Ross Douthat laments the “elite’s” loss of faith

April 11, 2021 • 9:45 am

The answer to Ross Douthat’s title question below is, of course, “no”: the meritocracy, which I suppose one can define as either the rich or the educated, are increasingly giving up religion. And, if history be any guide, they’re unlikely to go back to it. Click on the screenshot below to read Douthat’s elegy for the loss of religion among America’s elite, his reasons why it’s happening, and his straw-grasping about how the meritocracy might come back to God. (Douthat is, of course, a staunch Catholic.)

Last year, by even Douthat’s admission, only 47% of Americans belonged to a church, mosque, or synagogue.  Two years ago, in an article called “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” the Pew Research Center presented the following graphs. As American Christianity has declined quickly, the proportion of “nones”—those who see themselves as agnostics, atheists, or holding “no religion in particular”—is growing apace. (remember, this is over only a dozen years).

The fall in religiosity has been faster among the younger than the older, among Democrats than among Republicans, and among those with more education rather than less.

Douthat calls these data “grim.” Here’s his worry:

A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia — meaning not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.”

Most of these people — my people, by tribe and education — would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness. But Jesus endorsed the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and religious communities no less than secular ones rely on talent and ambition. So the deep secularization of the meritocracy means that people who would once have become priests and ministers and rabbis become psychologists or social workers or professors, people who might once have run missions go to work for NGOs instead, and guilt-ridden moguls who might once have funded religious charities salve their consciences by starting secular foundations.

But this all sounds good to me! Isn’t it better to have more psychologists, social workers, and professors instead of more clerics? At least the secular workers are trained to do their job, and don’t have a brief to proselytize or inculcate children with fairy tales.

But no, not to Douthat. Implicit in his column is the worry that without religion, America would be less moral. (He doesn’t state this outright, but absent that belief his column makes no sense. Unless, that is, he’s interested in saving souls for Jesus.)

As a Christian inhabitant of this world, I often try to imagine what it would take for the meritocracy to get religion. There are certain ways in which its conversion doesn’t seem unimaginable. A lot of progressive ideas about social justice still make more sense as part of a biblical framework, which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope. Meanwhile on the meritocracy’s rightward wing — meaning not-so-woke liberals and Silicon Valley libertarians — you can see people who might have been new atheists 15 years ago taking a somewhat more sympathetic look at the older religions, out of fear of the vacuum their decline has left.

You can also see the concern with morality as Douthat proffers two reasons why, he thinks, the elite are prevented from hurrying back to Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad:

One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty — especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self-contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.

Again, I’m baffled about why Douthat sees religiously-based morality, particularly of the Catholic variety, as superior to humanistic morality. After all, only religious “morality” prescribes how and with whom you can have sex, the supposed “role” of women as breeders and subservient partners, the demonization of gays, the criminality of abortion, the desirability of the death penalty, and the immorality of assisted dying.  What kind of morality do you expect to get by following the dictates of a bunch of superstitious people from two millennia ago, people who had to posit an angry god to explain what they didn’t understand about the cosmos? You get the brand of religion that Douthat wants us all to have! For he sees religiously deontological morality as better than think-for-yourself morality: the “the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion.”

And it’s clear, as Douthat continues his risible lament for the loss of faith, that he sees no contradiction between rationality and superstition, though the conflict between them, and the increasing hegemony of science in explaining stuff previously within God’s bailiwick, is what is driving the educated to give up their faith:

A second obstacle [to the elite regaining faith] is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.

There are two misconceptions in two paragraphs. The first is that professors indoctrinate students with the belief that there is no God—we are training them in atheism, materialism, and scientism. But we don’t do that: the students give up God because, as they learn more, they also grasp that, as Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, we “have no need of that hypothesis.” If there were actual evidence for miracles and a theistic god, people wouldn’t abandon their faith.

Further, although some of the “nones” are spiritual in the sense of embracing stuff like astrology or crystal therapy, I see no evidence of a rise in embracing of woo as profound as the decline in religiosity.  The example of Scandinavia, which converted from religiosity to atheism in about 250 years, shows not only that religion isn’t needed to create a moral, caring society (indeed, it shows that religion is inimical to this), but also that religion needn’t be replaced by other forms of woo. As far as I know, the Danes and Swedes aren’t fondling their crystals with alacrity.

Nothing will shake Douthat’s faith in God, nor his faith in faith as an essential part of society—in this he resembles his co-religionist Andrew Sullivan—but he does adhere to a form of intelligent design held by those sentient people who are still religious:

Yes, science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty. But our supposedly “disenchanted” world remains the kind of world that inspired religious belief in the first place: a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets, who display godlike powers in miniature and also a strong demonic streak, and whose lives are constantly buffeted by hard-to-explain encounters and intimations of transcendence. To be dropped into such a world and not be persistently open to religious possibilities seems much more like prejudice than rationality.

