Reader Simon called my attention to an op-ed in the New York Times by a secular Jewish (i.e., atheist) philosophy professor who “believes” in prayer, but not in God. This is one of an apparently continuing series of articles in the NYT about how you can be religious and secular at the same time.
Click on the screenshot to see how one accomplishes this feat.
Much of the article deals with how the “problem of evil” has not been tackled successfully by religion. He’s absolutely right. Hershovitz offers the usual explanations—free will (he doesn’t mention physical evil, like childhood cancer or natural disasters, which elude that explanation), one can’t have good without evil, and so on. But he concludes:
I’m with Rex. I think the problem of evil poses a serious barrier to religious belief.
(Rex is Hershovitz’s son, who despite also being an atheist is nevertheless studying for his bar mitzvah.)
Nevertheless, Hershovitz sees value in praying. The reason is—wait for it—to accept fictionalism. That is, you pretend God is real, even though you’re pretty sure that He/She/It is not:
Philosophers have a name for this sort of view. They call it “fictionalism.” Suppose I say, “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts.” If that was a claim about this world, it would be false. Hogwarts doesn’t exist here, and neither does Dumbledore, so he can hardly teach there. But they do exist in a different world — the fictional world that Harry Potter lives in. The sentence “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts” is true in that fiction.
Some philosophers are fictionalists about morality; they think rights aren’t real except in stories that we tell. Others are fictionalists about numbers; they think that math is made up. I think both views are mistaken; I believe in morality and math.
But I think Rex was right — and onto something important: For real, God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real. I am a fictionalist about God.
How does this work? Apparently it’s the old saw that you don’t have to accept religion but somehow the rituals of religion—the songs, the chants, the incense, the cantor, the reading from the Torah, make the world a better place:
Still, I pretend. And I don’t plan to stop. Because pretending makes the world a better place. I learned that from my kids too — Rex and his younger brother, Hank.
Pretending blurs the boundaries between this world and the ones we imagine. It breathes life into stories, letting them shape the world we live in. Just think of the delight kids take in Santa Claus, even those who know, deep down, that he’s not real. Or the way they lose themselves in play. Pretending makes the world more magical and meaningful. And it’s not just for kids.
When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.
In other words, God is Santa Claus for adults. The difference, though, is that adults enact the ritual of Santa only for their children: a grown human without kids does not put out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve nor expect magical presents. Why? Because such a ritual does not create any meaning or beauty for a grown person.
Now I concede that there’s a certain virtue to tribalism—to the set of rituals, songs, and prayers that make people feel they belong. And with that tribalism comes a ready-made community that will often help you in times of trouble (this is true of many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, the Amish, and so on).
But with the upside of tribalism comes two downsides: the fractionation of humanity along religious fault lines, and the valorization of “faith”, for not all people who go to church are atheists. Most of the people going to church each week are not fictionalists. I’ve met and talked to many religious people on this trip, and take my word for it, they are not pretending to believe.
In other words, by touting religion (even though for him, it’s all a big story), Hershovitz is also valorizing the great majority of churchgoers who really do believe things that aren’t true. And, to be sure, there’s something embarrassing about a grown adult acting out a fiction similar to that of Santa Claus, whether their fiction involves either a series of stories about captivity in Egypt, a man on a cross, or a message from Allah. There’s something even more embarrassing about a grown man writing this stuff in an op-ed in the Paper of Record.
I’ll finish this Wednesday sermon with a quote from H. L. Mencken:
“Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration—courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”
Fictionalism is opposed to all of these, save perhaps fairness. As the example of thriving atheist countries—like those in Scandinavia—tells us, society doesn’t need fictionalism to thrive. Adults can do just fine without pretending there’s a god to pray to. The trick is to prevent them from religious indoctrination in the first place
I’m not sure why the NYT hired Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren to write a weekly column about her Christian beliefs in the Paper of Record, but it’s annoying. You don’t see a weekly column about humanism, or even a weekly personal musing about science, which at least has the benefit of being true. What’s clear is that the paper has some reason for this palaver: probably to cater to the spiritual feelings of its liberal readers.
