The continuing secularization of America: belief in God falls to 81%

June 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

Although prices are rising in America, belief in God is falling. The good news is that this appears to be part of a consistent trend of secularization.  The bad news is that 81% of Americans still believe in God, and a bit more than half of those (42% overall) think that God hears prayers and can intervene to answer them (28% think God hears prayers but does nothing about then, while 11% think God doesn’t do either).

This is good news, and is detailed in a short article from Gallup. You can see it by clicking below, or going to the complete document, including methodology and the questions asked, at this pdf download site.

Here’s the trend since 1945. As Gallup notes,

Gallup first asked this question in 1944, repeating it again in 1947 and twice each in the 1950s and 1960s. In those latter four surveys, a consistent 98% said they believed in God. When Gallup asked the question nearly five decades later, in 2011, 92% of Americans said they believed in God.

A subsequent survey in 2013 found belief in God dipping below 90% to 87%, roughly where it stood in three subsequent updates between 2014 and 2017 before this year’s drop to 81%.

The fall from 92% in 2011 to 81% this year is pretty large.  Since there appear to be no data between the late 1960s and 2011, the slow decrease shown in the line is just an interpolation. But there’s no doubt that the long-term drop is a real drop, and goes along with a lot of data showing that Americans are, as REM sang, “losing their religion.” Perhaps some day we’ll be as areligious as northern Europe.

Here are the data on whether God hears/answers prayers (as we’ll see below, conservatives and liberals give very different data). But the idea that God hears prayers and intervenes leads to immense theological difficulties.  Does God refuse to answer some perfectly good prayers, like those of parents beseeching Him for the survival of their cancer-stricken child? There are many questions one could ask this 42% of Americans! Indeed, if you have the idea of God as a Man in the Sky with a Plan, one might think that a special request from someone for God to attend to their personal desires is trivial and solipsistic. So it goes.

Gallup broke the answers down by political party identification, ideological identification, frequency of going to church, and age. Here are those statistics (click to enlarge):

Of course those who go to church more often are more religious, with 99% of those who go to church weekly saying that they believe in God, and 74% saying that God hears prayers and intervenes.  Republicans are more religious than Democrats, with independents pretty much smack in the middle. For overall atheism, the percentage is 7% for Republicans, 26% of Democrats, and 18% for independents. The same trend holds if you divide people by “conservative, moderate, or liberal” instead of political party, except that the percentage of atheists rises to 35%. (Remember, these aren’t “nones,” some of whom are religious, but people who don’t believe in God at all. Those are atheists.

Finally, younger folk tend to believe in God less than older folk, though there’s not much difference on the prayer issue. There’s another figure for the changes in these data since 2013-2017, but you can see that for yourself.

Gallup’s conclusion:

Fewer Americans today than five years ago believe in God, and the percentage is down even more from the 1950s and 1960s when almost all Americans did. Still, the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whether that means they believe a higher power hears prayers and can intervene or not. And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendancechurch membership and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.

Whatever.  The fact is that many measures of religiosity show that America is becoming more secular, and that can only be to the good.  Just for fun, if you extrapolate a fall of 98% to 81% belief in 57 years, then America will become completely atheistic in about 270 years, or in 2293!

h/t: Barry

A secular case for Christianity?

April 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

One problem with Bari Weiss and some of her acolytes is that they’re religious. I don’t hold that too strongly against them, but a journalist believing in religious dictates is a journalist who doesn’t care about evidence. It’s a journalist who falls prey to the bane of journalism—confirmation bias.

But a secular case for Christianity? Why not a secular case for Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? It turns out that you could make a similar argument for all religions, but it’s an argument that involves gutting Christianity of everything that characterizes it: in particular, the belief that Jesus came to earth as God/The Son of God, was crucified and resurrected, and this story, taken as true, affords all who believe it the chance for eternal life. Author Tim DeRoche, instead, makes the “little people” argument for Christianity: he avers that even if the story isn’t true, the myth is good for the well being of yourself and society.

