Will religion ever disappear? – Rachel Nuwer BBC- Future 19.12.14

Original Article: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20141219-will-religion-ever-disappear

Atheism is on the rise around the world, so does that mean spirituality will soon be a thing of the past? Rachel Nuwer discovers that the answer is far from simple.

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The lighting of a cross during the Christian Los Escobazos Festival in Spain, celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary (Getty Images)

A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.

“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.

While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.

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 A priest in Ukraine holds a cross in the ruins of Kiev’s Trade Union building earlier this year (Getty Images)

Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.

Crisis of faith

Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay (where the majority of citizens have European roots) are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them,” says Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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 Yemeni girls show their hands decorated with traditional henna designs as they celebrate the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)

Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland. “Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “The only exception might be Iran, but that’s tricky because secular people might be hiding their beliefs.”

The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. (Still, a recent Pew surveyrevealed that, between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4%.)

Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says. “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”

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 In the Philippines, survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession (Getty Images)

This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was asudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever. While exceptions to this rule do exist – religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance – for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model. “If experiencing something terrible caused all people to become atheists, then we’d all be atheists,” he says.

The mind of god

But even if the world’s troubles were miraculously solved and we all led peaceful lives in equity, religion would probably still be around. This is because a god-shaped hole seems to exist in our species’ neuropsychology, thanks to a quirk of our evolution.

A rabbi reads during Purim festivities (Getty Images)
 A rabbi reads during Purim festivities (Getty Images)

Understanding this requires a delve into “dual process theory”. This psychological staple states that we have two very basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently. It’s the voice in our head – the narrator who never seems to shut up – that enables us to plan and think logically.

System 1, on the other hand, is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. These capabilities regularly develop in humans, regardless of where they are born. They are survival mechanisms. System 1 bestows us with an innate revulsion of rotting meat, allows us to speak our native language without thinking about it and gives babies the ability to recognise parents and distinguish between living and nonliving objects. It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters or the death of loved ones.

An Indian Sikh lights candles during Bandi Chhor Divas, or Diwali (Getty Images)
 An Indian Sikh lights candles during Bandi Chhor Divas, or Diwali (Getty Images)

In addition to helping us navigate the dangers of the world and find a mate, some scholars think that System 1 also enabled religions to evolve and perpetuate. System 1, for example, makes us instinctually primed to see life forces – a phenomenon called hypersensitive agency detection – everywhere we go, regardless of whether they’re there or not. Millennia ago, that tendency probably helped us avoid concealed danger, such as lions crouched in the grass or venomous snakes concealed in the bush. But it also made us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible agents – whether they took the form of a benevolent god watching over us, an unappeased ancestor punishing us with a drought or a monster lurking in the shadows.

Similarly, System 1 encourages us to see things dualistically, meaning we have trouble thinking of the mind and body as a single unit. This tendency emerges quite early: young children, regardless of their cultural background, are inclined to believe that they have an immortal soul – that their essence or personhood existed somewhere prior to their birth, and will always continue to exist. This disposition easily assimilates into many existing religions, or – with a bit of creativity – lends itself to devising original constructs.

An Indian Hindu devotee a day ahead of the Chhat festival (Getty Images)
 An Indian Hindu devotee a day ahead of the Chhat festival (Getty Images)

“A Scandinavian psychologist colleague of mine who is an atheist told me that his three-year-old daughter recently walked up to him and said, ‘God is everywhere all of the time.’ He and his wife couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten that idea from,” says Justin Barrett, director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and author of Born Believers. “For his daughter, god was an elderly woman, so you know she didn’t get it from the Lutheran church.”

For all of these reasons, many scholars believe that religion arose as “a byproduct of our cognitive disposition”, says Robert McCauley, director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. “Religions are cultural arrangements that evolved to engage and exploit these natural capacities in humans.”

