A couple of summers ago, I spent a wonderful week working with a group of policy experts, computer programmers, and sociologists and discussing what conditions would create communities with more thoughtful, charitable, and connected atheists.
It wasn’t merely some long thought experiment. There was plenty of historical data available that allowed us to gauge whether our theories were accurate. If they were, we could use that information to better calibrate our models and forecast the future. (Thank you, programmers.)
One of the models that came out of that colloquium has resulted in a brand new paper, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Secularism and Nonreligion. The model in question is called the “Future of Religious and Secular Transitions” (FOReST) and the goal was the figure out why and how societies develop that do not embrace the supernatural… and how that process can work in reverse.
In extremely simplified terms, the researchers pointed to four conditions that led societies to become less religious (“post-supernatural”):
- Existential security: You’re not worried about war or global annihilation.
- Formal education: When more people are trained in the sciences and humanities, they can better grapple with not having all the answers to the biggest questions in life.
- Individual freedom: If there’s no real punishment for not being religious, people are more likely to embrace non-religiosity.
- Religious options: If multiple religions are vying for your affection, it’s easier to say no to all of them.
Imagine all four of those conditions as knobs on a panel. If you change the volume, so to speak, on any or all of those, you’re going to see societies that embrace or reject religion.
Of course, there are many factors that play a role in people becoming less religious. A changing culture, shifting demographics, financial security, your ability to be around other people and have friends, having internet access, etc. But when it came to religious societies quickly becoming less religious, the four conditions listed above were certainly present.
What the researchers found was that it’s rare for a society to have all these conditions working well for a sustained amount of time. However, we have far too many examples of how societies can go wrong due to one or more of those conditions failing. As they write in the synopsis:
… The model suggests that the conditions for producing widespread rejection of supernatural worldviews are highly specific and difficult to produce and sustain. When those conditions combine, which is historically rare, a stable social equilibrium emerges within which post-supernaturalist worldviews are widespread; however, this equilibrium is easier to disrupt than equilibria whose cohesion is stabilized by supernatural religion due to persistent cognitive tendencies toward supernaturalism in evolved human minds.
In short, if you want to create a less religious world, then trashing religion isn’t the only way to get there. You can work toward peace, economic stability, better access to education, more freedom of thought, etc., and religiosity will eventually decline.