Saturday, May 05, 2007

Utter disbelief

There's an article in this month's EDGE by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman entitled Why the Gods aren't winning. Contrary to the fears of Dawkins and the brights and our relentlessly scaremongering media, patriarchal monotheism is not, they argue, on the comeback trail.

Instead disbelief now rivals the great churches in terms of numbers and influence, making 8.5m converts worldwide annually. In most secular nations, 4/5 of people accept the premise of evolution by natural selection; in Korea 40% of the population claim not to believe in a supernatural God. Islam is the only religion to have increased its global proportional representation over the past century, and this say Paul and Zuckerman is largely down to "unprotected sex".

It is, the authors proclaim, the first emergence of mass apostasy:

"No major religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances. Disbelief in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion...Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-econmic conditions retains a high-level of popular religiosity."

What of the US you might ask? Well "benign, progressive socio-econmic conditions" kind of excludes them according to these American scientists. Nevertheless they point out that there are now 30m atheists in the US, more than all the Jews, Muslims and Mormons put together and also a more substantial denomination than the Southern Baptists.

The trouble across the pond though is Darwinian economic competition and the concentration of wealth in a narrow elite, conditions that inevitably lead to more persistent bible-bashing, Paul and Zuckerman attest. Everywhere else in the modern world the opportunity to lead a long and stable middle-class life reduces the need to believe in supernatural protection from calamity. But for cultural, economic and historical reasons many Americans remain in a state of existential unease.

This logic has a number of important, if not fatal weaknesses. Firstly, the areas where the most bibles are bashed in the US are not necessarily those where socio-economic competition is at its most Darwinian.

Secondly, studies using identical twins have shown that there is a genetic component to religiosity. Now we know that the descendents of slaves in America are more likely to suffer from hypertension and other conditions because they have inherited the genes that helped their ancestors survive the appalling conditions on the Atlantic crossing. Could it not also be the case that since becoming the promised land for those puritan folk on the Mayflower, America has consistently admitted close-knit populations whose very heredity might just incline them to a bit of theistic delusion? (There will of course be any number of geographical and cultural factors that may over time have reinforced such a tiny bias.)

Thirdly, and more tellingly I'm sure, we now live in an increasingly globalised world. Within our modern secular democracies things might look evenly prosperous and secure, but zoom out a bit and the very dynamics that Paul and Zuckerman claim foster a firmer belief in supernatural interference (vast disparitries of wealth and opportunity, violence and insecurity) are operating with considerable impunity.

The writers of this essay have also brushed over some of the important distinctions within the religious and non-religious groups in their pie-charts. For instance they lump agnostics in with atheists, a tactic that would no doubt have Richard Dawkins repeating his famous jibe about people with minds so open that their brains fall out.

And they have also merged bells n' smells Papists with Pentecostals. This week's Economist has an article about the battle for the faith of Latin America, which the Catholic Church has of late been losing. The Pope is on his way to Brazil where 15% of the population are now 'evangelicals'. Up in Guatemala the proportion is now 30%, achieved not as a result of out-of-control unprotected protestant sex, but through careful courting of predominantly lower-income, indigenous groups (and the odd blatant bribe).

Of V's seven siblings, only one has "changed religion". He explained to me on Good Friday why he chose the "ecstasy over the agony". His children are still being brought up as catholics, though Paul and Zuckerman suggest we are more likely to base our beliefs on those of our fathers than those of our mothers. (Which leads them nicely to the stat that church-going is now more common in the US among women.) As for V herself, she gives consideration to the "weasel God" of pantheist Baruch Spinoza!

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