02 July 2019

Religion declining in the Arab world

Most of Europe has been strongly secular for decades, and in the US the non-religious percentage of the population has also been growing, with the trend speeding up in the last twenty years with the rise of "New Atheism" -- though the US remains much more religious than Europe.  Some have argued that even as religion dies out in the most advanced countries, it remains vigorous in the developing world, and that secularism will always be a regional peculiarity of Europe, the US, and a few other places such as Japan.

The clearest signs that this view is wrong have come from Latin America, once the demographic heartland of the Catholic Church, where the dominant position of religion has also been faltering.  The clearest evidence of this change can be seen in the growing acceptance of gay marriage, which is being legalized in country after country, and in the willingness of national authorities to aggressively confront the Church over the issue of priestly child molestation, especially in Chile.  Strikingly, it's the least economically developed countries in Latin America where religion remains strongest.

More recently further confirmation has come from a region most Americans think of as irrevocably in thrall to religion -- the Arab world.  A survey of over 25,000 people in ten Arabic-speaking countries plus the Palestinian territories, compared with a similar survey from 2013, shows that the number of people who self-identify as non-religious is surprisingly high, and rising fast.

In the surveyed countries overall, 13% identify as non-religious, up from 8% in 2013.  This suggests that the secularization of the Arab world lags only a decade or so behind that of the US.  In Tunisia (the most secular Arab country) a third of the population is non-religious, up from less than a fifth in 2013.  In all the surveyed countries except Yemen, the non-religious percentage has increased.  In Morocco and Egypt it has more than doubled -- in just six years.

This really shouldn't be surprising.  Economic development brings material prosperity, education, literacy, and access to mass media and world culture.  Those factors drove the decline of religion in Europe and the US.  As the Arab world, like Latin America, becomes more developed, the same processes inexorably follow.  In the age of the internet, access to Western mass culture and ideas plays an especially large role.  Since 2008 the Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, the flagship book of New Atheism, has been available on the internet for free in PDF format, and has now been downloaded more than thirteen million times.  The interest in atheist ideas is there.  And thanks to the internet, the ideas themselves are just a mouse-click away, even though the book itself is banned in every Arab country.  Even aside from explicitly atheist texts, Western movies and music and TV all carry, however subtly, the world-view of the culture that produced them.  They are like a steady rain that gradually erodes away the seemingly indestructible rock of religion.

The survey also asked about attitudes on a variety of other issues, such as homosexuality and the equal role of women in the household.  In general, attitudes on these points are still depressingly backward (though more than 50% in most Arab countries would accept a woman as head of government).  But more enlightened attitudes on gays and the role of women lagged somewhat behind secularization in the West as well.  I can't help but feel that this, too, is just a matter of time.

It's notable that in general, the Arab countries with the most advanced attitudes are Lebanon and the Maghrib states (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco).  In these countries, the influence of French culture has been especially strong since colonial times, and widespread fluency in the French language facilitates the spread of Western ideas into the society.  The most-religious country in the survey, Yemen, is also the poorest and most isolated.

I've observed before that the rise of militant Islamist groups in the Middle East such as al-Qâ'idah and Dâ'ish (ISIL) in some ways parallels the rise of the militant Christian Right in the US.  In both cases it's a response by the fervently-religious element to cultural changes which are clearly leading the broader society in a direction they don't like.  In the US these fanatics have turned the Republican party into an instrument through which they are trying to re-impose religious conservatism by force using the power of the state.  In the Arab world, with its weaker state structures and scarcity of real democracy, they've been able to resort to armed force and terrorism.  But in both cases it's an angry lashing out by reactionaries who can see that they're losing a culture war.

And in the long run it won't work.  Just as the real-world effects of our Christian Right's draconian hostility to gays and abortion have alarmed and revolted mainstream Americans, including less-fervent Christians, so the atrocities of Dâ'ish and al-Qâ'idah -- whose victims, remember, include far more Middle Easterners than Westerners -- have disgusted millions of people in the Arab world, including less-fervent Muslims.  They've seen what the extremists have to offer, and they don't want it.

So it really does seem that the various regions of the broader Western world are following a similar general pattern of social progress.  Economic development leads to education and greater openness to new ideas, which leads to a whole cascade of effects which erode and weaken religion until, in the countries furthest along the path, its influence withers to almost nothing.  We in the US are merely at a somewhat earlier stage in the process than Europe is, while Latin America and the Middle East are similarly lagging behind us -- though apparently not by as much as one might think.  And the internet is speeding things up.  Some of the lands which are now Arabic-speaking were among the first in which the Abrahamic blight entrenched itself, first in Christian and later in Muslim form, and they may be among the last to cast it off.  But the writing is on the wall -- or, more relevantly, on the computer monitor.

Related posts here and here.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Well, this is good news. Getting out from under the yoke of any religion is progress.