Click to read (if you subscribe; it may be paywalled otherwise):

DeRoche is described on the site this way:

Tim DeRoche is the bestselling author of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the LA River. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. His third book publishes in 2022.

I won’t dwell on his piece very long. DeRoche was brought up religious, drifted away from Christianity, and then returned to the faith when he married a “devout Christian”. That got him thinking about the religion and whether he was, indeed a true Christian, especially because that he didn’t fully buy into the Christian myths of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. But he was married to a Christian and going to church. What could he do?

He joined online communities that call themselves Christians, but not because they accept the Christian mythology. Rather, they are “Christian” for three reasons:

a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life.  I won’t deny that this is true for many; it’s just that I prefer to find meaning without relying on stories whose veracity I doubt. And of course there are the downsides of religion, too numerous to mention.

DeRoche:

This community is where you’ll find the parkour artist Rafe Kelley, an avowed rationalist, interviewing Jonathan Pageau, an Orthodox icon carver, talking about “bridging the mythological and scientific worldviews.”

It’s where Paul Vander Klay, the pastor of a dwindling Dutch Reform congregation in Sacramento, amassed over 20,000 YouTube subscribers by doing hours and hours of commentary on the biblical lectures of nonbeliever Jordan Peterson—much to the chagrin of some leaders of his denomination.

It’s where the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron engages with the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke on the failure of our institutions—including our Catholic ones—to help people find meaning in their lives.

Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.

But the root causes of our current discontent are secular ones. It’s not clear to me how Christianity (or faith itself) can deal with those “root causes”, much less the discontent they produce.   It might make you forget them, or, as Marx posited, help the desperate and downtrodden find solace in the presence of a heavenly father and the promise of better life to come (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). But if, like DeRoche, you don’t believe in that stuff—in heaven or maybe not even in God—what solace do you get?

b.) Christianity helps you live a better life. 

Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.

Two responses:  The Bible also contains a lot of stuff that would worsen life: like the need to leave one’s family to follow Christ, or about how not to strike your slaves the wrong way, or about how women should not speak. To pick and choose the “wisdom” you use to lead a better life requires a winnowing process that, as we all know, presupposes a non-Biblical and secular point of view.

Second: secular humanism contains a lot more wisdom about how to life a good life and build a healthy society. If you want to do those things, don’t read the Bible, read the great secular ethical philosophers of the past and present, whose views are based not on superstition but cogitation and reason.

I needn’t point out the divisiveness of Christianity or of other religions, for DeRoche does that above. The question is whether the world would be better off now had religions never existed. I can’t prove that it would be—though that’s what I think—but neither can DeRoche prove that it wouldn’t be.

c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world. 

And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.

Of course, the spread of the “Islamic meme” over the last 1500 years has also been correlated with moral improvement, though most of that moral improvement, as Steve Pinker documents, has actually taken place in the last couple centuries.

But do I really have to inform DeRoche that correlation is not causation, and a lot of things have happened in the last several millennia? The rise of rationality, science, transportation, commerce, democracy, and communication have also been correlated with moral improvement, an indeed, those features might indicate a genuine causal relationship. This is the case that Steve Pinker makes in his two books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. (For a short read on his case for reason and secularism as pivotal in morality’s advance, go here or here.) Pinker makes the opposite case from DeRoche, and Steve actually has data and arguments, not just correlations.

I won’t go on, but I will say that I’d love to hear Pinker debate DeRoche on the subject: “Resolved: Christianity is the main cause of moral improvement in humanity.”

Sarah Haider on why you shouldn’t emphasize your liberal bona fides

February 11, 2022 • 9:45 am

I’m busy today with paperwork, letters of recommendations, and winter ducks, so I’ll probably just highlight some articles that you might want to read. Who cares if I didn’t write them?—I’m professor, not a professional writer.

