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Do People Get Less Religious When Societies Grow More Egalitarian?

When countries embrace progressive social policy, that tends to create a decline in religious belief. Why?

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It’s not so much that people believe the church will come through for them in a pinch. It’s that belief in God gives them a sense of control they lack in their real-world lives.

Given these patterns, it makes sense that Russia was, along with Israel, at the top of the list of countries that had the biggest surge in religiosity in the past 20 years. A large part of that, of course, is due to the end of communism and its bans on religion, allowing people to recommit to faith. But other formerly communist nations, like the Czech Repubic and Poland, didn’t see such a surge in believers. In fact, the Czech Republic saw a surge in atheism in the past decade.

Of course, the two countries couldn’t be more different for ordinary citizens post-communism. Russia has been a swirl of political and economic distress, making it a notoriously stressful place to live. Life expectancy in Russia hovers around 68 years, about 10 years short of the standard in more stable, prosperous Western nations. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, was praised by the U.N. for  its remarkably high human development index, which is a rough shorthand to measure the stability and standard of living for the average citizen of a country. Life expectancy there has reached 77 years, closing in on countries like Germany and France.

Atheists who aren’t content to simply not believe themselves, but who also want to increase the secularization of a society and the numbers of atheists, need to get behind a politically progressive agenda. Right now, the United States is seeing an explosion in income inequality, high unemployment, and ever more serious cuts to the social safety net. The inevitable result of this is more stress, and more feelings of loss of control among ordinary Americans. If they aren’t going to find safety and security in the real world, they’re going to turn their hopes to a supernatural one.

Religion’s grip on power is tightly entwined with the economic misfortunes of the people. If we want to build a more secular society, the first step is building a more equitable one.

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