US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Atheism is gaining strength all over the world today. But does this mean that spirituality will soon recede into the past? A BBC Future correspondent found that answering this question is far from easy.
More and more people – there are already millions of them around the world – in their own words, believe that life definitely ends with death and that there is no God, no eternal life and no divine providence. Apparently, these beliefs, despite all their pessimism, are becoming more widespread. In some countries, it has become more fashionable than ever to openly proclaim yourself an atheist.
“There are obviously more atheists now than ever — both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total number of people on the planet,” says Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular research at the University of Pittsburgh in the city of Clermont, California ( USA) and author of Worldly Life. After interviewing more than 50 thousand people from 57 countries, analysts at the Gallup International Research Center came to the conclusion that the number of people who consider themselves to be followers of a religion decreased from 77% to 68% from 2005 to 2011, and those those who call themselves unbelievers have increased by 3%, as a result of which the share of convinced atheists in the world has reached 13%.
Of course, they do not constitute the majority, but maybe the emerging tendency is a harbinger of future changes? If it persists, can there come a day when religion will completely disappear?
It is impossible to predict the future, but an analysis of what we know about religion – including the reasons for its appearance and why some people come to faith and some move away from it – can help us predict how people’s attitudes will develop to religion in the coming decades and centuries.
Scientists are still trying to isolate the factors that push a person or people to atheism, but some common features are already looming. The attraction of religion is partly due to the fact that it gives a sense of security in our unpredictable world. Therefore, it is not surprising that the largest percentage of non-believers is observed in those countries where the level of economic, political and domestic stability is quite high. “Apparently, with increased levels of security in society, religious beliefs are weakening,” Zuckerman argues, and adds that in some societies, establishing a capitalist system and giving citizens access to technology and education also leads to a weakening of religiosity.
Crisis of faith
Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay – just a hundred years ago, religion played a big role in all these countries, but now the proportion of believers there has declined to the lowest levels in the world. All these states have a developed system of education and social security, they have practically solved the problem of inequality, and their citizens are financially prosperous. “In general, people are less afraid of the vicissitudes of fate,” said Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at Auckland University (New Zealand).
However, a departure from faith is observed everywhere, including where the number of believers is still very large, for example, in Brazil, Jamaica, and Ireland. “Few places have made society more religious than 40-50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “Iran is perhaps the only exception, but it’s also not so simple there, because unbelievers can hide their beliefs.”
The United States also does not fit into the general concept: it is one of the richest countries in the world, but the level of religiosity of the population there is very high (although a recent study by the Pew analytical center revealed that between 2007 and 2012 the proportion of Americans who consider themselves atheists, increased from 1.6% to 2.4%).
However, Ara Norenzayan, a specialist in social psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Canada) and author of The Big Gods, is convinced that “decline” does not mean “disappearance”. Physical security is also more ephemeral than it seems. Everything can change in one minute: a drunk driver can bring down a loved one, a tornado can destroy a city, a doctor can diagnose an incurable disease in you. If in the future, due to climate change, natural disasters will fall on our planet, and natural resources will come to an end, then suffering and hardships can inflame religious feelings.
“People want to avoid suffering, but if this is impossible, at least find meaning in them,” Norenzayan explains. “For some reason, religion makes suffering much more meaningful than any secular ideals or beliefs we know.”
This phenomenon can be constantly observed in hospital wards and in disaster areas around the world. So, in 2011, in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, whose residents were mostly unbelievers, a major earthquake occurred. Many eyewitnesses to this tragedy suddenly came to faith, while in the rest of the country no changes in the degree of religiosity occurred. However, there are exceptions to this rule: for example, in Japan after the Second World War the number of believers fell sharply. However, in general, according to Zuckerman, the model that worked in Christchurch prevails in the world. “If, having witnessed terrible events, a person would usually turn into an atheist, we would all be atheists,” the scientist says.
But even if all the troubles of our world had suddenly miraculously ceased and we all would have lived peacefully and happily, religion would probably still not go away. This is due to the fact that, apparently, due to the whim of evolution in the neuropsychology of our species, there is a special place for God.
In order to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to study the “theory of dual processes.” According to this psychological model, a person has two main forms of thinking: system No. 1 and system No. 2. System No. 2 has developed relatively recently in our country. This is our inner voice, which does not seem to be silent for a minute and which allows us to think logically and make plans.
At the same time, system No. 1 is built on intuition, instincts and automatism. These abilities develop in a person regardless of his place of birth and constitute a survival mechanism. Thanks to system No. 1, we experience a natural aversion to rotting meat and can without hesitation speak our native language, and babies recognize their parents and distinguish between living and nonliving. This system is responsible for the tendency to look for a system in everything in order to better understand the world and make sense of seemingly random events, such as natural disasters and the death of loved ones.
Some scholars believe that system No. 1 not only helps us maneuver between the dangers of this world and find partners, but also provides an impetus for the development and spread of religion. For example, thanks to system No. 1, we are instinctively tuned to the perception of vital energy. A few millennia ago, this tendency probably helped us avoid hidden danger – lions lurking in the grass, or snakes crawling into the bushes. But it also forces us to assume the presence of invisible figures – whether it is a supportive god who protects people, or an indefatigable ancestor who sends drought as a punishment, or a monster hidden in twilight.
In addition, the system number 1 contributes to the dual perception of all that is – because of this it is so difficult for us to consider the body and mind as one whole. This tendency manifests itself quite early: young children, regardless of their cultural environment, tend to believe in the immortality of their souls. They are convinced that their essence, their personality, existed somewhere before their birth and will always exist. Such a perception easily fits into many common religions or, as a result of creative rethinking, creates the basis for the invention of new original concepts.
