Alan Wolfe takes on the hairy task of forecasting trends in religion in this month’s Atlantic (which is now completely free online, so go check it out here!), and while I found the piece to be interesting, well-written, and in some sense, encouraging, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the coverage my own little slice of the world received:
Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.
The most important religious phenomenon in the United States, however, has nothing to do with the number of atheists. It concerns another trend that, like modernization, is changing the trajectories of religion worldwide: the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace, which partly (though by no means completely) revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.
Now, I’m surely not going to contest his argument about the moderating influence of the free market, and given the absolute numbers involved, the eddies and currents shaping the movement of the faithful are still much more relevant to world affairs than even the most concerted efforts of freethinkers; however, the way he dismisses the astounding growth in one of the most persecuted perspectives in history strikes me as a bit shallow, especially in the context of an article about future trends. After all, if skepticism continues to make in roads at its current rate, a quarter of the country could be non-believers by 2010. At this pace, we could even have an agnostic president by 2025. Wouldn’t that be the day.
In all seriousness, though perhaps not the author’s intent, this article demonstrates what I have long regarded as one of the most practical and devastating critiques of religious faith: there are just too many to choose from for any single one to be even remotely accurate. Pascal’s wager (which the author seems to endorse) is an empty bet because the sides are not clearly distinguished. Even if you accept that it is irrational to bet against the existence of a god, you are left with the impossible choice of selecting among the multitude that have been conjured up throughout the 10,000 years of recorded human history. There are many quite sophisticated logical and empirical rebuttals of specific theistic positions, and most of them are quite persuasive, but I have rarely felt the need to go much further than a simple application of Occam’s razor. The diversity of religious beliefs make it much more likely that human beings made up gods than that gods made human beings.
In the end, Wolfe had it right early on in his piece, “the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable…when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.” The truth will out, even if it does so unevenly and at different times in different places.