Non-belief is the fastest growing category of belief; Islamists are worried
Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge’s college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today, when terrorists cry “God is great” in both Paris and Bamako as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here’s a thought: that jihadism may be a last spasm — albeit a painful one — of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam.
Quietly, non-belief is on the march. Those who use an extreme form of religion to poison the minds of disaffected young men are furious about the spread of materialist and secularist ideas, which they feel powerless to prevent. In 50 years’ time, we may look back on this period and wonder how we failed to notice that Islam was about to lose market share, not to other religions, but to humanism.
The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief. No religion grew nearly as fast over the past century. Whereas virtually nobody identified as a non-believer in 1900, today roughly 15 per cent do, and that number does not include soft Anglicans in Britain, mild Taoists in China, lukewarm Hindus in India or token Buddhists in Japan. Even so, the non-religious category has overtaken paganism, will soon pass Hinduism, may one day equal Islam and is gaining on Christianity. (Of every ten people in the world, roughly three are Christian, two Muslim, two Hindu, 1.5 non-religious and 1.5 something else.)
This is all the more remarkable when you think that, with a few notable exceptions, atheists or humanists don’t preach, let alone pour money into evangelism. Their growth has come almost entirely from voluntary conversion, whereas Islam’s slower growth in market share has largely come from demography: the high birth rates in Muslim countries compared with Christian ones.
And this is about to change. The birth rate in Muslim countries is plummeting at unprecedented speed. A study by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt three years ago found that: “Six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period recorded in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries.” Iran, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Libya, Albania, Qatar and Kuwait have all seen birth-rate declines of more than 60 per cent in 30 years.
Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise within Muslim majority countries. It is not easy being a humanist in an Islamic society, even outside the Isis hell-holes, so it is hard to know how many there are. But a poll in 2012 found that 5 per cent of Saudis describe themselves as fully atheist and 19 per cent as non-believers — more than in Italy. In Lebanon the proportion is 37 per cent. Remember in many countries they are breaking the law by even thinking like this.
That Arab governments criminalise non-belief shows evidence not of confidence, but of alarm. Last week a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, to death for apostasy. In 2014 the Saudi government brought in a law defining atheism as a terrorist offence. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government in Egypt, though tough on Islamists, has also ordered two ministries to produce a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. They have shut down a café frequented by atheists and dismissed a college librarian who talked about humanism in a TV programme.
Earlier this month there was yet another murder by Islamists — the fifth such incident — of a Bangladeshi publisher of secularist writing. I recently met one of the astonishingly brave humanist bloggers of Bangladesh, Arif Rahman, who has seen four colleagues hacked to death with machetes in daylight. He told me about Bangladesh’s 2013 blasphemy law, and the increasing indifference or even hostility of the Bangladeshi government towards the plight of non-religious bloggers. For many Muslim-dominated governments, the enemy is not “crusader” Christianity, it is home-grown non-belief.
Humanism is growing faster than Islamism | Matt Ridley