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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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:
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 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.
Religion is often touted as essential as a kind of secular glue, keeping society moral and empathic. Indeed, some say that even if there isn’t any evidence for a God, we should promote belief anyway because of its salutary side effects—the “spandrels” of belief.
This “belief in belief” trope, as Dennett calls it, is counteracted by lots of evidence, including the observation that there’s a negative correlation between the religiosity of a country and both its “happiness index” and various measures of well being. Because this is a correlation rather than a causation, we can’t say for sure that religion brings countries down while secularism brings happiness, but there’s certainly no support at all for the thesis that religion promotes well being.
That’s the point made in this new article in The Washington Post. It’s a response to Attorney General William Barr’s recent claim, in a speech at Notre Dame, that religion is essential to maintain morality and that its erosion causes dire consequences. Some of Barr’s quotes from that talk:
Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.
They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.
By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real.
Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.
But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.
In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.
And, added Barr, the rise of secularism is accompanied by a moral decrepitude afflicting America:
By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.
Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.
In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.
Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.
As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.
I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.
In response, columnist Max Boot cites some statistics that counteract Barr’s claims, and also give results of an international survey showing, as such surveys invariably do, that religious countries are not better off. Click on the screenshot to read the article:
Boot notes this:
Barr’s simplistic idea that the country is better off if it is more religious is based on faith, not evidence. My research associate Sherry Cho compiled statistics on the 10 countries with the highest percentage of religious people and the 10 countries with the lowest percentage based on a 2017 WIN/Gallup International survey of 68 countries. The least religious countries are either Asian nations where monotheism never took hold (China, Japan) or Western nations such as Australia, Sweden and Belgium, where secularism is much more advanced than in the United States. The most religious countries represent various faiths: There are predominantly Christian countries (the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Armenia), Muslim Pakistan, Buddhist Thailand, Hindu India — and countries of mixed faiths (Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Fiji).
Now there are data from 68 countries in this survey, but they show various indices of well being in only the 10 most religious and ten least religious. But the differences are still striking:
Again, these are correlations, and not necessarily causal relationships. It’s possible, for example, that other factors play a role. In fact, I think they do, but they surely don’t point to religion in any way as promoting either morality or well being.
My theory, which is not mine but that of many sociologists, is that religion (as Marx maintained) is the last resort of a population which has poor well-being. Suffering and povery-stricken people look to God for help and succor when their society can’t provide them. That could cause the correlation. In other words, religiosity doesn’t cause dysfunctional societies, but dysfunctional societies maintain religiosity because that’s the only hope people have. And of course maintaining such hope erodes the will of people to actually do something to improve their society. Further, as well being increases, religiosity diminishes as the eternal press of secularism in the modern world no longer comes up against impediments.
As I wrote previously:
Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “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.”
Author Boot ends his article this way:
Fundamentalists may be unhappy that religious observance has declined over the decades, but the data shows that, by most measurements, life has gotten much better for most people. There is little evidence that a decline in religiosity leads to a decline in society — or that high levels of religiosity strengthen society. (Remember, Rome fell after it converted to Christianity.) If anything, the evidence suggests that too much religion is bad for a country.
Well, I’d put it another way: if a country is not well off, it tends to retain religion. But never mind: the conclusion of myself, Boot, and many sociologists—that there’s no evidence that high religiosity improves society—remains sound. I can’t imagine a survey of well being and religiosity that shows a positive relationship, and I know of no such results.
Does the ubiquity and supposed beneficial effect of religion constitute evidence for God? Well, at least one intellectual (and I use the term loosely) thinks so.
Reader Michael sent me a link to Nick Spencer’s favorable review in Prospect of Stephen Asma’s 2018 book Why We Need Religion (click on screenshot below). Michael added this: “Maybe you’ll find this reviewer’s uncritical nonsense of interest. The reviewer, Nick Spencer, is a beneficiary of Templeton’s pieces of silver and you’ve written about him before.”
Actually, I didn’t write much about Spencer; I asked a reader, Mark Jones, if he’d say a few words about Spencer’s BBC program, The Secret History of Science and Religion. Jones’s words about Spencer were not favorable, nor were mine after I watched one episode of the show. I did say this about Spencer:
Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, and is responsible for the 2009 Templeton funded project “Rescuing Darwin” (to the tune of $600,000!!, according to page 214 of this book).