Hard habits to break

Atheists must fight against all of that cultural and evolutionary baggage. Human beings naturally want to believe that they are a part of something bigger, that life isn’t completely futile. Our minds crave purpose and explanation. “With education, exposure to science and critical thinking, people might stop trusting their intuitions,” Norenzayan says. “But the intuitions are there.”

Azerbaijani Muslims pray at the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)
 Azerbaijani Muslims pray at the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)

On the other hand, science – the system of choice that many atheists and non-believers look to for understanding the natural world – is not an easy cognitive pill to swallow. Science is about correcting System 1 biases, McCauley says. We must accept that the Earth spins, even though we never experience that sensation for ourselves. We must embrace the idea that evolution is utterly indifferent and that there is no ultimate design or purpose to the Universe, even though our intuition tells us differently. We also find it difficult to admit that we are wrong, to resist our own biases and to accept that truth as we understand it is ever changing as new empirical data are gathered and tested – all staples of science. “Science is cognitively unnatural – it’s difficult,” McCauley says. “Religion, on the other hand, is mostly something we don’t even have to learn because we already know it.”

“There’s evidence that religious thought is the path of least resistance,” Barrett adds. “You’d have to fundamentally change something about our humanity to get rid of religion.” This biological sticking point probably explains the fact that, although 20% of Americans are not affiliated with a church, 68% of them say that they still believe in God and 37% describe themselves as spiritual. Even without organised religion, they believe that some greater being or life force guides the world.

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 Buddhist monks file towards a ceremony at Sampov Treileak pagoda in Cambodia (Getty Images)

Similarly, many around the world who explicitly say they don’t believe in a god still harbour superstitious tendencies, like belief in ghosts, astrology, karma, telepathy or reincarnation. “In Scandinavia, most people say they don’t believe in God, but paranormal and superstitious beliefs tend to be higher than you’d think,” Norenzayan says. Additionally, non-believers often lean on what could be interpreted as religious proxies – sports teams, yoga, professional institutions, Mother Nature and more – to guide their values in life. As a testament to this, witchcraft is gaining popularity in the US, and paganism seems to be the fastest growing religion in the UK.

Religious experiences for non-believers can also manifest in other, more bizarre ways. Anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck, also at the Thrive Center for Human Development, found evidence that the World of Warcraft isassuming spiritual importance for some players in China, for example. “WoW seems to be offering opportunities to develop certain moral traits that regular life in contemporary society doesn’t afford,” Barrett says. “People seem to have this conceptual space for religious thought, which – if it’s not filled by religion – bubbles up in surprising ways.”

The in-group

What’s more, religion promotes group cohesion and cooperation. The threat of an all-powerful God (or gods) watching for anyone who steps out of line likely helped to keep order in ancient societies. “This is the supernatural punishment hypothesis,” Atkinson says. “If everyone believes that the punishment is real, then that can be functional to groups.”

A devotee at Thailand's Vegetarian Festival (Getty Images)
 A devotee at Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival (Getty Images)

And again, insecurity and suffering in a population may play a role here, by helping to encourage religions with stricter moral codes. In a recent analysis of religious belief systems of nearly 600 traditional societies from around the world, Joseph Bulbulia at the University of Wellington, New Zealand and his colleagues found that those places with harsher weather or that are more prone to natural disasters were more likely to develop moralising gods. Why? Helpful neighbours could mean the difference between life and death. In this context, religion evolved as a valuable public utility.

“When we see something so pervasive, something that emerges so quickly developmentally and remains persistent across cultures, then it makes sense that the leading explanation is that it served a cooperative function,” says Bulbulia.

Finally, there’s also some simple mathematics behind religion’s knack for prevailing. Across cultures, people who are more religious also tend to have more children than people who are not. “There’s very strong evidence for this,” Norenzayan says. “Even among religious people, the more fundamentalist ones usually have higher fertility rates than the more liberal ones.” Add to that the fact that children typically follow their parents’ lead when it comes to whether or not they become religious adults themselves, and a completely secularised world seems ever more unlikely.