But what’s also clear is that Warren is very careful to stay away from tendentious preaching and any form of Biblical literalism, though she does believe in Jesus and, I believe, the Resurrection. The Times readers like their religion to be more on the personal and spiritual side, especially with a patina of sophistication.
As a result, Warren, despite her inability to produce stirring or even well-above-average prose, has been called by Religion News “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing” for her “willingness to merge personal vulnerability with deep theological reflection”. Well, yes, the personal vulnerability is on tap, as it is in this week’s column about sin (see below), but the theological reflection isn’t deep. It’s superficial. I would much rather read about someone’s personal reactions to specific events than to the fairy tales that constitute Christianity. But somehow superficial thought and mediocre writing can be excused if it’s about religion.
Click on the screenshot to read.
I can summarize Harrison’s thesis in two sentences (my words)
None of us is perfect; we all screw up, make messes in our lives, and hurt other people. But the good news this Lenten season is that we can, just by recognizing our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, we can be released by God from self-flagellation.
She does throw in the “personal” vulnerability to show how she too is a sinner (all indentations below save one are Warren’s prose):
In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”
This could be said of most of us, so there’s no real insight into human psychology here. Where the religion comes in is her theological doctrine that we are all BORN as sinners (my emphasis):
This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.
This is palpable nonsense. We may be born and doomed, as humans, to do bad things when we grow up, but we are certainly not “born sinful”. What does she mean by that? An infant is not born sinful in any meaningful sense except the Christian one: we’re supposedly born afflicted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.
Far, far better to reject that nonsense and just say that, as social beings evolved from small groups of primates, we sometimes act badly, usually out of inborn selfishness (perhaps the real “original sin”); and sometimes, in our modern and larger pack of primates, our selfish desires conflict with our need to keep good relations with our fellows. But if you said that it wouldn’t be religious. It would be humanistic.
The other aspect of Harrison’s column is the “forgiveness” part, and why it’s good to know that we’re “born sinful”:
The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.
Notice that here she explicitly is asking for forgiveness from God. It goes on:
In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.
This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.
Again, this is Harrison’s personal way to deal with her “sin”, but a humanist might say (you don’t have to say it over and over again) “Yes, I’m human: I screwed up and will screw up again. But I will try harder not to screw up and to be nicer to people.” That is not sophisticated humanism, but neither is Harrison’s pabulum Sophisticated Theology®. It’s her own personal mantra, and, to my mind, not a particularly useful one.
Finally, there’s the “forgiveness” bit. What’s clever about Harrison’s treatment here is that she must surely believe, as a priest, and as one who believes in original sin, that the Forgiver is God. But she seems to imply that it’s her congregation that forgives her. If the former, then she’s spreading Christian fairy tales; if the latter, well, it’s other humans that must forgive you—if you’re to be forgiven. And that is humanism.
But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.
Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”
After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica (I can’t access the OED in Antarctica) uses this definition of “grace” in the religious sense:
If this is what Warren means by “a profound vision of grace”—and I’m pretty sure that’s what she does mean—then she’s saying here that true loss of our “sin”, our bad behavior, comes only from God’s forgiveness, not from human forgiveness. And note as well that Harrison has transitioned from the personal to the general here: she’s making a pronouncement that without a religious sense of “grace”, there is no conciliation for any of us with our fellow humans.
That, too, is wrong. One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe that there are ways to eliminate the division between humans. One way, of course, is through humanism itself: the notion that we are all brothers and sisters and must depend only on ourselves to right the wrongs of humanity. Warren’s “sermon” could be couched equally well—indeed, better—in humanistic terms.
What Warren has done is slyly slip her own Christian beliefs into a rather anodyne sermon about doing wrong and making up for it. And I still ask you, dear reader, why you think the NYT continues to publish these unenlightening religious musings. I really have no idea.
