Secularism is on the rise worldwide. Some attribute this to enhanced feelings of political and economic well-being: We yearn less for the sense of security that religion has traditionally offered us in an uncertain world. But some people speculate that we could see a global religious revival if climate change's worse case scenarios come to pass.
Over at BBC Future, Rachel Nuwer has written an intriguing essay on whether religion will ever disappear. Trends across the globe point to its decline. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3%—bringing the world's estimated proportion of non-believers to 13%. And while there are a few exceptions (such as Iran), very few societies are more religious today than they were half a century ago.
Nuwer's lengthy essay is worth reading in full, since it considers a host of factors — evolution, biology, psychology and culture — that could help explain the origins of religious belief.
One issue that definitely plays a role in the world's declining religiousity is our enhanced feelings of security. Yes, we justifiably worry a lot, but, compared to previous eras, we have considerably more access to medical care, social safety nets and legal protections than before.
However (emphasis added):
Decline does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity.
"People want to escape suffering, but if they can't get out of it, they want to find meaning," Norenzayan says. "For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of."
This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was a sudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever.
What's more, religion promotes group cohesion and cooperation. The threat of an all-powerful God (or gods) watching for anyone who steps out of line likely helped to keep order in ancient societies…. And again, insecurity and suffering in a population may play a role here, by helping to encourage religions with stricter moral codes. In a recent analysis of religious belief systems of nearly 600 traditional societies from around the world, Joseph Bulbulia at the University of Wellington, New Zealand and his colleagues found that those places with harsher weather or that are more prone to natural disasters were more likely to develop moralizing gods. Why? Helpful neighbors could mean the difference between life and death. In this context, religion evolved as a valuable public utility.
Read the whole thing over at BBC Future.