The withering up of religion in capitalist societies is something I've been thinking about lately. Religion, according to Marx and Billot, is the missing ingredient that makes the capitalist model of the 19th century work. By believing in the sweet hereafter, people could cope with the material circumstances of thier existance - and the circumstances they imposed on others. So wage slavery and actual slavery were ameliorated through religion, both fromt heoe point of view of the salve and the slave owner, the worker and the capitalist.
Marx describes religion here as the very real projection of human hopes and desires, an impulse for a better world.
But to him, religion is nonetheless a human creation that is holding back people from improving their real lives in the here and now, as they wait for "pie in the sky when you die" (that quote is from Joe Hill).
As Marx said: "Man makes religion, religion does not make man".
So does the fading of formal religion an indication that material relations have changed to make it unnecessary? Of course not. The need is still there, but the opium has change. Instead of formal religion, we have the cult of individualism and achievement, and scientific rationalism. We are persuaded to work and behave not through our anticipation of reward in the next world, but of reward at a later date in this world - which, for all practical purposes, amounts tot he same thing. We work, so that others can be rich, in the hope and anticipation that we might be rich in the end. That this doesn't work is borne out by ample evidence all around us, but never-the-less we continue to believe it - and I choose the verb 'believe' deliberately, as it isn't a rational process.
In the meantime, of course, the rich continue to be rich, and usually end up richer. Everyone else continues to be poor and usually end up poorer.
And just as we use religion to ameleriorate babrabisms like slavery, we do the same sort of thing today, justifying the use of child labour, slave labour and indentured labour as being a necessary part of helping these countries 'develop' - meaning helping the rich in these countries become richer, just like our rich people.
And the terrible thing is that people really, really believe all the aspirational crap they are given, just like a couple of hundred years ago they really believed in a Heaven for the meek and the weak.
We haven't really learned very much, have we?
1 - "Man makes religion; it does not make man," by Victor Billot. Published in the Otago Daily Times, 30th of October, 2009. (http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/80040/man-makes-religion-it-does-not-make-man)