But she did get one thing right, noting above that “as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful.” In this column she does both.
Finally, Warren wants to hear how you’re praying for Ukraine! Below the article you can see this:
Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at HarrisonWarrenemail@example.com the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.
Praying sure as hell is not going to help Ukraine. They need tangible human assistance, not pleading to a god. I wasn’t even tempted to fill in the boxes.
We occasionally see some ignoramus claiming that religion is making a comeback everywhere. Well, that might be true in some places, but certainly not in the U.S., Britain, and continental Europe, whose residents are becoming nonbelievers at a very rapid pace.
I have no real explanation for that save that mythology is no longer tenable in an age of science, and, most probably, because as people become more well off, they become less religious. The last phenomenon has been well documented, and has been explained this way: “when you have society to take care of you, and have a place to live, money, health care, and food, you no longer need to believe in a divine being who will support you or to whom you can appeal for succor.” There’s a ton of evidence for that hypothesis, including negative correlations between happiness and well-being on one hand and religiosity on the other. These are just correlations, and not necessarily indications of causality, but they hold not just for the countries of the world, but for the states of the U.S. And there’s independent evidence for the latter hypothesis, which was first suggested by Marx. Most people just quote the bit in bold, but it becomes clearer what Marx was getting at when you read the real quote, which is from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
At least in that assertion, Marx pretty much got it right.
The data on reduction of religiosity are given in this summary of a recent Pew poll (click on the screenshot below to read; the pdf of the full report is here). And here’s the methodology:
The 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey (NPORS), conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using address-based sampling (ABS). The survey was conducted among 3,937 respondents from May 29 to Aug. 25, 2021. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2021 survey was conducted are available here.
The 2020 NPORS, conducted online and by mail among a nationally representative group of respondents recruited using ABS. The survey was conducted among 4,108 respondents from June 1 to Aug. 11, 2020. The response rate was 29%. Complete details about how the 2020 survey was conducted are available here.
Polls from earlier years are described in the pdf.
What has become clearer to me from this poll is that the “nones”, the fastest-rising group of “believers”, aren’t really people who believe in God and haven’t affiliated themselves with a church. Some of them may well be, but I believe they call themselves “nones” because it’s less damning than saying you’re an “atheist” or an “agnostic.” From this I take the lesson that the percentage of Americans who believe in a divine being is dropping rapidly, and about a quarter of us are nonbelievers, whether you call them “nones,” “atheists,” or “agnostics.”
First, let’s look at what the categories mean. All are by self-identification, and, in particular, “nones” are “people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular.” The crucial part is what “nothing in particular” really means. Does it mean you believe in a divine being? It’s a bit ambiguous, which makes it hard to suss out the proportion of nonbelievers in America. We’ll get to that in a second. First, I’ll show data on the drop of religiosity and rise of “no religion” (atheists, agnostics, and nones) over the last 14 years. Remember, that’s not very long!
Christians, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and non-evangelical Protestants, have dropped 15% over the period; as we’ll see, most of this involves Protestants. People of no religion, on the other hand, have nearly doubled in proportion—from 16% to 29%. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.) haven’t changed much, but they are only 6% of the population—about a fifth of those with “no religion”. As the report says:
Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Self-identified Christians of all varieties (including Protestants, Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox Christians) make up 63% of the adult population. Christians now outnumber religious “nones” by a ratio of a little more than two-to-one. In 2007, when the Center began asking its current question about religious identity, Christians outnumbered “nones” by almost five-to-one (78% vs. 16%).
Nearly all the declines are among Protestants (and, as we’ll seen, among both evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants). These graphs speak for themselves. Catholics appear to cling more tenaciously to their faith, perhaps because they fear the terrors of hell. (I’m joking!)