“One of my Scandinavian psychologist colleagues, who is an atheist, described how his three-year-old daughter recently approached him and said:“ God is always everywhere. ” He and his wife could not understand where the girl got such thoughts from, ”says Justin Barrett, head of the Prosperity Human Development Center at the Full Theological Seminary in the California city of Pasadena (USA) and author of Born Believers. “The child considered God to be an old woman, so it is unlikely that Lutheran priests inspired her in these ideas.”
For all of the above reasons, many scholars believe that religion arose as “a by-product of human cognitive tendencies,” says Robert McCauley, head of the Center for Brain, Mind and Culture Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (USA), and author of Why Religion natural, but science is not. ” “Religions are cultural systems that, as they developed, began to harness and exploit these natural abilities of people.”
Habit is second nature
Atheists have to get rid of all this cultural and evolutionary baggage. A person has a desire to feel part of something larger, to realize that his life is not entirely in vain. We are looking for the meaning and explanation of all incomprehensible. “Having received education, having become familiar with science and learning to think critically, people may no longer trust their intuition,” Norenzayan says. “But intuition is not going anywhere from this.”
On the other hand, science – a system that many atheists and unbelievers adopt in order to know the world around them – is not so easy to perceive in the cognitive plan. Science, according to McCauley, is called upon to correct the distortions of system No. 1. We have to accept on faith that the Earth is spinning, although we ourselves never feel it. We are forced to accept the idea that evolution is completely indifferent and that the Universe has no final goal or purpose, although our intuition suggests otherwise. It is not easy to admit that we are mistaken and biased, that the truth in our understanding always changes as we collect and verify new empirical data – all these are the basic premises of science.
“From a cognitive point of view, science is unnatural, so it is given to us so hard,” McCauley explains. “At the same time, for the most part, we don’t even have to study religion, because we already know all this.”
“There is evidence that theological reasoning is the path of least resistance,” adds Barrett. “To get rid of religion, one would have to change the very essence of man.” This amazing biological feature probably explains the fact that although 20% of Americans do not belong to any church, 68% of them say that they still believe in God, and 37% consider themselves to be spiritual people. Even without professing any organized religion, they are convinced that some higher being or force is moving the world.
In the same way, many people around the world openly declare that they do not believe in God, but at the same time they are prone to superstitions, such as belief in ghosts, astrology and telepathy. “In Scandinavia, most people say that they do not believe in God, but at the same time, superstition and interest in paranormal phenomena have received an extraordinary spread,” says Norenzayan. In addition, unbelievers often find themselves in what can be considered “substitutes for religion,” – support for sports teams, yoga, closeness to mother nature, and so on — and rely on an appropriate value system. In support of this, black magic is gaining popularity in the United States, and paganism has become the fastest growing religion in the UK.
The religious experience of unbelievers can manifest itself in other, more unusual ways. Anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck from the same Center for Human Development “Prosperity” found confirmation that, for example, for some players from China, the online game World of Warcraft is beginning to take on a spiritual meaning. “Apparently, this game makes it possible to develop certain moral qualities that are not present in our modern society,” says Barrett. “It seems that people have some space for theological reflection, and if it is not filled with religion, it is revealed in the most unexpected way.”
Moreover, religion promotes cohesion and cooperation within a group. The threat of punishment from the omnipotent God (or gods), who monitors the apostates, probably helped maintain order in ancient societies. “This is a hypothesis of punishment from above,” Atkinson explains. “If everyone believes in the reality of this threat, it will act in groups.”
And here again the uncertainty and suffering of the people can play a role, which will allow religion to establish a more severe moral law. Joseph Bulbulia, an employee of the University of Wellington (New Zealand), recently, together with his colleagues, analyzed the religious belief systems of nearly 600 traditional societies from around the world and concluded that where weather conditions were less favorable or there was a risk of natural disasters, it was more likely a more rigorous religion developed. What is the reason for this? Under such conditions, helping one’s neighbor turns into a matter of life and death, and religion becomes a valuable tool in social life.
“When you encounter such a comprehensive phenomenon that appears so quickly in the process of evolution and is so firmly rooted in different cultures, the main explanation, of course, is that it was necessary to establish interaction between people,” says Bulbulia.
Finally, the prevalence of religion is explained by simple mathematics. In a wide variety of cultures, more religious people usually have more children than unbelievers. “There is plenty of evidence for this,” says Norenzayan. “Even among believers in more orthodox families, as a rule, the birth rate is higher than in more liberal ones.” Taking into account the fact that in terms of religious self-determination, children usually follow in the footsteps of their parents, we can safely say that the formation of an exclusively secular society on our planet is still unlikely.
For all these reasons – psychological, neurological, historical, cultural and everyday – experts believe that religion will most likely never disappear. Whatever religion is based on – on fear or on love – it is firmly rooted in the minds of people. If this were not so, there would have been no religion for a long time.
Without even mentioning the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and all other gods, superstition and spiritualism will almost certainly remain commonplace. But even more formal religious systems will not take long, if we have one or two disasters. “Even the best secular state is not able to protect its citizens from everything,” says McCauley. As soon as humanity is on the verge of an environmental crisis, a world nuclear war, or an imminent collision with a comet, it will immediately remember God.
“People need consolation at the moment of pain and suffering, and many need the realization that life does not end with death, that some invisible creature loves them,” says Zuckerman. “Believers will always be, and I won’t be surprised if they still remain in the majority.”
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