Atheism vs Religion: The Final Countdown?

By Ashley Baxstrom: Congratulations, godless heathens- you’re winning!

According to biopsychologist and blogger Nigel Barber over at our favorite aggregator, The Huffington Post, atheism will “defeat” religion by 2038.

I didn’t know they were in a timed fight to the death. But I suppose, in media, everything is really an epic battle.

For Barber, the equation is simple: “Countries with the best standard of living are turning atheist. That shift offers a glimpse into the world’s future.“ He adheres to a version of the secularization thesis – the “view that religious belief will give way to atheism” – he refers to as the existential security hypothesis. It basically posits that people are only religious because they’re scared of dying and not being able to support themselves, and so “as people become more affluent… they are secure in their own existence. They do not feel the need to appeal to supernatural entities to calm their fears and insecurities.”


Barber’s (misguided) understanding and (negative) opinion of religion hinges on a reductionist and, for a biowhatsitwho, un-academic approach to religion itself. This ain’t your grandparents’ field of study. We religion-studiers have moved on from the “silly simple people with their silly simple beliefs” angle of old.

Barber builds his case on two “measures of religion”: belief (or disbelief), and religiosity. “The notion that improving living conditions are associated with a decline in religion is supported by a mountain of evidence,” he writes, citing three different works on the subject (two of which are his own).  This addresses the belief angle. “The most obvious approach to estimating when the world will switch over to being majority atheist is based on economic growth,” he writes. “This is logical because economic development is the key factor responsible for secularization.” Referencing what he calls the “nine most godless countries” and the average global GDP growth rate for the past 30 years, he estimates the “atheist transition” is mathematically due in 2035.

But, graciously, he allows that belief is “not the only relevant measure of religion.” Sometimes people are totally superficial and kind of believe without letting it effect their daily lives! So he advises asking “whether they think that religion is important in their daily lives” a la Gallup. If fewer than 50 percent agree – mazel tov! The country is secular! Again calculating economic improvements and the growth rates of godless nations “by religiosity,” he estimates that by 2041 the global population will be at that atheist threshold.

Ergo, add the sums and divide by the mean, ipso facto… 2038. Atheist World. Welcome.

You must be this tall to ride the rides.

Call me a cynic, but I don’t have to be one to say that there’s a whole lot of wrong in his writing. Religion isn’t just belief in (a) God(s) or spirituality, it isn’t just someone saying “oh, yea, it matters to me.” The secularism thesis has pretty much been debunked by actual scholars of religion. Max Weber may have predicted the disenchantment of the world, but the truth is, it just isn’t happening. Peter Berger, one of the original proponents of the secularization thesis, has reversed his own ruling. “I think what I and most other sociologists wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization…. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious.”

Religion is lived, and practiced, and expressed, and experienced, in a myriad of ways that a man like Nigel Barber simply does not comprehend. He’s undoubtedly a brilliant scientist. But the problem with so many atheists – of which I am one – is that they don’t take religion seriously. Derision and dismissal makes for great soundbites, and a lot of people are going to agree with a lot of comments about silliness, and simplicity, and religion causing conflicts, and religious oppression, and so on. I do.

But what’s missing here, and in so many similar arguments, is that religion works. It works in people’s lives, whether it’s about meaning or morals or structure or faith or whatever. Economics are a part of life. But life is about more than just the money, honey.

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