I don’t seem to have had those hard-to-explain encounters or intimations of transcendence. I must be missing my sensus divinitatis! What Douthat takes as evidence for God, like the tendency of humans to be clever but sometimes nasty, can be understood by a combination of our evolutionary heritage and our cultural overlay. The same holds for “a system that generates conscious beings.” It’s evolution, Jake!

In the end, Douthat is as baffled by we secularists’ rejection of God as I am by his credulous acceptance of the supernatural as the only plausible explanation for the Universe:

And my anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Like Pascal contemplating his wager, it always seems to me that if you concede that religious questions are plausible you should concede that they are urgent, or that if you feel the supernatural brush you, your spiritual curiosity should be radically enhanced.

Well, as a scientist one must always give a degree of plausibility to any hypothesis, but when that degree is close to zero on the confidence scale, we need consider it no further. Based on the evidence, the notion of a god is as implausible as notions of fairies, leprechauns, or other such creatures.  And if the plausibility is close to zero, then so is the urgency.  And even if the questions are urgent, which I don’t believe since the world’s well being doesn’t depend on them, they are also unanswerable, making them even less urgent. Would Douthat care to tell me why he thinks the Catholic god is the right one rather than the pantheon of Hindu gods, including the elephant-headed Ganesha? Isn’t it urgent to decide which set of beliefs is right?

But maybe it’s because I never felt the supernatural brush me.



h/t: Bruce

The Middle East and Ireland losing their religion

February 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two of the last holdout areas for religion—countries and regions that have historically been resistant to nonbelief—are now becoming surprisingly secular. Those are Ireland in the West and seven countries in the Middle East—at least according to recent surveys. The stunning thing about both areas is how fast the change is coming.

Let’s take the Middle East first. There are two studies mentioned in the article below in Die Deutsche Welle (click on screenshot):

The article itself gives data for only Iran, but you can find data for six other countries by clicking on the article’s link to a study at The Arab Barometer (AB), described as “a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan.” (The sample size for that study isn’t easily discernible from the various articles about it).

First, a graph showing a striking increase in secularism across the six nations:

The change from the blue bar to the burgundy one is at most 7 years, yet every index in each country has dropped over that period save for a few indices that appear to be unchanged. The true indices of religiosity itself—profession of nonbelief and attendance at mosques—has fallen dramatically. And remember, this is over less than a decade.  Trust in religious leaders and Islamist parties has also dropped.

Here’s the summary among all these countries. (Note that many Muslim countries, including those in Africa and the Far East, as well as nations like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, aren’t represented.) 

In 2013 around 51% of respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great” or “medium” extent. When a comparable question was asked last year the number was down to 40%. The share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. “State religious actors are often perceived as co-opted by the regime, making citizens unlikely to trust them,” says Michael Robbins of Arab Barometer.

The share of Arabs describing themselves as “not religious” is up to 13%, from 8% in 2013. That includes nearly half of young Tunisians, a third of young Libyans, a quarter of young Algerians and a fifth of young Egyptians. But the numbers are fuzzy. Nearly half of Iraqis described themselves as “religious”, up from 39% in 2013. Yet the share who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen by nearly half, to 33%. Perhaps faith is increasingly personal, says Mr Robbins.

And some data from Iran, not represented in the survey above. Remember, Iran is a theocracy. The survey is for those over 19, and the sample size is large: over 40,000 “literate interviewees”.

An astonishing 47% have, within their lifetime, gone from being religious to nonreligious, while only 6% went in the opposite direction. As we see for almost every faith, women retain their religion more than men.  The “non-religious people” aren’t all atheists or agnostics, but instead appear to be “nones”—those with no formal affiliation to a faith. (This includes atheists and “spiritual people” as well as goddies who don’t belong to a formal church.)

I say that many are “nones” because another study in Iran, cited in the AB article, showed that 78% of those surveyed in the Middle East believe in God: a lot more than the 47% below who professor to being “non-religious” (of course these are different surveys and might not be comparable). Still, in this other survey, 9% claim that they’re atheists—comparable to the 10% of Americans who self-describe as atheists.

And a general remark by a religion expert whom we’ve encountered before:

The sociologist Ronald Inglehart, Lowenstein Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of the book Religious Sudden Decline [sic], has analyzed surveys of more than 100 countries, carried out from 1981-2020. Inglehart has observed that rapid secularization is not unique to a single country in the Middle East. “The rise of the so-called ‘nones,’ who do not identify with a particular faith, has been noted in Muslim majority countries as different as Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco,” Tamimi Arab added.

