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October 11, 2004

Atheists for a Christian Europe?

I found this old quote from Aleksander Kwasniewski (via Muslim Under Progress), president of Poland:


"I am an atheist and everybody knows it, but there are no excuses for making references to ancient Greece and Rome, and the Enlightenment, without making references to the Christian values which are so important to the development of Europe," he said.

In my ealier post on consilience I said that humanists should be cautious of the 'normative fallacy,' that the spectrum of oughts is differentiated between those unmoored from the constraints of reality and those that are grounded in our everyday experience. Personally, I would love to live in a nation where most people were secular humanists, respected the rights of women, supported a minimal state, defended freedom of speech, expressed an interest in science and learning in general, and so on. Unfortunately, the real world constrains my choices in the general dominant character of co-citizens (assuming I am nation shopping).

We secularists have constrained choices. I have already expressed skepticism for extreme visions of Eurabia, but I think it is safe to say that secular and godless assertions are more acceptable in the typical Christian (and Buddhist and Hindu) nation than Muslim ones. I am not making an apologia for Christianity as the state religion of the European Union, only asking my fellow secularists to be aware than the opponent before us might pale before monsters emerging from the depths. Of course, the problem with the European Union is not just the general secular vs. non-secular tension, rather, the disparate nations of Europe have very different religious histories. But the more pedantic answer to the title of my post is that Europe is a civilization with a profoundly Christian past and a coexistent post-Christian and Christian populace differentially distributed as a function of nationality. That is the reality, the is, not the ought.

Addendum on the decline of secularism: It is "conventional wisdom" that the world is in the midst of a "religious revival." After all, that is why....

  • The proportion of Canadians who report "no religion" went from 12% to 16% between 1991 and 2001 (cite).
  • The proportion of Americans who report "no religion" went from 8% to 14% between 1991 and 2001 (cite).
  • The proportion Australians who report "no religon" went from 13% to 15.5% between 1991 and 2001 (cite).
  • The proportion of Dutch who are members of churches as declined from 76% in 1958 to 41% in 1995 (cite).
  • A paltry 15.5% of British said they had "no religion" (cite).
  • In Germany the churches have only between losing 0.7% of their members per year (cite).
  • After 2 centuries of secularism only a minimal 33% of French described themselves as atheists, 14% as agnostic and 26% as "indifferent" according to a 2003 poll (cite).


Models need the supplement of the facts. Christianity and Islam are booming religions, that is a fact. But they are booming in the Third World, especially Africa, and often due to high fertility in developing nations. Europe is becoming less tied to institutional religion, and secularization is definitely a force in the non-American English settler colonies, and there is some evidence that it is becoming a force even in the United States!

There are some basic facts at issue here.

  1. I do accept that "religious zeal" is probably heritable to some extent, that is, some of the variation in religious belief can probably be attributed to genotypic differences.
  2. In most societies areligion probably correlates with variables that mitigate against high fertility.
That being said, historically secular nations like France or Uruguay are not becoming more religious. What is going on here?

The model above is just too simple. Religiousity is a complex trait and obviously has a strong environment input. For example, a substantial number of individuals in the Russian elite made the transition from Communism to nominal affiliation with Russian Orthodoxy after collapse of the Soviet Union (while many Central Asians made a shift from secularism to nominal Islam). If religious fidelity is a trait, there is a lot of phenotypic plasticity.

There are almost certainly a host of locii that contribute to the non-social input that leads toward a tendency for secularity. Even if the alleles that result in a tendency toward not being religious, or not believing in the supernatural, are often less fit, likely they can presist in the genetic background once they reach a low enough frequency (people without a large number of "non-religious" alleles at multiple locii wouldn't be less fit, and in a random mating population non-fit combinations would be rare), perhaps rebounding in frequency if the environmental conditions reduce the fitness of those prone toward excessive religiosity.

I haven't even addressed the topic of defection, after all, religion is transmitted vertically and horizontally. It seems plausible that there is still a reservoir of potential "deconverts" in many societies, even if the base of non-religious individuals is not self-sustaining. Secular intellectuals have been predicting the "death of God" since the Enlightenment, and it hasn't happened yet. Books like The Alternative Tradition: A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World indicate that unbelief is not so unfit that the genetic underpinnings that foster it must inevitabley hurtle toward extinction1.

As for whether Islam is a meme that is overwhelming in its capacity to assimilate societies...I will elaborate more on that later, but my personal opinion is that its anti-modernistic tendencies in the European context will manifest itself mostly within historically Muslim immigrant populations. I am skeptical that Europeans themselves will convert en masse to a religion that is associated with a lower socioeconomic strata.2

Sidenote: In the United Arab Emirates 85% of the population consists of noncitizens. In Bahrain 40% of the population is noncitizen. In Qatar 80% of the population is noncitizen. 64% of Kuwait's population is noncitizen. In the cases of these countries noncitizens form the economically productive segment of the population. It is often noted that Gulf States are "medieval," with their absolute potentates, but in fact, they resemble ancient oligarchic polities where only a small minority were given the franchise and had full rights. My more general point is that even a relatively incompetant flaccid people can dominate a foreign majority.

1 - One could also imagine balancing selection where those who had a combination of religious and non-religious alleles were more fit. In this way non-religious alleles could persist in a society even though extremely secular people always took a big fitness hit.

2 - Christianity was not a low SES sect in the ancient world if you are wondering, it was middling at worst, even correcting for the fact that its urban nature tended to select for some element of cosmopolitanism.

Posted by razib at 12:20 AM