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

A conservative argues for mandatory school prayer to stem the increase in nonbelief

May 16, 2020 • 11:30 am

Where else would you find a mushbrain argument like this except in The American Conservative? For it not only sees the decline in religiosity in America as a bad thing, but, importantly, blames it on the lack of mandatory prayer in schools, which, they say, makes religion seem “taboo” to kids and weans them from their faith.

Implicit in all this is that the First Amendment is a bad thing, at least insofar as it is held by the courts to apply in schools. Also implicit is the idea that religion is a good thing. The argument, also implicit, is that we should change the First Amendment, or at least the way it’s been interpreted, so that kids can not only pray in schools (which they can—on their own), but have organized prayer in schools.

So here is the argument:

1.) Religion has declined in America not because of increasing wealth, well being, education, but because of the increasing secularization of education. Author Helen Andrews gives two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute has a different explanation. “The most likely causes of declining religiosity are the increasingly intense role that more and more secularized educational institutions play in children’s lives,” author Lyman Stone writes, plus “the continuing delay and decline of marriage.” It is not education that makes people less religious, he argues, but specifically secular education.

There’s no further mention of marriage in the article, though it’s also supposed to contribute to America’s godlessness.

I haven’t read the report, and maybe they have real data about this, but I doubt it, for the “increasingly intense role” of secularized education simply means the banning of mandatory school prayers in American schools, which occurred in the Sixties. And, as the chart below shows, the real increase in “nones”—those lacking affiliation to a church or feeling that they have no religion—has occurred after 1970. When I went to secondary school in the sixties, there was already no school prayer, and yet since then the loss of religion has skyrocketed. If the author’s argument is correct, nonbelief should have begun increasing in the 1960s, not as late as 1975, and of course there would be no reason for a continual increase.

 

Source

2.) In fact, the decline of religiosity is imputed almost solely to a “more secular schooling” rather than people becoming less religious because they either give up faith or were raised in a less religious home. The New Atheists take a hit:

That education would have something to do with secularization fits with what we know about when secularization happens. Contrary to the New Atheists’ heroic pose, the rise of the “nones” is not driven by the mature decisions of adults but by habits being formed (or not) in childhood. “The story of secularization in America is not mostly a story of lots of people who were raised religious leaving their religious faith as adults,” Stone explains. “It is a story of fewer people having a religious upbringing at all.”

Yes, but why are people having less religious upbringings? Even if this were the case, It must be a case of the priorities of the parents, not the absence of prayers in schools.

3.) Further evidence for the importance of religion in schools comes from—get this—countries where religious school systems shift to secular ones:

Stone points to test cases in France and Turkey where secularization followed not just from expanded access to education but from shifts from religious to secular schools. “If educational attainment drives secularization, then spending two more years in school should reduce religiosity, even if that school is a religious school,” he theorizes. In fact, longitudinal studies have found that attending a religious school is associated with greater religiosity later in life.

But of course when you’re immersed in religious education during the whole day, and that’s taken away, you’re not going to be as wedded to faith. But that’s different from having a two-minute school prayer once a day: the frequent drill in America in the Sixties.  In religious schools you’re marinated in delusion all day.

3.) Equally dubious is Andrews’s argument that if you can’t pray in school, kids see that as abnormal, a taboo. And that makes them less religious.

But if the AEI report is right, there is something irreplaceable about those hours between nine and three. The atheist’s knockdown argument against school prayer — that there are plenty of other hours in a day to pray in — was based on a fallacy. Society either teaches its children that religion is something normal or something taboo. Banning prayer from schools teaches them that religion is not normal.

Seriously? If there’s no mandatory prayer in school, people are going to think religion is taboo? I doubt they’d think of it at all. And if they asked “why can’t we pray in school”, they could get an answer from Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation: you are allowed to pray in school on your own time; it just can’t be mandated. You can pray in the cafeteria, at recess, on the playground, and so on, and no teacher is going to stop you! In fact, they wouldn’t be allowed to stop you.

