Can secular societies sustain themselves?

Complex churchIs religion headed for extinction? Some social scientists claim that “Big God” religions – that is, religions with punitive, morally concerned deities – were necessary for initially stabilizing complex societies, but nowadays we have secular institutions that might make religion obsolete. We now enjoy stable governance, judicial systems, police, and strong educational systems, which enforce large-scale cooperation without any meddling gods or spirits, enabling modern countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands to prove that societies don’t need God to survive. But many researchers – including some of my own colleagues – caution that this only holds true if social, economic, and political conditions remain favorable. In order for secularization to continue, complex Western societies need to stay complex – centralized, wealthy, and technologically sophisticated. But keeping up that level of sophistication is a lot more expensive than people realize.

It requires an immense amount of energy to keep modern civilization running, energy we currently get mostly from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Internal combustion engines transport our bodies, food, and consumer goods far more cheaply and quickly than any horse could. Oil and gas furnaces heat our homes. And fossil fuels power the machines that build roads, construct buildings, and harvest crops at speeds much greater than what human labor could accomplish. By some estimates, every resident of the developed world has the equivalent of hundreds of slaves working all day, every day, for her or his comfort.

This immense bonanza of easy fossil-fuel wealth also powers the large-scale governments, secular institutions, and social programs that have ostensibly taken the place of religion in some Western nations. A country like Sweden can only afford to provide healthcare for all of its citizens, maintain a large and complex bureaucratic government, and run sophisticated rail networks because it has access to lots of relatively inexpensive energy.

Religion and Social Complexity

What does all this have to do with religion? Well, the “Big Gods” argument, as articulated by psychologist Ara Norenzayan, states that societies initially need religion to stabilize wide-scale social cooperation, but that secular social institutions might (or can) eventually replace religion – or at least render it merely a curious pastime for a few odd people. This argument parallels a famous claim, made by political scientists Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart, that “existential security” and religiosity are inversely correlated. In their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Norris and Inglehart marshaled evidence showing that, while most of the world remained religious, the wealthy residents of industrialized nations were becoming more and more secular. Put simply, Norris and Inglehart saw religion as the province of people whose lives are precarious – threatened by war, disaster, disease, and poverty. When material conditions improve, people drop away from religious faith.

The existential security hypothesis is based on deprivation theory, which posits that religion compensates for material and social hardships. By contrast, the Big Gods hypothesis makes the functionalist claim that religions encourage and enforce social cooperation – until they get replaced by stable secular institutions. These two hypotheses are compatible, at least in theory, but in any case they both make the same prediction: you need lots of social complexity to make secularization happen.

Wealthy societies have lots of specialized institutions and government agencies that take care of things like disease control and infrastructure maintenance and sewage disposal. Without all these functions, life in places like Sweden or Canada wouldn’t be so pleasant and secure. Unable to depend on large governments and corporations to meet their needs, people would have to figure out other ways to organize society and support themselves. To secure aid and mutual support, they’d have to fall back on more local, in-person communities, such as neighborhoods or friendship networks.

Also churches. Or temples. Or mosques.

That is, in a scenario where central, large-scale social institutions started to become unreliable, people would need a lot of help from others. Most of us don’t know how to fix our own plumbing or change the timing belt in our car, much less grow food or treat a broken bone. But in a smallish group of, say, 100-150 friends and neighbors,* it’s pretty likely that a few people will know how to do each of these things. Those people would be able to exchange their know-how for others’ help in different domains. So in-person social groups would become more important for sharing skills, information, and material aid.

Here’s where religion would come back in. Religious groups have always been important sources of mutual aid and support, from sharing food during an illness to passing along tips about jobs. In many ways, secularization in Western societies has resulted from large-scale social institutions, especially governments and corporations, taking over religious groups’ previous functions. In Sweden, you just don’t need a strong social network, because the social safety net is there to take care of you.