Inglehart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, came out January 2, so it’s brand new, and you can order it on Amazon here.


It’s a pity that Grania isn’t here to comment on this article from Unherd’s new news site The Post, as she always had a good take on Catholicism in Ireland (she was, in fact, a German citizen born in South Africa). These data come from a study taken by the World Inequality Database, which I can’t access. I’ll just give the scant data for Ireland presented by David Quinn (click on screenshot):

The proportion of Irish people who say they never go to church:

2011-2016: 19%
2020:     50%

That is a huge jump!

The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):

2011-2016: 33%
2020:     28%

This shows that the drop in Irish religiosity reflects a rise in who rarely or never go to church, not a falling-off of the regulars. Quinn reports that “just under half of Irish people were coming to church less than once a month four or five year [sic] ago and this is now just 22%. Many of those sporadic attenders have stopped coming altogether.”

Over much of the 12 years this website has been going (we started in January 2009), I’ve written posts showing the decline of religiosity in the West, predicting that it is a long-term trend that will end with religion becoming a vestigial social organ. Yes, it will always be with us, but in the future it won’t be very much with us. But I thought the Middle East would be a last bastion of belief, as Islam is so deeply intertwined with politics and daily life. But that appears to be waning as well, for the Middle East is becoming Westernized in many ways, and with that comes Western values and secularism (see Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for discussion of increased secularism and humanism.) This is to be applauded, except by those anti-Whigs who say that religion is good for humanity.

Quinn echoes much of this at the end of his piece, explaining why Ireland remained more religious than England and the countries of Northern Europe:

Secularisation has swept across the whole of the western world, and Ireland is part of the West. It was impossible for Ireland not to eventually be affected by social and intellectual trends elsewhere. What almost certainly delayed secularisation in Ireland is that, in the years after we gained independence, one way of showing we had shaken off British rule was by making Catholicism an integral part of our national identity. As we no longer believe it is necessary to do this, we are now shaking off the Church.

The third factor is that, as a small country it can be particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. Once, we all went to Mass. Now, below a certain age, almost no-one goes. We were a nation of nuns and priests. Now, we are becoming a people with no direct religious affiliation: a country of ‘nones’.


h/t: Steve, Clive

Big-time cognitive dissonance!

January 28, 2021 • 11:00 am

This article recently appeared in Quillette. Given its title, I naturally read it: I was the one experiencing cognitive dissonance! (Click on screen shot.)

It’s a sad story. Author Edie Wyatt was sexually abused for years by someone who lived in her house, a situation exacerbated by Wyatt’s alcoholic, ill, and dysfunctional parents and problematic siblings. Naturally, Wyatt’s life fell apart, but she got herself together sufficiently to go to college. There she became a Marxist, but Marx didn’t save her. And then Wyatt found Jesus:

Under the belief (delusional, as it turned out) that the problem was rooted in my drug and alcohol use, I gave up both. Unfortunately, without that self-medication, I found myself face to face with the underlying pain and paralysing fear. One night, I collapsed on the floor, crying and in such physical pain that I could barely move. I picked up a Bible and read a passage from 2 Corinthians 5—Awaiting the New Body—that left me completely undone.

Not long after, I walked into a suburban Baptist church, full of strange, unfashionably dressed, conservative Christians. I was a Marxist, a feminist, foul-mouthed, a chain-smoker, and desperate. The love I received in that place is the reason that I will defend the rights of fundamentalist Christians to my dying breath. They were the kindest people I’d ever known. They loved me, on principle, and in doing so saved my life.

People who advocate for a world without religion have no idea what it is like to find the relief that I found at that time. My purpose here is not to describe my “Amazing Grace” moment, but to explain why I have no patience for militant atheists. In the face of my evangelical Christianity, progressives (mostly men) have called me every unholy thing imaginable—including, of all things, a paedophile apologist.

No patience for militant atheists because she found Jesus! Do all militant atheists need Jesus? Or should we just shut up about religion?

The prudishness of Christanity also appealed to her:

. . . Objectively, I had seen that by reading the Bible, living cleanly, and changing the company I kept, my life had really improved. It was in relationship with God that I found peace, purpose, and joy. I found I could forgive, I could breathe, I could sleep, and my fear had disappeared.

Looking back, though, I do see why certain practices of evangelical Protestantism were attractive to me. Spaces in churches often are separated by sex. Physical contact between young single men and women is not encouraged. My favourite was the “Billy Graham principle”: Men in the church would not visit me alone as a single woman. The pastor would only meet me in his office with the door slightly ajar, so other staff could see in. I know that churches have been places where many people have not been safe. But the corner of Christianity I’d stumbled upon happened to be genuinely devout (to my knowledge) and serious about holiness. That’s what I liked about it. That’s what I still like about it.