Sarah Haider‘s new Substack column, “Hold that thought“, promises to be a place to bookmark, as she’s published two good pieces in a row. Like many of us, Haider won’t embrace the full-on principles of “progressive” liberalism, but remains a liberal nonetheless. She is, of course, an ex-Muslim, co-founder of the Ex-Muslims of North America, and is quite critical of her old faith. That alone makes her unacceptable to the Woke, who valorize Islam in the face of its extreme regressive principles, ignoring this regressivism because Muslims are seen as People of Color.

Well, so is Haider, so she has both the ethnic and political bona fides (she’s a Democrat) to give her credibility. But of course she hasn’t accrued as much as she deserves simply because she’s an apostate.  To counteract this, Haider has, in the past, peppered her talks with those bona fides: “I’m a liberal so you can take what you’re about to read or hear seriously.”

In this new piece she’s decided to give up this “throat-clearing”, as she calls it, and will just give her argument.

I, too, have been wont to “clear my throat” here and in talks, but Haider’s piece makes a convincing case that it’s useless to try to get on the liberal audience’s good side by touting your liberal views and accomplishments. In fact, I’m going to stop doing that myself because her piece is so persuasive.  I think this would be a good policy for readers, too, and I especially urge them to work on creating an atmosphere here where you don’t need to tout your background before advancing an idea. One thing I will no longer tolerate is people who dismiss an argument or an article simply because of where it appeared (usually in a Jewish or conservative publication) or who makes it. That is the equivalent of an ad hominem argument. I can’t stand hearing words like “I’m not going to read this because it’s from the National Review, and the whole enterprise is garbage.” That’s the sign of a closed mind.

Click the screenshot below to read, and subscribe if you like it. I have a feeling she’s going to develop well as a “blogger”:

Here’s her version of throat clearing:

Before touching on any perspective that I knew to not be kosher among other Leftists, I tended to precede with some version of throat-clearing: “I’m on the left” or “I’ve voted Democrat my whole life.”

I told myself that this was a distinction worth insisting on because 1) it was the truth and 2) because it helped frame the discussion properly – making clear that the argument is coming from someone who values what they value.

But there was another reason too. My political identity reminders were a plea to be considered fully and charitably, to not be villainized and presumed to be motivated by “hate”.

The precursor belief to this, of course, is that actual conservatives should not be taken charitably, are rightfully villainized, and really are motivated by “hate”.

But I’m done sputtering indignantly about being mischaracterized as “conservative”, or going out of my way to remind the audience that I really am a good little liberal.

Here is why.

She then gives four reasons, explaining each, but you can read the explanations for yourself (indented stuff is hers):

1.) It doesn’t work

2.) Throat-clearing is a tax on energy and attention. 

3)  Throat-clearing is bad for you

4.) It is bad for the causes you care about

So I’ll join Haider in a resolution to stop doing this stuff; let’s see if I can stick to it.

At the end of her piece she decries the secular community’s embrace of Islam, and also criticizes in the American Civil Liberties Union’s conversion to a “progressive outlet” that’s “surrendering its once most cherished  cause–free speech.”

Which brings us to the next reading. .

The world gets more secular as it gets better: data continue to show that religion is unnecessary and inimical to healthy and moral societies

August 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

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 WorldwideI 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.

 

h/t: Lenny, David

America’s inexorable secularization: for the first time, less than half of Americans are church members

March 30, 2021 • 9:30 am

A new Gallup poll shows that for the first since polling began in 1940, the number of Americans who belong to a church has fallen below 50%. This is part of the inexorable and welcome secularization of American, and goes hand in hand with the rise of the “nones:—people who have no formal religious affiliations. (“Nones” include nonbelievers, agnostics, “spiritual” folks, and people who believe in God but aren’t affiliated with a church.)

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the chart of the proportion of Americans belonging to a church over the past eight decades.  As the survey notes,”U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.” If this trend continues, in a century America will have very few religious people.

The trend won’t continue forever, of course, as there are some people who won’t give up their faith until it’s pried from their cold, dead hands (sadly, they’ll never discover they were wrong). But, as I’ve always maintained, this trend is part of the increasing importance of science, and the realization by many that religion is indeed a fairy tale.

