What Causes Atheism?

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 27, 2009 in General Atheism

scala-copenhagen-4

Strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.

- Peter Berger

Religion had a stranglehold on humanity until the 20th century, when it suddenly lost its grip on nearly a billion people in the course of a single century (non-believers skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900 to 918 million in 2000, or 0.2% of world population in 1900 to 15.3% in 2000).1 What happened, so suddenly? What causes atheism?

Part of what happened is that a few atheist dictators took control of populous nations, burned all the churches, and wiped out religion as much as possible. The people in these nations did not choose atheism. As soon as the dictators were gone, religion sprung right back up again.

But in other places, Scandinavia in particular, people just stopped believing. Why?

One theory is that Scandinavians were never really that religious in the first place.2 But that’s hard to swallow. All the evidence suggests that Scandinavians were just as fervent in their beliefs as everyone else, until recently.

Another theory is that atheism can be caused by lacking the need for a cultural defense.3  The idea that when a society’s cultural identity is threatened, religiosity increases to strengthen cultural bonds (as with Catholicism and Irish nationalism). For centuries, Scandinavia has lacked the need for a cultural defense. They have not been dominated by a foreign conqueror with a significantly different culture or religion, and there have been no other popular religions to challenge Lutheranism’s dominance. However, many other isolated societies throughout history have not needed a cultural defense, and yet they did not secularize.

A third theory is that wherever one religion has a monopoly, it doesn’t need to compete for believers, it gets lazy and lets religiosity decline.4 This certainly fits Scandinavia, where Lutheranism has been state-supported for many decades. But many other religions have enjoyed a national monopoly for much longer than that and never gone secular.

A fourth theory is that it’s simply a matter of education. Denmark was the first country to provide free, compulsory elementary-school education, in 1814, and the rest of Scandinavia soon followed. Polls have shown a strong correlation between higher education and religious skepticism.5

A fifth theory is that women are to blame.6 It has long been known that women are, on every measure and in every society, more religious than men.7 So it is plausible that it is women who have done the most to keep families interested in religion. But in the 1960s, women saw a dramatic shift in their identity and possibilities and moved into the paid workforce, leading to a “de-pietization of femininity.”8 Now that women were working and pursuing their own interests rather than keeping their families religious, religion declined. But then why did religion not decline in all the countries that saw a mass movement of women into the workforce, such as the United States?

Societal causes are complex things, and not easy to measure. Perhaps all of the above have contributed to the rise of atheism in some very complex way with other factors we can’t yet measure. But now let me turn to the explanation I find most persuasive of all.

Security

In Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (a great read, by the way; stuffed to the brim with charts, tables, statistics and careful analysis), Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue that when people experience less security, they tend to be more religious. This is what Marx said 170 years ago – that when things get tough, people turn to religion for comfort.9 But Norris and Inglehart actually provide thousands of data to support the theory.

And what about when times are not tough? When people have food to eat, clean water, adequate housing, jobs, cheap medicine, safety from natural disasters, political stability, and general contentment, they tend to be less religious.

This certainly fits with Scandinavia. Scandinavian countries consistently rank among the healthiest, most peaceful, stablest, and safest nations in the world. Thanks to the best-developed welfare systems in the world,10 Scandinavia boasts the smallest gap between rich and poor in the democratic world. Unlike the United States, nearly everyone in Scandinavia has access to health care and higher education. Moreover, the Scandinavian states all rank among the top 5 most peaceful societies in the world (the United States ranked 83rd).

Simply put, Scandinavian society is the most secure society in the history of our planet, and this may explain Scandinavians’ abandonment of religion. They just don’t need it anymore.

In Society Without God I showed that there are strong correlations between atheism and societal health. But I don’t think atheism causes societal health. Rather, I suspect that societal health causes atheism.