What about white privilege? Well, she said that, like Marxism, it failed her:

My “white privilege” didn’t save me from childhood sexual abuse. Sexual violence almost killed me. It ruined my childhood, made me homeless, and left me with enduring scars. I can debate and theorize about politics as much as the next person. But ultimately, the politics of the modern Left is dominated by its fixation on power. And children have no power.

There’s more discussion of postmodernism and its failures, and of the biological rather than ideological basis of sex. But you can read that for yourself.

All these stances appeal to Quillette, of course, but Wyatt’s story, sad and tortuous as it is, doesn’t cohere as a political statement, which I think Quillette wanted it to be. I’m very glad that Wyatt found solace and peace in Christianity, but she wasn’t saved by God, for God doesn’t exist. He’s like “white privilege”: a phantom concocted to leverage power. She was saved by a group of people who believe in a mythical deity, and that’s fine for those who need it. But the part of evangelical Christianity that seems to be most attractive to Wyatt—the segregation of men from women and the abnegation of sexuality—may have helped her because of Wyatt’s past sexual abuse, but it’s surely not a healthy attitude in general.

What we have here is a self-help story that Quillette has adopted (and possibly helped edit) so comes off as a blow against the concept of white privilege. (And against atheism to boot!) But any white person who has a troubled life, as Wyatt did, could write an article saying that “white privilege didn’t save me.” The problem is that even the purveyors of that gutted concept don’t claim that it always gives white people a great life!

And as for the God part, well I hope that Quillette is not going soft on religion. It’s okay to write about people’s religious experiences, but not okay to claim that God can act where the tenets of social justice can’t.

The final bit:

Because of my experiences, and the newly fashionable denial of reality being promoted by progressives, I find myself sitting with the politically homeless. For now, we are all retreating to old-fashioned liberalism with unlikely new friends—an exodus to a land none of us can see.  This divergent group of progressive dissenters won’t find a land flowing with milk and honey, but we might find a place to speak the truth, to cling to those who belong to us, and protect the vulnerable. I’m not sure there is any higher purpose to politics anyway.

Nor is there a “higher purpose” to anything! 

A philosopher infected with confirmation bias explains why evolution proves God

November 15, 2020 • 9:15 am

Religious affirmations like those in this video make me angry, wanting to call philosopher Holmes Rolston III a chowderhead who’s taking money under false pretenses. But I will refrain from such name-calling. Nevertheless, what you hear coming out of Rolston’s mouth in this short Closer to Truth interview is pure garbage: not even passable philosophy. It should dismay all rational people that such a man is not only expressing laughable confirmation biases, but is getting paid for it.

And yet here are Rolston’s bona fides from Wikipedia:

Holmes Rolston III (born November 19, 1932) is a philosopher who is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He is best known for his contributions to environmental ethics and the relationship between science and religion. Among other honors, Rolston won the 2003 Templeton Prize, awarded by Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. He gave the Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 1997–1998.
And remember that the Templeton Prize, was worth over a million bucks, even back in 2003. What did he get it for? This is from Templeton’s press release when they gave him the Prize:

The world’s best known religion prize, [The Templeton Prize] is given each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance spiritual matters.  When he created the prize, Templeton stipulated that its value always exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.

. . . .Rolston has lectured on seven continents including throughout Europe, Australia, South America, China, India, and Japan.

Seven continents? They left out Antarctica, and I doubt that Rolston has lectured there.  His prize-winning thoughts:

. . . science and religion have usually joined to keep humans in central focus, an anthropocentric perspective when valuing the creation of the universe and evolution on Earth.  Rolston, by contrast, has argued an almost opposite approach, one that looks beyond humans to include the fundamental value and goodness of plants, animals, species, and ecosystems as core issues of theological and scientific concern.  His 1986 book, Science and Religion — A Critical Study and his 1987 Environmental Ethics have been widely hailed for re-opening the question of a theology of nature by rejecting anthropocentrism in ethical and philosophical analysis valuing natural history.

Do I denigrate him unfairly? Shouldn’t I read his many books to give him a fairer assessment? Not on your life: I’m through with the Courtier’s Reply gambit.  Just let me add that Rolston is a believer, with a degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary, the same year he was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  

Have a listen, and don’t be drinking liquids when you do. The good part is that this is only a bit less than seven minutes long.