There’s a graph showing, surprisingly, that “born again” or evangelical Christians (Protestants) outnumber non-evangelical ones. I guess the Protestants I know are a non-random sample:
Within Protestantism, evangelicals continue to outnumber those who are not evangelical. Currently, 60% of Protestants say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian,” while 40% say “no” or decline to answer the question.
This pattern exists among both White and Black Protestants. Among White Protestants, 58% now say “yes” when asked whether they think of themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, compared with 42% who say “no” (or decline to answer the question). Among Black Protestants, evangelicals outnumber non-evangelicals by two-to-one (66% vs. 33%).
The decline of religiosity is also instantiated by the following two graphs, showing a decline in Americans who pray daily (an oft-used sociological index of “religiosity”), as well of those who consider religion “important in their lives”:
I won’t show the graphs, but will just state that, in the 2020-2021 data, about 32% of Americans say that go to religious services “monthly or more”, about 67% “a few times a year or less”, and of the latter, about a quarter of adults say they never go to church, which comports with the percentage of nones (29%).
And (drum roll), what percentage of those nones self identify as “atheists”, “agnostics” or “nothing in particular”? Here are the data over the last 14 years. Note that in all three subclasses, the proportion who self-identify as godless or “nones” has risen since 2007. Atheists have doubled (though they’re at a scant 4%) agnostics have risen 2.5-fold, and the “nones”—by far the largest segment of “not religious”—have nearly doubled. The total again: 29% of Americans are either nonbelievers or not particularly religious.
That’s good news, and the trend is going to continue over all religions in the U.S. (and in the UK and Europe). As for the other faiths, here’s what the survey says:
In addition to the 63% of U.S. adults who identify as Christians, the 2021 NPORS finds that 6% of adults identify with non-Christian faiths. This includes 1% who describe themselves as Jewish, 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu and 2% who identify with a wide variety of other faiths. (While 1% of NPORS respondents identify with Judaism as a religion, a larger and more comprehensive Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews conducted in 2020 estimates that 1.7% of U.S. adults identify as Jewish by religion.)
Only 1% Jews—I believe that used to be 2%. We’re a rare breed!
In her weekly New York Times column, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren makes two arguments. It’s not as bad as her other columns, as there’s actually some material for thought here, but, as usual, she winds up making bad arguments, and then touting the benefits of believing in God. Click to read:
Warren makes two arguments. The first is to point out what seems like hypocrisy when one considers “pro choice” people who don’t oppose abortion with “anti vaccine” people who object to getting shots. In both cases, says Warren, one is being asked to curtail one’s personal freedom (“my body, my choice”) for the benefit of society as a whole—or so she says. The implication is that this is doublethink:
At a protest against vaccine mandates, a hospital worker told New York’s Livingston County newspaper: “If you want it? Great. If you don’t? Great.” She continued: “Choice is where we stand. If you want it, we’re not against it. That’s your choice.” Those I know who have refused to get vaccinated or wear masks have echoed this same idea. They assure me that they aren’t telling anyone else what to do but that this is a matter of personal choice. They are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families.
“My body, my choice,” the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement, has been adopted by those opposing mask and vaccine mandates. People who are pro-choice have voiced outrage that their phrase is being co-opted, which in turn thrills those on the right who are using it.
In Vogue, Molly Jong-Fast said that the phrase, when used by conservatives who oppose vaccine mandates, shows that “for Republicans, it’s a case of government regulation for thee but not for me.” Of course, critics would accuse her of the same hypocrisy for being pro-choice but also favoring vaccine mandates.
What’s useful here is the inspiration to think about her premise: how far must we curtail our freedoms to help society What’s not useful—and she does say that “the complexities of abortion and Covid prevention are different”—is that the situations are not at all comparable in the nature of the “freedoms” curtailed. Unmasked and unvaccnated, you might be endangering strangers you come in contact with, and the masking will last only the duration of the pandemic. Shots are even less onerous, and protect more people than do masks.