  1. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, a trusted source on religious demographics, “The number of nonreligionists…  throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900… to 918 million in AD 2000.” World population in 1900 was 1.65 billion, and in 2000 it was 6 billion. []
  2. See Zuckerman’s Society Without God, pages 120-127. []
  3. See Steve Bruce’s God is Dead and David Martin’s On Secularization. []
  4. See the work of Rodney Stark and Roger Finke: Acts of Faith, “The Dynamics of Religious Economies” in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, and “Beyond Church and Sect: Dynamics and Stability in Religious Economies” in Sacred Markets, Sacred Canopies. Also see Stark and Laurence Iannaccone, “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the Secularization of Europe.” []
  5. Harris Poll 11 of 2003 found that of those with a high school education or less, 92% believed in God, 86% believed in heaven, 84% believed in the virgin birth of Jesus, 73% believed in the devil, and 37% believed in astrology. For those with a post-graduate degree, the percentage of believers was 10-20 percent less in every category. Data from the 1972-2004 General Social Survey shows that 43.2% of those with only some high school education were religious fundamentalists, while only 16.6% of those with a post-graduate degree were religious fundamentalists. The data show a steady decline in religious fundamentalism as each higher level of education is attained. In a world of nearly 200 deeply religious states and about a dozen secularized ones, the list of countries with the highest levels of education is dominated by secular nations (the two exceptions are the USA and Ireland). []
  6. See Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain. []
  7. This may be surprising, given how oppressive many religions are to women. But the data are clear. For example, see Tony Walter and Grace Davie, “The Religiosity of Women in the Modern West,” British Journal of Sociology 49, 4 (1998): 640-60; Alan Miller and Rodney Stark, “Risk and Religion: An Explanation of Gender Differences in Religiosity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34 (1995): 63-75; Miller and Stark, “Gender and Religiousness,” American Journal of Sociology 107 (2002): 1399-1423. But, also see: D. Paul Sullins, “Gender and Religiousness.” []
  8. The Death of Christian Britain, page 192. []
  9. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. []
  10. See Eric Einhorn and John Logue, Modern Welfare States: Scandinavian Politics and Policy in the Global Age. []

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk August 27, 2009 at 11:38 am

You’re going to completely ignore the “virus” explanation?
 

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Democritus August 27, 2009 at 11:58 am

But I don’t think atheism causes societal health. Rather, I suspect that societal health causes atheism.

 
The Bible seems to agree with you: “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me:  Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.”

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Alex August 27, 2009 at 12:08 pm

I think the virus explanation operates on another level than the above sociological explanations (and thus doesn’t really compete with these). The memetic explanation is focused on the transmission of ideas between individual brains, while sociology looks at large-scale trends that affect psychology and thus alter the transmission of religious memes.

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drj August 27, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Atheism is obviously caused by a birth defect – a missing sensus divinitatus!  Duh!
;)

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lukeprog August 27, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Alex: I think the virus explanation operates on another level than the above sociological explanations (and thus doesn’t really compete with these).

Yes.

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foolfodder August 27, 2009 at 12:55 pm

But I don’t think atheism causes societal health. Rather, I suspect that societal health causes atheism.

Do you think some of these things could feedback? E.g. more atheism -> better sex / relations education -> better societal health -> more atheism.

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Haukur August 27, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Yup, I think this is pretty reasonable.  (I’m Scandinavian.)

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lukeprog August 27, 2009 at 5:43 pm

foolfodder: Do you think some of these things could feedback? E.g. more atheism -> better sex / relations education -> better societal health -> more atheism.

I hope so!

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lukeprog August 27, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Haukur: Yup, I think this is pretty reasonable. (I’m Scandinavian.)

Why do all the best countries in the world have to be so fricking COLD??? I wouldn’t want to live in any of them for too long, if only for that reason.

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James August 27, 2009 at 6:20 pm

My guess would be that it has something to do with the increase in the quality of life of the average person from 1900 to 2009. If you’re living comfortably, you have more time and energy  to reconsider and reexamine your culturally entrenched beliefs.