There are actually three causes of this drop: people becoming “nones” within a generation (this includes church members who retain their faith but give up their church membership) and the trend that people who are younger tend to be less religious (the “one body at a time” theory):

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

. . . The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time.

This is a remarkably fast erosion of religion. Here’s a plot of the decline in formal church membership among people who retain their religion—down around 13% in 20 years.

And the age effect:

Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.

The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong.

This decline of religion is, argues Steve Pinker in Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, one of the reasons for the increase in morality over the last few centuries in Western nations. You can argue about whether he’s right, but the trend is, as Nixon might have said, “perfectly clear.”

h/t: Woody

Phil Zuckerman on the rise and influence of the “nones”

December 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

The other day a friend asked me if I thought that religion would show a big resurgence in America after the pandemic abates. I said that I doubted it on two grounds. First, the pandemic, in which many people died without obvious goddy reasons, should dispel any idea of a loving and powerful deity. More important, religion in America has been on the wane for decades, and I expect that the trend will continue. (If you want reasons why, read Steve Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now.)

We heard yesterday that black voters were crucial in Biden’s victory. Today we hear from Phil Zuckerman that one could make a similar case for secular voters. Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in California, is the author of a book I like a lot, Society Without God (2008, second edition 2020), showing that Denmark and Sweden function very well without religion, thank you. He also founded the first secular studies program in the U.S., allowing students to major in that field.

If you want to be heartened about the increasing influence of the nonreligious in America, read this short article published by Zuckerman in The Conversation, and, surprisingly, widely reprinted in U.S. newspapers.

The graph below shows the rise of the “nones” since 1970, with “nones” being those Americans who profess no religion in particular. You can’t really call them nonbelievers or atheists, as some of them do believe in a higher power, but they don’t belong to a regular church. Still, the group is largely secular in outlook. And they’ve increased in the last 50 year from about 5% of Americans to about 23%—a remarkable change in a largely religious country. (The graph is interactive on the Conversation site, so you can get exact figures.) The “nones” are represented by thick red line. Note that their rise has largely been at the expense of mainline Protestants, with the rest of the faiths holding steady or showing a slight decline.

Zuckerman’s point is that although religious voters have been called “values voters”, secular voters have their own humanistic values, and, as he says, “this played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.”

These include a referendum in Washington state requiring that students receive sex education in the public schools, and Washington, with over a third of its residents being “nones,” is one of the least religious states in America. It’s known as well that nones tend to favor sex education in school more than do believers.

In Oregon, voters passed a first, Measure 110, which “decriminalizes personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine, heroin, Oxycodone and methamphetamine. It also reduces the penalties for possessing larger amounts.” Oregon, too, is a relatively secular state, and secularists are far more tolerant of drug use than are believers: “a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians, but only 17% of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.”

“All drugs”, of course, includes marijuana.

Finally, California, a relatively secular state, passed a proposition supporting the funding of stem-cell research, an area supported far more strongly by secularists than by religionists.

Zuckerman’s view that secularism played a role in passing these referendums is, of course, speculative, but as the nation becomes less and less religious, we’ll see the effect of humanism in our laws. Phil also notes that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support same-sex marriage than are believers (especially white evangelicals). The same goes for initiatives involved in women’s reproductive rights, the DACA program, and assisted suicide, while secularists are more opposed to the death penalty than are believers. (Zuckerman gives links to all these claims.)

Two more points. The first is the argument that secular voters made a difference in the election.

Zuckerman:

According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80% of atheists and agnostics and 70% of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.

This may have been decisive. As Professor Burge argues, “it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28% and 37% of the population in those key states.”

Second, Zuckerman reports an analysis of Hemant Mehta showing that every member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus was re-elected, and ten new state senators who are openly secular were voted into office, making a total of 45. Not surprisingly, they’re all Democrats!