Pregnant, you do not endanger society as a whole—unless, and this may be true of Warren—one thinks an abortion is committing murder. Further, you are bringing an unwanted child into the world who will require years of care, as reader Mike pointed out yesterday.
I’m pretty much in favor of unrestricted abortions, as I don’t see it as the equivalent of murder. Further, I also favor the termination of the lives of already-born infants who have invariably fatal conditions like anencephaly and will suffer horribly until the inevitable end. (Peter Singer has been demonized for holding this view.)
But you can think on your own about whether there is any “hypocrisy” in favoring vaccine mandates and also being pro-choice. It is food for thought.
The other argument is that only Christianity (she singles it out, but would probably add “religion in general”) gives us a moral basis for making self-sacrifice for the good of society.
Christian ethics call people to ideas of freedom that are not primarily understood as the absence of restraint, but instead as the ability to live well, justly and righteously. In Galatians, after an extended meditation on liberation, Paul says: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Freedom, for him, had a purpose and end, a “telos.” We are freed not to do whatever we feel is best for us individually, but instead to love our neighbors.
. . . .Over the past year as we’ve asked people to go into lockdown, cancel their travel plans or family gatherings, close or curtail their retail businesses, wear masks and get vaccinated, we are asking them to assume some level of financial and personal risk for the greater good — for strangers, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised, for the medical community. We can and should enact legislation like paid family leave, no-cost health care and other measures to support mothers, just as we support economic relief for those affected by Covid prevention. But we cannot deny that even if we seek to lessen the load, we are asking people to bear a burden.
How do you call a society committed to personal freedom and happiness to bear the burdens of others? Most of us intuitively grasp that there’s more to life than living for oneself and one’s own happiness or comfort. But we lack a positive vision for the purpose of individual liberty.
Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Catholic theologian, gave us the gorgeous and helpful phrase “arduous good.”
. . . . Consumer capitalism is not going to teach us about how to pursue arduous goods, nor is technological progress, nor is either American political party. Theoretically, religious communities are places that train us toward ends other than individual autonomy. They point us to something bigger and higher than ourselves, calling us to love God and our neighbors. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. Many religious communities have lost their ability to articulate an alternative to the sovereignty of personal choice and individual autonomy.
. . . But as a culture, we desperately need religious communities that do not parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the right or the left. We need a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families and the marginalized, the needy, the weak and the afflicted among us.
But the arguments she makes apply to secular humanism even more than to Christianity. After all, it is conservative Christians who “parrot the predictable ethical arguments of the Right” against abortion because it’s seen as murder, usually because the fetus is ensouled. Secular humanists have a diversity of views on abortion, and often considered ones. They don’t need the buttressing of ancient scripture and authority to arrive at a position.
As for “a rooted and robust call to love our neighbors, our families, and the marginalized, the needy, the weak, and the afflicted among us,” what about that comes from religion? Was it Christianity that gave us income taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the other institutionalized forms of our sacrifices for those needier than we? And wasn’t it Jesus who said this (Luke 14:25-27)?:
25 Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them,26 “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!27 Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower.
But let me admit that yes, studies have shown that Christians give more to charity than do nonbelievers. What I don’t know is whether how much of Christian charity goes to tithes or Christian organizations. And countering that, let me say once again that the countries of Northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, are largely atheistic societies whose members give much more per capita to help their societies than do Americans. That’s one reason taxes are so high, and why state does what private organizations must take over in America.
No, what we don’t need is more love of God to spur us on to be more socially conscious. We need governments like those of Denmark and Sweden.
I wonder how longer the NYT will allow Warren to continue spoon-feeding us pabulum. At least she has a bit of a point in this week’s column. But surely there are pastors or theologians out there who can give us more food for thought, even if they’re victims of the God Delusion.
Shall we start the week with some good news? How about the increasing secularization of the world, as described and explained in Foreign Affairs by political scientist Ronald Inglehart?