02 July, 2019 18:36  
Blogger Jimbo said...

I have spent a long career working in mostly Muslim countries. Until the Iranian Revolution (1978-79), the larger Muslim countries (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia) had large nominally Muslim followers. Women didn't wear the hijab and the Ramadhan fast was often not very strict.

Then the Iranian Revolution occurred and spread pre-internet through TV/radio. And then the Saudis mobilized the international Wahabist movement that resulted in the CIA recruitment of Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and then 9/11 and then the forever shit we live with today.

It's Sunni vs Shi'a and it's a conflict that has been going on for more than 1400 years and we need to stop being part of it. Let the oil industry fight their own wars but not with us.

02 July, 2019 18:46  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

It makes sense that religulous people flourish in third-world countries. Superstition is much better instilled in the uneducated. I'm surprised about Islam, though. For a hot minute it seemed it was going full-steam global.


02 July, 2019 18:58  
Blogger Victor said...

I'd love to see you be right!
(Not "right" as in Conservatism's idea of "right," but "right" in the sense of correctness - or, as George Dumbaya Bush might say, "correctitude!). 😉

Religions - almost all of them - have, throughout human history, resulted in more wars, and more death and misery than any other things except disease, and, maybe, poverty.
Prayers are offered to heal the sick and comfort the survivors, in the case of a death.
But poverty is acceptable to religious leaders - as long as those in that state pay their tithes. "Heaven" was created to keep people in poverty in line.
Acceptance of the bullshit in your particular religion guarantees you an eternity in its form of "heaven."

But the fundamentalists in all religions will not go "quietly into that good night."
They will fight to the death.
Look at all of the privilege at stake.

It will be ugly at the end.

BTW, "Victor" is me, c u n d gulag.

02 July, 2019 19:46  
Blogger Jono said...

It is encouraging to hear that the Middle East is also coming to its senses. I hope I live long enough to see some real changes in world attitudes.

02 July, 2019 21:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: And they need to get away from it in the Middle East more than almost anywhere else.

Jimbo: I suspect the Sunni-Shiite conflict is another factor turning people against religious fanaticism. As in Northern Ireland, people eventually get tired of such medieval nonsense and all the pointless violence it generates.

Sixpence: Just like with the Christian Right in the US, these militant fundamentalist movements can be terrifying and win some successes. But they're a symptom of a world-view that's on the way down.

Victor: It's always been basically a mechanism for controlling people, and a very sophisticated one. Even its victims will sometimes fight to the death for it. And we can see the fundamentalists struggling to re-impose it. But with better education, more and more people see through the con.

Jono: I think when real change comes to the Middle East, it may be surprisingly fast. Right now the non-religious are mostly kept quiet by fear. When there are enough of them that that fear starts to weaken, it will probably collapse quickly.

03 July, 2019 05:40  
Anonymous NickM said...

I wasn't impressed with "The God Delusion". Especially not Dawkins use of a bizarre quasi statistical argument contra God. A very odd thing to do with a single data point. And extremely odd coming from an evolutionary biologist!

Now, I think I read the same article as you infidel and whilst the M.E. news was particularly welcome it was also somewhat mixed - particularly the ammount of support for "honour" killings was depressing.

04 July, 2019 04:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I don't recall that particular argument, but in any full-length book one can always find something to object to. The God Delusion has clearly had a beneficial influence since its release, notably in blowing away the fog of deference toward religion which had beclouded previous discussion of the subject. I can only imagine the effect on Arab readers used to the even worse kowtowing prevalent in the Islamic world.

Yes, it's disappointing that a quarter of the population in some countries still thinks honor killings are acceptable -- but based on all the other trends shown, that number is probably down since years ago and continuing to drop, and it's probably largely the older and less educated people who believe that.

04 July, 2019 06:39  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

RELIGION? ... What's that? (just kidding) {:-) Yeah, you can see it dwindling as far as following these cults and so forth, almost like cultures or politics to me too. I just naturally never cared much for religions, and seen at a very young age, how much BS it all was. I was an altar boy for a year in catholic church, the priest was alwayz half drunk, the wiseguys/ gangsters basically dictated everything in the church and community, most attendees were there to show off their new clothes/ outfits, everybody was sinning and f*cking each other, the list goes on and on. I thought it was such a scam ... I actually robbed the church for several thousand dollars, and felt heroic for doing it, like a sort of Robinhood, also ripped off the candle boxes for the dead, and hosts/ wafers, wine, etc ... basically anything that wasn't nailed down. I would have stole the f'n chalice that was gold, if I figured they wouldn't find it missing. But ... good read

05 July, 2019 07:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm cool with that -- churches rip off the rest of us for untold billions, and don't even pay taxes on it.

05 July, 2019 08:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When mankind gets past the 'imaginary friend' from 'imaginary places' stage we can stop worrying about what God wants and which imaginary places we want to get to, or avoid, and focus on what people need now and what we want the future to look like for the children.

06 July, 2019 10:55  

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