Essay: Nigel Barber's claim that the world will have an atheist majority by 2038

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Atheism is in decline worldwide, with the number of atheists falling from 4.5% of the world’s population in 1970 to 2.0% in 2010 and projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020.[1] See: Global atheism statistics

The atheist Neil Barber wrote in a 2012 article entitled Atheism will defeat religion by 2038 which declared about his prediction that the world will have an atheist majority by 2038:

The view that religious belief will give way to atheism is known as the secularization thesis...

The notion that improving living conditions are associated with a decline in religion is supported by a mountain of evidence...

That does not prevent some serious scholars, like political scientist Eric Kaufmann... from making the opposite case that religious fundamentalists will outbreed the rest of us. Yet, noisy as they can be, such groups are tiny minorities of the global population and they will become even more marginalized as global prosperity increases and standards of living improve.

If national wealth drives secularization, the global population will cross an atheist threshold where the majority see religion as unimportant by 2041.

Averaging across the two measures of atheism, the entire world population would cross the atheist threshold by about 2038 (average of 2035 for disbelief and 2041 for religiosity).

Averaging across the two measures of atheism, the entire world population would cross the atheist threshold by about 2038 (average of 2035 for disbelief and 2041 for religiosity).[2]

In 2011, atheist Jacques Berlinerblau declared: "The Golden Age of Secularism has passed."[3] See: Desecularization

A 2003 paper published by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University entitled The Secularization Debate indicates:

The seminal social thinkers of the nineteenth century -- Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud -- all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society. They were far from alone; ever since the Age of the Enlightenment, leading figures in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology have postulated that theological superstitions, symbolic liturgical rituals, and sacred practices are the product of the past that will be outgrown in the modern era. The death of religion was the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century; indeed it has been regarded as the master model of sociological inquiry, where secularization was ranked with bureaucratization, rationalization, and urbanization as the key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern industrial nations. As C. Wright Mills summarized this process: “Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.”

During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has come under growing criticism; indeed secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs3. After reviewing these developments, Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims: “The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.” In a fierce and sustained critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepresentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’”[4]

Harvard University's Samuel Huntington observed: "The late 20th century has seen the global resurgence of religions around the world" (The Clash of Civilizations, p. 64).[5] Yet world poverty has been dropping in the world and in 2015 the World Bank announced that the global poverty level had dropped to 10% for the very first time.[6]

Alister McGrath points out that many atheists/agnostics were angry that the secularization thesis failed because religion was "supposed to" disappear.[7] Peter Berger said that the religiosity of the United States was a big exception to the secularization theory that should have caused social scientists to question the theory.[8] See also: Atheists and the endurance of religion

Barber also fails to address the United States and its longstanding prosperity/religiosity in his analysis (see also: American atheism). Furthermore, China: has the world's largest atheist population and it is seeing increased prosperity; yet Christianity is seeing explosive growth in China and most of the Christians are in the evangelical Christianity branch of Christianity (see: Growth of Christianity in China).

In addition, Barber fails to understand how large evangelical Christianity and conservative/fundamentalist Islam are and how fast they are growing (See also: Growth of evangelical Christianity and Global Christianity).[9][10][11]

Global atheism statistics

See also: Global atheism statistics

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, 2% of the world's population self-identifies as atheist and the average annual global change for atheism from 2000 to 2010 was −0.17%.[12] See also: Desecularization

On July 24, 2013, CNS News reported:

Atheism is in decline worldwide, with the number of atheists falling from 4.5% of the world’s population in 1970 to 2.0% in 2010 and projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Mass."[13]

For more sources regarding global atheism losing global market share, please see: Global atheism statistics

Articles which challenge some of Nigel Barber's assumptions

Failed predictions of the demise of religion

See also: Failed predictions of the demise of religion

Dr. Rodney Stark's in his book The Triumph of Faith wrote:

People want to know why the universe exists, not that it exists for no reason, and they don't want their lives to be pointless. Only religion provides credible and satisfactory answers to the great existential questions. The most ardent wishes of the secularization faithful will never change that.

