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Scientific American

Is God Dying?

published December 2013 | comments (15)
The decline of religion and the rise of the “nones”
magazine cover

Since the early 20th century, with the rise of mass secular education and the diffusion of scientific knowledge through popular media, predictions of the deity’s demise have fallen short, and in some cases—such as in that of the U.S.—religiosity has actually increased. This ratio is changing. According to a 2013 survey of 14,000 people in 13 nations (Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S.) that was conducted by the German Bertelsmann Foundation for its Religion Monitor, there is both widespread approval for the separation of church and state, as well as a decline in religiosity over time and across generations.

In response to the statements “Only politicians who believe in God are suitable for public office” and “Leading religious figures should exercise an influence on government decisions,” even in über-religious America only 25 percent agreed with the former and 28 percent with the latter. All other countries reported lower figures (with Spain at or near the bottom at 8 and 13 percent and Germany in the middle at 10 and 21 percent, respectively). Moreover, most of the countries in the survey showed a declining trend in religiosity, especially among the youth. In Spain, for example, 85 percent of respondents older than 45 reported being moderately to very religious, but only 58 percent of those younger than 29 said they were. In Europe in general, only 30 to 50 percent said that religion is important in their own lives.

Why the decline? One factor 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.

A second factor is the opening up of economic borders, such as between member nations of the European Union, which 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, “socioeconomic 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.”

Nevertheless, the authors caution about drawing the Nietzschean conclusion that God is dead: “This does not mean that religiosity and religious behaviour have vanished or will vanish completely from people’s lives: between 40% and 80% of European citizens exhibit at least a medium degree of religious belief according to the centrality index of religiosity.” Still, the trend is unmistakable in another statistic from the study. The percentage of people who said that they are “not religious or not very religious” is significant, and the figure for the U.S. (around 31 percent) matches that of other studies.

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that the fastest-growing religious cohort in America are the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) at 20 percent (32 percent of adults younger than 30), broken down into atheists and agnostics at 6 percent and the unaffiliated at 14 percent. The raw numbers are staggering: with the U.S. adult population (age 18 and older) at 240 million, this figure translates into 48 million nones, or 14.4 million atheists/agnostics and 33.6 million unaffiliated. That’s a powerful voting block.

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15 Comments to “Is God Dying?”

  1. King Dave Newsvine Says:

    This is good news, but there is incomplete data on the religion of peace.
    Islam in case you were confused.
    As far as we know, there are no atheists in Saudi Arabia. None still living presumably. Atheism is a capital offense in seven different Islamic nations.

    On the flip side also PEW, approval for execution of adultery in the Muslim world enjoys majority support. If fact it will be added to Afghanistan’s new bill of rights.

    Sad but true

  2. GS Chandy Says:

    God – or at least the notion of an “All Powerful, All Good God” died the moment someone thought seriously about such a self-contradictory concept. Or should have died. That the notion has survived for literally millennia is testament to our ‘human gullibility for fairy tales’ (and perhaps to our powers of imagination), not to our ‘intelligence’. I agree that imagination does demand intelligence.

    Mr Shermer suggests that the spread of democracy has led to ‘decline in approval of religiosity’ in public life – this probably implies that ‘human intelligence’ does in fact exist and may yet ‘triumph’ over ‘gullibility’. On the other hand, we humans are daily speeding ever faster towards ‘the abyss’ by exhausting the planetary resources that support us.

    Question: Are we like the fabled lemmings, or are we different? I guess we should not lose hope.

    GSC

  3. Jim Stovall Says:

    Even in the Bible (book of James) religion is viewed as a negative. However, spirituality coupled with progressive ethics is aligned with the best of life for all. Science has clearly aided spirituality by way of biblical criticism, which has cracked open religious ruse and made way for a healthy skepticism prompting the development of life’s phenomenon: love, kindness, grace, patience and the like. Moreover, community is needed for a society to be healthy. Church has long community. However, that sense of community has been severely blunted and distorted by silly doctrines and creeds, linked to a denial of democracy and reality itself.

  4. Stephen Borkowski Says:

    Some of Mr.Shermer’s comments are very similar to what Tony Blair said in his speech to the security council at the United Nations on 11/21/13. I am hoping that his agenda
    will ne proliferated worldwide and soon so that the certainty of any religious belief is not established.
    Until a God or Creator or whatever is proven or disproven,
    respect for the right to have a belief is a given as long as
    everyone knows they don’t know and are not allowed to act on it. (my bumper sticker: No one knows more about God thsn I-and I know Nothing about God, prove me wrong, please!)

  5. don anon Says:

    What we are seeing here is all part of the Cosmic Plan, the medium of which is evolution. As evolution proceeds, the human consciousness is readily expanding, and more and more people are looking into themselves for answers and are turning away from the so-called authority figures since their ideas and beliefs have not brought relief for our multiple worldly problems. Spirituality and religion are not equivalent terms. People are becoming more spiritual and less religious since the historical leaders in religion have tried to usurp God as their “agent” for keeping the masses under their thumb. It is not that God is dying;He is eternal and it is us who are growing more intelligent
    and intuitive. What is dying is the belief in a personalized deity; an anthropomorphic version of ourselves. God is transcendent in nature, and imminent within all manifested forms. Our Souls are the “God WWithin.” And our Souls need to be discovered for the sake of humanity.

  6. sittingbytheriver Says:

    the first comment is truly some scary information. religion of peace indeed.

  7. Robert Says:

    Fictitious characters cannot die, only be forgotten if the original author didn’t kill them off in their original narrative.

