Gopnik on Religion

We’ve seen a long-run decline in prayer, church attendance, identification with particular religions, and belief in God or the importance of religion. I tend to attribute such trends to increasing wealth. Adam Gopnik agrees:

What if, though, the whole battle of ayes and nays had never been subject to anything, really, except a simple rule of economic development? Perhaps the small waves of ideas and even moods are just bubbles on the one great big wave of increasing prosperity. It may be that the materialist explanation of the triumph of materialism is the one that counts. … The daily miseries of the Age of Faith scarcely exist in our Western Age of Fatuity. The horrors of normal life in times past, enumerated, are now almost inconceivable: women died in agony in childbirth, and their babies died, too; operations were performed without anesthesia… . If God became the opiate of the many, it was because so many were in need of a drug. As incomes go up, steeples come down. … Happiness arrives and God gets gone. “Happiness!” the Super-Naturalist cries. “Surely not just the animal happiness of more stuff!” But by happiness we need mean only less of pain. You don’t really have to pursue happiness; it is a subtractive quality. Anyone who has had a bad headache or a kidney stone or a toothache, and then hasn’t had it, knows what happiness is. The world had a toothache and a headache and a kidney stone for millennia. Not having them any longer is a very nice feeling. On much of the planet, we need no longer hold an invisible hand or bite an invisible bullet to get by. (more)

Even so, almost everyone is religious to some degree:

Most [who say they don’t believe in God] believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

So religion will remain a big influence on the world even if we keep getting richer. And if wealth per person falls a lot, as I forecast, religion may well resurge to near its former levels of importance.

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  • Kevin Vallier

    Wow, so it looks like an implication of your em-super-Malthus future is that the vast population of ems will likely be rather religious. The future belongs to the digital faithful?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Oh, and I should add that there’s data that contradicts this. In the US, rich people don’t go to church any less than poor people overall. See American Grace, p. 382.

      • Doug

        This can be rather easily explained: wealth makes people irreligious, but religion (and its associated personality traits) makes people wealthy.

        Wealthier societies become less religious, but the most successful members tend to be more religious.

  • aisaac

    They’re still pretty religious in the oil-rich countries of the middle east, and the decline in religiosity in Europe began well before the escape from the Malthusian trap. 18th century France was still a pretty shitty place for the common people, yet atheism and deism was rampant.

  • Sam Dangremond

    I think you may be neglecting a big factor: religious people have way more children.

    Shall the relgious inherit the earth?

    Some say yes, literally.

  • Ari

    Didn’t Tyler Cowen say that he considers all people religious (in discussion with Peter Singer) in the sense that they have crazy beliefs? I think it makes sense.

  • josh

    Historically, it seems prosperity and religiosity are connected in the same way as riots and … well any precursor of a riot. The first loudest voices tend to be followed by those looking for that particular answer. I doubt the world will ever get any less religious; however, the reactions of the fervent may well have higher body counts (literally, and collaterally in other ways)

  • Truthteller

    Even if wealth per person falls, that effect might be countered if and when radical life extension becomes available.

  • Doug

    One of Moldbug’s most brilliant observations is that the modern religion of the cosmopolitan West is simply Unitarian Universalism slightly modified to remove the references to God and the need to go to church.

    Just because you’re atheistic doesn’t mean you’re areligious. Theravada Buddhists prove this quite handily. A lot of educated people now claim to have abandoned Christianity but their belief system looks a hell of a lot more like devout 19th century New England Congregationalists than for example atheistic Ancient Greek Sophists.

    And even removing God, Christian belief systems still remain totally implanted in the brain. Ask a Western atheist a question like “Is infanticide morally wrong?” The justification will ultimately rest on some vague moral intuition, which is by no means universal, but simply a product of sensibilities instilled by a Christian society. Quite similar I’d expect that many former Hindu atheists have roundabout justifications for why you shouldn’t eat beef.

