Will atheism triumph in 2038?

Nigel Barber wrote a piece this week for the Huffington Post in which he predicted that atheism will defeat religion by the year 2038. He appeals to what he calls “the existential security hypothesis” in order to make his case. This is the idea that,

“as people become more affluent, they are less worried about lacking for basic necessities, or dying early from violence or disease. In other words 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 studied data from the nine “most godless countries” (Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), specifically looking for each country’s GDP per capita when it made the “atheist transition” (moving from majority religious to majority secular). He discovered that on average the figure was $29,822. Then, applying current global economic growth patterns, he arrived at 2035 as the pivotal year when the average country will reach the same GDP per capita, and likewise make the atheist transition. Using other similar measures, he arrived at the year 2041. Averaging them out, he came to 2038.

His analysis is, of course, much too simplistic. For one thing, he doesn’t factor in a nation’s particular history and culture. Might it not be relevant that most of the countries listed above as the “most godless” were already rapidly trending toward secularism prior to World War II, and that most were decimated by the war? What impact did the war have on the collective psyche of Europe, and how did it affect the institutions that were rebuilt in its wake? The mood of despair that overtook continent after the war (especially coming as soon as it did after WW I in a kind of lethal one-two punch), as evidenced by the dominance of existential philosophy, left many wondering where God was in it all—or if he was in fact anywhere.

Similar things might be said about the national disillusionment that took place in Japan as a result of a humiliating defeat and the divine emperor’s forced recantation of his divinity. Foundational beliefs were overthrown by the outcome of the war.

And of course none of Barber’s analysis even considers nations that have been historically Muslim or Hindu. His his sample isn’t nearly large enough or diverse enough to draw such sweeping conclusions based on a single criterion (GDP per capita).

Consider the U.S. as a case in point. The GDP per capita in the U.S. has been well over the $29,822 mark since at least 1999, and yet 81 percent of Americans polled said that religion is “very important” (55%) or “fairly important” (26%) in their lives.

For all the flaws in Barber’s post, it must be said that it is not altogether without merit to suggest a correlation between rising prosperity and declining religious commitment. Scripture itself makes the same point.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God (Deut. 8:11-14a).

But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation (Deut. 32:15)

See also Proverbs 30:9; Hosea 13:6.

Moses and the prophets and apostles—not to mention preachers throughout the ages—have pointed out the tendency of people to turn away from God when they grow wealthy. They are tempted to a sense of false security (1 Tim. 6:17). Perhaps we should congratulate Barber for finally catching up and noticing what believers have known for millennia. His error lies in assuming the tendency is an inevitability. Whether rising prosperity will lead to a secular majority in any particular country or not (regardless of all other factors), and what the precise tipping point might be remains to be seen.


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