How do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that in a world built and borne upon the shoulders of religion, that every year less and less people identify themselves as believing in God? In the U.S. nearly one-quarter of Americans say that have “no religion in particular,” with other countries such as Hong Kong, Sweden, and the Czech Republic having at least 70% of their population identifying as non-religious or atheist. China is the world leader of an irreligious populous with 90% stating they have no religion. If belief in God, or at the very least membership in an organized religion, is on the decline, certain uncomfortable questions begin to emerge. Why do fewer people believe in God each in year? What does this mean for the future of religion? And perhaps most disturbingly . . .
Is the death of God inevitable?
This is not a question aimed at one specific belief or one specific God. History has shown us that all religions wax and wane with time, and while some are more enduring than others, in the end they are either replaced or subsumed by a new set of beliefs. We are not speaking towards whether the decline of a religion is inevitable, but rather if the entire concept of religion and belief in a higher power will continue its current trend until eventually no believers remain in the world.
The question cannot be answered by looking at the latest surveys and trying to extrapolate on their meaning. There is too much guesswork, too much assumption down that route. Rather, let us look at the question from its beginning rather than its end. If we wish to know if God and religion are ultimately doomed to fade away, then first we must ask ourselves, why do we believe in God in the first place? Not as individuals, but as a species. Why have humans found or created God for themselves throughout the millennia of existence. If we can find the answer to that, then we can determine if those root causes, and thereby God, will eventually die out.
A Search for Meaning
For many belief in God is a search for meaning. Evolution has trained humans to search for patterns in nature in ways we might predict future outcomes and have better chances for survival. We spend our lives searching for patterns in the world around us and learning to live with them. However when a great and destructive event occurs in which we can find no discernible pattern, meaning, or purpose in, humans look towards a higher power for the answer.
A loved one is killed in a car accident, a flood devastates a community, a doctor diagnoses you with a terminal illness. These world-shaking events can and frequently do turn people towards religion. In 2011, when an earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly non-religious country with 41% of residents reporting no religion – there was a sudden spike in belief following the disaster. Those who experienced the disaster first hand had an increase in belief and religious conversion while the rest of the country did not.
Many of those who challenge religion are baffled by this reaction. How can suffering cause people to become more religious? Most religions, if not all, teach that there is some God or Gods that are working towards our best interests. The popular western interpretation of God is described as being all knowing, all powerful, and all good. However this leads to the question, if God is omnipotent and good, why does he allow evil and suffering to take place?
Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, explains:
“People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning . . . For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”
In the face of disaster, humans put the logical portion of their brain aside. They look for answers wherever they can be found, and thus many people turn to God. Even if they cannot understand why God would cause them to suffer so, simply knowing that there is some purpose or plan behind the pain makes the burden a little easier to bear.
If you’ve ever wondered why there is room for the concept of God inside of human beings, you can thank evolution due to what a programmer might consider a bug or glitch in the system. Many psychologists have put forth the idea that the human brain is run by two different processes simultaneously. Dual Process Theory states that we have an explicit and implicit part of our psychology. While the explicit system, System 2, is our source of consciousness, logic, and rationality, it was not the first one on the scene. No, System 2 was evolved once humans had first mastered the appropriately named System 1.
System 1 is the part of our brain that works off of instinct. It is automatic, high capacity, and very, very fast. If someone throws a ball at you, you catch it. You don’t consciously think about the angle of their throw, the velocity the ball is traveling at, the time it will take to reach you. You are able to infer all of that information thanks to System 1, and you simply catch the ball so you don’t get hit in the face. Because that is what System 1 is dedicated to. It doesn’t care about the purpose of life, what the square root of four is, or if you left the stove on. All System 1 cares about is keeping you alive.
As System 1 was being evolved by primitive humans it created some incredible natural instincts and survival mechanisms. One of the most notable is our hypersensitive agency detection, or put more simply, our natural “life sense.” When you find a lion’s footprint in the wild, your instinctual assumption is that the lion must still be nearby. This is because all of the primitive humans who did not assume the lion was nearby did not get to pass on their genes due to lion-related incidents.
System 1 primes us to instinctually see life wherever we go, regardless of whether it is there or not. This erring on the side of caution protected us from concealed danger, but it also left us susceptible to believing in the existence of invisible agents working upon us. This is why so many children are scared of the dark. Their instincts tell them to be safe rather than sorry and assume that there is something within the unknown waiting to attack them.
Many scholars theorize that this is why humanity is so open to the concept of a “man in the sky who watches all of their actions.” In a way, God is much like the concept of the Boogeyman or the Monster Under the Bed. He is another predator in the bushes, waiting to attack – or in this case “punish” – us when we least expect it. We have no proof of his existence, but we are evolutionarily predisposed to give some credence to such a belief, just to be safe.
Can God Survive?
On some level, religion is just a matter of numbers. Many religions, especially their most fundamentalist branches, have come under fire for years for indoctrinating their children to certain religious beliefs. In everything from politics, to religion, to ethics, children are much more likely to adopt the same beliefs as their parents than they are to stray from them. Combine this information with the fact that religious couples have been shown to have more children than non-religious couples – nearly twice as many.
So if children are more likely to share their parents’ views than not, and religious parents are likely to have more children than non-religious parents, then it seems a simple conclusion that even if religion is on the decline, it will take many generations for it to completely die out. However, that doesn’t seem very likely to happen.
While with each passing year there are more and more people who say they are not religious, the reasons why people believe in and need a God aren’t on the decline. We live in a world that allows to focus on more than just surviving to the next day. Our System 2s are able to flourish, and so we begin to question and overcome some of our System 1 instincts. However, those instincts can never be completely suppressed.
What’s more, the world we live is filled with tragedy, hardship, and trial. In every life there will be moments of suffering, suffering that we as human beings will try to find meaning in. Invariably religion has proven to be the ultimate answer for those seeking a purpose behind their pain. And while it might be possible for us to one day overcome our instincts, we will never be able to overcome the nature of the world we live in.
So, is the death of God inevitable? No.
If the reasons we believe in a higher power are so innate and hardwired into who we are as a species, then so long as there people, there will be God.