  8. SocraticGadfly Says:

    GSC: It’s Christian religious rightists, who believe God will either magically replenish the earth or else magically return to destroy it, who are among the leading pushers of exploitation of our planetary resources.

    Don Anon: Although many “nones” probably still believe in its existence, I see neither empirical evidence nor logical necessity for the existence of a soul.

    Sitting: It is actually arguable that, at least to some degree, Islam’s original message was later hijacked in various ways. Is Islam perfectly peaceful? Of course not? Over its long overall history, is it any more violent than either Christianity or Judaism, its monotheistic cousins? I think not.

  9. LAURENCE Taylor Says:

    You will never know God, unless you seek to know Him. The problem of dismissing God in your life leads to a total meaninglessness of your existence. Magic has nothing to do with it, it is the power of the first cause that boggles the mind. There is no other explanation for existence. Nothing exists without a desire for existence. Non thinking entities cannot desire anything. It is the pure unknown essence of a superior entity that creates the wonder and fear in humans.
    We show our ignorance by dismissal of the Spiritual condition of our humanity. Evolution is a baseless desire to make God’s of ourselves. What kind of inferior entity can we create, not knowing much of anything.

  10. lowonprozac Says:

    There are a lot of people here in the Southern US who will check the religion box on surveys, but who are effectively non-believers. It’s easier to go along to get along, as the saying goes. The rabidly religious make it difficult to be openly atheist/agnostic. I grew up in the Bible belt, but have been an atheist most of my life. When religious people press me on my beliefs, I will politely but firmly tell them I am not religious.

  11. Jason Boulton Says:

    Lawrence Taylor : I have not dismissed God, anymore than I have dismissed Sauron, Roger Rabbit, Bugs Bunny or Doctor Who. This is because they are all FICTIONAL characters.
    My life does not need me to foolishly hold belief in a fictional character to have meaning for my existence, I find meaning in many things.
    You can speak on this only for yourself, and if you need to believe in a fiction so dearly… Go ahead. But don’t ever expect anyone else to have to confirm in any way to your beliefs.

    You show your ignorance by claiming otherwise.
    Evolution is not a desire, baseless or otherwise. It is a fact, speaking about it as you do merely highlights your ignorance on the subject.

  12. Reverend Hornibastard Says:

    Religious thought is an intellectual pestilence.

    Religion is, by far, the biggest turd in humanity’s intellectual punchbowl.

    I say, “The sooner it dies off, the better.”

    Some people ask me “If we eliminate religion, what will we replace it with?”

    I usually reply, “If we eliminate tuberculosis, what will we replace it with?”

  13. Herb Watson Says:

    Religious people fascinate me: How utterly brainwashed can someone become and not realize it. They assume something is true because their interpretation of it leads them in a direction set by their ancestors. The doctrines of men run rampant in our world. Christ himself said “night is coming when no one can work”.

    Atheists astound me: They display the same traits that religious people do. The very small difference is with their gall and arrogance in assuming something is true just because it appears to be true. They like to believe they deal in facts but, A good scientist will assume nothing but rather deal in facts. If something can’t be proven or disprove then leave it alone and move on to something more productive. As for logic and superior intellect, an elite pose, only shows ignorance.

    We are ants and know nothing of our surroundings but what we can see and feel. The world is infinitely big and unknown to an ant.

    Logic would dictate: Question everything and dismiss nothing.

  14. Warna Hettiarachchi Says:

    As the existence of a monotheistic, omnipotent God fades away from human mind, it does not have an impact on philosophical thought taught by a great teacher that lived 2.6 millennia ago. The Buddha’s teachings are not theological, fairy-tale, miracle-based, faith-based or even a religion.

    As a student of Science, I find amazing parallelism of modern/classical physics and biology with the Buddha’s teachings: Newton’s Third Law (Law of Karma), Eight-fold-Way theory of Quark behavior Dr. Murray Gel-Mann borrowed, The Law of Causality, Uncertainty Principle, relativity, Pauli’s Exclusion principle, helio-centric model of solar system, multidimensional parallel universe (even multiverse), other planetary systems outside ours, existence of Galaxies, Second Law of Thermodynamics are but a handful of examples. The Buddha did not offer a quantitative analysis however offered the results of any outcome or question. It is entirely based on a perfectly logical structure for curious minds that seek knowledge through questioning.

    Buddhism rejects creation. It teaches that matter is not creatable nor destroyable. The Buddha taught that life itself is a manifestations of air, water, earth and fire. There is NO soul, but only a state of consciousness in our brain called thought…

    Even though his teachings are from a philosophical and spiritual context, it is a generalized teaching that has connotations and direct translations to any discipline, like generalized coordinates and general relativity can be translated to simpler or classical physical systems.

    My intent is not to promote Buddhism through this prestigious channel of dialogue, however, to indicate there are atheistic philosophies that have highly scientific inclination. Cognitive psychologists, physicists, other intellectuals are studying the deep teachings of Theravada Buddhism (not Mahayana sect) to understand what other parallels we can gather from the Buddha’s teachings.

    By the way, Buddhism is not for everyone. As it promotes questioning, analysis, reasoning, knowledge, one needs to be intellectual to understand the depths of Theravada Teachings.

    We have gathered much knowledge back in the history. If we can separate teachings from past that are conducive to our quests for exploring the Universe and beyond further from those constraining, limiting organized blind faith-based religions, I believe we can have accelerate out understandings of the nature that surrounds all of us.

  15. Karina N Says:

    They should have asked how many people actually believe in God. From my experience you can still belive in God without having a religion. This God can be whatever you presume Him to be and not what any religion dectates He is.

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