What Stops Religion?

Update: I’ve had some really thoughtful responses on my facebook page to the original version of this post. I already knew it wasn’t really right when I posted it, but it was so delayed I thought I’d just run with it. I’ve incorporated my thoughts on some of these, while I’ll try to get to others in a later past. Meanwhile I’ve been singing this a lot. I know it is not really about religion at all, but looking at the length of the article I am wondering if I have shifted from “I said too much” to “I haven’t said enough”.

As I indicated in this piece, there is plenty more in Professor Paul Frijters research than simply the discovery that atheists were just as easily enthralled by an invented God as formal believers.

At some point I’ll try to post on a number of what I consider to be less interesting aspects of this research – although on their own many would strike me as worth a write up. For now I’ll jump to what strikes me as the most important, although perhaps one of the more predictable aspects.

Frijters tried altering the game in a number of ways to see if these caused the players to reduce, or increase, their sacrifice. For example he found that giving Theoi a less human-sounding name caused a small reduction in contributions. Since there seems little chance religious leaders will rename Jesus or Allah as  417B the real world implications of this is small, although it is a little interesting on its own.

However, one thing did cause a pretty substantial reduction: squeezing the range over which crop values could vary.

Why is this important? Because it provides support for the idea that what really undermines religious devotion is the welfare state. For many reasons I don’t think this study settles the case on this question, but I think it makes the case a fair bit stronger, and points the way to further research which be quite decisive.

This research is well outside the fields I normally cover, so inevitably I’m not aware of most of what has gone before. However, Malinowski observed that magical practices increased in the face of danger. Since that was almost a century ago there’s obviously been plenty of work done on the issue since, although I don’t know whether any of it has used the sort of experimental set up Frijters applied (hat tip Konrad).

If such a hypothesis could be proved it would have huge political implications, which I will go into later. The idea that the welfare state is crucial to the decline of religious belief is hardly new. It’s commonly stated that adherence declines with wealth, but the United States where religion remains exceptionally strong, provides a strong counter-example. Plenty of people have argued about the reason for this particular form of American exceptionalism, and the welfare state theory is just one of many.

Arguably there is a circle (whether you consider it vicious or not depends on where you stand) on this. Americans are more religious and the most powerful religious groups there have opposed universal healthcare, better schooling etc, reducing their chances of being implemented. If the theory is right then the lack of security in people’s lives makes them seek solace in a divine being who, if they just pray hard enough/donate enough at Church/restrain their sexual urges enough will keep them from destitution.

Other wealthy countries, according to this view, got passed this. They implemented a welfare state which satisfied most people’s need for security to the extent that only a minority really adhere to an organised religion, whatever they may tick on the census.

I can’t find the article, but during Obama’s efforts to pass his Affordable Care Act one supporter noted the vociferous opposition from evangelical churches and attributed this to these cults preying (ha!) on people’s fears of personal crisis. Remove the possibility of someone finding themselves sick without health insurance and you’ll take out a huge proportion of the people in the pews, the article argued. The megachurches know this and are fighting the Act not just out of partisan opposition to Obama, but for their profits. I found this somewhat convincing at the time, but much more so now.

Important Caveats

Lest I sound too much like Christopher Hitchens let me note three points. Firstly, the struggle for a just and secure society has been utterly dependent on people of great faith. I don’t think this invalidates the theory at all, however, because overwhelmingly these were and are people who, however deep their own views are, were not particularly interested in recruiting others. One might argue that their tireless efforts are their own form of sacrifice to the divine, but in a choice between getting a sick person into hospital, or getting them into the church/mosque/synagogue the see numbers healed as what matters, not how many fill the pews. Consequently, even if their work reduces other’s need for religion they’re not overly bothered. Arguably, these people are the true followers of their religion’s founders, and my respect for them is intense. However, they are clearly a minority, in power if not in absolute numbers amongst those who profess religion in our society.

Secondly, it is true that even those religious organisations that are primarily motivated by recruitment usually have welfare arms, and often these have been exceptionally important in keeping people’s heads above water. The existence of such programs provides more of a challenge to the idea religions are aware of the relationship between insecurity and belief. However, I’m not sure it is fatal. One of the differences one often sees between the aid provided by religions focussed on recruitment and those that are not is that the former prefer to provide assistance that does not address long term insecurity. Sure they will help save people from starvation that day, week or month, but the support is usually in a form that can be withdrawn and leave the recipient stranded. On the other hand, when you see programs that provide education or infrastructure that will last independently of the donor they are usually run either by secular organisations, or ones that are religious but not strongly proselytising. As an example, in recent years World Vision Australia has shifted from providing temporary band aids to attempting to address the root causes of poverty. Simultaneously I’ve stopped hearing the stories about aggressive attempts to recruit workers there to prayer meetings. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Thirdly, the notion that all religious devotion is driven purely by fear is far too simplistic. Most of the people of faith who run and donate to the charities described above are relatively materially comfortable. While disease and other tragedies can strike anyone, the “search for depth and meaning”, as one commentator put it, are at least as credible an explanation in these cases. Nevertheless, I don’t think this invalidates the idea that for  religion is a shield against insecurity for an awful lot of people, and these represent the ones that drop off as welfare nets are woven.


As noted Frijters research can hardly be considered proof of the welfare fights religion theory, but let us for a moment assume that it is correct. What are the implications?

Well fairly obviously those who oppose religion should support strong social security. There is a pretty strong low-tax libertarian element in the new atheist movement and these people should do some hard thinking about whether their desire to not have to contribute to others’ hospital bills outweighs their quest for freedom from church interference.

Of course the flip side is that those who are not only religious, but passionate about wanting to see numbers of believers grow should be trying to wind back the safety net. However, since by and large they are already doing that (at least in English speaking countries) things may not change all that much, except to the extent that motivations can be exposed.

However, the third conclusion I would draw is to look beyond our borders. The popularity of Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood is sometimes attributed to their filling in for the failings of their respective states. Where schools are inadequate zealots can establish their own, providing a chance to indoctrinate the youth. Similarly where there are no unemployment benefits, extremists can win credibility and followers by feeding the hungry. It is for exactly this reason that Australia sponsors schools in Indonesia, an arrangement Tony Abbott shamefully sought to cut.

But if Frijters is right, bolstering healthcare and disaster aid can reduce recruitment to the Talibans of the world even where these groups are failing to effectively fill the gaps. By assuring people that their future is less of a hostage to fate we would decrease the chance they would fall in behind a religion that might eventually ask of them a really, really big sacrifice.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to What Stops Religion?

  1. Pingback: More On Sacrifice | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  2. Pingback: April Still On Sale | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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