If you want more data on the rise of the nones, click on this article from HuffPost:

h/t: Barry

New Zealand hospital rejects a Christian chapel in favor of a multifaith one; Christians outraged

October 8, 2020 • 1:00 pm

According to the blog post below by Barry Duke at the Patheos site TheFreeThinker, and also from an article in the Otago Daily Times, a new hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand decided it would devote its chapel space to a multifaith facility rather than a Christian one. This has pissed off a lot of Christians, including the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, all of whom petitioned the Health Board to guarantee there would be a Christian chapel. No dice—the facility doesn’t have sufficient space. Read for yourself, especially the ludicrous justification for a specifically Christian chapel in the hospital.

Have a look at this one:

An excerpt from the paper (my emphasis)

. . . a petition signed by 52 people, mainly leaders of Presbyterian congregations across the South, but also including the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, the Right Rev Stephen Benford, seeks assurance from the health board that a Christian chapel and an office for chaplains be given priority for the new hospital.

The signatures are attached to a letter to New Dunedin Hospital programme director Hamish Brown, from Leith Valley Presbyterian Church minister the Rev Richard Dawson, which calls for hospital planners to revisit their plans and include a “discernable Christian presence” in the new hospital.

“Hospitals and the health systems in which they operate can largely be said to be an invention of the church and they certainly rely on values espoused by the church throughout its 2000-year history,” Mr Dawson writes.

“More than this, however, is the concern that the Christian faith will not be primarily represented within a city founded on Christian principles and a country in which, still, the largest group of people claiming religious adherence are Christian.”

He argued non-denominational chaplains at the new hospital would administer to the spiritual needs of anyone using the hospital, but said the nature of modern hospitals was due to the impact of Christian churches on ancient military hospitals.

And he asked that “the faith tradition upon which this nation and this city have relied on to guide them in forming an holistic health system be duly recognised”.

This is pathetic. While I don’t mind that they create a place to worship the supernatural in a hospital—after all, hospitals are places of grief and pain, and for those who are religious there’s no harm in creating a quiet for meditation or prayer—I do mind them prioritizing Christianity. And the rationale for that—that Christianity invented hospitals—would be ludicrous even if it were true. But it doesn’t seem to be true, as you find out quickly when you consult the Wikipedia article on “hospital”:

In early India, Fa Xian, a Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled across India c. AD 400, recorded examples of healing institutions. According to the Mahavamsa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, written in the sixth century AD, King Pandukabhaya of Sri Lanka (r. 437–367 BC) had lying-in-homes and hospitals (Sivikasotthi-Sala).  A hospital and medical training centre also existed at Gundeshapur, a major city in southwest of the Sassanid Persian Empire founded in AD 271 by Shapur I.  In ancient Greece, temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius, known as Asclepeion functioned as centres of medical advice, prognosis, and healing. The Asclepeia spread to the Roman Empire. While public healthcare was non-existent in the Roman Empire, military hospitals called valetudinaria did exist stationed in military barracks and would serve the soldiers and slaves within the fort.  Evidence exists that some civilian hospitals, while unavailable to the Roman population, were occasionally privately built in extremely wealthy Roman households located in the countryside for that family, although this practice seems to have ended in 80 AD.

So much for that, but even if the very first hospital was constructed by the Christian church, that gives Christians no priority over other faiths in having a dedicated place of worship in a hospital.  As for the “faith tradition” of the country and which is supposedly majority Christian, well, the paper adds this:

[Hospital Programme Director Hamish Brown’s] report noted that between the 2006 and 2018 censuses the number of Otago people who identifed as Christian dropped from more than half (54.1%) to about a third (33.4%).

Those identifying with no religion rose from 38.8% in 2006 to 55.8% in 2018.

It seems to me that they need a Secular Center, not a Christian one!

h/t:Graham

My unpublished comment on The Weekly Dish

September 5, 2020 • 10:15 am

On his website The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan publishes “dissents”—comments from readers who have disagreed with things in the previous week’s column. They’re often quite long, and, to his credit, Sullivan often admits he’s wrong or engages the dissent thoughtfully.

