The March issue of The Atlantic has a powerful article by Alan Wolfe (director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College) about the impact of religion:
Every new outburst of religious passion, while producing ecstasy and revelation for some, has disrupted established loyalties, fueled intolerance, and led to violence between the chosen and the damned.
There’s a little bit of the Doomsday scenario that Sam Harris wrote about in The End of Faith:
A common worry is that intense competition for souls could produce another era in which religious conflict leads to religious war—only this time with nuclear weapons. If we are really in for anything like the kind of zeal that accompanied earlier periods of religious expansion, we might as well say goodbye to the Enlightenment and its principles of tolerance.
But there are some upsides:
First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces… The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.
The most interesting part of the article may be the following graphic, which shows the relationship between a country’s gross domestic product (in effect, how rich it is) and its religiosity (click for larger image):
The graph is courtesy of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. And as Wolfe points out:
The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.
The United States seems to stand outside the rest of the bunch — an outlier if ever there was one. We are “the only country in the world, apart from Kuwait, that is both wealthy and religious,” Wolfe writes.
He explains away this uniqueness, though:
… one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Some signs indicate that the Christian right may be losing steam, or at least moderating, as a political force. 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.
He closes with this (and let’s hope that he’s right):
Moreover, the future may come sooner than we think. We have seen how rapidly religion has spread in the past, claiming adherents from competing faiths before the competition knew what hit them. Both secularism and secularly inspired ways of being religious are spreading just as rapidly—maybe even more so. Historians may one day look back on the next few decades, not as yet another era when religious conflicts enveloped countries and blew apart established societies, but as the era when secularization took over the world.
You may now resume staring at that incredible graphic.