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OPINION | ART HOBSON: Through the bottleneck

Trend is away from religion, toward psychology by Art Hobson | July 6, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Now more than ever, and for better or worse, the world is in rapid transition. As the great scientist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson noted in his book "The Future of Life," humanity is currently in a bottleneck, a time of resource overuse that will remain difficult for decades, at least until world population stops increasing and recedes significantly below its present numbers.

A few examples of such problems: Changing climate due to excess carbon emissions; water shortages due to overuse and altered climate; plagues due to human encroachment into the natural environment; a global mass extinction due to human expansion; national, cultural and religious differences leading to displacement and violent conflict; generational and other differences due to fast-changing technologies and their misuse; and differences due to greater awareness of unfair exploitation and mistreatment of women, minorities, religions and other groups. Underlying everything are stresses due, ironically, to a fundamentally positive development: rapid global communication.

A significant related trend is the steady drift of cultural beliefs away from religious orientations and toward psychological orientations. It's a predictable trend because, as young people become better educated, they tend to become dissatisfied with their parents' religious beliefs, yet the bottleneck causes psychological pressures of just the sort that, in earlier days, caused people to turn to religion for guidance and solace. In particular, many religions require their followers to accept miracles and other beliefs that are implausible, to say the least, in light of contemporary knowledge. Thus some religious institutions are wisely evolving to put less emphasis on traditional theology and more emphasis on counseling and scientifically enlightened psychology.

So people are becoming less religious. Empirical data supporting this conclusion is large and global. For just one pertinent example, the Pew Research Center conducted a "Religious Landscape Study" in 2014 based on interviews with 35,000 Americans from all 50 states, tallying the results by six different generational groups from youngest ("younger millennials") to oldest ("greatest generation"). When asked about the importance of religion in their life, the percentages of each group answering "very important" (listed from youngest to oldest) were 33, 44, 53, 59, 67, 72. At the other extreme, the percentages answering "not important" were 33, 29, 22, 17, 13, 13. The trend is clear: Younger Americans are far less religious than older Americans.

Some might argue that this is because people turn toward religion as they grow older, perhaps due to fear of death. But that is implausible. It's hard to imagine that very many young people who find religion unimportant today are going to find it important in later life. Indeed, their dissociation from religious life in their younger years is likely to drive them further from religion. Conclusion: Americans are becoming far less religious.

On the other side, the trend toward psychology is universal. The United States and other industrialized nations increasingly emphasize mental well-being as an essential component of health. National Public Radio, for instance, devotes increasing coverage to human development-- a kind of national group therapy. People seem increasingly ready to talk through their personal problems in public, a "coming-out" about all sorts of personal matters.

I'm happy to report that I have consulted with therapy groups and individual or family counselors on many occasions and always found it helpful (at this point you might be thinking "he certainly needed it, but it doesn't seem to have helped"). The new rapid forms of communication, while creating technical difficulties for those of us brought up in a paper-and-pencil culture, help support the new psychological openness.

These cultural trends, both the falling away from religion and the falling toward psychology, strike me as signals of a better future. I hasten to add that some social aspects of religion, especially family counseling, discussion groups and social gatherings, will always be valuable.

Humankind needs to get smart fast. We need to reduce our population, cut carbon emissions to zero, resolve global water shortages, avoid new plagues, protect wildlife, reconcile our differences, adjust to new technologies and resolve our prejudices. Education is what's needed, but traditional education, while certainly necessary, is no longer sufficient. There's enough daily stupidity on, say, Twitter or the Internet to last anybody a lifetime, but social media are also playing a crucial role in quickly educating many of us in all sorts of global developments including the trend away from religion and toward psychology.

All media--newspapers, films, television and many others--have a powerful role to play as the planet works its way through the bottleneck.

Print Headline: Through the bottleneck


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