Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

The Price of Atheism

This post isn’t about hell and eternal damnation. It’s about kids. The religious seem to have more of them, regardless of their specific religion. Might they wipe non-believers out of the gene pool?

The non-religious are being out-reproduced by people of almost any faith. American women of no religious belief have only 1.66 children, on average, according to the General Social Survey, compared to 2.75 for Hispanic Catholics and 2.84 for Muslim women. A study based on the Swiss census found that non-believers have the fewest children of all — fewer than Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, Catholics and Buddhists. Another study across 82 countries found that women who worshiped more than once a week had 2.5 children, on average, while those who never went to church only had 1.67.

Researchers suggest this stems from the imperative to reproduce present in most major religions, starting with the Judeo-Christian God’s commandment to “go forth and multiply.” They posit this as proof of the adaptive nature of religiosity, which fosters the passage of genes down the generations.

I wonder what this means for the future of non-belief. On its own, this kind of dynamic might be expected to erode the political power of non-believers’. Public policy would become increasingly entwined with religion. An atheist would never be elected president of the United States, or anywhere else. But this dynamic doesn’t mesh well with other studies suggesting secularism is on the rise in many economically developed democracies, where the State has taken over many of the functions once performed by the Church, like education, health care and the provision of justice.

Darwin is pushing us in one way, it seems. But economic development —technology, perhaps?–  appears to be pushing in the other.

Michael Blume, who studies the evolution of religion had an interesting thought in this regard:

“After the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the subsequent establishment of evolutionary theory in state schools in the United States, there was a broad conviction among educated Westerners that the defeat of anti-evolutionist fundamentalism and probably all religion was a matter of time. But to the great surprise of many, religious activity, including Creationism and Intelligent Design, today enjoy a worldwide resurgence. The reason is simple: evolutionary theorists brought up far more scientific arguments — but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children.

There is a certain irony in here: creationist parents unconsciously defend the reproductive success of their children and communities against evolutionist teachings, whereas some naturalists are trying to get rid of our evolved abilities of religiosity by quoting biology. But from an evolutionary as well as philosophic perspective, it may seem rather odd to try to defeat nature with naturalistic arguments.”

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