Enduring belief

For all of these reasons – psychological, neurological, historical, cultural and logistical – experts guess that religion will probably never go away. Religion, whether it’s maintained through fear or love, is highly successful at perpetuating itself. If not, it would no longer be with us.

And even if we lose sight of the Christian, Muslim and Hindu gods and all the rest, superstitions and spiritualism will almost certainly still prevail. More formal religious systems, meanwhile, would likely only be a natural disaster or two away. “Even the best secular government can’t protect you from everything,” says McCauley. As soon as we found ourselves facing an ecological crisis, a global nuclear war or an impending comet collision, the gods would emerge.

“Humans need comfort in the face of pain and suffering, and many need to think that there’s something more after this life, that they’re loved by an invisible being,” Zuckerman says. “There will always be people who believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain the majority.”

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Five reasons why colonising America wasn’t a good idea for Britain.

This article on cracked.com made my day so I decided to include it in my blog. 😀

It’s easy to say the modern tea-baggers are assholes. The modern tea-baggers are assholes. See? We didn’t even break a sweat.

But as it turns out, these latest tea-baggers are simply carrying on a long-standing tradition of proud, vaguely patriotic douche-baggery that they learned from the OG’s of asshole behaviour; the guys who tossed some tea into a harbour a couple hundred years ago.

No, we’re not saying we wish the British had won the war or that we wish America had never been born. We’re just saying that American history glosses over a lot of true dick behaviour. After all, consider that…

#5.Great Britain Had No Idea The Colonists Were Unhappy
 
 

Benjamin Franklin had been chosen by the Pennsylvania colonial legislature to represent the colonies before the crown. If the colonies were pissed, or sick of paying unfair taxes (or as was more often the case, not paying them), it was Franklin’s job to let the crown know.

Unfortunately, Ben really loved the crown. Right before the revolution, he had been trying, unsuccessfully, to convince the king to take back Pennsylvania from the Penn family, and put it under royal control.

When the issue of the Stamp Act first came up, even though the colonists were furious, Ben Franklin was all about it, and he told Great Britain as much. Hell, he even gave a friend of his the cushy job collecting the new taxes.

But Why?

Because he was fucking clueless about the people he was representing and spent most of his time in Britain. When colonists eventually showed up at his house rioting, he must have been just shocked that they were so angry about the Stamp Act. Or, he would have been shocked, but people were rioting at his house and threatening to hang him, so he kind of had some other stuff to deal with.

When you think about it, Ben Franklin was a terrible choice for Voice of the People. The dude managed to be a rich, successful, self-made, internationally jet-setting playboy in the 18th goddamn century, for fuck’s sake. John Q. Public he was not. Of course he didn’t mind the Stamp Act; if it didn’t at all impede his ability to fuck princesses on hot air balloons, (or whatever the 18th Century analogue to the mile high club was), why should he care? Franklin’s hypothetical balloon-humping to one side, the point is that Great Britain was blissfully unaware on the other side of the ocean while the colonists steamed and let their rage build.

#4. The Colonists Were Living at home, Rent free, Without Following Any of the Rules
 

When we think of the original Tea Party Guys, we think of a bunch of decent, hardworking people who were treated unfairly and had every right to rebel against their oppressors. That’s sort of a harder pill to swallow when it turns out the “oppressors” were more like “laid back goons,” and the “opressees” were more like “whiney assholes.” True, Great Britain did impose taxes on the colonies without representation, but according to Taxation in Colonial America, the British rarely bothered collecting them. Hardly anyone was paying the tax that the colonists were so pissed off about.

But Why?

Smuggling mixed with some general bad leadership. London was an ocean away and there just wasn’t an efficient way to manage an entire empire across seas. Not to mention the smuggling.Lord, the smuggling. The British taxes were only on trade, and it was just ridiculously easy to get away with simply not paying them. This was because the layout of the Virginia coast allowed merchants to sail past the authorities and just pull their boats right up to their customers. As a result, many merchants built their businesses on smuggling.

