Tom Rees On Why Loss Of Faith Might Be A Two Generational Process

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study this February revealed that less than one fifth of all American adults under 30 report regular church attendance.   But they still also overwhelmingly claim belief in God.  Tom Rees thinks that despite their beliefs, their abandonment of the pews may indicate that a multi-generational secularization process is underway.

Acts that increase the credibility of an individual’s beliefs rejoice in the label “credibility enhancing displays” (CREDs for short) and, though the idea sounds superficially similar to costly signaling, it differs in one crucial way: there’s nothing in it for me if I persuade you to believe me. As a result, there’s no incentive for me to cheat. The only reason for me to do these things is if I genuinely believe that they will benefit me in some way. If you’re smart, you’ll pick up on this and start to believe the same things.

Joe Heinrich, an anthropologist at the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia who has studied the CRED phenomenon, thinks that it can explain why seemingly useless ideas can take hold. Using a model of how ideas are transmitted, he found that a belief that carries no tangible benefit but only a cost can out-compete a cost-free belief so long as the cost is linked to a CRED. Heinrich’s theory gives a radical perspective on why the pope and other religious self-harmers do what they do. It’s because they have each been infected by a particularly virulent meme—one that subverts the way we learn from others and uses it to self-propagate ruthlessly, despite the damage to its host.

CREDs aren’t just relevant to extreme varieties of religious belief. We also use CREDs to decide whether to adopt more conventional doctrines, and this has important implications for the future of religion. Take Sweden, one of the most godless nations on Earth. Recent work by Jonathan Lanman, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, has described Sweden’s path to secularization as a two-stage process. Improved living standards and social security in the postwar period combined to reduce the importance of church-going in the lives of Swedes. Members of this generation retained their religious beliefs but simply found they had better things to on a Sunday morning. They believed but did not belong.

Then came the problem of passing on their beliefs to their children. They told their children all about their god and how important their beliefs were to them. But something was missing. With no tangible evidence for the existence of God, each new generation looks to CREDs to see whether they should accept what they are being told, and church-going is a classic CRED. If I simply tell you that an invisible being exists who wants you to go to church, you might not take me too seriously. However, if you see me going to church regularly, you might be more receptive to the idea. Once most members of Sweden’s older generations abandoned church-going, their efforts to pass on their beliefs to the younger generation were fatally undermined.

Rees cautiously extrapolates that possibly Americans are undergoing a comparable loss of faith through stages, given young people’s disconnect from church life.

Tom Rees regularly blogs about scientific research germane to understanding religion at Epiphenom, the latest updates to which now automatically feed straight to the brand new Camels With Hammers blogroll on the right side of every page of the site.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Nathaniel

    Seems to make perfect sense to me. In my family, while I was growing up, we didn’t attend church services for years (like between my being six to about fifteen or sixteen). My father came from a very liberal and undefined religious background whereas my mother was Catholic. While my parents started attending church again when I was in high school it never really attracted me. Both my brother and I have, at this point in our lives (as 20 somethings) pretty much dismissed any religious and theist inclinations that might still be found in our parents.

    Interesting post, it would be fascinating to follow-up in another generation or two.

    • Daniel Fincke

      And you can be sure that Camels With Hammers will be here to follow up on this story in another generation or two!

      Seriously, that reminds me of the amazing Up Series (Seven Up / 7 Plus Seven / 21 Up / 28 Up / 35 Up / 42 Up / 49 Up) where documentarians selected an average group of students all in the same class, I think, and documented their views on life and their aspirations at the time and then came back to interview them again at 14, 21, 28, etc., each time putting out a new film. I only saw the last one but found it mesmerizing and I want to go back and start from the beginning and watch everyone progress. That kind of commitment to a project over decades is so thrilling and the result is a spectacular work of art. Similarly amazing are other longitudinal studies like the happiness one done on Harvard men over the course of decades.

      Anyway—thanks, Nathaniel for the write up for CamelsWithHammers on general lordisimo’s apocalypse, I really appreciate it and hope to see you around regularly from here on out!

  • Alex Fiorentini

    I agree with the general idea, this is almost exactly what happened to me. My grandmother was very religious, my dad not so much, and me not at all. Sure I went to church and sang the songs, but after the sermon, life went on as I would have expected if there was no god; there was no tangible connection to reality, so I stopped believing.

  • James Gray

    The most important CRED might be the unity of religion with science and philosophy, and that unity was almost destroyed 200 years ago. If becoming a scientist or philosopher has a good chance of leading to atheism, then that destroys the credability of the religion. Nietzsche’s observation that “God is dead” was pretty much that realization we he could predict that Christianity probably wouldn’t last forever.

  • James Gray

    I wanted to say “we could predict that Christianity probably wouldn’t last forever” based on the above. Of course, science and philosophy could become unified with religion again in the future. We don’t know what that religion would look like.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I took Rees’s sense of CRED to be the convincing sense that if someone is going to do this really complicated thing that has no rational justification—it offers no recognizable tangible benefits and yet they stick with it, I guess they REALLY believe it and it must REALLY be true and REALLY be important. I think it’s the pure psychological persuasiveness of somebody else’s being persuaded that he’s getting at. But I could be reading him wrong. It was also hard to cut the piece while leaving in a full enough sense of his arguments.