For Professor Owen C. Thomas, a former physicist and current president of the American Theological Society, atheism is experiencing what he refers to as a global ‘surge’. In other words, all over the world, fewer and fewer people are thinking of themselves as religious.
Millions now say that not only is there no God, divine plan or afterlife but that secularism, humanism and science must replace organized religion. The question we need to ask is whether or not we should embrace this growing phenomenon.
“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says sociology professor Phil Zuckerman.
While many atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists see victory on the horizon there are still many countries around the world where being an atheist not only means your ostracization from your family or community but can actually get you killed.
In countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the UAE and Yemen, atheism is actually a capital offence. In other Islamic societies, such as Indonesia or Bangladesh, although apostasy or disbelief in God is not a capital offence, public expressions of atheism can still get you killed.
Ahmed Rajib Haider, for example, a Bangladeshi atheist blogger, was hacked to death in the winter of 2013 by machete-wielding fanatics of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the city of Mirpur, Dhaka. In 2015, Dr. Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chatterjee, an organizer for the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, met similar fates.
The Peoples Republic of China is an interesting example. There, the Chinese government is officially atheist, while the government recognizes and allows for some religious activity in the country, if the government believes that your religious beliefs in any way threaten or are perceived to threaten the CCP (Communist Party of China) you could be detained, put on trial or even executed.
In the case of the United States, the only Western country where the Christian religion (and religion in general) remains strong, atheism is incredibly unpopular in many U.S. states. Despite what the popular media say, atheists in America face social exclusion, ostracization and estrangement from their families and communities. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup poll, the one person that American voters would be the least likely to vote for as a presidential candidate is an atheist.
However, for countries such as Japan, South Korea, the UK, the Netherlands, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Uruguay and Canada, religion is struggling to stay alive. Thousands of churches have closed their doors and people in general feel that religion is simply not needed. But its not only in these countries where atheism and secular humanism are overtaking religion. The trend is worldwide – even in societies where atheism is punishable by death or means your exclusion or ostracization.
According to another Gallup poll which surveyed 50,000 people from 57 countries, the number of individuals identifying as religious between 2005 and 2011 fell from 77 per cent to 68 per cent and those identifying as atheists or nonbelievers rose by 3 per cent. The polling data indicates that as much as 15 per cent, perhaps more, of the world’s population subscribes to some form of atheism.
The question that many scholars, public intellectuals and other writers have been trying to wrestle with is why exactly is religion on the decline? Do people simply feel that religion no longer supplies the answers to our most important questions? Have we outgrown religion in other words? According to Christopher Hitchens, the leader of the New Atheist movement prior to his untimely death in 2011, said much to this effect in his 2007 book god is not Great:
“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.”
In other words, the progression of science, for many people, has rendered religion unnecessary. We no longer turn to the priest, the rabbi or the mullah when we want to investigate the mysteries of the cosmos — we turn to physicists. We no longer seek out religion to understand how we got here as a species — we turn to the biologist. Even on questions of morality, how we ought to behave or solving our own personal dilemmas, we turn to the philosopher, the psychologist or the neuroscientist.
We want evidence, logic and reasoned argument. Appeals to faith, holy writ and prayer, new atheists argue, are losing ground because they simply are from a bygone era when we didn’t know any better. Despite the popularity of the new atheists, however, some scholars see other factors behind this growing phenomenon.
According to Zuckerman, the comforts of a materially wealthy society, technological progress and an increasingly educated public (especially among women), have just as much to do with the decline of religion as does the advance of science.
Societies that have become economically and politically stable, where women have a reasonable degree of control over their reproductive rights, have equal access to education, and where the free market guarantees a high living standard, tend to be societies where religion is weakest, if not in terminal decline.
There is still a great amount of debate and uncertainty over what factors explain or account for religion’s precipitous decline, but Zuckerman believes that the more secure and stable a country is the less likely are its citizens to find religion appealing. But does any of this mean that religion will one day disappear from the Earth? While we can’t make predictions of that sort, one writer believes that the trend will actually reverse in a generation.
According to Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi, philosopher and scholar of Judaism, the rise of atheism and non-belief is only temporary phenomenon. His argument rests largely on the fact that religious people tend to have many more children than do parents who are atheist or secular. “The world will be more religious a generation from now, not less,” said Sacks. ‘The more religious people are, the more children they have. The more secular they are, the fewer children they have … the religious will inherit the Earth.
Many people point to the Mormons in the United States as an example of how the fertility rates between secular and non-secular parents plays out in the real world. Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only account for around .04 per cent of the entire population of the United States but their
rapid population growth is being felt in everything from the economy to presidential elections.
Whatever the political, social or economic factors might be, the important question that nonbelievers have to ask themselves is this: if religion is in terminal decline and we truly are heading towards a world where organized religion will disappear from human activity, what will take its place? Something will overtake religion, the question is what? Atheists are often accused by theologians and people of faith of having no idea or any real conception of what it is that we truly desire to take the place of religion.
We know we are fighting for a society organized around the principles of science; where reason, logic and producing evidence for the claims we make form the very foundations of how we go about understanding the world; a world where people are free to think for themselves and can live however they wish, but when it comes to apparently real human needs, we are told we have no good answers.
What about human suffering? What about the need for community and the feeling to belong to something that is bigger and grander than one’s self? What can the atheist do for the person whose afraid of the dark and whose afraid to die? What kind of consolation or hope can the atheist or the secular humanist give for such people?
In short, for some believers, atheism and secular humanism simply do not have the answers for our most important or pressing questions as human beings. But this begs the question, are these still our most important and pressing needs? The religious tell us this but as with much of what they claim there is very little evidence to actually back it up. Such arguments are assumed to be true. When we look at these statistics and we see religion on the decline around the world, it would appear that community, regulating human behaviour and the need for consolation may not be as important as they once were.
Perhaps such goods were needed when we didn’t have the kind of communications technologies that we have today, such as the Internet. Maybe our need for community and strict standards of moral behaviour is declining because technology has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. Perhaps our need for consolation and reassurance has lessened because people have the tools to actually understand how the world and the cosmos function.
However, even if these goods were needed more than ever before, even if they are necessary for us to flourish, why would we seek out religion when we have better and altogether more reliable means for figuring them out? While I can’t say for sure what will take the place of religion, if that point ever comes, I think the new atheists have a point: humanity is slowly outgrowing its need of religion.