Is religiosity beneficial in affluent first world nations? That is the question addressed by independent researcher Gregory Paul in the current issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology. In his article, "The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions," Paul argues that evidence strongly shows that as socioeconomic conditions improve secularism/atheism increases. Paul is a thorough-going progressive who fully endorses the economic security policies found in most western European countries. According to Paul, religious belief remains more prevalent in the United States largely because of Americans experience higher levels of economic and social insecurity than do the citizens of other rich countries. Paul asserts that the fact that secularism increases with perceived economic and physical security undercuts the argument that religious belief is natural (genetic) to human beings. He concludes:
In view of the reduced levels of religiosity consistently extant in populations that enjoy secure middle class lives, it can be postulated that if socioeconomic conditions had been similarly benign since humans first appeared it is unlikely that religion would have developed to nearly the degree seen in actual human history, and atheism would have been much more widespread and possibly ubiquitous since the beginning. Materialism and language in contrast would still be omnipresent. Ergo, strong religiosity has all the signs of being a natural invention of human minds in response to a defective habitat, and is neither supernatural, nor genetically preprogrammed to the same extent as are more deeply set language and material desire. Because spirituality is a relatively optional attribute more comparable to writing which is not fundamental to the human condition, it is not consistently more difficult for humans to be spiritual than nontheistic (partly contra Boyer, 2008), under certain environmental conditions the opposite can be true.
It follows that the mass loss of 1st world theism contradicts a number of potential primary causes of popular religious devotion, including fear of death and hell complemented by a pleasant eternal existence, fear of societal chaos if the society is not sufficiently pious, desire for an uberfather figure or a universal companion, an explanation for the meaning of life or the existence of the universe, a social primate's desire for community and need for practical social support, a means to achieve political power, a "God Module" or some expression of brain structure and function that creates a deep set psychological need for spirituality, the ecstasy often associated with religious belief and activity, the excessive teleological tendency to perceive patterns where they do not exist, retention of childhood patterns of gullible thinking into adulthood, "God gene/s" in which religious belief imparts a survival or reproductive benefit to individuals or related groups, and "memes" that spread religious ideas like viral infections even if religious devotion is maladaptive to a given individual or group (Bloom, 2007; Boyer, 2008; Dawkins, 2006; Dennett, 2006; Fincher and Thornhill, 2008; Inzlicht et al., 2009; Kelemen and Rosset, 2009). Most French, Swedes and Japanese have spontaneously abandoned religion even though they face the same lethal fate as faithful Americans. Likewise, if need for social community is compelling then western Europeans, Australians should continue to flock to the churches. Political ambitions are not crucial because public expressions of deep piety have become an electoral detriment in the strongly secular democracies. Nor is the highly skeptical French population genetically or neurologically distinct from highly religious ones, so factors that potentially involve selective forces, including excessive pattern recognition and gullibility, are not predominant. There a no reason to think that the brains of the French and Canadians are more or less resistant to infectious memes. To the extent that any of the above factors are operative, they apparently do not fully function outside the context of the dysfunctional socioeconomic conditions that favor mass religiosity.
An outline scenario of the origin, evolution and decline of popular religion compatible with the results of this study is as follows. Endowed by the evolution of high level, flexible intelligence with imaginative minds influenced by dreams and perception altering drugs that appeared to provide a connection to alternative worlds, early humans were poorly informed hunter gatherers living impoverished and dangerous lives. These conditions were so ideal for the invention of supernatural entities that could be petitioned for aid and protection that it is difficult to construct a scenario in which primitive cultures would be rationalistic atheists. A genetic propensity driven by selective forces may not be necessary for the appearance of popular religion in this scenario. If genes are involved then they are strongly expressed only when the human environment is suitable, unlike the much more prevalent genetic programming for language and materialism. The lives of the great majority remained impoverished and insecure with the onset of agriculture and then civilization, the latter was accompanied and may have been partly driven by the appearance of priestly castes who invented organized religion as a means of maintaining sociopolitical control. In this dysfunctional context the promise of benign afterlife to all believers may have given Christianity and Islam a competitive advantage that led them to dominate half of the global population (Barrett et al., 2001). Dysfunctional socioeconomic conditions continued to favor mass religiosity, until the appearance of the most secure and prosperous middle class 1st world conditions in history allowed and encouraged the largest scale spontaneous secularization in history. The ancient evolution of a relatively weak and consequently inconsistent hold by religion on the human psyche allowed the modern instability of popular theism that made this study possible.
Ignoring Paul's arguments about social policy, he does seem to be correct that prosperity correlates with increasing secularization, even in the United States. For my take on the meaning of recent secularization trends in the U.S., see my April 2008 Reason article, "The New Age of Reason: Is the Fourth Great Awakening finally coming to a close?"
Just in case you are still wondering, Paul's answer to the opening question is, no.