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The Present

A surprising explanation for the global decline of religion

Wherever automation rises, religiosity falls.
A declining religious statue of Mary holding a blue baby.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Religion is declining around the globe, especially in the United States.
  • In a recent paper, researchers argued that automation in the form of robotics and AI is the real driver of the recent trend.
  • A series of experiments showed that exposure to automation at the national and local levels is linked to a reduction in religiosity.

Religion has been retreating across the world since the beginning of the 21st century. According to results from the World Value Survey, conducted between 2007 and 2019, the importance of God declined on average in 39 of the 44 countries analyzed. Moreover, the percentage of people identifying as nonreligious has risen by more than 10% in nations like Singapore, Iceland, Chile, and South Korea over the past decade.

The decline of religion is most striking in the United States. Between 1940 and 2000, church membership hovered around 70%, according to Gallup. But as the new millennium got underway, it fell off a cliff. By 2020, church membership had cratered to 47%. Between 2007 and 2020, the proportion of Americans not affiliated with any religion grew from 16% to 30%.

Belief in and worship of supernatural beings, gods, and deities has been a fundamental facet of human existence for thousands of years, yet the decline of religion is playing out in a historical blink of an eye! What could explain this upheaval in global society?

Vanishing religiosity

Technological advancement attracts a lot of attention from scholars as a potential explanation. In the past, people would turn to religious belief to seek answers and solve problems. Now we have technology.

“When people can use technology to predict the weather, diagnose and treat illness, and manufacture resources, they may rely less on religious beliefs and practices,” an international team of researchers recently wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But if technology is negating the need for religion, then why didn’t we see a massive drop in belief during the Industrial Revolution, the Space Race, or rise the of personal computers? Why has the decline of religion become so widespread and rapid only recently?

The researchers offered a hypothesis: It’s not technology by itself that reduces religiosity, but specifically automation in the form of robotics and artificial intelligence, which only became prominent in the 21st century.

“This claim is based on recent research on lay perceptions of automation,” they wrote. “Such studies show that people ascribe automation technology with abilities that border on supernatural.”

“Historically, people have deferred to supernatural agents and religious professionals to solve instrumental problems beyond the scope of human ability. These problems may seem more solvable for people working and living in highly automated spaces.”

Automation and the decline of religion

To test their supposition, the researchers conducted four experiments. In the first, they tracked religious decline between 2006 and 2019 across 68 countries via a yes-or-no survey question with more than 2 million respondents: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” They then correlated this data with each nation’s yearly operational stock of industrial robots.

“Robotics exposure was robustly and negatively associated with religiosity across the globe,” they reported. The association held when controlling for GDP per capita, telecom development, and energy development.

In the next experiment, the scientists focused solely on the decline of religion in the United States, comparing religiosity and robotics growth in metropolitan areas between 2008 and 2016.

“Metropolitan areas with higher levels of robotics growth (+1 standard deviation) experienced an approximately 3% yearly decline in religion each decade,” they reported.

For the third experiment, the researchers followed 46,680 individuals in a community between 2009 and 2020, measuring their self-reported belief in God and their exposure to automation at their jobs. They found that individuals who worked at jobs with higher exposure to AI and robotics reported significantly greater drops in religiosity over time.

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“People with jobs that were one standard deviation higher than the mean on occupational exposure to AI were 45% less likely to believe in God compared to people in occupations that had a mean level of exposure to AI,” the authors wrote.

Experiment four was conducted at the most local level. The researchers followed 238 employees within a single organization over time, directly measuring their exposure to AI and their religiosity. AI exposure was linked to a decrease in religious belief.

All of the completed studies are correlative and thus do not prove causation. But taken together, they strongly support the authors’ contention that automation reduces religious belief.

“Our studies demonstrate that automation is linked to religious decline across multiple religious traditions (e.g., Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist), world regions (e.g., North America, South Asia, and Oceania), and levels of analysis,” they commented.

Their findings line up with the musings of other scholars, including Neil McArthur, the Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. Writing in The Conversation earlier this year, he predicted that some people may soon worship AI in lieu of gods. Generative AI like ChatGPT, for example, already has traits often associated with deities, such as immortality, seemingly limitless intelligence, and a lack of human vulnerabilities like pain and hunger. As AI grows in prominence and power, the global decline of religion may continue and even accelerate.


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