In his column a week ago Friday, Sullivan made a statement about the virtues of Christianity that riled me up, for recently he seemed to have strayed away from the God-osculation that was, to me, his most irrational feature.  But then it returned. He had this exchange with a reader (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the pastBut the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

That response, about the need for Christianity to sustain liberalism, struck me as badly mistaken, and I wrote a short post about it. But then, realizing that perhaps Sullivan might engage me directly in a “dissent”, I rewrote my post, added data, and sent it off to the Dish. I was hoping he’d choose to answer it in public, and I wanted to see what he’d say.

I didn’t entertain high hopes for this, as Greg, who sent several dissents to the old Daily Dish (a couple of them published), told me that dissents aren’t acknowledged and few of them are printed. Nevertheless, I sent what’s below to Sullivan.  I’m printing it here because it wasn’t used this week; Sullivan answered several readers’ dissents about Trump. (Sullivan engaged me in an exchange nine years ago, back when I was pretty down on his religiosity and took issue with his seeing Scripture as metaphorical, not intending to be read literally.)

Rather than waste what I wrote, here it is. Perhaps some day Sullivan might address it, or it might be useful for somebody else. The data come from a number of posts I’ve done on this site.

Dear Andrew,

I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:

. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.

I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.

Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. 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.”

Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.

All the best,
Jerry Coyne

What is the value of theology?

June 21, 2020 • 9:30 am

Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cleverly defined theology as a “subject without an object”.  That presupposes that there is no evidence for the “subject”: gods, prophets like Jesus, and so on, and I think most of us agree with that. So does the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as a definition:

I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.

But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs.  Further, those areas can be wide-ranging. Have a look at last year’s course list at the University of Chicago’s theology school, which includes courses like “Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,” “History of Religions,” “Islamic Philosophy”, “History of Judaism,” “Christian Iconography,” and so on. Since religion has been an enormous influence on history, art, and sociology, I have no problems with these, though I don’t see why they can’t be folded into history, anthropology, philosophy, and art departments. And of course studies of the history of the Bible and Qur’an, as well as Hindu scriptures, are also useful since these books have been so influential and connect Christianity and Judiasm with Islam and the myths of other faiths and early non-Abrahamic religions.

But there are also courses like “God and the Good Life” and many courses on “Religious leadership and practice,” which appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions. Here’s one that looks a bit suspect (my emphasis):

RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus

This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).

I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”

Here’s another:

RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III

The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.

Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.

I’m sure I’ll get pushback from the people at the Divinity School (and I like some of them, having talked to them when I was writing Faith Versus Fact), but I’ll pose my own view on theology in the next three paragraphs in bold (I’m taking “theology” here to apply only to Abrahamic religions):

Insofar as “theology” encompasses philosophical, sociological, and historical studies of religion, which do not presuppose the existence of anything divine or supernatural, these studies can be valuable and should be taught in universities. But I don’t think they need to be lumped together in a divinity school. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, when establishing the University of Virginia, specified that it would be a nonsectarian school lacking both schools of theology or even places of worship. (And yet there is a Department of Religious Studies at U.Va, though it seems to exist to produce academic scholars of religion, much like a virus that uses a larger organism to facilitate its own replication.)

In other words, “theological” studies that have bearing on secular issues like philosophy and history, or reveal something about human actions and beliefs, or discuss religious influences on literature, art, and music, are justifiable—so long as nobody argues that the objects of theology, gods and prophets and unsubstantiated and unevidenced religious claims, should be taken seriously. Likewise, “theology” that is like “New Biblical Criticism”, dissecting Scripture as a human document, examining its genesis (so to speak), its influences, and its connections with history and other faiths, is also justifiable. 

Insofar as “theology” includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago’s and Harvard’s, have very few of those courses, but there are some.  They should not be part of a secular university. 

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens’s razor is correct: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth.

