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.