impoverished declines (and, as in Sweden and other European countries, government social programs aid the poor), so, too, does religiosity. And because the middle classes of most countries are growing from the youth up, that could explain the report’s assessment that “almost all the countries in the study … exhibit a decline in the centrality and significance of religion for daily life from one generation to another. As a general rule, the younger people are, the lower their religiosity.”

Michael Shermer makes good points, but literary critic Terry Eagleton has argued that atheists shouldn’t, in a fit of triumphalism, confuse the progress of pragmatism with the advance of hope. Our existential problems (death; fragmentation; the search for meaning in an apparently indifferent cosmos) are still with us regardless of how free, educated, and well off we are.

Religion will always be there, like a bad conscience, exploiting our existential unease, pointing us to the ontological mystery (the mystery of Being itself).

Which is why Nietzsche needs reading by atheists and agnostics now more than ever. He tempers triumphalism. Last man pragmatism–vegan tofu in every pot; a comfy bean bag in front of every screen–will not save us. We’re never really out of the woods and nobody gets out alive. So what are you going to do?

Here’s a bit of Nietzsche (from his 1873 essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”) for contemplation. Watch for his reference to a tiger:

What do human beings really know about themselves? Are they even capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case? Does nature not remain silent about almost everything, even about our bodies, banishing and enclosing us within a proud, illusory consciousness, far away from the twists and turns of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream and the complicated tremblings of the nerve-fibers? Nature has thrown away the key, and woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed in peering through a crack in the chamber of consciousness, out and down into the depths, and thus gain an intimation of the fact that humanity, in the indifference of its ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous—clinging in dreams, as it were, to the back of a tiger.

Religion points to this tiger–call it the tiger problem–then points to a solution, however deluded (Jesus, meditation, … whatever). Religion gives hope. Not Nietzsche. Nietzsche points to the tiger, and keeps pointing. As does Blake. By contrast, Michael Shermer’s atheist triumphalism is in danger of becoming a form of philistinism (a concern only for material values), or, at minimum, a diversion from grappling with the tiger.

But religious or not, we mustn’t forget the tiger; to honor the tiger (the mystery of the tiger). Because the tiger is not going away.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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