It also turns out that I’ve already discussed a New York Times article by Asma written before his book came out, and summarizing the thesis of that book, which is that regardless of its truth claims, religion is good for humans. In his Prospect review, Spencer simply reiterates that thesis, adding that he, Spencer, thinks that the prevalence and value of religion is evidence that there is indeed a God. (Prospect is a general magazine “of ideas,” and doesn’t seem to be particularly religious in its orientation.)
Click on the screenshot below, but be prepared for a new and mushy argument for God:
According to Spencer’s review, Asma (a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago) once disdained religion, and still sees it as “irrational”, but now thinks that its irrationality doesn’t override its value as a mechanism for coping with life:
Most of [Asma’s] early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.
However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”
. . . [Asma] now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.
The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.
Yes, there are studies that show that religious commitment can have salubrious effects on your personality or emotions. But that has no more bearing on whether it’s true than does the placebo effect of sugar pills on the hypothesis that sugar has a physiological effect on arthritis (Spencer disagrees; see below). Indeed, one can envision religion as a placebo effect on your brain: it can make you feel better regardless of whether the content of religious claims is true.
But to Asma, the truth of religion doesn’t matter: it’s still good because it makes people feel better. You’ll recognize that as the “Little People’s Argument”—the claim that religion is good for the masses because it soothes and placates them (a thesis advanced by Karl Marx), even though Asma himself doesn’t believe in God. This is an enormously patronizing argument, and also fails for reasons I discussed in my critique of Asma’s NYT article:
. . . here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.
Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?
Asma, and apparently Spencer, seem to want us to suspend our disbelief in religion—or at least stop criticizing it—because some studies show that it’s helpful. And yet other studies support Marx by showing that the religiosity of countries is negatively correlated with the happiness of their inhabitants. That negative correlation also holds among the 50 US states. Here’s a graph for countries produced for this site by reader Michael Coon; it shows a strongly negative relationship between how religious a country is and the United Nation’s assessment of its “Happiness Index” (higher values mean happier countries):
Now this doesn’t disprove that religion makes you happier and better able to cope with life. It is, after all, a correlation. But it surely doesn’t support that thesis, either. My own theory, which isn’t mine but one advanced by many sociologists, is that countries tend to become more religious when their inhabitants are not doing that well. When the government or your fellow humans can’t help you much, you turn to God, thinking that, even if things are crappy in your life, it will all be rectified in the next life.
Look at the happiest countries on that plot. They’re countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands—countries that have a large number of atheists. The unhappiest countries are ones from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where people are religious but not particularly well off. As I wrote in my earlier critique of Asma:
Never does [Asma] mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier. If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?
Two more points. First, while I’ve suggested that secular humanism is a good replacement for religion, and has the advantage of not forcing you to believe silly things, Spencer—and perhaps Asma—sees secular humanism as a “substitute religion.” This is a common but ultimately ridiculous way to defend religion in general (my emphasis in the passage below):
Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions. . . Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
In what way is secular humanism a religion? Spencer doesn’t tell us.
Although Spencer casts doubt on some of Asma’s claims about the psychological values of religion, Spencer ultimately buys the thesis that religion is salubrious. But again, just because something is salubrious, does that mean it’s true? And what about the negative effects of religion? Spencer doesn’t discuss the second point but he does take up the first. And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god, using arguments about our senses that have been advanced by, among others, Steve Pinker (my emphasis in Spencer’s passage below):
. . . it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.
Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world. We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.
“I am!” LOL!
While there’s no strong evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, much less was installed in our species by natural selection, let’s go ahead and accept that claim. Does it then show that God exists? Not at all! For if religious belief evolved, it was likely during the period of our species’ infancy when had little understanding of how the world worked. Baffled and saddened by disease, death, natural disasters, and other enigmatic phenomena, perhaps our ancestors—as Pascal Boyer suggests—invoked a supernatural agency as an explanation. Such an “agency detection module” may well be the ultimate cause of religion, and itself might have been adaptive. After all, if you think a rustle in the brush indicates the presence of a predator, you’re more likely to survive than if you just fob it off as wind.