But if something happened to that net, you’d have to start looking around for alternative sources of help and support. Religious communities would be the most natural fallback. They’d have an advantage over other types of small support groups, because their rituals and unprovable beliefs encourage in-group cooperation. And as the Big Gods hypothesis suggests, his cooperation can scale up to include multiple co-religionist communities.

Another theory, costly signaling theory, predicts that religious groups would also be better at protecting against hangers-on than other types of small organizations. Any community that freely offered its resources to anyone who asked for them would disintegrate in about ten days. So communities would need to restrict most of their aid to committed members.** Strict religious groups, with their regular services, prayer groups, and empirically unverifiable beliefs, are pretty good at keeping out free riders – if you don’t believe the dogmas and don’t show up for services, you’re an outsider.

Complex Societies and Marginal Returns

How likely is this scenario? The social theorist Joseph Tainter, in his excellent and chilling book The Collapse of Complex Societies, described collapse as the normal outcome for civilizations like ours. In Tainter’s telling, as civilizations become larger and more energy-intensive, they encounter new problems, which they solve by devoting more energy to institutions and technology. Great, right? Except there’s a catch: each new problem-solving institution generates its own new problems.

For example, in Europe, a major problem used to be the constant wars between ethnically distinct but very geographically close societies. For hundreds of years, somebody would invade, say, Belgium practically every other week. Before you knew it, millions of soldiers would be mobilized and entire countries would be savagely trying to obliterate each other for reasons that often remain, even after intensive scrutiny by legions of historians, obscure. After World War II, which was not a lot of fun, the nations of Europe decided they need to solve this problem once and for all. So they developed a new institution: the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually became the European Union. With most of the entire continent now united under shared governance, nobody was able to invade Belgium on a semi-annual basis anymore, and so things quieted down in Europe enough to allow everyone to quietly develop national health care systems.

But it quickly became apparent that the European Union was, itself, a veritable spurting geyser of brand-new problems. The new bureaucracy needed to be staffed and funded. Shared defense strategies needed to be organized. Armies of expert interpreters were necessary to ensure that meetings of the European Parliament, where dozens of languages were spoken (often simultaneously), did not accidentally launch World War III because somebody flubbed a key noun gender in German. Each of these new problems required loads of additional innovations and institutional fixes, which in turn required yet more energy and time input.

The world witnessed one especially poignant example of these new problems after the 2008 financial crisis, when low-income member countries found themselves in need of large bailouts by higher-income member countries, by which I mean Germany. These bailouts put the smaller countries in Europe heavily in debt. This wouldn’t normally be a huge problem in itself, since  sovereign nations can always manage their debt by revaluing their currency. However, with the Euro as the single common currency for the entire Union, national banks no longer controlled their own monetary policy. As a result, countries such as Greece were rocked by serious financial and social crises as their populations revolted against draconian budget constrictions imposed by central lenders.

Thus, in solving some very crucial problems, the European Union simultaneously generated a whole set of new problems. At the same time, it diverted an increasing share of European domestic product to its own operations. Tainter could have been writing about the European Union when he wrote (in the 1980s) that

as a society evolves toward greater complexity, the support costs…will also rise, so that the population as a whole must allocate increasing portions of its energy budget to maintaining organizational institutions. This is an immutable fact of social evolution, and not mitigated by type of energy source.

Tainter is talking about marginal returns, or the return on each unit of increased investment in a system. You expend x amount of energy to develop a new problem-solving institution, and your society recoups y amount of benefits in return. At first, as x increases, y also goes up. But as your society gets more and more complex, that number y eventually starts to get smaller, until each new investment in a higher level of complexity is doing nothing but maintaining the status quo. At this point, many people may decide that their complex society isn’t worth it anymore:

(D)eclining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy.…Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) becomes less attractive to certain components of a complex society.…Irrigations systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended.

Are We Headed this Way?

Tainter is saying that collapse happens when a complex society becomes too expensive – when the bulk of the society’s energy is chewed up just by maintaining its problem-solving institutions, rather than developing new solutions. Symptoms of this malaise include a falloff in the maintenance of basic infrastructure like bridges, and breakaway regions within larger polities.