Andrews is making a desperation argument based on the unstoppable secularization of America. But she’s not going to get her school prayer, and the “nones” will continue to increase. So it goes.

h/t: Barry

Pandemic relief causes U.S. government to violate First Amendment by paying churches

April 9, 2020 • 9:30 am

You can either read the transcript of this 3-minute National Public Radio report or listen to it—both by clicking on the link below. It turns out that, as part of the $350 billion dollars that the U.S. government has earmarked for loans to help cash-strapped small-businesses during the pandemic, churches and “faith-based organizations” have also been classified as “businesses.”

You can read the guidelines from the Small Business Administration here, which note that “faith-based organizations are eligible to receive SBA loans regardless of whether they provide secular social services.”  Note that this distinguishes religious organizations from other non-profit outfits, which do provide secular social services.

In this case, then, the government is taking the place of the collection plate, and by so doing violating the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to forbid government subsidies to religion. (Will they give loans to atheist organizations?) According to NPR, this initiative was the product of—who could guess it?—President Trump and Vice-President Pence, clearly trying to firm up their religious base.

Now I wouldn’t object too strongly if, during emergencies like this, subsidies could be given to religious organizations to help fund purely social activities: feeding the homeless, providing clothing and essentials, and the like, but not for proselytizing or doing religious outreach. But, over time, federal courts have slowly been taking down the wall between church and state, allowing religious monuments on public lands because they’re said to be “cultural monuments without religious significance,” and so on. That’s on top of continuing but palpably unconstitutional activities like allowing ministers (but not heads of organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation) to have a tax-free housing allowance. As the report notes:

Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.

“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”

In prior years, the federal government has generally steered clear of such funding, although it has freed religious institutions from paying taxes and made donations to them tax-deductible.

Under existing SBA regulations, among the for-profit businesses declared ineligible for loans are those “principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counseling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting.”

That rule, however, may soon be eliminated.

The SBA statement on the participation of faith-based organizations in the new loan program declares that some agency regulations “impermissibly exclude some religious entities. Because those regulations bar the participation of a class of potential recipients based solely on their religious status, SBA will decline to enforce these subsections and will propose amendments to conform those regulations to the Constitution.”

The rationale, then, is that by not giving loans to churches and other religious organizations, the government is discriminating against them, which advocates say is itself a violation of the First Amendment. But it’s one thing to further secular activities of businesses, and another thing entirely to support proselytizing and worship, as the current SBA policy recognizes. If anything violates the First Amendment, it’s our government giving financial aid to further worshiping and proselytizing.

Texas man endows first professorship of secular studies at a public university: UT Austin

February 8, 2020 • 10:30 am

You may already know that the country’s first—and still, I think, only—college program in Secular Studies is at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, founded by the estimable sociologist Phil Zuckerman. (You can see the curriculum here.)

Well, as the Austin Statesman (should they change it to “Statesperson”?) reported yesterday, The University of Texas at Austin has now received a $1 million endowment from a long-time secularist to fund a faculty position in secular research. It’s not a program, nor even a position for a new faculty member, but a lucrative chair for an existing UTA faculty member. And it’s the first endowed chair for secular research at a public university in the U.S. (They may exist in other countries, but I don’t know.)

Click on the screenshot to read the story.

Bolton somehow managed to accumulate a lot of money as a professor, which is unusual but, in this case, useful (he may have been independently wealthy). From the paper:

A Georgetown resident who has never set foot on the University of Texas campus has given $1 million to the school for a new professorship to focus on a growing segment of the U.S. population that holds no religious views.

The endowment is coming from Brian Bolton, 80, who is retired after a 35-year career in academia. He was an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1968 to 1971. From 1971 to 2002, Bolton was a professor of rehabilitation and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

Bolton said he has never visited UT but shares common values with the educational institution. “My 35-year career was dedicated to scholarship and research in academia,” he said. “I know UT is a great university, and that’s all I need to know.”

Bolton said he wanted to donate the money to make a lasting impact.

What’s curious about this report are three issues. First, a million bucks is enough to endow a new professor, but they’re going to choose somebody already on the faculty. I doubt that there would be someone already there who’s doing “secular studies” in the manner of Zuckerman.