We’ve read about Inglehart before, including his excellent book with political science collaborator Pippa Norris, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. I highly recommend that book. Its thesis, one emphasized in Inglehart’s new article, is that religiosity of a country is a symptom of “existential insecurity”. As a country becomes ridden with “ill-being”, and its inhabitants insecure, poor, unsure whether their government can help them financially, or when they’re old or ill, its inhabitants either turn to religion or are loath to relinquish their religion. Religiosity, in this scheme, is a thermometer whose temperature is negatively correlated with social well being.
There’s a lot of evidence adduced in the pages of this website for that hypothesis, including the observation that a country becomes more religious in times of trouble; that the more “successful societies”, as measured by amalgamating many measures of societal well-being, are the least religious; and that the happiest societies are also the least religious.
For example, here’s the correlation, calculated by a reader, between the happiness of a country’s inhabitants, as measured by the UN’s 2018 “World Happiness Report”, and its religiosity. 52 countries are included:
Here, from another post, is a correlation between the frequency of prayer of a country’s inhabitants and the degree of income inequality as estimated by the Gini Index. The more income inequality (a measure that correlates negatively with people’s feeling of well being), the more religious the society:
And here’s the correlation among 17 Western countries between Gregory Paul’s “successful societies scale”, using 25 measures of societal well being, versus the religiosity of that society. Again (even leaving out the U.S., which is the most religious of Western nations and also one of the least “successful”, the worse off a country is, the more religious its inhabitants.
Now these are correlations and not necessarily indicative of causality, or of its direction. One could posit, for example, not that existential insecurity promotes religion, but that religion promotes existential insecurity, unhappiness, and ill-being. That seems unlikely, though, especially because in a given country an increase in insecurity fosters increased religiosity in later times. But as Inglehart and Norris posit (and Inglehart in the article below), existential security as a dissolver of religion makes many predictions that are met. At the very least, existing sociological data give NO support to the frequent claim that societies need religion as a social glue, and that without religion a society will degenerate into despair, criminality, and so on. But the religionists still keep harping about how we “need” religion. It’s the “little people” argument, but it’s time that the little people grow up and look at the facts.
Click on the screenshot to read:
I’ll give a few quotes, but do read the article. First, the thesis:
. . . since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world.
Growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—has now joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion. Several forces are driving this trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birthrates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.
Although some religious conservatives warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones. Needless to say, religion itself doesn’t encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.
The exceptions to the declining religiosity are notable. One is India, which is almost surely attributable to the rise of the Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party and the relentless Hindu osculation and Muslim-dissing of Prime Minister Modi and his BJP government. And the Muslim countries, some of the most religious in the world, remain some of the unhappiest in the world.
Two points. First, why is this change happening? There are several reasons, one being the increasing well being of the world’s inhabitants. In this sense Pinker was right, as the death of religion fosters rationality, which fosters well being, and that, in turn, fosters less religiosity. As Inglehart notes,
Influential thinkers from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim predicted that the spread of scientific knowledge would dispel religion throughout the world, but that did not happen. For most people, religious faith was more emotional than cognitive. And for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain. Religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. But as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. They become less dependent on religion—and less willing to accept its constraints, including keeping women in the kitchen and gay people in the closet—as existential insecurity diminished and life expectancy rose.
Inglehart also suggests that the increasing conservatism of Republicans in the United States, combined with the party’s evangelical Christianity, has turned off younger and liberal voters, pushing them away from faith.
But, he believes, the most important factor driving increasing secularization is the change in women’s roles from being breeders (necessary in ancient times because there was so much infant mortality) to limiting the number of children they have. Yet pro-fertility dicta still persist in many religious doctrines as “moral rules” (e.g., Catholicism’s dissing of contraception and Orthodox Jews’s view of women as baby machines). As people realize they don’t have to obey this rules any more, their religiosity declines.
