In 1882 Nietzsche said ‘God Is Dead’. Some are now predicting the religions that worship God are soon to follow. The numbers are indeed indicative of this. Some go so far as to give an exact year when religions will no longer longer be the dominant in the world. If religion were to die or even just become marginalized this leads to many questions such as: What would replace religion, if anything? Would the problems that humanity currently faces disappear or simply change? And many more. It seems prudent to examine these questions.
Most census surveys support the idea that atheism and humanism is growing and religion is on the decline, especially so in the most affluent countries such as the United States and Canada, northern Europe (Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and The Netherlands), France, Germany, Japan and Australia amongst others. In 2011 the American Physical Society predicted religion will become extinct in nine countries.
However one has to wonder if the world even can let go of religion. Human beings have an intense existential void. Victor Frankl holocaust survivor, and father of the Logotherapy describes what he calls the existential vacuum:
“the feeling of the total and ultimate meaningless of their lives.” (110) People who live with this existential crisis “lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves…’” (110-111)
Human beings long for meaning. For we tend to fear the unknown, a leftover from our evolution. This fear keeps us from danger, even though it it also keeps us from adventure and learning. Psychology today has a nice introductory article about this. So is it even possible for us to give up on religion? We certainly can but a great deal more needs to happen before that is possible. If secularism is tied to affluence as Phil Zuckerman suggests then a religion free world involves bringing all countries to a high standard of living. This, of course, would require major political, economic and social change worldwide. This is not impossible but certainly improbable for the foreseeable future.
What Would The World Look Like Without Religion?
Countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Japan are already virtually religion free. Using The United Nations HDI (Human Development Index) allows us to examine what life is like there.
Bear in mind the Human Development is defined by the United Nations as follows:
The concept of human development focuses on the ends rather than the means of development and progress. The real objective of development should be to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. Though this may appear to be a simple truth, it is often overlooked as more immediate concerns are given precedence.
Human development denotes both the process of widening people’s choices and improving their well-being. The most critical dimensions of human development are: a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living. Additional concerns include social and political freedoms. The concept distinguishes between two sides of human development. One is the formation of human capabilities, such as improved health or knowledge. The other is the enjoyment of these acquired capabilities, for work or for leisure.
Thus the concept of human development is a holistic one putting people at the centre of all aspects of the development process.(source)
So what is life like in countries that are religion free or close to it?
- Norway: Norway ranked number one again in 2012. A look at the chart shows it has been near the top for many years. According to polls Noway is 31 to 71% percent atheist/agnostic. The average life expectancy is 81.3 years. The average annual income is over $48,000. Norway’s Gender Inequality Index also sets the example:
Norway has a GII value of 0.065, ranking it 5 out of 148 countries in the 2012 index. In Norway, 39.6 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, and 95.6 percent of adult women have reached a secondary or higher level of education compared to 94.7 percent of their male counterparts. For every 100,000 live births, 7 women die from pregnancy related causes; and the adolescent fertility rate is 7.4 births per 1000 live births. Female participation in the labour market is 61.7 percent compared to 70.for men
- Japan: Japan is approximately 62% non-religious/atheist and ranked 10 on the HDI rankings in 2012. The life expectancy in Japan is 83.6 years. Japan’s average income is $32,343.
- Australia: Approximately 58% atheist/agnostic. Life expectancy is 82.0 years and average annual income of $32, 340. Australia has Universal Healthcare, high education, low crime rates and an impressive gender equality.
- The Netherlands: Approximately 56-70% atheist/agnostic. Ranked4 on the HDI in 2012. Life expectancy is 80.8 years and average annual income is $32, 782. Health care is covered main by heavily regulated health-insurance and is ranked one of the best systems in the world (even better than countries with universal healthcare like Canada and Australia)
- Germany: Germany is approximately 45-55% atheist/agnostic. In 2012 Germany ranked 5th on the HDI. Life expectancy is 80.6 years and the average annual income is $35,341. Healthcare is primarily government funded.
The above examination only explores a few countries and so in no way proves that life would be better in a religion free world. However it does support the idea that atheism/agnosticism is tied to affluence; the better off people are the less they need religion. So it stands to reason that the world will become more religion free as we become healthier and more secure worldwide.
In conclusion it is reasonable to assume that soaring unbelief is indeed very positive as it seems to be a result of increasing standards of living. As humanists we support this trend and are excited to see what good things soaring unbelief will bring to humanity.
- Magee, Brian (2012) The State of Religion: Declining Belief in God Worldwide http://americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2012-04-the-state-of-religion-declining-belief-in-god-worldw
- Elie A. Shneour (2012). The Ongoing Decline of Religion http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_ongoing_decline_of_religion/
- Barber, Nigel (2012) Atheism to Defeat Religion By 2038 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-barber/atheism-to-defeat-religion-by-2038_b_1565108.html
- Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
- Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Barber, N. (2011). A Cross-National test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.
- Kaufmann, E. (2010). Shall the religious inherit the earth? London: Profile books.
- Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.