The indented statements are from the Statesman piece:

UT will not be hiring a new professor for Bolton’s endowment but will choose one who is already on the faculty, said Justin Michalka, the executive director of development for the College of Liberal Arts. The university has not yet chosen who that will be, he said.

Second, the University’s director of development is curiously silent about Bolton’s endowment:

Michalka declined to comment further on Bolton’s donation.

Finally, the paper says there’s a university news release on Bolton’s endowment, but I can’t find it (my emphasis):

“During the past two decades there has been significant increase in the U.S. among those who associate with a secular worldview, a trend particularly pronounced in younger people, prompting increased research in this emerging field,” according to a university news release on Bolton’s endowment.

I’m sufficiently cynical to think that they’ve deep-sixed that statement (readers can see if it’s on the Internet), and are playing down the endowment. Perhaps they like the dosh, but secularism, while it may play well in Austin, isn’t particularly popular in the rest of Texas. Or so I think, and I’d be glad to be proven wrong. The reader who sent me the link to the newspaper piece is contacting the reporter to try to find the university statement.

Bolton’s endowment has already been announced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recounts his generous support of their organization—also implying that Bolton has a source of money beyond an academic salary.

Brian Bolton is a longtime Life Member, for whom the executive wing of FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, is named, due to his support of FFRF’s headquarters expansion. Bolton has also singlehandedly underwritten for a decade now FFRF’s essay contest for grad/older students, with up to $10,000 prize money in total. And he is financing a bible accountability project to call attention to the continuing harm of the bible to society that includes subsidization of the cost of mailing FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel’s recent book, The Founding Myth, to every member of Congress last fall. FFRF will be publishing Bolton’s new work, tentatively titled Why the Bible Is Not a Good Book, this year. Bolton, who lives in Texas, will be speaking briefly at FFRF’s annual convention in San Antonio in November.

“Now, the best public university in an immensely important state has a researcher focusing on a woefully neglected segment of the population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And it’s all thanks to Brian Bolton, who has been munificently boosting the secular movement.”

I’ve been to that new executive wing; it’s lovely, and must have cost a pretty penny. Here’s a photo I took when I visited in March of 2018:

By the way, if you’re ever in Madison, you must visit the headquarters. You can even pose with the life-sized statue of Darwin, as I did. It’s amazingly lifelike:

But enough about the money; here’s some more stuff about Bolton from the FFRF:

Bolton is a retired academic psychologist with a background in mathematics, statistics and psychometrics. His contributions in psychological measurement, personality assessment and rehabilitation psychology have been recognized by universities and psychological societies. His 10 edited and authored books include Handbook of Measurement and Evaluation in Rehabilitation, Psychosocial Adjustment to Disability, Rehabilitation Counseling: Theory and Practice, and Special Education and Rehabilitation Testing: Current Practices and Test Reviews. He is a licensed psychologist, Humanist minister, Karate black belt, and Distinguished Toastmaster.

If you want to read even more, nine years ago the FFRF featured an interview about Bolton on its “Meet A Member” feature. A few excerpts:

Where I’m headed: The same terminal condition as all sentient life forms — eternal nonexistence or everlasting nothingness.

Person in history I admire: Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant statesman and intellectual whose numerous accomplishments helped establish the robust government under which we thrive today.

A quotation I like: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” (George Washington, 1792 letter to Edward Newenham)

These are a few of my favorite things: Supporting animal welfare and environmental protection, reading philosophy and science, writing freethought articles, and raising African leopard tortoises.

These are not: FOX News, religious fundamentalism, sports evangelism, conservative politics.

How long I’ve been a freethinker: All my life.

Why I’m a freethinker: Even though I attended Sunday school as a child, my soul was never captured. My transition from indifferent unbeliever to outspoken nontheist was brought about by Falwell, LaHaye and Swaggart.

He’s an animal and environment lover, too—a fellow after my own heart! We’re still digging to find out of the University of Texas deleted the announcement of the donation, and I’ll report back.

h/t: Reese