The British tried to put a stop to this, but how could they? Imagine if, instead of just losing a portion of your paycheck to taxes every month, you had to literally hand money over to an IRS agent who wouldn’t chase you, didn’t keep record of you and was incredibly easy to sidestep. Would you pay that guy?

Great Britain understood this inefficient system, but they also understood that they didn’t reallyneed the taxes they were asking for. So unofficially, it was decided that as long as the colonies were doing well, the British were just going to loosely enforce the trade laws, lest they risk accidentally starting a rebellion. This is the same discipline philosophy held by parents who think that the point of having children is so that you can finally be invited to high school parties.

When it eventually did become necessary to start collecting cash, the British were never able to successfully put and keep in place any taxes, ever again. Every time they tried, a group of colonists would throw the kind of shit fit that ends in some embarrassed step-dad having to buy a pony.

So why bother?

#3. The Colonists Blundered Britain into the French and Indian War
 

Say you have a friend, who’s kind of a loud-mouth. He’s a few years younger than you and infinitely more irritating, so much so that he pissed off some tougher, bigger kids. Now they want to kick his ass. Even though it’s your friend’s own fault, and even though you had nothing to do with the dispute, you still feel like you have to step in and fight on his behalf. The French and Indian War was sort of like that, except Great Britain was the older, sensible friend of the idiot colonists, and the French “bullies” knew a shitload of Indians.

But Why?

The land known as the Ohio Country was perfect for fur trading. The French realized this, so they claimed it. The British colony of Virginia claimed it “second,” which is English for first. Great Britain didn’t care too much and France wasn’t terribly interested in putting up a big fight over what clearly must have just been a misunderstanding. The colonists were, objectively, wrong. To apologize for the misunderstanding, the Virginian colonists started sprinting to the territory in order to gobble up land, take advantage of the fur trade, and annoy the living crap out of the Native Americans.

The French, hilariously thinking this conflict was still in the “words” phase, sent a bunch of troops on a peace mission into the forest to see if absolutely anyone in Virginia was in charge (nope!) A nearby colonial militia spotted the French, and being young, dumb, and full of guns, they thought it’d be real neat to sneak up and yell “SURPRISE!” With their guns.

Now, the French are fine if you’re running around saying “Nuh uh, we own the land,” but if you start wrecking their shit? They’re going to have something to say which, in this case, involved recruiting a buttload of Indians and an even bigger buttload of bullets. Regardless of the outcome, the ensuing French and Indian war ended up being ridiculously expensive for the British who, remember, didn’t even really give a crap to begin with.

On top of this, the British colonial smugglers continued to sell stuff to the French illegally throughout the course of the war. This kept the French well-supplied and the British well-supplied with rage at the colonists who, (once again), refused to pay taxes.

#2. The Colonists Were Crazy
 

Here’s maybe the most blatant display of colonial bullshit, because this is where everything starts coming together. Remember that expensive war the colonists dragged Britain into? Great Britain thought it was only fair that the colonists share some of that cost, especially since the victory showed more benefit to the colonists than it did Great Britain. That’s reasonable. To cover this cost, GB tried throwing in some more taxes, which is also reasonable. As you’ll recall, though, the colonists hated paying reasonable taxes, so all of the new taxes, (except the tax on tea), were repealed.

We can’t even conceive of a government repealing taxes based solely on us not wanting to pay them, because that’s all taxes, but Great Britain pulled out. Just like that. Just to make the colonists happy, (those sonsabitches loved their tea), Great Britain came up with the Tea Act of 1773, which would give the colonists tea that was both cheaper and better than the tea they were getting from smugglers. Still sounds reasonable. France is out of the colonists’s hair, some taxes are removed, and they get high quality tea at a cheaper cost.

