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Goodbye, God? Irish scientist predicts atheism will overtake religion in Jamaica

Published:Friday | August 16, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Martin Baxter, Gleaner Writer

By the year 2041, the majority of Jamaicans will not believe in the existence of God, says one Britain-based scientist who is arguing that the move towards atheism is a global trend.

Dr Nigel Barber says the correlation between development and atheism is significant enough to erode the deeply religious values that underpin the Jamaican society and cited his country of birth as an example of this.

"Ireland - where I spent my childhood - was equally religious but is now the 10th least religious country in the world, according to (pollsters) Gallup Organization. This rapid change may be attributed to very rapid economic growth," he explained.

"Affluence helps people feel more confident about the future so that there is less need for religion to cope with uncertainty and distress. In less-developed countries, people have more to worry about in terms of early death, accidents, violence, and so forth. One way of expressing this is to say that religion provides emotional comfort in the face of a dangerous, uncertain world."

Barber, who is a biopsychologist, based his conclusions on a study of people living in 137 countries, including Jamaica. Those conclusionsare published in his book, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.

"The basic motivation behind religious belief in the remote past was to gain a sense of control over important but uncertain outcomes," he said.

"In hunter-gatherer societies, the shaman interacted with the spirits believed to control the movements of game animals in order to ensure better luck in the hunt. I argue that people became more deeply religious when they moved on to agriculture because it is a more difficult and uncertain way of life in the sense that agriculturalists have worse health, poorer diet, and more work-related injury (based on anthropological analysis of skeletons).

Said Barber: "In modern social democracies, there is arguably a better quality of life than ever before, with less uncertainty over food, unpredictable violence, and so forth, so (there is) less need to appeal to the supernatural."

This view resonated with Rastafarian dub poet and broadcaster Mutabaruka, who said the Christian concept of God would eventually become irrelevant in Jamaica.

"The more we get information and the more we understand who we are as a people, we will definitely move away from the concept of God that has been placed upon us. It has not served us over the years and we need to find ourselves in a relatively new idea of thinking when it comes on to knowing self, knowing what's around us," he said.

"People will move more away from religion and the concept of God that was taught to us. I think there will be a new concept of God to fill or to fulfil man's desire to know himself and to understand what is around him".

True at face value

Archbishop Donald Reese, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston, said at face value Barber's comments were true, but stressed that the countries included in the study "were built upon the shoulders of those who were religiously motivated".

"There's something deep in the human person that transcends even the biological, psychological understanding of the human person," said Reese, who vehemently denied that religion would be ultimately eradicated in Jamaica.

The clergyman added, however, that Barber's comments make for "good discussion" and that "once you have that untouchable or that transcendent understanding of the human person, then I don't think atheism will overtake religion".

"Both increased wealth and increased poverty may lead to a swing away from religion," said a University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer and PhD student, who added that evidence for the former might be more compelling.

martin.baxter@gleanerjm.com