Rolston gets a sense of “divine creativity” from the gradual and incremental changes wrought by neo-Darwinian evolution. But in this video he dwells more on serendipity, the “surprises” that punctuate the history of evolution. These include these “adventures that turned out right”:

a.) Swim bladders evolving into lungs (most people think it’s the other way around, but Rolston is right). This is a simple case of an “exaptation“, as Gould called it: the adaptation of an evolved feature into something with a new function.

b.) The capture of a photosynthetic bacterium by another cell to form photosynthetic eukaryotes: plants. (The same happened with mitochondria.) Yes, this is unpredictable, as is all of evolution, and was a major innovation, but it’s not evidence for God.

c.) The evolution of hearing began with a pressure-sensitive cell in a fish. This is another exaptation, though the function didn’t change, but altered a bit. Hearing still depends on pressure change, but we use it for apprehending and interpreting language and other sounds in air. Animals use it for intraspecies communication and detection of predators (which fish also use it for).

I could give a gazillion examples of such “surprises” in evolution, like the evolution of the ovipositor of insects into the stinging apparatus of bees and wasps, the doubling of an entire ancestral genome—twice—during the evolution of the vertebrates, and so on. Nobody can predict where evolution will go, for, as Jacques Monod famously noted in 1977, evolution is a tinkerer. And what about the “adventures that turned out wrong“, like the evolution of large dinosaurian reptiles? God killed ’em off by sending a big asteroid plummeting towards Earth.

The fact is that nothing we see in evolution contradicts the claim that it’s a purely naturalistic process, proceeding via unpredictable events—mutations and environmental change. This is the most parsimonious hypothesis given that we have not an iota of convincing evidence for God.

Then, in response to a softball question by the host, Rolston avers that he sees a theological underpinning of surprise, co-option, and serendipity. But since he also sees the hand of god in gradual Darwinian evolution, he sees the hand of God in all of evolution. In other words, there is nothing Rolston could observe about evolution that wouldn’t, for him, constitute evidence for God. As he says:

“It leaves open a place for surprising creativity . . . that I think exceeds any Darwinian capacity for explanation. Now I said when I began that I can find the presence of God in incremental evolutionary genesis. But maybe if the world is surprising as well as predictable that might further invite places where you might think if I should say, ‘God might sneak into the evolutionary process.’. . . .God may like serendipity as well as law-like prediction and determinism.”

So, If evolution is gradual and smooth, it’s evidence for God. But if there are “surprises”, as there have been, well, that’s also evidence for God. In other words, EVERYTHING is evidence for God. It is an academic crime that someone not only gets paid—and wins a huge prize—for spouting this kind of pabulum, but also is respected for it, for, after all, Rolston is a minister and a believer.

My contempt for this kind of reasoning knows no bounds. It could be filed in the Philosophical Dictionary under “confirmation bias; religion”. (Is that heading a redundancy?) Everything that happens is evidence for God because it’s “what God likes.” But of course if you argue that “whatever happens must be what God likes,” then you have yourself a million-dollar airtight, circular argument.  Some philosophy!

I guess the host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, sees his brief as drawing out the guest rather than challenging him, and that’s okay. But I would have been pleased had Kuhn asked him this: “Is there anything about evolution that doesn’t give you evidence for God?”  I would think, for instance, that the evolution of predators and parasites that inflict horrible suffering on animals might make one question the existence of God, as it did for Darwin, but I’m sure Rolston has his explanation. Maybe it’s “God likes a little drama in his creation.”


h/t: Mark

“Religions aren’t growing: they’re just growing louder”: Dennett on God and religiosity

November 12, 2020 • 2:00 pm

A while back I was asked to appear on Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s Closer to Truth videos, but I had some issues over Templeton funding (there appears to be none), and the fact that the show always seems to be pushing goddiness.

Given that Kuhn has now interviewed atheist Dan Dennett (see the 8-minute video below), perhaps I should have been more willing to be interviewed, for I see my correspondence with Kuhn simply petered out.  What makes Dan ideal for this kind of show is that he’s affable, pulls no punches about his nonbelief, but also is interested in the phenomena of religion and especially of “belief in belief”: the view that religion is a good thing for humanity regardless of whether you yourself accept a god. As Dan points out, there are more people with “belief in belief” than those with “belief in God”, because the former class subsumes the latter and adds nonbelievers as well. So his interest in religion goes well beyond investigating whether any gods exist.

Dan does a good job here, saying that the Abrahamic god doesn’t exist but that the phenomenon of religion is still worth studying. He notes the steep decline of religiosity throughout most of the world, which just prompts churches to proselytize all the more. As he says, “Religions aren’t growing; they’re just growing louder.” (Dan’s handy with the bon mots.)

