Research from across North America and all over Western Europe show us declining church attendance among almost all sects of Christianity. Census data from a variety of countries also shows that self-described believers themselves are declining. As well, results from polling organizations demonstrate that the actual content of beliefs from remaining believers has also changed.
All of this data indicates both that active believers are declining and that the belief-content has been trending, over time, away from the literal, away from the conservative and from the supernatural. But why now, at this point in history? And why are believers still generally increasing in other faiths, as in Muslim-majority countries?
My new book, Post Secular, tries to answer these questions. It's a nonfiction work about the growth of secularism and non-religion around the world.
Studying how the human brain forms, maintains and carries out religious/spiritual beliefs and practices has us now focusing on its evolutionary history. Specifically, on functions the human brain evolved to accomplish during time periods in which it sustained most of its biological development. The cognitive capabilities we gained during these time periods now includes some evolutionary ‘leftovers’, somewhat more anachronistic nowadays in postindustrial life. However, these cognitive modules have directly contributed to the forming of ancient beliefs which now persist into the present.
Now, if complex human behaviours (including religious/spiritual behaviours) are steeped in evolutionary biology, understanding the cognition of other species further back along the evolutionary chain therefore becomes vital for understanding our own behaviour. Recent research from evolutionary anthropology reveals these crucial precursors to human behaviour – further naturalizing complex human behaviours like spiritual belief and moral inclination. And understanding how complex human phenomena like consciousness and mental beliefs actually scale up, biologically in the brain, we learn more about how spiritual beliefs originally formed in the environments in which they did. As well, why the specific beliefs popular throughout our history are now less likely to thrive today in postindustrial societies.
We now acknowledge a considerable amount of nonconscious mental processing in everything we do. Subconscious influences go into almost all of human behavior; religious practices not excepted. Researchers now theorize that evolutionarily “older” forms of primal consciousness dictate intuitive/emotional reasoning, whereas “newer” forms of advanced cognition (typical of our species and a few others) constitute rational/abstract processing. Experiments abound to illustrate. The interplay of two cognitive systems allows a species like ours to make both emotional/gut inferences (which can potentially be very irrational) while simultaneously forming rational rules around them but not necessarily understanding why we do.
With this data, we can look back throughout history and understand why cultures may have believed particular ideas (infused with evolutionary iconography) more readily than others. Particularly within specific time periods. We find that specific social changes predicated similar changes in the content of beliefs. For example, only large social groups evolved “moral” gods, the cultures knowing the least about reality often proposed the most supernatural belief systems and scaled these views back as knowledge poured in, as civilizations expanded their social codes they become less exclusivist, etcetera.
Because the above changes have been predictable over time – and because they all seem tied to various levels of progress – I forward a thesis in which socioeconomic progress becomes correlative to declining conservativism, scriptural literalism and supernaturalism. Not a complete and automatic elimination, but rather a hidden hand influencing the decline of traditional supernatural faith in a “nonzero influence” sense. Moreover, looking at the social groups today experiencing the highest self-reported life satisfaction, we find the populations which seem, on average, to be drifting most toward secular governance and religious nonbelief. This is because more competitive ideas, suddenly less counter-intuitive in postindustrial life and still fulfilling the needs of tradition religious ones, have just as much transmission power. And ultimately, socioeconomic trends worldwide seem to be a tide lifting most boats beyond – at the very least – the Darwinian bottom line of past civilizations which seemed to favour traditional supernatural ideas.
To find out more, I hope you'll check out my book Post Secular. Now available from the following providers: