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The Cultural Spiral of Disbelief

Updated on May 30, 2016

Study after study has shown that the religious ‘nones’ are growing. Some religions are growing and some are shrinking as people move from one to another, but the number of people dropping religion entirely is growing steadily and is expected to grow even more. According to a 2012 article in the Huffington Post, based on current growth, atheism could be the dominant ‘religion’ by 2038. This change isn’t being led by those that don’t know better. This change is being led by highly educated, highly developed countries with access to the best that the world has to offer. So why are cultures around the world becoming less and less religious? There are a lot of reasons for this. Here I’ll talk about a few of the cultural reasons that people are leaving religion.

Culture as a whole.

Culture in general is our shared lives. It includes our beliefs, our values, our behaviors and all those little things we take for granted that make our homes and neighbors comfortable to us. We pass these ideas down to our children by being a living example for them. Even though different fads come and go that do affect our beliefs, values and actions, culture is about what stays with us. The traditions and beliefs that we pass down. For those in the United States this includes things as serious as a belief in democracy and freedom of speech to more light hearted things like summer vacation and dropping the ball on New Year ’s Eve.

We pass culture to the next generation.

All of these things are passed on to our children by example. We do them, so our children do them. This may be in a religious context like going to church on Easter or more secular by joining family and friends for a Memorial Day barbeque. Sometimes we even force these concepts on our children. For example, we punish them for lying or stealing. We show them that that isn’t appropriate in our culture. Either way, we pass these traditions down to our children. When they grow up they follow those same traditions.

How societies change.

Culture isn’t static though. Even many of the things we think of as traditional are fairly recent. For example, what we see as the modern traditional wedding didn’t really develop until about the end of World War II. Even though we don’t always recognize it, culture changes constantly. You don’t even have to be 50 years old to have been alive when interracial marriage was legalized in 1967. However, today it’s a non-issue for most of society. We know we live in a different world today than our parents did, but what about the important things? What about the things we see as the most important parts of our culture? What about the unchanging attributes, beliefs, morals and sacred traditions that have been passed down for hundreds if not thousands of years?

Those things do change. Some just change slower than others. To explain evolution to kids Richard Dawkins uses a thought experiment in his book The Magic of Reality. In that thought experiment he says that if you look at your family tree and take a picture of everyone from you back hundreds of millions of years to the first single cell organism you won’t be able to identify the first human. He goes on to say that is because every child is the same species as their parents. Evolution is a slow progression from one state to another through little changes at each step. Culture works the same way. Kids may grow up and celebrate the same things that their parents celebrated. They will have many of the same values. They will also have many of the same beliefs. But the kids will be slightly different.

Why it’s changing.

Things start to change because each generation not only interacts with their parents and a small community, but in today’s world people interact with cultures from all over the world. In a tight community culture is easily maintained. You see the same few people every day and follow the traditions that that group of people have developed and recognize as important. Without outside influence there is little need or desire to change. But that’s not today. As soon as I post this article it will be available all across the world. Any English speaker will be able to read it. While I don’t expect it to drastically change the course of anyone’s life it may add some new information to help them see the world a little differently. It may be a new stroke in their painting of life.

This change in culture leads to change, and sometimes abandonment of religious belief. But how does a culture get changed so that religion gets dropped? There are many subtle ways that culture is influenced and changed. Some of those changes can lead to less religiosity and some to more. In general though for society the changes we are seeing today will lead to a less religious world. Here are five was that culture is changing that is causing people to leave religion: change in cultural pressures and priorities, exposure to other ideas and religions, lack of formal training in one’s own cultural, increase in education and the fact that science is providing solutions to problems that used to be solved with religion.

Change in Cultural Pressures

In many ways this is a catch all for why things change. Children never see the world exactly like their parents. This is because they don’t have the same experiences as their parents. Sometimes it’s simply a matter having experience at all. Teenagers place much more emphasis on fitting in than adults do. At that age peer pressure can cause us to do things we know we shouldn’t since we want to fit in or “be cool.” As children reach adulthood the pressures change from fitting in to other things like making money or having a family. Ignoring the role of biology, some of these are picked up because our own needs change, some are picked up because we are exposed to other people’s ideas that we like.

Just like the peer pressure that kids receive in school adults are still pressured to be a certain way by those around them. In our modern society the people around us change constantly. Several hundred years ago communities remained more stable. Since we are seeing people change, ideas change and the pressures change. As people change or come into contact with people that are different they influence others. Both by example and by force. This leads into the next point.

Exposure to Other Ideas

With the invention of the printing press the printed word began to be spread quickly over a large area. Ideas from one part of the world made their way to other parts. People learned new ideas from around the world. As they learned they incorporated these new ideas into their own lives. Today, with the internet, not only can the ideas be transmitted they can be transmitted instantly. It seems that any little question can be quickly answered by a quick search on the internet. Even if you aren’t looking for new ideas they come to you in the form of news feeds and suggested articles. More exposure means more ideas and the opportunity to find more things that you like to incorporate into your own life. This leads to changes in your life and the life you pass down to your children and those around you.

It’s not only the ability to access vast information. People have a stronger desire to access this information. It has become common for graduating high school students to leave home to go to college in another city, another state, even another country. This desire to explore new cultures predisposes people to accepting and incorporating new ideas into their own. Exposure to new ideas leads people to finding some they like as well as finding alternatives to aspects of their own culture that they don’t like. In modern society this is commonly called growing as a person. This type of change is accepted freeing people to express new ideas after they learn them and pass them on to others. Even when they contradict existing norms.

Lack of Formal Training

Culture is not something that people typically think of as a subject to teach. Most people don’t think of it. It’s more of an unconscious, unchanging aspect of their lives and where they live. Since it’s automatic, in many cases they don’t even recognize the important aspects of their culture until something challenges it. Because of this some aspects of culture may not be passed on to the next generation. At least not how people feel they should be passed on. So even when the next generation picks up a tradition they may do it differently. Over the generations this can change significantly. And when priorities change traditions can disappear or change drastically in a short period of time.

There is some training. In school kids take history courses. These are seen mainly as a list of past events to the kids, though. Most religious organizations have classes in their doctrine. Many times these classes are less influential to kids who develop their view of the world based on what they see in their day to day lives. Kids don’t learn as much from a lecture as from experience and imitating the adults around them. So they may not fully internalize parts of their history and culture if they don’t see the people around them living those lessons.

Increase in Education

This is related to the previous idea of exposure to other ideas. Increasing education leads to changes in culture in three very big ways when it comes to religion. The first is that when you study your own cultural history many traditions begin to look strange. For example, if you’re a Christian you know that Christianity comes from Judaism. But have you ever asked what the Jewish people were before Judaism? Or who was Yahweh before he was the god of the Jews? These questions actually have answers. Finding the answers to these types of questions, or even just the source of some of the traditions can undermine the perceived divinity of the tradition.

The increase in education also gives people more exposure to the histories of other cultures. This includes the historical interaction of the cultures. Better understanding competing views can help breakdown fanaticism. This can lead to a weaker hold on past tradition since people can see the parallels between cultures as well as see the value in the ideas even though they are different. Understanding the history of each culture can highlight a person’s own biases. This can weaken the grip that a person holds on those beliefs since other arguments can gain validity.

Simply learning more about the world gives people a better understanding of natural laws. A better understanding of the natural world removes some of the mystery and supernatural aspects of religious traditions. For example, eclipses have been understood since about 2500 BCE, but not understood fully. They were still seen as omens. Sometimes as bad omens sometimes as good omens depending on the culture. Different cultures such as the Chinese in 2100 BCE and the Babylonians in 1375 BCE had methods to predict eclipses so that they could prepare for the trouble they brought. However, the systems weren’t perfect and when an eclipse occurred that wasn’t predicted or a predicted eclipse didn’t occur it could mean the death of the astronomers. Now we know that eclipses are simply shadows and have no real bearing on things like the health of the emperor. As science explains away these mysteries we don’t need religion to explain them.

Secular Solutions

The other result of science explaining away a mystery is that science sometimes creates great tools to make things even better. For example, in Mesoamerica, between about 7000-1500 BCE, agriculture was starting to be developed. Local shamans performed rituals to the gods in order to help bring rain and improve crop yield. We know today that those rituals had nothing to do with crop production. They’ve stopped and been replaced with irrigation and other modern agricultural techniques.

This kind of thing happens because science watched what happened and developed models that later became the water cycle. Scientists also studied the plants to better understand what helps them grow and what stops them from growing. This knowledge has been put to use to improve our lives and make them easier and more productive. As science does provide these solutions the old solutions of a shaman’s ritual become less important. Eventually those things disappear.

One of the driving forces of religion is protection from the unknown and the unknowable. As science finds solutions to these problems people feel safer. This feeling of safety is correlated with less faith in religion. When people feel safer they have less of a need to seek out religion. This is seen not only with physical inventions and education opening doors, it’s also seen in other areas. Religious beliefs are stronger in people that feel less safe in general. Countries with high religious belief also have some of the highest rates of violence. There are also higher rates of religiosity among the poor and the less educated. People with less stability in employment and income. Highly educated rich people in safe countries don’t turn to religion for answers and protection since they have the security they need.

So what about the spiral towards atheism?

All of these factors work together. Even though parents teach their children their traditions and values, both by example and by instruction, children are also receiving input from many other sources. Thanks to things like the internet and increased college education people are being exposed to more ideas from other cultures. Children learn religious beliefs and traditions from their parents. When they are older they meet people from other religions. This leads to being exposed to more and more religious ideas. This confuses the concept of the one true faith. Especially when good people meet other good people who have very different religious beliefs. This reduces the appearance that a person has to be from a particular faith to be a good person.

After that, science has found answers to questions. The answers are passed on in school and through self-education. One of the strengths of religion was to explain the unexplainable. As society has learned to find natural, repeatable, and controllable solutions to some of the questions in the universe the relevance of unchanging religious belief has waned. In his book Why Won’t They Listen, Ken Ham illustrates this with a story about his early days as a teacher. In the story he says that evolution is being taught in classes as science. Many times the scientific answers contradict with a literal interpretation of the bible. Students see science producing great new inventions, so they assume that evolution must be true, too. This undermines the supposed truth of the bible leading people to question other parts of religion. Finally, as people question their own religious upbringing more they put less emphasis on the religion and its teachings. This means that they don’t set a strong religious example for their children.

This leads us back to the beginning. Since parents put less emphasis on religious belief children don’t see it as important so other ideas take over. This is even further undermined when science comes up with new solutions that either contradicts a religious text or gives humans power over something original seen as divine. An example of the later is when the birth control pill hit mainstream. The churches, like the Catholic Church, that fought against it lost followers. Society changed.

Since the spread of information, education, and acceptance of other cultures are all very strong in the industrialized nations like the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands these countries have seen the greatest rise in the percentage of ‘nones’. Since industrialized, economically strong countries also push for more advancements and learning they help feed this spiral of disbelief.

Will atheism displace religion entirely? Probably not. Scientific knowledge isn’t the only reason people believe. But it will continue to be a growing force in society.

Selected References

Dawkins, R. 2011. The Magic of Reality. London: Random House.

Ham, K. 2007. Why Won’t They Listen? Green Forest: Master Books.


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    • profile image

      Wild Bill 

      2 years ago

      I think the growing number of 'nones' is attributed to our society focusing more on instant gratification than with our overall well-being. With the advent of technology, our attention spans are getting shorter and we focus less on the future and the past and more on what the screen in front of us is showing. Studies have shown that social media is creating less empathetic people. I also think it is creating less spiritual people, too.


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