My only quibble with what Dan says, and it’s barely even a quibble, is that he’s not all that interested in the existence of gods. Having dismissed the Abrahamic one, he also isn’t interested in whether there is something “real” for which God can be seen as a metaphor (e.g., the cosmos or a Tillichian “Ground of Being” because “the answer to it doesn’t have much to do with how religions flourish and it guide people’s lives in the future.”

That may be true, but if you take moral guidance from the metaphorical god, or pray to it, or inculcate your children in it, or simply take the view that faith plays a role in this process, then at best you’re enabling belief in the unevidenced, and at worst promulgating or preaching bad behaviors.

h/t: Paul

Blatant atheism in The New Yorker!

November 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

James Wood is a Harvard Professor of English, specializing in literary criticism, a practice he regularly engages in reviewing books for the New Yorker. I like his literary work because he seems an advocate of the outdated but still best form of criticism: “New Criticism”, in which works are taken as they are—as aesthetic expressions—not to be dissected with one literary theory of another. Over the years I’ve written about his work now and again, sometimes taking him to task for being critical of New Atheism. And he’s replied to my criticisms on this website, saying, among other things, the following in response to my critique of one of his articles:

Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.

As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .

At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.

His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study.  And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.

It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?”  And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.

As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:

This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.

You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.

I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business.  But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.

It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”

Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:

Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”

I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”

What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.

Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:

The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.

That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):

We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.

No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?

Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:

Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.

There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.

A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦

But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.

In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!

A superb article against the religious indoctrination of children

October 14, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Many of you must have had this experience: walking through the airport, say, and seeing a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the little girls dressed like their mothers, and the little boys sporting sidelocks and yarmukes—all destined to grow up into lives exactly like those of their parents. Or you see a Muslim family, with the little girls wearing hijabs and “modest” clothing.  Or Amish and Mennonites, with the children exact miniatures of the adults. And as with the clothing and hair, so the beliefs.  Those children are doomed—doomed to adopt via indoctrination the religious beliefs of their parents. They will never be exposed to alternative points of view, will never have the chance for lives different from those of their religiously regulated and constricted community.

I find this ineffably sad, for this kind of religious (and cultural) indoctrination is nothing less than brainwashing. Famously, Richard Dawkins called it “child abuse”. And although that term angered many, including parents who assert the right to control their children’s religious beliefs, Dawkins was not wrong. It is abuse to limit the lives of children by filling their minds with religious nonsense as soon as they can understand language.

Reader Andy called my attention to this 23-year-old transcript of a lecture by Cambridge neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey: his plenary lecture to Amnesty International. That was nine years before Dawkins’s The God Delusion publicized the “child abuse” argument to the world. Surely Richard derived some of his views from Humphrey, for Humphrey’s are plain, courageous, and eloquent. Further, all of us who have John Brockman as an agent, including Dawkins, read stuff on Brockman’s website Edge, where this essay was published.

Humphrey’s lecture is the best thing I’ve seen written about why parents should not indoctrinate their children with religion, and I recommend it very highly. Click on the screenshot to read the transcript.

Humphrey is far from “strident” here. Though he’s passionate in his arguments, he also considers possible objections—before disposing of them.  And the gist of his argument is in this excerpt:

I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture today  [is] . . . to argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.

I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

That’s the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured [sic] by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.

Now when Humphrey rules out “moral and religious” education, he doesn’t mean “moral” in the sense of “you can’t tell your children that hitting others or bullying them is wrong”. He means “morality as derived from the tenets of religion.” The lecture is in fact solely about religious beliefs, and doesn’t rule out teaching your children the kind of “moral” behavior that’s universally agreed upon by all, including secularists.

I won’t spoil the read for you with more excerpts, except to give one more below. Suffice it to say that Humphrey’s lecture is especially good because (like Dawkins’s books) it anticipates and answers counterarguments. Don’t parents have a right to teach their children their own faith? Even if religion is based on false tenets, isn’t it good to teach children those tenets if it makes them happier? And so on.  Humphrey then explains that religious indoctrination deprives the child of the right to hear about alternative beliefs and lifestyles, a form of learning that, if imparted, could give them richer and fuller lives.  In other words, religious indoctrination is like a mental jail in which children don’t ever get out, never breathing the fresh air of Freedom to Explore.

Lest you think I’m violating my determinism here by talking about “choice”, I’m not: I’m saying that you can make an good argument that not propagandizing children is better for them than forcing them to adopt your own beliefs. And perhaps those arguments will influence the brains of religious parents to lay off their kids, or at least prompt third parties to criticize this invidious indoctrination. Children released from religious “jail” then experience environmental inputs into their brains that can lead them to leave their religious lives behind. As an example, Humphrey mentions the Amish who, when drafted as conscientious objectors, were allowed to work in public hospitals—just as I did. Exposed to other ways of living and thinking, many of these did not return to the Amish way of life. (This stopped when Amish elders, seeing they were losing hold of their kids, got the government to agree to send Amish C.O.’s only to Amish-run farms.)

