Atheism is on the rise and the new secularists may believe their triumph is inevitable. But new research indicates the collapse of faith is simply a phase. The future, in short, belongs to those who show up for it. And those who show up tend to be those who believe.
This may seem counter-intuitive because on the surface, it seems more and more people claim not to believe in God. Especially in Britain, the collapse of religion since the 1960s has been staggering. Books with titles like The Death of Christian Britain and God is Dead: Secularization in the West, trumpet the emergence of a secular, post-Christian society.
Once associated with academics and radicals, atheism has now spread so widely that the negative association between religious belief and IQ, documented by psychologists since the 1920s, is becoming weaker and weaker. It’s now normal to not believe in God. This is exactly what is predicted by the theory of “secularization”: as society modernizes, more and more people think in an increasingly scientific way, and so God, eventually, dies.
But if research published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science is correct, then this may be nothing more than a passing phase. A team led by Lee Ellis, a psychologist at the University of Malaya, conducted their study on “The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence” because they were skeptical of the “secularization thesis.”
The secularization thesis assumes that modernization will make us less religious, and in turn, that modernization explains why we’re becoming less religious. However, like so many theories in sociology, it never incorporates biology and assumes everything is caused by environmental factors.
To correct this, Ellis and his colleagues compared large samples of college students both in Malaysia and in the USA. Their findings are striking.
They found the more religious you are, the more siblings you have. And Muslim students have the most siblings of all. The significance of this finding may be lost until two important factors are highlighted.
But, insist Ellis and his colleagues, “that is not all.”
And as if this evidence isn’t enough, the scholars highlight yet another factor which is pushing us in the same "contra-secularization" direction: the religion-intelligence correlation mentioned earlier. The more intelligent you are, the less religious you tend to be. However, as Ellis and his colleagues note, the more intelligent you are the fewer children you tend to have. Western countries are suffering from “dysgenic fertility”: the smarter people don’t have many children, meaning that their genes, which tend to be associated with atheism, are simply dying out.
Based on all this, the researchers conclude that secularization must inevitably go into reverse and may well already be doing so. Atheists don’t have many children, meaning that they must eventually go the way of the dinosaurs.
Of course, there’s an obvious objection: If this is the case, how was there ever a period of time in which we became less religious? How could people ever have speculated about The Death of Christian Britain, or the death of God? Shouldn’t we have been constantly becoming more and more religious throughout human history?
Research has shown that people become more religious when they are stressed. For most of human history, we have been extremely stressed and, for this reason, we all believed in God. Until the Industrial Revolution, life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Child mortality was roughly 40% and there was no reliable medicine or understanding of disease, so death could strike at any time. We were always a couple of bad harvests away from starvation. In other words, there were a lot of things to be stressed about.
With the turning point of the Industrial Revolution, the sources of our fears were gradually removed. Most obviously, child mortality in Western countries is now at negligible levels. The terrible fear which once possessed all parents that their beautiful little child would sicken and die has all but vanished.
Religiousness is about 60% a matter of environment. So all it would take for society to become less religious would be for the magnitude of the de-stressing effects of the Industrial Revolution to be stronger than the genetic effect of religious people having more children.
This is very likely what happened. The Industrial Revolution made life much more comfortable and did so at such breakneck speed. The anti-religious implications of this sweeping social change far outweighed the impact of breeding patterns that would make us more religious.
However, Ellis’ team’s research shows that due to the large genetic component to religiousness, this effect has a built-in ceiling. Even if life continues to get less stressful forever, we will reach what biologists call the “phenotypic limit” of the ability of the environment to suppress religiousness.
We might compare it to height. It may well be that shorter people are having more children, but if height is substantially a product of a good environment, and the environment is getting massively better and better, then people will get taller, even though (at the genetic level) they are getting shorter. However, this increasing height can only continue up to a point, because height is partly genetic. Even with the best environment, there are certain men who—for genetic reasons—will never exceed 6 foot. It is their phenotypic limit. So, once this environmental limit is reached then the underlying genetics will hit in and we will start to become shorter.
The same is true of atheism in a population. A comfortable environment will reduce religiousness up to a point. After that, an increasingly easy ecology will make no difference whatsoever. And once that happens, if our genes are making us more religious, then we will simply start to become more religious.
If Ellis and his team are correct, then we can forget about some rational utopia where Man will merge with machines. The world will be more religious just a few generations hence than it is now.
And, specifically, it will be much more Islamic.
Lance Welton [Email him] is the pen name of a freelance journalist living in New York.