Recently, a video produced by Christians claimed that the future world would be Muslim. It hit 10 million hits in YouTube. The alarming demographics presented were proven mostly false and exaggerated both by BBC and Snopes. Yet, religion is such a powerful self-replicating memeplex that its competition against atheism deserves some analysis.
Leaving apart the aesthetic nicety of some religious rituals — which I respect —, it would be preferable to see a world with predominance of rationality instead of faith, brights instead of supers. Not just because I whimsically wish so, but because reason ensues atheism. Rationality is the primer here. With more rational agents, the more rationality propagates, and people’s maps will be more accurate. And that’s better for us, human beings*.
(* This sentence is a bit of a strong claim, especially because I am not defining exactly what I mean by ‘better’, and some existential pain might be expected as a consequence of being unaided by the crutches of faith and of being deprived of their cultural antibodies. Also, if happiness happens to be an important attribute of ‘better’, I am not sure to what extent being rational will make people happier. Some people are very ok choosing the blue pill. For the time being, let’s take it as an axiom. The claim that rational is better might deserve a separate post.)
Is a predominantly rational and atheist world probable?
Let’s see. Religion — or the lack thereof — and culture are propagated memetically. The propagation can be (1) vertical (i.e., from parents to children) or (2) horizontally (i.e., friends, media and the like).
(1) It seems quite hopeless for atheists to outgrow religious populations through parenting. First, "countries that are relatively secularized usually reproduce more slowly than countries that are more religious. According to the World Bank, the nations with the largest proportions of unbelievers had an average annual population growth rate of just 0.7% in the period 1975-97, while the populations of the most religious countries grew three times as fast." (from The Economist, Faith Equals Fertility).
As this very same article concludes:
"one might half-seriously conclude that atheists and agnostics ought to focus on having more children, to help overcome their demographic disadvantage. Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanization, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularization and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. (…) So, religious people have larger families because Western religions encourage having children. Further, as a general proposition (there are, of course, exceptions), religious people tend to place a higher emphasis on altruism, whereas secular people tend to be more self-focused. Thus, for a religious person, children provide the opportunity to nurture and benefit other human beings. For many secular people, however, children merely consume time and resources that otherwise could have been devoted to their own amusement."
Conclusion: as a whole, atheists have less offspring, and they have a good reason to do so. Their being atheists and their lesser fertility rates have the same causes: education. If you think about it, the other causes cited above are themselves a product of proper education.
(2) Can atheism gain more adepts through horizontal propagation? Definitely, although I don't dare predict to what extent. Many atheists — kudos for Dawkins and Hitchens — have been making public calls to reason and openly arguing pro-atheism, in a rather educational approach. Some courageous initiatives have been seen recently.
This is great.
However, mass media still seems to be among the strongest means of replication. And mass media is a vehicle of entertainment, not a vehicle of truth-seeking.
Making cold reason and correct statistics as appealing than the alternatives is a challenging pursuit. As businesses, mass media networks give more space to whatever pleases the public more. The public is religious — and as it seems, will continue to be so. Therefore, miracles and emotionally charged stories sell more. Well, probably even the brightest minds indulge in some ludic fallacy now and then.
(I haven’t had a TV set at home for some eight years, and completely let go of the daily habit of reading newspapers, too, just like my friend Thomas Jefferson. There’s just too much noise going on — and isn’t it amazing how successful this noise is in deviating our attention from what matters most? But I digress.)
We have a self-fueling pattern here, a memetic selection mechanism:
— Medias propagating rationality-related memes stay behind, because there are fewer atheists. So, less of atheist ideas are spread. So there will be even fewer atheists, or, at least, a modest growth speed of atheists in absolute numbers.
— Religious medias get richer and bigger, because there are many religious people who support them. So more religious ideas are spread. So there will be even more of them, with a fast growth. As an example, Brazilian TV network Rede Record, after being acquired by the direction of the religious group IURD (aka UCKG), left from a very small market share to being second place in the ratings in 2007. Rede Record growth — the fastest among the country's networks — has been, alas, fueled by the tithe of IURD's followers (source here, Portuguese only).
One could argue that, as internet access becomes widespread, we should expect its decentralized and democratic nature to be on the side of those who are trying to enhance their maps with valuable information. Nevertheless, someone who doesn’t directly look for it will be carried away by the noise or, worse, by misguided information. One has to start, as a child, guided by a rational mind. And having a rational mind depends heavily on this person’s education and upbringing, which depends on what kind of parents they have. Oops.
Of course there are exceptions, those who make an effort to think by themselves despite their environment. They seem, however, to be outnumbered by the masses under the influence of bandwagon effect.
Where lies the hope for a predominantly rational and atheist world anyway?