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ColonelFazackerley August 28, 2009 at 4:43 am

I think I can attribute my own deconversion to a change of attitudes related to education. Specifically the mental discipline required to program computers or think scientifically then makes it less likely to believe in gods.

Anyone know of any data on technology or specifically scientific education versus religiosity?

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lukeprog August 28, 2009 at 6:40 am

ColonelFazackerly,

This isn’t quite what you’re looking for, but it’s interesting.

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Reginald Selkirk August 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

 

ColonelFazackerley: Specifically the mental discipline required to program computers or think scientifically then makes it less likely to believe in gods.

I’m glad it worked for you. But some areas of science and technology deal less directly with anything that might affect religious belief than others. See the “Salem Hypothesis.” Religious anti-science such as Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design Creationism is full of engineers and computer scientists. See the Discovery Institute’s A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list and you will probably cringe at how many of the signers are computer scientists.

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EvanT August 28, 2009 at 7:20 am

It’s probably a combination between theories two and three.  I know that for sure, cos if that were the case, Greece would be a secular nation by now. But Greece DID have to contend with real and imaginary enemies in the Balkans and the clergy are betting high on the “Orthodoxy and Language are the main characteristics of Greeks”. Add to that
They go as far as labelling as traitorous any Greek that rejects Orthodox Christianity and they have it out for the “murky-cultural” Greeks, as they tend to call anyone who can articulate an argument against Orthodoxy and the perceived “omnipotence” of historical hellenism.  The standard mantra is “When we were building Parthenons, Europe was coming down from the trees”.
And we can’t really blame a lack of education cos almost EVERYONE has at least a university degree and more than 30% of young people also have a post-graduate degree.

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Reginald Selkirk August 28, 2009 at 8:45 am

EvanT: The standard mantra is “When we were building Parthenons, Europe was coming down from the trees”.

When they were building the Parthenon in Greece, the Carvaka school of atheism in India was already an on-going concern.
 

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exrelayman August 28, 2009 at 9:46 am

Just wondering if you could please identify structure in the photo? Thanks.

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lukeprog August 28, 2009 at 10:27 am

exrelayman,

Sorry, I have no idea.

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EvanT August 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

 

Reginald Selkirk: When they were building the Parthenon in Greece, the Carvaka school of atheism in India was already an on-going concern.

Nice! Thx for the info. Hadn’t heard of that.

exrelayman: Just wondering if you could please identify structure in the photo? Thanks.

Looks like a rendered/composite  image to me.  Look at the people. They seem collaged. Especially those in the background and the woman in the black dress in the foreground shows signs of cropmarks around her hair. Don’t even get me started on the kid (it’s like a cartoon).

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mikespeir August 28, 2009 at 12:16 pm

EvanT:   Nice! Thx for the info. Hadn’t heard of that. Looks like a rendered/composite  image to me.  Look at the people. They seem collaged. Especially those in the background and the woman in the black dress in the foreground shows signs of cropmarks around her hair. Don’t even get me started on the kid (it’s like a cartoon).

And notice that there are a couple of people on the steps below who have no shadows.  Maybe they’re ghosts. :)

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Alex August 28, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Don’t know about the people, but the structure is real (and in Denmark):
http://www.archicentral.com/scala-tower-copenhag en-denmark-bjarke-ingels-group-big-8707/

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EvanT August 28, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Alex:
 
Don’t know about the people, but the structure is real (and in Denmark):
http://www.archicentral.com/scala-tower-copenhag en-denmark-bjarke-ingels-group-big-8707/

Dunno… every single site I’ve found uses the future tense for the Scala Tower, which suggests it isn’t finished yet (plus apparently there was an architectural contest and most sites have alternative designs).  Seems I was right about my assessment that the photo was a 3D-rendering. I’m looking forward to seeing an actual photo when it’s completed.
 

