Religion declines in well-run, trusting societies

John Lennon was a dreamer. But he was not the only one.

In his famous song, Imagine, Lennon was not alone in being convinced institutional religions – and nations – are the key causes of war and impediments to universal peace.

But was Lennon’s refrain accurate? Evolutionary psychologists, including at the University of B.C., have probed just these questions through innovative experiments with subjects from Canada to Africa, Europe to South Asia.

They are concluding Lennon may have been half right – that humans can build fair and peaceful societies in which there is “no religion,” or at least in which spirituality shifts to a more private realm.

But UBC’s Ara Norenzayan and a team of researchers are finding the path to peace and cooperation definitely does not lie in imagining “there’s no countries.” Instead, they place high value on stable national governments that citizens can actually trust.

In his new book, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton University Press), Norenzayan describes how Western Europe and Scandinavia have created strong and fair societies – in which the vast majority are not actively involved in religion.

As an evolutionary psychologist, Norenzayan believes most Scandinavians and Western Europeans, and to a lesser extent Canadians, have shifted out of their historical faith in powerful, interventionist “Big Gods” to a newer reliance on judges, police and public bodies.

Indeed, Norenzayan maintains organized religion remains most powerful in weak and fear-filled countries, such as Pakistan and the “failed states” of Africa.

In societies of old, Norenzayan writes in Big Gods, religion served as the key “social glue” that bound people together, often in a clannish way. It’s the role religion continues to play in Norenzayan’s troubled native country of Lebanon.

But now, in well-functioning secular countries, Norenzayan says the ties formed by religion are being replaced by public institutions that encourage collaboration and provide social services.

“It turns out that some of the most cooperative, trusting and well-to-do societies on earth, such as those in Western Europe and Scandinavia, are also the least religious in the world and the most reliant on government,” says Norenzayan.

 In Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Pippa Norris (photo) and Ronald Inglehart conclude religiosity declines when people feel “existentially secure,” with access to unemployment insurance, retirement support and universal medical care.

Norenzayan is not alone in this theory. In Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge University Press), Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart also conclude religiosity declines when people feel “existentially secure,” with access to unemployment insurance, retirement support and universal medical care.

“Cross-cultural comparisons show that societies with more economic equality – that is, with a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth – are less religious, even after a host of other economic and demographic factors, such as gross domestic product, are accounted for,” Norenzayan says.

“Religion, essentially, is a Third World phenomenon.”

Norenzayan acknowledged the United States initially seemed to pose a “puzzle” in regards to this theory. It’s one of the world’s richest countries, but its inhabitants are also quite religious, more so than Canadians.

However, when psychologists Kurt Gray and Dan Wegner took into account the U.S. suffers from an unusually wide gap between rich and poor, a stingy social safety net and striking regional poverty disparities, they concluded that, even for the U.S., the theory holds: “Where there is less human misery, there is less religiosity.”

This is not just idle speculation for Norenzayan and colleagues. They are among a global team of researchers who have received roughly $3 million from the Canadian federal government, and $800,000 from The Templeton Foundation, to explore how religious beliefs and secular institutions affect morality and cooperation. Norenzayan and company have spent years conducting social experiments to test the degree to which humans can put their faith in secular courts and social-service agencies rather than a supernatural God.

The researchers measure what they call “pro-social behaviour” around the world. For instance, they have found that subtle exposure to words such as “judge” and “police” can increase generosity between strangers as much as God-related words.

In an interview, Norenzayan said he was struck by the trust among Danish citizens when he visited Aarhus University.

The Danes he met, for instance, didn’t worry about locking their bicycles, he said, because there were so many government-provided bicycles available for free.

He is aware, however, of arguments that countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany have grown cohesive and prospered in part because of their religious history.

Indeed, Norenzayan and others have an evolutionary theory that some societies, initially strengthened by organized religion, reach a threshold of well-being that encourages them to leave religion behind.

“Secular societies don’t come out of the blue,” he says. Instead, they “climbed the ladder of religion and then kicked it away.”

It’s an idea similar to that of the noted American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, who said liberal Protestantism has been a “victim of its own success,”losing members because it encourages free inquiry and universal solidarity.

 In the name of Jesus, Nikolaj Grundtvig worked tirelessly to make sure every Dane, particularly the rural poor, had equal access to education and social services. He’s still widely admired in Denmark, even while few regularly attend church.

As someone who has visited Denmark several times, I’ve observed this social transformation. Only about seven per cent of the Scandinavian population regularly attend church (compared to about 18 per cent of Canadians and 40 per cent of Americans).

But that does not mean churches do not play a significant underlying role. Unlike in Canada, most Scandinavians pay taxes to support their well-maintained churches. And almost every Scandinavian, whether or not they believe in God, readily attends church for a wedding, funeral or christening.

Indeed, I told Norenzayan most Danes, and other Scandinavians, are quietly proud of their Lutheran tradition. Danish observers believe their pro-social ethic is rooted largely in a man virtually unknown outside the country: Nikolaj Grundtvig.

Grundtvig was a great 19th century Lutheran pastor, philosopher, author, hymnwriter and politician who encouraged healthy nationalism among Danes based on Jesus’s teaching about caring for all human beings. Profoundly spiritual, Grundtvig worked tirelessly to make sure every Dane, particularly the rural poor, had equal access to education and social services. He’s still widely admired.

The legacy of Grundtvig fits into Norenzayan’s evolutionary theory. He believes that, while a small number of people in secular societies grow hostile to religion, others just come to take it for granted and drift away. Norenzayan calls them religious “apatheists.”

Most Scandinavians aren’t militantly atheist, like a Richard Dawkins. They tend to respect the church but they mostly feel “benign neglect” toward it. We’ve seen this in Canada too.

But all is not lost for faith. Religious “apatheism” doesn’t mean the death of spirituality. Like the philosophers Charles Taylor and John Cobb, Norenzayan said, “Secularism can accommodate religion without eradicating it.”

Despite his own skepticism about the existence of Big Gods, Norenzayan acknowledges he still has personal experiences of “beauty and awe,” which could be considered spiritual.

That’s the kind of thing that happens, he says, in secular societies: People show less devotion to organized religion while shifting their focus to a more private “quest.”

Instead of having their lives dominated by Big Gods, he said people in well-functioning secular nations are inclined to treat spirituality “like a hobby.”

 Source: The Vancouver Sun