At any rate, here is the criterion that Humphrey uses to judge religious indoctrination as immoral:

So I’ll come to the main point—and lesson—of this lecture. I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

This test, I admit, will not be simple to apply. It is rare enough for there to be the kind of social experiment that occurred with the Amish and the military draft. And even such an experiment does not actually provide so strong a test as I’m suggesting we require. After all the Amish young men were not offered the alternative until they were already almost grown up, whereas what we need to know is what the children of the Amish or any other sect would choose for themselves if they were to have had access to the full range of alternatives all along. But in practice of course such a totally free-choice is never going to be available.

And the second paragraph is the rub: there is no way that Orthodox Jews, observant Muslims, or the Amish, much less adherents to many other faiths, could ever refrain from imposing their beliefs on their children, for their religious beliefs and their lifestyle are almost one and the same. How could a hyper-Orthodox Jew bring up a child in a religion-free atmosphere?

But that’s a different question from “Is it wrong to indoctrinate children?”  It is wrong to brainwash your kids. What one should do to remedy the situation is much harder.

At the end of his piece, Humphreys offers one solution: make sure that all children are given a thorough grounding in science in school. Learning to think scientifically, he avers, and learning how to give reasons for what one believes, and think critically, will inevitably make children question all beliefs and, if they decide to be religious, will at least expose them to a variety of religions rather than the one they would have been forced to adopt. (I suspect the most likely outcome of this process, though, is atheism.)

The problem with this, of course, is that children aren’t given much of a scientific education when they’re young and vulnerable, and many—such as young Orthodox Jews or those who go to madrassas—are given no scientific education at all. Critical thinking courses, which naturally align with science, would help, but those aren’t on the menu for many believers, either. Can you imagine the Amish bringing up their children completely free from all religious doctrine, and making them go to secular schools where they learn science?

Humphrey’s arguments for why religious indoctrination is indeed a form of child abuse are eloquent and sound. His answers to those who criticize his views are also sound: parents do not have a “right” to fill their children’s heads with religious nonsense. What is lacking is a way to remedy this universal indoctrination. Humphrey’s own solution won’t work because it cannot be applied to those who need it most. Still, it’s useful for us to remember that this brainwashing goes on for millions and millions of children every day, and many of those children are forced into a narrow, blinkered life they wouldn’t have if they’d been given a better education.

Here’s a 2011 re-do of Humphreys Amnesty lecture:

h/t: Andy

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

AP/NORC poll: Most religious Americans see a message from God in the coronavirus pandemic

July 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

In one way things haven’t changed since the Middle Ages: the onset of a pandemic leads people to search for a greater meaning, usually involving the wrath of a god. So, for instance, the Black Death was blamed on a lack of piety (penitentes arose), the perfidy of the Jews, and so on.

Now, in America, many of us are still seeing God’s will in what’s happening. A poll by the Associated Press and the respected polling operation NORC, along with the University of Chicago Divinity School (!), shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans who believe in God think that the deity is sending us a message through the pandemic.

Click on the screenshot to read the report:

An excerpt:

The poll found that 31% of Americans who believe in God feel strongly that the virus is a sign of God telling humanity to change, with the same number feeling that somewhat. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than others to believe that strongly, at 43%, compared with 28% of Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The sad tale is told in the first graph below. Note that this is not a cross section of Americans, but of believers. Yet even 42% of the “unaffiliated” (i.e., the “nones”) think that the pandemic somehow conveys a message from God. Of course born-again Protestants think that in  spades (70% of them), but even 65% of Catholics adhere to that delusion.

Note too that the message is “humanity needs to change how we are living.”  It’s not clear exactly what we’re doing wrong this time, or what we were doing wrong in 1918, but surely this is a nasty God. After all, did he have to kill 644,000 people (today’s total death toll worldwide) to convey that message? Why did he kill the children, too? And are the U.S. and Brazil particularly in need of that message? And why, in the fourteenth century, did God kill off 60% of all Europeans? After all, they were far more pious than Americans today, but yet they got an even sterner message.

The second row in the figure below shows that 73% of born-agains, compared with 52% of Catholics and only 32% of nones, think that God will protect them from being infected.

All this testifies to the power of delusion, since there’s not an iota of evidence that God engineered this pandemic. Those who assert such a thing must answer these questions: How do you know this? What are we doing wrong to anger God? And do the national disparities in death tolls comport with the message that God’s supposed to be sending?


