Is Atheism a Luxury Good?

What’s the relationship between atheism and wealth? Do societies become wealthy because they reject religion? Or do they reject religion because they think they can afford to?

…namely, there’s good evidence that atheism and secularism are much more costly, in terms of sheer energy expenditure, than religious ways of organizing society. As I said, this may not make immediate sense; what about all the time that religious people spend on seemingly useless activities, like rituals, church, and prayers? From a secular perspective, these pursuits don’t exactly look like the most energy-efficient ways to spend one’s time. (Indeed, Bill Gates once said he wasn’t religious because there were more productive things to do with his Sunday mornings than sit in a church.)

But the burgeoning field of the evolutionary study of religion suggests that there may be sense behind all this apparent waste of effort.

…an embodied style of communication that demands effortful physical displays and intuitive thinking [hey, that was the theme of our last Vacation Bible School – j] – is often the most efficient means of showing who’s truly reliable and trustworthy. Thus, communities that shun ritual and rely on verbal, straightforward communication (such as the modern secular West) have to expend a ton of energy for everyone to understand what roles they’re supposed to play – and to ensure they actually carry out the responsibilities those roles entail.

…the reason we’re increasingly rejecting ritual and seemingly absurd religious beliefs is because we can afford to. The beneficiaries of a massive world economic system, we have the ample time, energy, and resources to spend on negotiating and re-negotiating our relationships, day in and day out. For the most part, we don’t have to spend our time planting, harvesting, herding animals, or doing eight hours of laundry a day. We’re free to redirect our energy into making social relationships explicit – which entails using analytical, logical, “system 2”-style processing to crunch an enormous amount of social data consciously.

It’s a thought-provoking article, which, by the way, also explains how religious activity is similar to rutting elk, aside from the fact that both are often followed by potluck dinners. It goes a long way toward explaining why Americans, as they spend less time in church, are spending more time in courtrooms.

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