You could argue that the developed Western world is already exhibiting some of these symptoms. Infrastructure is in a shameful state in the United States. In Europe, breakaway regions are a new norm, with the the United Kingdom seceding from the E.U., and Scotland and Catalonia holding referendums to secede from their parent nations. Anti-globalism and anti-E.U. rhetoric has accompanied the sudden rise in anti-elite populism across the developed world. These issues could be signs that social complexity in Western society is on its way to a correction.

On a more basic level, returns on investment for developing energy resources have long been on a downward trend. In the early 20th century, oil producers needed to spend about one barrels’ worth of crude oil to pump out 100 barrels. Today, they only get about 20 barrels from the same investment, and each barrel of oil invested in oil shale production only recovers about three (!) barrels. So, while we’re not going to physically run out of oil anytime soon, the oil that remains in the ground is increasingly cost-intensive to produce. Even if the concept of “Peak Oil” is controversial, this drop-off in the efficiency of energy production is a textbook example of diminishing marginal returns. We’re having to spend more and more energy just to get energy.

Moreover, structural issues in the global economy itself may be heralding a shift in how societies like the United States operate. The French writer Paul Arbair argues that

the underlying cause of the populist surge might in fact lie in the slow disappearance of economic growth at global level, and in particular in the West. Almost a decade after the onset of the global financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2007-2008, the world economy remains weak…[yet] continuous and significant growth has become embedded in the world’s established economic, political and social order, to the point that economic growth has become a key requirement for this order to keep functioning and to remain stable. A prolonged period of low growth would in fact undermine this order in several and mutually reinforcing ways.…generate rising social and political tensions, and increase the risk of political/geopolitical dislocation or fragmentation. To some extent, all of this is already happening.

I don’t want to be too doom-and-gloom. It’s never easy to predict the future. Heck, even figuring out the present has become remarkably difficult recently. But even if we get out of this current decade with economies and governments humming, we’ll face other crises before long. Our world economy – and financial systems – are in some ways predicated on the assumption that economic growth will continue nonstop. Eventually, this assumption will probably run into the non-negotiable limits of our finite planet. For example, even if we find new oil reserves, climate change will increase the operating costs of modern economies (and governments).

So the highly unique conditions that undergird the thriving secular societies of northwestern Europe might not last forever. Secularization theory has always assumed that industrial society will continue growing and improving, but that assumption denies several important laws of thermodynamics. Energy isn’t free. Entropy always beckons. The whole world can’t be like Sweden, because Sweden – like all other secular social democracies – uses a lot of resources to maintain its level of complexity.

Complex societies are expensive. Operating huge highway systems and government health agencies is expensive. Solving citizens’ problems is expensive. If people can’t get their problems solved by the large institutions of complex societies, they’ll probably rely on smaller-scale groups to get help from each other. One of the best ways to sustain smaller-scale groups is religion. At some point, possibly sometime last week, social complexity may turn into a losing proposition. If and when that happens, don’t expect secularization to continue. Big Gods won’t be far behind.


This post might sound grim, but while the problems we’re facing are indeed imposing, don’t forget that life on Earth has always been hard, and people have made it work and had fun anyway. And a decline to lower levels of social complexity, if it happened, wouldn’t have to be the nightmarish scenario that filmmakers present us with – in fact, in some ways it might even make life more meaningful, since we’d have to be more involved in helping each other out. Helping others is a primary source of meaning, after all.


* Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that the default size for a prototypical human social group is around 150 people (the so-called “Dunbar number), in part because cognitive limits make it difficult to maintain stable relationships across larger groups.

** This might sound heartless or exclusionary, but it’s actually based on the same principle as the careful (and necessary) restrictions that prevent people from donating blood more than six times per year. Groups that give away their resources to everyone who asks, regardless of group membership, can only do so for as long as those initial resources last, because they won’t be able to attract long-term members to replenish those resources. It would be like donating all your blood – by definition, it’s a one-time act.

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Can secular societies sustain themselves?

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