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Aldous Huxley in his science fiction novel Brave New World, a story about a secular-humanist utopia set in a time several centuries from now, seems to have anticipated the decline of religious beliefs and practices we have seen in developed countries in recent years, a trend which has generated much scholarly investigation into its causes. In Chapter 17 of that novel, the World Controller Mustapha Mond reads from his collection of forbidden ancient books a couple of passages by philosophers which supposedly explain the religious sentiment in man as he realizes his existential vulnerability. Mond then says:
>"One of the numerous things in heaven and earth that these philosophers didn't dream about was this" (he waved his hand), "us, the modern world. 'You can only be independent of God while you've got youth and prosperity; independence won't take you safely to the end.' Well, we've now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. 'The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.' But there aren't any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?
Yet our culture does have the idea dating from at least the late 17th Century that religion stands on shaky ground and that progress in alleviating the human condition could make religion much less important some day, for reasons like the ones the fictional Mond gives. The Star Trek franchise popularized the idea of a future society which doesn't seem to have much need for a god, though the various Trek series and films promoted the message more through examples than through precepts. I've joked that the increasing visibility of atheists in the U.S. apparently gives some christians in this country the creeps because we look like an invasion of time travelers from the 22nd Century or something; the absence of god beliefs in our lives suggests to them that christianity might not have much of a future.
Nigel Barber in this book argues that the atheistic "time travelers" could have come from as early as the 2030's instead, a decade which also figured in the transhumanist FM-2030's later writings as somehow significant. Refer to FM's book Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World
Barber synthesizes a lot of material from anthropology, history, social psychology, sociology, demography and other disciplines to argue the following theses:
1. Religion arose as a strategy to manage existential anxiety. (Barber assumes that the supernatural things and forces which religionists talk to don't exist.)
2. "Human development" through economic growth, education, healthcare and democratic government in many countries has made people less existentially anxious, so they lose interest in religion and over the following generations more and more people identify themselves as nonbelievers. This can happen very quickly in even one generation, as we have seen in Ireland.
3. By contrast, a high level of religiosity in a country signals poor living conditions.
4. The U.S. may seem anomalously religious for a developed and wealthy country, but Barber says that much of the religiosity reflects social pressures to over-report church attendance. He attributes the hard core religious belief to our inequality which makes nonwealthy Americans insecure. Atheism shows signs of growth in the U.S. regardless, especially among the young who use social media and get turned off by harsh moral stands taken by conservative churches.
5. Sports, entertainment, psychotherapy and social media provide people with emotionally fulfilling ways of managing anxiety which replace religious observances. However anxieties about status and popularity have replaced anxieties about survival, and traditional religions generally lack doctrines for addressing those needs because they emphasize humility instead of pride and narcissism.
6. Barber argues that we have the tools from statistics and the social sciences to construct models of predicting when a nation will undergo a kind of atheistic transition where religious believers become a minority. Using several different scenarios, he comes up with several dates in the 2030-2040 window for a worldwide transition to an atheist majority, assuming that the poorer countries can develop economically and benefit from decent governments.
7. If these atheized countries turn out like Western European countries on average, they would produce acceptable living conditions for every member of our species for the first time in its history, and religion as we've known it would pretty much go away. We would have real pies on the table instead of promised pies in some imaginary hereafter.
Of course Barber admits that the world has entered uncharted territory, metaphorically speaking. The experiences of secular European countries, along with Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent the U.S., may not scale up or replicate well in other cultures. Social democracy in Europe might collapse because of financial unsustainability, and Europeans might become more religious again. Economic growth might fail for other reasons like technological stagnation or resource constraints, as Peter Thiel has argued lately.
Yet we do seem to live in a kind of "end times," which some christians predict will start with their supernatural evacuation from Earth in an event they call the rapture. Barber says that, yes, christians will disappear, all right, but not because something supernatural happens to them. Atheists will replace them organically, and barring a catastrophe, godless people will continue to go about their business and enjoy satisfactory lives in the coming "Jesus who?" era without noticing religion's absence.
I would give this ebook a higher rating, but Barber padded it and it reads repetitiously. With better editing, it really has enough material for about two New Yorker-length articles instead of a full book. Yet it still deserves a read because Barber pulls together a lot of fascinating information to make his case that a godless world doesn't lie off in some remote science-fictional era, but more within many of our lifetimes. I, for one, identify myself as an early adopter of the atheistic future.