I’m sure others disagree here. Some will say I don’t go far enough in dismissing theology; others will say that I don’t give theology enough credit. And expressing your view is what the comments are for on this Christian Sabbath.

Ohio passes ambiguous “Student Religious Liberties Act”

June 19, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Last November, when I was on a ship off Antarctica, I posted about a bill in the Ohio Legislature, now called the “Student Religious Liberties Act,” that, critics fear, would expand the role of religion in the public schools. At that time the bill had passed the Ohio House over the objections of Democrats.  Now, according to the news site Cleveland.com, the bill has passed the Ohio Senate unanimously, by a vote of 32-0, and is on the way to the governor for his signature.

 

While my earlier post singled out four areas of concern, the one that most disturbed me was this one, which appears to have been adopted without any changes:


You don’t have to parse this closely to see the ambiguity. You are not to be penalized or rewarded by engaging in religious expression on assignments, but yet you’re supposed to be graded using “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” How is that going to work.

The proponents of the bill, below, say that nothing will change, with one person using as an example that if someone draws a picture of Jesus in an art class, “They are not to be penalized on the religious content but on their skill as a painter.” The problem is, of course, that not all classes are art classes! (See below.)

The newspaper article at the top notes that ten other states have adopted similar legislation, and it’s worrisome that religious organizations were the ones lobbying for the bill.

My concerns remain the same as they were seven months ago, and so I’ll just repeat what I said then. My words are indented, and quotes are further indented:

The fourth bit—the subject of this post and the Ohio bill—is especially worrisome, because it allows students to give wrong answers if those wrong answers comport with their faith. That, too, is inimical to the public welfare, and to the duty of public education, in the service of religion. While the bill is said to be more “nuanced” than that, I don’t know how, and even the bill’s supporters aren’t sure.

Here’s what that bit says in the bill:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

You can see the ambiguity here. On the one hand the code permits students to use religious expression to do homework or answer test questions, and to do so without penalty (or reward); on the other hand it says that assignments will be graded “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” That gives no guidelines about what to do when a student says that the Bible says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that all animals and plants were created within a day or two because that’s what Genesis says. This is a bill that’s simply begging for a lawsuit.

. . .Well, there’s plenty of chance for religious self-expression after school or in church. And there’s no excuse for impeding students’ education by giving them credit for religious answers that are wrong—or failing to tell them that they’re wrong, even if you don’t penalize them. If you want religious answers to be acceptable, have your kids home-schooled—or send them to religious schools.

But would the bill allow students to get credit for wrong answers that buttress their faith? It’s not clear, for that might depend on the results of later First-Amendment lawsuits. The Cleveland.com website says this:

ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.

I think Daniels is a bit off the mark here. Those “restrictions on students’ religious rights” are already prohibited by the First Amendment (first and third points above). So what’s new?

Here’s the ambiguous bit:

On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.

“Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said.

Well, that’s confusing! If you can neither penalize nor reward students for arguing that, for example, the Earth is 10,000 years old, what can you do? If you give them credit, you’re rewarding them. If you give them no credit, you’re penalizing them.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But I think it’s more likely that teachers would avoid this whole issue by not asking questions that could lead to religiously-inspired answers. But that means no evolutionary biology at all, and not many biology teachers want to avoid teaching evolution, even in the American South. To deprive students of this wondrous (and true!) theory by catering to students’ faiths would be to do them a profound disservice. After all, is religion so different from other unsubstantiated faiths like Holocaust denialism? Does Scientology and its crazy claims about Xenu and thetans get “respected” too? That way lies madness.

And here’s some more madness. Sponsor Gintis says that the bill’s “nuances” prohibit students from getting credit for wrong but religiously-inspired answers, but then undermines what he said by asserting that Moses was a historical figure and you could get credit for writing about Moses as if he existed.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.

However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.

What, exactly, is the extra-Biblical evidence for the historical existence of Moses? It’s exactly as thin as extra-Biblical evidence for the historical evidence for a Jesus figure—i.e., NO evidence.

h/t: Tom