"Secularists have been predicting the imminent demise of religion for centuries. They have always been wrong—and their claims today are no different. It is their unshakable faith in secularization that may be the most "irrational" of all beliefs." (p. 212).[14]

Stark wrote in his book Acts of Faith:

For nearly three centuries social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will 'outgrow' belief in the supernatural. This proposition soon came to be known as the secularization thesis.[15]

YouTube atheist Thunderf00t on the atheist movement

YouTube atheist Thunderf00t

See also: Atheist pessimism about the atheist movement

YouTube atheist Thunderfoot said about the atheist movement after Reason Rally 2016 had a very low turnout:

I'm not sure there is anything in this movement worth saving. Hitchens is dead. Dawkins simply doesn't have the energy for this sort of thing anymore. Harris went his own way. And Dennett just kind of blended into the background. So what do you think when the largest gathering of the nonreligious in history pulls in... I don't know. Maybe 2,000 people. Is there anything worth saving?[16]

Theo Hobson on the decline of militant/firebrand atheism in the Western World

See also: Decline of militant atheism in the West

Theo Hobson wrote in The Spectator in 2013:

The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure...

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting.[17]

Atheist Eddie Tabash on American atheism

See also: American atheism

According to the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS), the number of atheists and agnostics in the United States has remained relatively stable in the past 23 years. In 1991, 2% of Americans identified as atheist, and 4% identified as agnostic. In 2014, 3% of Americans identified as atheists, and 5% identified as agnostics.[18]

In June 2016, American Interest reported:

First of all, religious belief is still very powerful and widespread, and there is nothing inevitable about its decline. In fact, the proportion of people who say they believe in God actually ticked modestly upward, from 86 percent to 89 percent, since Gallup last asked the question in 2014.[19]

The American atheist activist Eddie Tabash said at the 2010 Michigan Atheists State Convention:

In every generation there has been a promising beginning of a true vanguard movement that will finally achieve widespread public acceptance for nonbelief. Yet, in each generation there has been an ultimately disappointing failure to actually register the naturalistic alternative to supernatural claims in the public consciousness...

Now given the confounding extent to which religion is entrenched in our society, it could take a minimum of 100 years of sustained, intense effort to even begin to cut into the current monolithic stranglehold that religion has on American mass culture, [20]

The likelihood that the American atheist population will engage in 100 years of sustained, intense atheist activism is remote (see: Atheism and apathy and Views on atheists and Demographics and trends in American secularism).

Also, a 100-year sustained and intense effort of atheist activism would require a high degree of cohesiveness and cooperation among atheists. Tabash said in a speech to the Michigan Atheists State Convention, "Since we are a bit of a cantankerous, opinionated lot...".[21] See also: Atheist factions and Atheism and social skills

Tabash said in a 2007 speech to the Atheist Alliance International organization:

The other likely future is one in which by a shift of only one vote on the United States Supreme Court, we will essentially become a theocracy in which all branches of government we be freed to favor religion collectively over nonbelief.[22]

See also


  1. Global Study: Atheists in Decline, Only 1.8% of World Population by 2020
  2. Atheism to Defeat Religion By 2038 by Nigel Barber
  3. Berlinerblau, Jacques (February 4, 2011). "Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast". The Chronicle of Higher Education/Brainstorm blog. Retrieved on May 29, 2015.
  4. The Secularization Debate
  5. The Return of Religion
  6. World poverty drops to 10% for the very first time, World Bank
  7. 'Why God Won't Go Away' by Alister McGrath
  8. Professor Peter Berger on Resurgence of Religion and Decline of Secularization Theory
  9. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann, Belfer Center, Harvard University/Birkbeck College, University of London
  10. Eric Kaufmann: Shall The Religious Inherit The Earth?
  11. Religion: Year in Review 2010: Worldwide Adherents of All Religions. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. Retrieved on 2013-11-21.
  12. Global Study: Atheists in Decline, Only 1.8% of World Population by 2020
  13. Despite What You've Heard, World Is More Religious Than Ever, Christian Post
  14. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  15. Even atheists bash 'Reason Rally'
  16. Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists by Theo Hobson
  17. Hout, Michael; Smith, Tom (March 2015). "Fewer Americans Affiliate with Organized Religions, Belief and Practice Unchanged: Key Findings from the 2014 General Social Survey" (PDF). General Social Survey. NORC
  18. Atheism is Rising, But…, American Interest
  19. Atheists Speak Up - Eddie Tabash
  20. Atheists Speak Up - Eddie Tabash - Part 2 of 4
  21. Eddie Tabash: Speech and Q&A at AAI 07