The colonists threw the tea in the water.

But Why?

It worked like this: the East India Trading Company was being driven into the ditch by colonial smugglers, and they only had one asset left that could save them: tea. So, Britain gave them an exclusive deal to sell their high quality tea cheaply to the colonists. Then, the British bundled it with a smaller import tax. Yes, it was like having to buy every Wii bundled with a copy of Let’s Lotion Stuff 2, but the whole damn thing would only be 25 dollars, so it sounded like a fair compromise. Britain just wanted the Tea Tax in there to a) show they still were running shit at least a little bit and b) discourage people from illegally buy low-grade crap from smugglers.

Smugglers, like John Hancock, hate being told they can’t smuggle. Their businesses were metaphorically dependant on everybody remaining horrified by Great Britain’s terrible, (reasonable), awful, (in retrospect economically responsible) taxation practices, so they started a smear campaign in New York and Pennsylvania, painting the Tea Act as just a sneaky way to get everyone to accept new taxes. By this point, “new taxes”, while vital to paying down the still-a-massive-problem national debt, was a phrase now capable of making the colonists go apeshit like it was the fucking secret word on Pee-Wee’s playhouse.


“THEY’RE TAKIN’ OUR TEA!”

And in this case, the secret word demanded that some motherfuckers better get their tea-dump on.

Riots, pamphlets and one Tea Party later, all done to help level the playing field for tea smugglers who were not about to let quality goods get in the way of their incredibly shortsighted business model.

 

#1. They Stirred Up Religious Bigotry to Get People on Their Side
 

To be fair to the asshole teabaggers, there were a few legitimate reasons to hate Great Britain but, to be fair to history, the colonists didn’t really choose any of those reasons. They picked greed and bigotry.

Buy Why?

In 1774, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which did two big things: 1) it provided religious toleration and rights to Catholics and 2) it expanded Quebec’s land in Canada down to the Ohio River, away from the colonists (who, remember, stole it from the French in the first place). Basically, it was like a big fruit basket from the British to Catholic French Canada with a card that read “Sorry we conquered you; maybe in time you will learn to love us?”

At this point, even after the Boston Tea Party, Massachusetts was the only colony that was really on board with the whole independence idea. Massachusetts, that is, and people like Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who invested a lot of money in the Ohio territory and didn’t exactly want to sit back and let the British give it to the stupid French and Indians, so they could ruin it with hairy armpits and crepe teepees. They were outraged and felt oppressed, sure, but they were still the minority at the time. They needed to convince the mostly king-loyal public that these laws were meant to oppress them silly, and they weren’t going to do that with the whole “I put all my eggs in the ‘Ohio Country’ basket and am personally screwed if this goes tits up” argument, so they decided to tap into the old English standard: frothing, belligerent Catholic hating.

Except for one problem: people didn’t really hate Catholics anymore. But they definitely had it in them to hate anything that they thought was ruining the Land O’ Opportunity, and the founding fathers totally played into it.


“Are you just going to sit there and let the goddamned Catholics eat all your babies?”

Alexander Hamilton argued that Quebec would become an irresistible magnet for Catholics who would then destroy the colonies, which is really about a drink away from just coming out and saying that Quebec is a self-arming death-ray that shoots popes. Paul Revere drew a cartoon showing the writers of the Quebec Act in cahoots with the Devil, and the Catholics for being one bishop short of Captain Planet:

It might not seem like a lot, but it was enough to enrage the colonists. Predictably, the British were pretty confused that THIS is what got the masses to turn against. But considering how much of a complicated clusterfuck the issues between the colonies and Great Britain had already been, it makes perfect sense that it would take something as simple as the 18th century equivalent of THEY TOOK OUR JAHBS.

Read more: http://www.cracked.com/article_18442_5-reasons-founding-fathers-were-kind-dicks_p2.html#ixzz2d1fd4fuH

The ‘fake-gurus’ of India

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