But if religion is a byproduct of something like that, or simply an evolved tendency to believe your elders (something that’s also adaptive), then superstitious beliefs can become embedded in our culture regardless of whether they are true. Is our “afterlife module”—part of many but not all religions—evidence that there really is an afterlife? Or is it simply a way of coping with the fact that our species is unique in apprehending our earthly mortality?
As I noted previously, there are all sorts of religions, ranging from theism to deism to panpsychism, and even the theistic ones ranging from Scientology to Hinduism to Mormonism to Catholicism. Are these simply different manifestations of the same God module? Spencer doesn’t answer, nor did Asma in his NYT piece (the book may, but I don’t know). I think a more parsimonious hypothesis is that the existents of tens of thousands of diverse faiths doesn’t attest to the truth of a single god, but to the various ways in which humans can find solace in superstition, and in which they can exert power over others by making them adhere to those superstitions.
Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief. Religion is not like vision or smell; it’s a psychological rather than aphysiological trait, and many people get on perfectly well without faith. If Spencer thinks that there’s a god because belief in one brings well-being, and because religion is ubiquitous (but disappearing in the West!), then he is pretty ignorant of the way we use empirical observations to establish truth.
Curiously, the well-regarded site 3 Quarks Daily, a site that for some reason I don’t often read, has linked to Spencer’s review of Asma, not mentioning that that review takes the claim that religion is “natural and beneficial” as evidence for God. 3 Quarks is largely an aggregator of other sites, and in this case doesn’t seem to have vetted the Prospect piece very carefully. Clicking on the 3 Quarks screenshot below will just take you to a link back to the Prospect piece; I put it here just to show you how uncritical people can be, and how far the rot has spread:
The Pew Organization conducted surveys for their Religious Landscape Studies in 2007 and 2014, assessing the religiosity, non-religiosity, beliefs, and churchgoing habits of Americans. They continued these surveys last year and this year, though on a more restricted scale. Nevertheless, the new Pew Survey, whose summary you can see by clicking on the screenshot below (full pdf here), heartens me, substantiating my theory (which is not mine alone) that America is becoming less religious all the time. What surprises me, as you can see in the headline below, is that the decline in the last 12 years is so fast.
I’ll give some salient data and graphs below. First, the take-home message from the report (my emphasis):
The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.
Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.
I’m lumping together the atheists, agnostics, and “nothings in particulars” as “nonbelievers,” and that group has risen 9% in 9 years. While self-described atheists are at only 4%, it’s still a statistically significant rise from 2% ten years ago, and of course we know how reluctant Americans are in telephone polls like these to say they are atheists. I suspect the real number of people who don’t accept the existence of a god is much higher. Here are two plots from the survey:
I suspect, in the graph above, that “nothing in particular” pretty much means “nonreligious”, and that’s gone up 5% in just 10 years.
As in Europe, church attendance in the U.S. is dropping pretty rapidly:
The graph below shows that the secularization results not so much from people changing their minds as they age, but that each cohort becomes successively less religious than the last. Nonbelief in America spreads over the bodies of dead believers.
There are other results as well, none of them giving hope to people who think religion in America is here to stay. The “nones” have increased from 39 million in 2009 to 68 million in 2018/2019, while Christians have dropped from 178 million to 167 million over the same period. Non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) have increased by only 2% over the same period—from 5% to 7%.
Women remain more religious than men, but both sexes are growing less religious. Republicans are still more Christian than are Democrats (79% versus 55% respectively), but both have dropped significantly in religiosity (Republicans were 86% Christian in 2009, Democrats 72%). 34% of Democrats are unaffiliated, while only 16% of Republicans are. As expected, the GOP could be termed “God’s Own Party.”
Finally, Black and Hispanic Democrats remain significantly more religious than White Democrats, while—the only “bad news” in the survey—there’s been no decline in the proportion of Protestants who describe themselves as “born again or evangelical” (about 60%, higher than I would have thought).
Overall, then the news is good—but only if you’re a nonbeliever.