Page from Who needs God? by Tom ReesModernity was supposed to see the end of religion. Surely all those ancient superstitions would crumble and collapse when exposed to the white-hot heat of science and rationality? All that was needed was to sit people down and explain to them how nonsensical, how illogical, their beliefs were. The whole edifice of religion would be undermined, and the world would enter a gleaming new age of rationality. “By the 21st century,” the American sociologist Peter Berger told the New York Times in 1968, “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” Those words sound ridiculous in hindsight, but Berger was voicing a commonly held view. The idea that modernity inexorably undermines religion was pretty much taken for granted by sociologists of the day.

Looking back from the vantage of the early 21st century, Berger’s theory clearly missed the mark. While religion in Europe and Japan continues to slide out of public consciousness, in the USA it has bounced back with renewed vigour. In Russia, where religion was once almost extirpated, the churches are once again booming. And in many Middle Eastern countries, the secular regimes of the mid-20th century are increasingly giving way to governments with an Islamist flavour. By the late 1990s, Berger himself had recanted. “It wasn’t a crazy theory,” he wrote, “but I think it’s basically wrong.”

Many sociologists agreed, and leading the charge was Rodney Stark. In the late 1990s, he wrote a devastating critique in which he declared so-called “modernisation theory” well and truly dead. He acknowledged that the European churches were in decline, but argued this was because they were state-owned monopolies. But if modernisation doesn’t explain the collapse of religion in Europe, what does? Like any monopoly, they had no incentive to attract customers. Stark’s big idea was to apply concepts based on free-market economics to the sociology of religion. This, he said, explained why the USA, with its rigorous separation of church and state, its multitudinous sects and denominations, had never undergone the secularisation seen in the UK. The fervent competition between churches meant that there was something for everyone within the religious fold.

Riding on Stark’s coat-tails have come a number of other pundits who assure us that not only is religion here to stay, an inevitable part of human nature, but it is actually set to bloom as the ties between church and state are gradually cut. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, journalists who have spent some time globetrotting to investigate what they think is a global religious resurgence, assured New Humanist last year that religion not only does not conflict with modernity, but is actually a partner to it!

But hold on a minute. While simple modernisation theory clearly has its problems, many sociologists (especially those in Europe) aren’t that enamoured of the free-market theory either. Steve Bruce, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, has effectively skewered a simplistic free-market notion of religion with a series of damning statistics. The problem is that, while it seems to work well when comparing different regions in the USA, it doesn’t work so well outside it. For example, one key prediction of free-market theory is that the more religious options (sects, denominations, and faiths) there are in an area, the more religious people will be. But in Europe, the opposite happens. The more diversity you have, the fewer religious people there are.

Clearly, new ideas are needed to explain why there is more religion in some parts of the world than in others. In 2004, Pippa Norris, at Harvard University, and Ronald Ingelhart, at the University of Michigan, stepped into that breach with a subtle twist on modernisation theory. They argued that the major reason why people turned to religion was fear. Fear of death, naturally, but also fear of sickness, of losing a loved one, or even of losing a job. There was a link between modernisation and religious decline, they declared, but it wasn’t new ideas and new social structures that caused it. Rather, the increased personal security provided by stable, well-governed, wealthy countries meant that people had no need to turn to God for reassurance. In the non-religious nations of Europe and Japan, it was not that so much that they no longer believed in God. It was more that they simply no longer cared.

Their theory coincided with a renewed interest among psychologists in the causes of religion. A new field, the “cognitive science of religion”, has brought together a broad group of scientists in an attempt to identify the psychological, neural, and even evolutionary roots of religious belief. There have already been some remarkable discoveries. For example, it turns out that although irrational beliefs are part of human nature, whether or not people succumb to them depends on how threatened they feel. If you remind people of death, then they react by rejecting other cultures and clinging to their own conservative beliefs. If you make people feel lonely, then they start thinking that household gadgets have got personalities. And if you threaten their sense of control, then they start seeing things that aren’t there.

In a series of clever studies, Aaron Kay of the University of Waterloo in Ontario has shown how this directly acts to buttress religious convictions. For example, he found that when you make people imagine themselves to be in a situation over which they have no control, it actually makes them more likely to say that the universe operates according to a plan. It seems that people have a comfort zone when it comes to control – take them outside that zone and they respond by grasping on to the belief that God has everything in hand. If people are anxious, then appeals to rationality will all too likely fall on deaf ears.

It all sounds very plausible, but does it really explain why the USA is more religious than other countries? How do these theories (modernisation, religious regulation and personal insecurity) stack up against each other when tested in the real world?

Graph showing relationship between income inequality and frequency of prayerMy own research published last year in the Journal of Religion and Society, suggests that that they all really do matter. I looked at how often people pray in different countries around the world. Now, this isn’t a measure of “religion” in the broadest sense. Some people call themselves “religious” but rarely or never pray – perhaps because they believe in a distant, impersonal God that isn’t about to take much notice of prayers, or perhaps because their life is going OK and so they don’t feel the need to call on God for help. I found that those countries that had higher infant mortality, homicide rates and levels of corruption, had lower life expectancy, had more AIDS and more abortion all tended to have a population that turned to prayer more often. The other interesting finding is that all these factors also went hand in hand with higher income inequality. In other words, income inequality acts like a kind of barometer of societal health.

By comparing income inequality with other national factors that are supposed to affect how religious people are, you can get a feel for which is more important. It turns out that countries that are wealthy, highly urbanised and religiously diverse are indeed less religious – which suggests that “modernisation theory” is right. But I also found that in countries where the government gets involved in religion, the people are less religious. The effect is smaller, but still important.

And it also turns out that Norris and Ingelhart were probably right: income inequality also seems to play a major role (almost as important as modernisation itself). Together, these three theories can explain most of the differences in religious intensity between countries. What’s more, it’s not just prayer that can be explained by income inequality. According to very recent research by Frank van Tubergen at the University of Utrecht, the same three factors (modernisation, government regulation and income inequality) can also explain a large part of why church attendance is higher in some countries rather than others.

It has to be admitted that what has been shown here is correlation, not causation. We can be confident that countries with high inequality are more religious, but we can’t rule out the possibility that religion is the cause, not the consequence, of inequality. Kenneth Scheve, at Yale University, has shown that religious people are less likely to support social welfare. Since state welfare spending is the most important leveller of incomes, this helps explain why more religious countries have more inequality. And remember those studies by Aaron Kay I described earlier? Well, he’s also shown that faith in God and faith in the government are in balance. The more you erode people’s confidence in the government, the stronger their religious beliefs become. What may well happen is a kind of vicious circle, in which religious countries cut back on welfare spending, which leads to higher inequality and so even more religion.

We’re still a long way away from a universal theory to explain why some parts of the world are more religious than others. But the research linking societal stress and income inequality to high levels of religion at least helps to explain some conundrums that have perplexed sociologists. Why is the USA so religious, despite being the epitome of modernity? Well, largely because of the higher levels of stress faced by its citizens, compared with the relatively worry-free lives led by people living in the bosom of the European welfare state. It also helps to explain the blossoming of religion in Russia and other parts of the old Soviet bloc, which occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in living standards and the crumbling of the old certainties provided by the monolithic communist state.

There is a lesson in all this for humanists, too. If we want a world free from superstition and irrationality, we need to recognise that persuasion and direct logical argument can only take humanity part of the way along that road. We also need to recognise that deeper emotions chain people to religion, which is such a potent source of security and reassurance in the face of a potentially unpredictable and threatening world. Whether or not it survives will be determined by the type of society we choose to build.