It’s over, the atheists won

Robin Hanson thinks religion is here to stay. Why?:

Systems often get locked into standards. For example, computer systems get locked into programming language and operating system standards. When people notice that existing standards have unsatisfactory features, they often try to create and promote alternate standards. Such attempts usually fail, however, due to the large costs of coordinating to switch to new standards, including the loss of complementary investments into old standards. In order to induce a switch, expected gains from a new better standard have be large enough to compensate for switching costs, and users need to coordinate their actions in order to switch.

And religion is a standard we’ve been locked into, one we won’t be able to switch from for a very long time:

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

This analysis strikes me as incredibly out-of-touch with what’s going on in America right now. Importantly, Robin is a middle-aged academic, so it’s easy to imagine this is just a matter of “a few intellectuals” engaging in “status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.” But my experience is that, at least among the younger generation, there’s no shortage of non-academics who identify as atheist, agnostic, or generically non-religious.

The statistics bear this out. A recent Pew survey found that, “young adults [in the US] ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%).” Even worse news for U.S. Christianity is the Barna study that found, “91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers say present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’” Given increasingly tolerant attitudes towards gays in the US, that’s an epic PR disaster for Christianity.

Back to Robin’s analysis: “switching costs” isn’t a bad way to understand (part of) why religion persists. If your entire life revolves around Evangelicalism, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Hasidic Judaism, what have you, becoming an atheist will be a painful experience for you. It could mean reorganizing your entire life, or living with a secret.

Thing is, if none of your friends or family members are especially religious (even if some of them believe in God), becoming an atheist will be no big deal. In fact, I’d guess that becoming an atheist in the modern US is mostly easier than coming out as gay. And just as people from conservative areas do often come out as gay, people embedded in conservative religious communities do sometimes become atheists, in spite of the costs.

This isn’t an original prediction, but I expect that in 50 years, the US religious landscape will look a lot like Europe and Australia do now. This is not to say we’ll see the end of weird, quasi-religious beliefs–Europe and Australia have their share of pseudoscience. But I expect to live to see traditional religion all but die out in the United States.

Leave a comment


  1. I don’t quite know what Hanson being ‘middle-aged’ has to do with it, but being the son of a Baptist preacher might. As the middle-aged son of a London bus driver, I am quite sure that the religious landscape is changing. I don’t expect religion to go away in my lifetime, but I would take an even-money bet that the Catholic Church will collapse to, say, a tenth of its current size over that time. And others will follow.

  2. Being fifty-four, I recall when I was younger and religion seemed like it had much less influence than it does today. When Pat Robertson campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1988, few took him seriously. Today his rhetoric seems like standard fare.

  3. In western Georgia over the past 15 years or so, it seems to me that people are becoming more religious. Some small country churches have transformed into mega churches, and Christian schools are popping up in rural areas like weeds. At my workplace people are much more vocal about their religious beliefs than they were 20 years ago. Based on my experiences, I would think religion will be here for a very long time.

  4. People always seem to talk about these shifts anecdotally, it’s refreshing to see some polling data used. I’m not sure Hanson’s age has as much to do with it, though.

  5. Okay, I need to clarify the “middle aged” comment.

    This wasn’t meant as a dis on people Robin’s age.

    It’s just that the big shifts in attitudes seem to be in people of the younger generation, and if you don’t primarily socialize with people of the younger generation, you aren’t likely to be fully in touch with that.

    Not saying 50 year olds can’t be great in spite of that one small blindspot…

  6. Chris,

    I didn’t take it is as a dis. It is a legitimate question of the context in which events are viewed.

    The shift in attitudes that you observe among young people today may indeed be qualitatively different than the one’s I observed thirty years ago. I doubt that I could make an objective assessment because I don’t have access to the same data.

    All I can say is that the shifts that I observed then didn’t lead to the results I would have expected now.

  7. If you lived in my neck of the woods, you might very well see Robin’s point. I can’t imagine religion dying out in this little North Texas town for a thousand years. Of course, the town itself probably won’t make it another fifty.

  8. Hanson’s CS metaphor sucks. It turns out, it’s very difficult to “legislate” a bad standard out of existence. When a standards body calls in all the Top Experts, has them write a Perfect Standard, and hand it down from on high as The Answer, it get’s laughed out of the industry. (See: The 7 layer network stack.)

    Evolutionary forces, though, kill old bad standards reliably. And the empirical approach- standardizing on techniques that have already been shown to work- continually brings us great new standards that make computers better and programmers’s lives 100x easier.

    Actually, nevermind. It’s a great analogy. It just doesn’t go where its author thought it was going to…

  9. *Blink* Though this approach still hasn’t brought us an in-browser spellchecker that will catch sleep-deprivation-induced Greengrocers’ Apostrophes.

  10. I think one can already argue that Christianity no longer controls a strong majority! Indeed, the kind of people that pass off as christians now adays are pathetic. Many of them support gay marriage, abortions, pre-marital sex, etc. They aren’t even aware of what they are supposed to believe!

  11. I live in a Northern State. Many people might claim they are Christian but it is very secular around here and you can go weeks without hearing the words God or Jesus. I would say my anecdotal observation is that Michigan has become much less religious over the past two decades and that a good indicator is that no one seems to care one way or the other about my gay friends. They seem to face far less homophobia than they did even ten years ago.