    • Matt

      Agree. And from my experience, the group of people that are most aghast at Dostoyevsky’s “if there is no god, everything is permitted” hypothesis are sophisticated western atheists. Ronald Dworkin is a good example of this.

    • VV

      I think you have it backwards: there is no specific dogma in Christianity against infanticide, except the generic “thou shall not kill”, which exists, in one form or another, in any religious, moral or legal system whatsoever.

      A Christian may say that infanticide is morally wrong because it is a “sin”, but in reality that’s just a product of sensibilities instilled by a modern Western society, which the Christian is projecting on his or her idea of god.

    • alexander stanislaw

      I’d be really interested to see the hypothetical atheist Hindu’s and atheist Muslim’s arguments against eating beef and pork. Its a pretty good test for the hypothesis too.

  • I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it

    Intuition isn’t necessarily irrational; but moralism is. (For the difference, see “Morality and free will are hazardous to your mental health” — .)

    have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually
    tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it –
    See more at:


    “So religion will remain a big influence on the world even if we keep getting richer.”

    Yes, but constrictive organized religion will diminish. It is organized religion that was so strong in poor agrarian societies. The vague spiritual beliefs many people hold today are very reminiscent of ancient (pre-agrarian) shamanic beliefs and those were good enough to comfort prehistoric people who also had women die in childbirth, the difference is about freedom as well as wealth. This isn’t the only area where increasing wealth and personal freedom tend to bring back things from our pre-agrarian, things past that are perhaps more true to our nature when we’re not constantly struggling to survive.

  • Tiago


    You have said that you expect wealth to decline before, but I missed your elaboration on it. Why do you expect it to happen?

    • Silent Cal

      I think because of faster population growth due to em copying.

  • Women didn’t die in childbirth all that often (moreso than today, but still rarely) before doctors got their mucky hands in. Child mortality was certainly higher though. It makes evolutionary sense for a mother not to risk her body that much on a child (which will presumably be much less likely to survive without her) when she still has the chance to make more.

  • Two unrelated comments.

    1. On the religiosity of ems. Em society isn’t _simply_ impoverished; some ems are extraordinarily rich. They may have no need for religion (except perhaps to salve their consciences). Since they will also have outsized social status, there will be some kind of dialectic between the high-status irreligious and the masses of religious ems.

    2. I question whether you’re correct that religion is a response to poverty. I’m inclined to think it’s a response to oppression (which in application often comes to the same). I think the injuries for which religion offers compensation are injuries to status rather than to material well-being. That’s why the poor are assured that, in heaven, the streets will be lined with gold.

    The issue almost reduces to whether poor but unoppressed foragers were religious–or was religion an invention of agricultural societies? Foragers, whatever their economic level, were “poor” in the relevant sense of having to endure enormous pain.

  • Samuel Hammond

    Economics of religion consistently finds a significant and strong social-insurance aspect to religious attendance. See for example, . This fits the model proposed by Iannaconne of religious orgs as emerging to provide private social insurance, and using religious ritual, stigma, sacrifice etc. as costly signals of commitment to prevent free-rides.

    Thus wealth does not lead to religious decline — social security does. The correlation with wealth exists because people’s income elasticity for social welfare is greater than unity. As the state’s safety net moves in as a lower cost substitute to local safety nets, people still remain mystical, but their mysticism doesn’t need to be organized and tested around a particular locus.

    Thus if wealth declines but social security remains high, I see no reason for there to be a major resurgence in organized religion. Instead look for scenarios where collective action is difficult and enforcement is weak. An em-world scenario seems to me one of extremely low transaction costs and high degrees of secularized collective action.

  • Samuel Hammond
  • That Adam Gopnik is a troublemaker! My pal Grapes could tear apart his philosaphy in minutes. But right now Grapes in Sochey, in that commieland Russia, where he has to broadcast the honckey games for the lefty CBC!

    Gopnik likes to talk about snow and winter in Canada a lot, but hey, he lives in that fancy uppity NewYork City. He don’t know snow any more!
    I bet Gopnik has never played honckey, and probably can’t even skate.