Why Belief in God Is Not Innate
By GREGORY PAUL article link
APRIL 10, 2010 WSJ ESSAY
It has become fashionable to assert that, far from being dead, belief in God is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that it is universal and perpetual. This opinion influences the thinking of theists and scientists alike.
In "Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All," theologian Scotty McLennen contends that because humans are hard-wired for religion, it must be reformed rather than refuted to better fit the modern world. The hypothesis that people are genetically preprogrammed to be pious because it confers a selective advantage that enhances reproductive success is advocated by Nicholas Wade in "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures." The Templeton Foundation and Oxford University have announced a multimillion-dollar project intended to answer why religion is pervasive. Yet a growing body of psychosociological research has already overturned conventional wisdom as it uncovers the actual leading cause of popular faith: dysfunctional socioeconomic conditions.
If a behavior is such a core means of survival that it must be strongly genetically fixed, then it will be truly universal. DNA preprograms humans to learn language so well that by age 5, children engage in intelligible conversations. The fully opposable thumbs that make humans distinct from other primates evolved for the materialism that more than anything else pushes the ambition and achievement that drives civilization. Around the globe language flourishes and the vast majority craves material goods; they are genuinely universal.
The same cannot be said about popular religiosity, which is highly variable in ways that have important implications for human societies and the nature of belief. According to Gallup and other surveys, the number of Americans who believe in something paranormal (eight in 10) is about the same as those who believe in God. However, it is the latter opinion that counts in the cultural and political wars.
How consistent is serious religious worship in humans? Even in hunter-gatherers there is remarkable divergence. While the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a well-developed complex of beliefs, the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion that does not include belief in an afterlife. Religion is easily cast off in the face of modernity. Among Western nations, religion is a strong majority influence only in the U.S. In other advanced democracies, religion is in such sharp decline that majorities are skeptical that there is a God in some Western European countries, including France and Denmark, as well as Japan. Church attendance fell rapidly in Europe in the closing decades of the last century, declining up to sixfold in nations like Belgium and Holland. Phil Zuckerman's "A Society Without God" shows how many Western Europeans casually and nonideologically dismiss the possibility of gods or an afterlife. British sociologist Steve Bruce has shown that Western de-Christianization has not been countered by a commensurate rise in alternative beliefs. And surveys have shown that Western scientists are more atheistic than the general public.
The loss of faith in advanced nations has often been dismissed as an aberration in a human sea of piety, but it is a sociological gold mine that provides the critical information needed to solve the religion puzzle. The only one of the big religions making proportional gains on the global scene is Islam, largely because of rapid reproduction. Christianity has been stuck at a third of the planetary population for a century. The nonreligious are the only group able to expand by large-scale conversion. In the Western world hundreds of millions have lost their belief in religion since the world wars despite the absence of atheist organizations comparable to the churches that work to maintain the faith.
Because the popularity of spirituality is so variable and subject to loss, it cannot be as strongly genetically programmed as its frequent nadir, materialism. There is, therefore, no "God Gene" that compels almost all to have faith in the gods. Nor is a "God Module" in our brains making us all believe. Because the number of nonbelievers is growing, fear of death or hell and desire for a blissful afterlife cannot be the crucial factors either. The same is true when it comes to a desire for social community, otherwise churches would be packed. That means the primary determinants of the popularity of faith must be found in the human environment.
It has long been known that prosperity and security tend to suppress religiosity—that's why the Bible warns against the spiritual dangers posed by material wealth. But even though the U.S. has nearly the highest per capita income in the world, it is about twice as religious as the Western norm, according to the Pew Research Center.
As shown by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their classic work, "Sacred and Secular," and confirmed in subsequent studies, there is a strong correlation between higher levels of income disparity and greater religiosity in prosperous democracies. To investigate this correlation, I constructed the Successful Societies Scale, a uniquely comprehensive comparison of socioeconomic conditions in the Western world. In every prosperous democracy that features universal health care, job and retirement security, and low levels of social ills such as homicide, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, divorce and so forth, the middle-class majority has abandoned the churches in droves because they no longer feel the need to seek the protection and assistance of supernatural powers.
The U.S. has the highest financial inequality, is the only Western country without universal health coverage and scores the lowest on the Successful Societies Scale. In no other advanced democracy are cities afflicted by such high rates of murder and juvenile mortality, or are ordinary citizens subject to sudden financial ruin because of overwhelming medical bills.
That the popularity of faith is largely a side effect of socioeconomic conditions means that other factors play secondary roles if any. The harsh conditions suffered by early humans had more to do with the initial development of supernatural beliefs than did genes. In the 21st century most people continue to care much more about the mundane but vital issues of their daily lives that really drive their opinions than they do about grand ideological wars—there is little doubt that if Americans lived under socioeconomic conditions more like those in Canada we would be similarly irreligious, and there would be no intense culture war.
As it is American religion is showing signs of distress. Pew finds that only one in two Americans have no doubt that a personal God exists, and estimates that the U.S. already is half as religious as some less prosperous nations. Bible literalists have swiftly declined from four in 10 around 1980 to less than three in 10. According to the classic Gallup "do you believe in God or a universal spirit" question, nonbelievers have tripled since the 1960s, and surveys designed to overcome Americans' reluctance to admit nontheism indicate that skeptics may match Catholics or evangelicals in numbers.
If America becomes increasingly secular, the country can be expected to adopt social and financial policies that encourage further secularization. Faith is proving unable to thrive in well-run democracies, and its abandonment can occur with startling speed when conditions become good enough.
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher and consultant whose work on the interaction of religion and society has appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, the Journal of Religion and Society, and Philosophy and Theology.
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