In Britain, where I live, religious belief is not dominant. In a survey carried out in December 2006 for the Guardian newspaper, when asked if they were religious, 64% said no. This turning away from religion is happening across northern Europe, and various explanations have been offered.
Firstly, northern European countries offer their citizens unprecedented levels of economic security, with a Welfare State and free health care, paid for by taxation. This is the greatest difference between us and societies such as the US, where religion remains strong. Incomes are also high, and we are comparatively safe from catastrophic events like flood, famine or social collapse.
Secondly, we have much more political freedom than most societies. In Britain, for instance, people have been at liberty to choose their own religion for hundreds of years. Being an atheist carried the death penalty until the nineteenth century, but has been legal for over a century.
Thirdly, all children are schooled, and a high proportion of adults go on to some form of post-16 education.
Fourthly, northern European societies have high levels of social and geographical mobility. This means that its citizens have broader horizons, and meet ideas from a wider range of sources, which is bound to undermine any set of fixed dogmas.
Religions flourish in societies with low incomes, no Welfare State, poor education, an absence of freedom and limited mobility. Because that describes most of human history, religion has persisted. If the world is moving away from those times, then there is reason to hope that it will move away from religion too.
There are other factors in the success of religion. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that humans may have an innate bias towards seeing meaning and purpose in the world, and one should not forget emotional blackmail within the family, fear of death, fear of hell, epilepsy and psychedelic plants. These factors are not proving sufficient in northern Europe, however, and if other societies follow a similar economic and social path there is no reason to believe they will prove sufficient there.
Posted: June 1st 2007
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