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Reginald Selkirk August 28, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Alex, your linky is busted.  The exact image shows up at de zeen. It is not a photograph, but a conceptual rendering (i.e. fake). Let’s all pat ourselves on the back.
 
 

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Reginald Selkirk August 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

A working version of Alex’s link:
Scala Tower at archiCentral
 

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lukeprog August 28, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Reginald,

Thanks for the link. Now we can clearly see it’s a mock-up. I just found it on Google Images and didn’t pay attention to what it was. Turns out, it’s in Scandinavia!

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EvanT August 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

So … I guess we can all bask in the light of our deductive reasoning :P

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lukeprog August 29, 2009 at 9:08 am

Reading through God and Other Minds, it just occurred to me there is a funny parallel between Plantinga and Paul.

In Paul’s day, traditional Christians insisted that to become Christian you must be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law. You are saved (“justified”) by these actions. Then Paul comes along and says, “No, these traditional ways of being justified do not work – you must be justified by faith.”

In Plantinga’s day, traditional Christians insisted you have knowledge of God – you are “justified” in believing in him – because of certain arguments for the existence of God, like the cosmological and teleological arguments. Then Plantinga comes along and says, “No, these traditional ways of being justified do not work – you must be justified by faith.”

 

:)

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Lee A. P. August 29, 2009 at 4:29 pm

One of my favorite things about Luke’s blog is the pictures Luke uses. They at least appear that they have a lot of thought and meaning behind them although perhaps this is because I read the blog and then project what I just read onto the picture. Anyhow, they are cool.

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lukeprog August 29, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Thanks, Lee, I do try with the pictures.

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Gabriel August 30, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Luke, a very thoughtful post, as always. However, you confuse atheism with being non-religious. People who are not religious are in my experience more often than not believe in a god.
I hope you could do some clarifying between what you think a non-believer is, an atheist is, and a non religious person is. Because I think those definitions are perhaps the most important part of your post.

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Chris August 31, 2009 at 7:00 am

I appreciate your thoughtful posts!  On this topic, consider these counterexamples:
http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/28/the-benefits-of-religion/.
 

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John September 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

I know this post is already outdated but I wanted to echo some sentiments already mentioned by others.
Most of the Scandinavian countries seem less upset against religion but more against the state/church institution that ran Europe for the last 1000 years. There was less fundamentalism but a lot more dogma tied directly in with government legislation and the modernization of Europe in the mid 20th century led to huge separation of these ideas as Europe became increasingly more liberal.
If anything, I think it makes an extremely good case of secularization of the government and have more appreciation for that system. Ironically, the US has this amazing separation but for many reasons (too many to list in this post) people have disregarded and attempted to reconstruct the U.S. as an inherently religious country.

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Delta November 17, 2009 at 11:15 am

Reginald Selkirk:
When they were building the Parthenon in Greece, the Carvaka school of atheism in India was already an on-going concern.
   

Actually, I think they knew exactly their gods were manufactured by a human brain since the day they started building the Parthenon (after all it was always obvious). But they suspected that there must be a creator and knew that any society without a religion collapses, pulling the people down with it.

India never had a real religion.
Buddhism had nothing to do with any god and used to be just a philosophy. I like few parts of this philosophy (the original one), but surely not the whole.
Hinduism seems a really messed up religion to me.