There’s a racial breakdown too, though it’s not graphed:

The question was asked of all Americans who said they believe in God, without specifying a specific faith. The survey did not have a sample size large enough to report on the opinions of religious faiths with smaller numbers of U.S. adherents, including Muslims and Jews.

In addition, black Americans were more likely than those of other racial backgrounds to say they feel the virus is a sign God wants humanity to change, regardless of education, income or gender. Forty-seven percent say they feel that strongly, compared with 37% of Latino and 27% of white Americans.

An explanation from the Sophisticated Theologians®:

David Emmanuel Goatley, a professor at Duke University’s divinity school who was not involved with the survey, said religious black Americans’ view of godly protection could convey “confidence or hope that God is able to provide — that does not relinquish personal responsibility, but it says God is able.”

Goatley, who directs the school’s Office of Black Church Studies, noted a potential distinction between how religious black Americans and religious white Americans might see their protective relationship with God.

Within black Christian theology is a sense of connection to the divine in which “God is personally engaged and God is present,” he said. That belief, he added, is “different from a number of white Christians, evangelical and not, who would have a theology that’s more a private relationship with God.”

Now talk about a real delusion, have a look at the figure below. (This appears to be a sample of all Americans, not just those who believe in God, though it’s not clear.)

As the report notes, “Overall, 82% of Americans say they believe in God, and 26% of Americans say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak. Just 1% say it has weakened.”

Think about that: a naturalistic pandemic that kills people willy-nilly, still increases people’s faith in God!

What, pray tell, would decrease their faith in God? When there’s no pandemic faith remains steady, when there is a pandemic faith grows stronger, so should we expect that when the pandemic wanes, or we get a vaccine, faith in God will decrease? No, of course not: believers will just say that God is satisfied that people will change their lives. Still, it’s up to believers who think God’s sending a message to be explicit about what that message is. After all, if you know God is sending us a message, you must also know its content.

A world survey: Do we need God to be moral?

July 24, 2020 • 8:45 am

A new study by the Pew organization (click on screenshot below or get full pdf here) surveyed 38,436 people in 34 countries across the globe, asking them questions about how important God or religion is to them and—today’s topic)—do you really need God to be moral.  The methods included both face to face and phone surveys.

The overall results aren’t that surprising: more religious countries and more religious people within countries think that “belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values”, while richer countries (which are also less religious countries) tend to harbor respondents who don’t think faith is necessary for morality. And the proportion of those who see God as important in this respect is waning in most of Western Europe over time, though growing in Russia, Bulgaria, Japan and Ukraine).

The overall results show a pretty even division across the globe, though religion plays an important role in most people’s lives. But these results aren’t that informative given the observed variation across countries (see below):

Below is a plot showing the variation across the surveyed countries. Look at the first two lines showing a substantial difference between the U.S. and the more secular Canada.

Overall, I would have thought that even religious people wouldn’t assert that you need God to be moral, mainly because there’s so much evidence that nonbelievers are moral. In fact, the most secular countries in the world—those in Scandinavia—could be construed as being more moral than many of the more religious countries, like Islamic countries of the Middle East. Further, the Euthyphro argument, which shows that our sense of morality must be prior to belief in God (unless you believe in Divine Command theory), disposes of the we-need-God-to-be-moral claim. But of course few people have thought the issue through that far.

Muslim and Catholic (or devout Christian) countries show the strongest belief in God as a necessity for morality. 90% or above ratings are seen in the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Three more plots. The first one shows the familiar pattern of richer countries adhering less to religious dicta than poorer ones. In this case there are multiple confounding factors, for “belief in God is important for morality” is surely itself highly correlated with simple “belief in God.” The relationship here is very strong. My own view is that of Marx: countries where you are in bad shape and can’t get help from the government tend to be those where people find hope and solace in religion.

This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).

As expected, people with more education tend to connect morality with God to a lesser extent. Again, this is probably because of a negative relationship between education and religiosity:

In the comments below, reader Eric said I may have “buried the lede” by neglecting the rather large drop between 2002 and 2019, in the proportion of Americans who think God is necessary for morality. This is part of the increasing secularization of the U.S:


Finally, there’s a plot showing the variation among countries on the general importance of religion. Western Europe, Australia, South Korea, and Japan lead the pack for secularism, while Catholic, Muslim, and African Christian countries are those seeing religion as more important. That’s no surprise:

In truth, the failure of nearly half the world’s people to see that atheists can be moral, which should dispose of the “God-is-necessary” hypothesis, is depressing. But one could argue that for many religious people, “morality” consists largely of religious dictates: what you eat, who you sleep with and how, how you feel about gays and women, and so on. So, for example, Catholics and Muslims might see the free-loving and egalitarian Scandinavians as immoral.