This change can be quantified via a “World Values Survey”, which ranks countries’ acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality on a ten-point scale (lower scores indicate more conservative views). This score has been rising everywhere—except in Muslim countries. There appears to be a tipping point around 5.0 above which secularization is accelerated:
The tipping point is around the middle of the scale, at 5.50: lower scores indicate that a majority of the country’s people harbor more conservative views, and higher scores indicate that a majority have more liberal views centered on individual choice. Around 1981, majorities in every country for which we have data supported pro-fertility norms. Even in high-income countries, the mean scores ranged from as low as 3.44 (Spain), 3.49 (the United States), 3.50 (Japan), 4.14 (the United Kingdom), and 4.63 (Finland) to as high as 5.35 for Sweden—then the most liberal country but with a score still slightly below the scale’s tipping point. But a profound change was underway. By 2019, Spain’s mean score had risen to 6.74, the United States’ to 5.86, Japan’s to 6.17, the United Kingdom’s to 6.90, Finland’s to 7.35, and Sweden’s to 8.49. All these countries were below the 5.50 tipping point when first surveyed, and all of them were above it by 2019. These numbers offer a simplified picture of a complex reality, but they convey the scale of the recent acceleration of secularization.
This trend has been spreading to the rest of the world, with one major exception. The populations of the 18 Muslim-majority countries for which data are available in the World Values Survey have stayed far below the tipping point, remaining strongly religious and committed to preserving traditional norms concerning gender and fertility. Even controlling for economic development, Muslim-majority countries tend to be somewhat more religious and culturally conservative than average.
Inglehart notes that the trend is not inevitable, and could be reversed with a major catastrophe, like nuclear war or a big pandemic, which would increase existential insecurity and therefore religious belief. Nor is the trend all that rapid (though it’s more rapid that I would have suspected), with secularization proceeding as one generation with more secular ideas replaces the previous one.
Finally, one more quote to show that it’s not necessary for a country to be religious to be healthy and moral:
Since 1993, Transparency International has monitored the relative corruption and honesty of government officials and business people around the world. Each year, this watchdog group publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories. These data make it possible to test the actual relationship between religiosity and corruption: Is corruption less widespread in religious countries than in less religious ones? The answer is an unequivocal no—in fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones. The highly secular Nordic states have some of the world’s lowest levels of corruption, and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, have some of the highest.
Clearly, religiosity does not cause corruption. Countries with low levels of economic and physical security tend to have high levels of religiosity and also high levels of corruption. Although religion may once have played a crucial role in supporting public morality, that role shrinks as societies develop economically. The people of religious countries are slightly more likely to condemn corruption than the people of less religious countries, but the impact of religion on behavior ends there. Religion may make people more punitive, but it does not make them less corrupt.
This pattern also applies to other crimes, such as murder. As surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries. Some relatively poor countries have low murder rates, but overall, prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. It is not that religiosity causes murders, of course, but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in societies with low levels of existential security.
The evidence suggests that modern societies will not descend into nihilistic chaos without religious faith to bind them, but that may not always have been the case. In early agrarian societies, when most people lived just above the survival level, religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But modernization has changed the equation. As traditional religiosity declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void. Evidence from the World Values Survey indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.
Given all the data, and the existence of happy, well-functioning societies that are both moral and highly atheistic, there’s simply no reason to claim that society “needs” religion to function properly. When you get your society functioning properly, in fact, religion goes away. And it will continue to go away as the world improves, barring a disaster like nuclear war or global climate change that devastates the planet.
People argue that religion is a necessary social glue not because the data support it, but because they are religious and want to believe it. Such is the nature of confirmation bias.
This, then, is a reason not just to be an atheist, but to be an anti-theist. Clinging to religion keeps people from looking for other routes out of unhappiness, and churches that foster archaic beliefs that make people unhappy and insecure are bad for society. In this sense, at least, religion does impede well-being.
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.
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.
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:
That is a huge jump!
The proportion of Irish people who regularly attend church (once a month or more often):
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’.
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.
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.”
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.