Pascal's Wager, the lure of prosperity and losing my religion

24 Oct 2018
Hands clutched in prayer over an open bible

In 1991, the American band R.E.M recorded their iconic anthem Losing My Religion. Some twenty-seven years later, the song remains hugely popular with enigmatic lyrics penned by Michael Stipe. One haunting phrase "That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight, losing my religion" has its origins in the American South and is used to evoke frustration, anger and, in the context of the song, disappointment from love.

In the context of our present alarming age of anger and personal, political and climate change anxiety, this theme is apposite for a world of confusions, mistrust and uncertainty over what to believe and what to value.

Bewildering digital disruptiveness and the inexorable rise of robots, algorithms and human fear define the 4th Industrial Revolution. Connecting these phenomena with the continuing power, influence, relevance and consequences of world religion, raise important if difficult questions about the linkages between religious beliefs, prosperity and conflict. 17th Century Philosopher Blaise Pascal's contention that the prospect of eternal rewards will lead people to bet on God continues to resonate in the 21st century.

Thinkers from the 18th to the 20th Century hotly debated the impact of Protestant Christianity on Capitalism and the consequent decline of Christian values and social morality. In the 21st century, social scientists and economists have argued passionately over the evidence for a global decline in religious adherence.

The highly regarded Pew Research Center (April 7, 2017) estimated that the global number of religiously unaffiliated people (atheists, agnostics and no particular religion) would rise from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.20 billion by 2060. However, with a more than 30% increase in world population (from 7.3 to 9.6 billion,) the proportion of people with “no religion" will fall from around 16% to 13%. Behind these broad figures are complex and captivating statistics that differentiate between continents, regions and countries as well as various trends driving the changing demography of the religious and non-religious. Indeed, it can be conjectured that in the coming decades, 'Losing my Religion' will metamorphosise into 'Gaining my Religion'.

The Pew Research therefore starkly contradicts the alleged growth of 'No Religion' and the Secularisation thesis of Stephen Pinker, (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress). Pinker's work may be relevant to those countries where the loosening grip of organised religion can be linked to growing disappointment in the discriminatory, hypocritical, corrupt and unethical behaviour evident in many societies reinforced by increasing secularisation and the pursuit of faster economic development and future prosperity.

In these turbulent times, can economists shed light on the linkages between global secularisation and reduced global conflict and violence? Have global economic inequalities emanating from the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, spreading to Europe and across the globe, strengthened or undermined religious beliefs in difference societies? Can world religions mitigate the social, economic and political tensions arising from great economic disparities and disruptive technological transformation (and address the growing tensions of inequality reflected in mounting anxieties over self-worth and decline in community cohesiveness?)?

It is clear that the challenges posed by the immense global economic, political, social and technological revolution taking place require grand thinking, a grand vision and a grand architecture to transform society, justice, equality and stability. I also would argue that the dismantling of economic and other forms of inequality will require a revolution in the partnering of technology, economics and cooperative security. Such a Sharing Economy will necessitate new models of economic democracy and local empowerment and smart sharing.

Professor Adrian Kendry is a Visiting Professor of Economics and Security at the University of Winchester and Former NATO Senior Defence Economist and Adviser to the 12th Secretary General. On 31 October, he will examine the intersection between conflict, religion and economics in his inaugural lecture Losing My Religion? Secularisation, Prosperity and the Nexus Between Religion, Conflict and Peace. Click here to find out more and book your place.

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