What makes Orthodox Christianity SO special is that:
- it’s teaching seems to know exactly what humans and the society need to function well (it has never failed in practice)
- that it is CONSTANTLY under attack (just exactly as their founders claimed it would be), but there is no serious reason for it
- almost all of its prophecies have been fulfilled (even the most unlikely to happen)
- there were numerous (thousands) eye witnesses to miracles made by Jesus and those eye witnesses -together with other- gave their lives for what they show and believed. They were millions of martyrs. No one accepts to be tortured, beheaded, etc for a lie.
- it’s not a religion, rather than a way and a reason of living in order to fulfill your purpose on earth (become a pure image of God) and then start your relation with God once again and for eternity. This is not achieved through one’s own power (which doesn’t really exist) but by begging God for help and by trying to become like Him (including your social behavior that must be alike to the one that each member of the Holy Trinity has).
- each true christian can have a direct relationship with God and talk to Him like your best friend (he always responds – indirectly). Personally, I always trust Him and He has never let me down. The level of spirituality is defined as how healthy your relation with God is. In order to have a healthy relationship you have to fight against everything that makes you want to be away from Him (and those are -interestingly enough- TOO many and too bad and usually make you want to be away (physically, socially, etc) to people too). An indication of how saint someone is, is said to be how much someone truly loves other people, since other people are an image of God.
- Interestingly enough, some orthodox Christians proven to be saints (how it is proven is a long and interesting story) knew your life just by seeing you for the first time or knew what you were thinking and responding before you even ask for sth in order to help you. Others made great miracles before or even after death. All of those with God’s power and in God’s name.
- when the relationship with God is a healthy one, it makes your heart fill with joy for no obvious reason or specific thought that might be spinning on your mind (it’s because He is with you). And when you decide to leave His way He simply goes away.
- Christians believe that God keeps our soul (no definition for this term) when we die and He will resurrect us on Judgment Day (in a new form of body) to judge us in the same way we judged others and then stop all decay and death in nature (which is the result of evil(=Satan) having power over us since the day we decided to follow him).
- the majority of atheists in christian countries are atheists because they don’t know or they don’t understand the teachings of the Bible (if you are a Christian and search the web for atheist opinions you will see that clearly).
- etc, etc.

Faith has nothing to do education (it may have with propaganda though!). Most people I know have a general feeling that the (highly or enough) educated people in my country (Greece) that claim they don’t believe in the christian God, don’t even know the christian tradition to form such an opinion! Most of them haven’t even opened the Bible to see what it says! A simple example is Dawkins (who is not from my country whatsoever). He clearly seems to miss the whole idea of christian God, yet he insists on framing it as fake.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5Wy8E8Ixuw

None can say that this world is the only one existing, since we know the universe wasn’t always (so sth created it at the Big Bang or however you name it). There are many amazing and glorious things in this world that we don’t even know! None can deny this! And if our world is indeed a manufactured mini-world of some other world (just like the man-made worlds in a PC game), it is certain that MUCH MORE amazing things exist out there including even God.

However it is true that usually security increases atheism. And that directly implies that usually atheism is caused by an illusion of security. That is even stated in the Bible (no wonder that none ever noticed it and we had to rediscover it…).

P.S.: You know sth… I will be honest you. I am not sure that it would be better for people in India to be Hinduists than atheists. On the other hand, today some evil (no kidding) people are planning to build a “New World Order” and that requires a global religion (possibly worship of a technology empowered empire) and being atheists helps them very much do so.
Anyway, I hope each man takes care of himself.

A greek university student.

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Rhys Wilkins February 21, 2010 at 1:20 am

I have a vague theory of why religiosity promulgated so effectively.

It is a combination of 2 adduced facts:

(1) The Milgram Experiment

The conclusions from this experiment proved that humans would perform basically carry out uncharacteristically extreme actions if ordered to do so by someone whom was sufficiently authoritative to them. The extremeness of the behavior proportionally increased with the level of authority.

(2) The “Dear God, please confirm what I already believe” experiment.

This was carried out last year. It showed that religious people tended to subconsciously project their personal feelings, opinions and desires onto the God they believe in. God merely serves as an “echo chamber” in their mental thought stream.

If you combine these two, it seems likely that God could have acted as a “motivator” for a primitive to act on subconscious thoughts, feelings and desires. These would tend to be things like a secret desire for high social status, to pass on genes, for political and economic power and so forth. People who act on these harboured sentiments with the powerful feeling that providence is on their side would I think have more reproductive success then their competitors.

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