Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rumors of my Recovery have been Greatly Exaggerated

God might not be dead, but His vital statistics aren't trending in a good direction as of late:
Now, once again, nonbelievers have a fresh sense of mission. The fastest-growing faith in the country is no faith at all. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of its “Religious Landscape” survey in February and found that 16 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. The number is even greater among young people: 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now identify with no religion, up from 11 percent in a similar survey in 1986. For most of its modern history, atheism has existed as a kind of civil-rights movement. Groups like American Atheists have functioned primarily as litigants in the fight for church-state separation, not as atheist social clubs. “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people who don’t feel like they need an organization,” says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists for the past thirteen years. “They’re so independent that if they want to get involved, they usually don’t join an organization—they start their own.”

The quartet of best-selling authors who have emerged to write the gospel of New Atheism—Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Dawkins (the Four Horsemen, as they are now known)—has succeeded in mainstreaming atheism in a nation that is still overwhelmingly religious and, in the process, catalyzed a reexamination of atheistic raison d’être. But for some atheist foot soldiers, this current groundswell is just a consciousness-raising stop on the evolutionary train, the atheist equivalent of the Stonewall riots. For these people, the Four Horsemen have only started the journey. Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine. “People perceive us as only rejecting things,” says Ken Bronstein, the president of a local group called New York City Atheists. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Okay, you’re an atheist, now what?’ ”

So some atheists are taking seriously the idea that atheism needs to stand for things, like evolution and ethics, not just against things, like God. The most successful movements in history, after all—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.—all have creeds, cathedrals, schools, hierarchies, rituals, money, clerics, and some version of a heavenly afterlife. Churches fill needs, goes the argument—they inculcate ethics, give meaning, build communities. “Science and reason are important,” says Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University. “But science and reason won’t visit you in the hospital.”


The last sentence is just silly. You don't need a religion to tell you to visit people in the hospital, and atheists don't need an organization of their own to do so either. In my mid twenties, after I had left the Catholic Church I felt like I still needed to participate in, or find a replacement for the habits I had ingrained in me from a lifetime in the Church. I felt like I needed somewhere to go on Sunday mornings. But in time I got over it. Now sitting in a coffee shop reading the Sunday paper fills my need for ritual.

Likewise this felt need by some atheists to form the atheist equivalent of a church is just a cultural reflex, in my view. Non-religious people, whether atheists, agnostics or dunnoists, have had an identity forced on them by American society just for going against the cultural grain. But since it is a negative identity in the sense of being defined for what we are not, rather than a positive identity, it doesn't make for a natural, cohesive subculture. Just as a group of non-Japanese foreigners living in Japan would have the experience of being treated as a foreigner in common, it isn't enough to bind a Swede, an American and a Chinese into a natural affinity group. Without a sense of feeling beseiged, which will become harder to justify as the non-religious population grows, there won't be a felt need for a secular pro-military conservative to feel a special kinship with a secular anti-military socialist.

As the non-religious segment of the population grows, political parties will take notice and begin to compete for them. The collapse of the Reagan Coalition and the Democrat party's rise to dominance is signalling the decline of the strident anti-secularism of the Religious Right as a dominant political force. If Republicans wish to remain competitive in the future, they will have to find ways to appeal to secular voters.

31 Comments:

Blogger Bret said...

Duck wrote: "The last sentence is just silly. You don't need a religion to tell you to visit people in the hospital..."

I interpreted that a bit differently: that faith in god and an afterlife could "visit" you while you're in the hospital and provide comfort but science and reason probably can't provide much comfort as you're dying.

April 25, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Here's a story about the comfort of religion.

About 80 years ago, my grandfather was visiting a friend in the hospital. Those were the days of the big ward of beds lined up along the wall.

In one bed was a teenage girl with a broken leg. In another was a woman in her death rattle, screaming 'Devil coming to get me!' 'Keep away, devil!' and so on.

The girl was terrified. So my grandfather went to his business buddies and said, We cannot expose children to this, we must build a children's hospital. So they did.

In my experience, as in my grandfather's, the idea that faith in the afterlife or devotion to religion provides comfort at death is one big steaming pile of crap.

April 25, 2008 3:12 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Atheism’s great awakening is in need of a doctrine.

Just like not collecting stamps needs a doctrine.

... but science and reason probably can't provide much comfort as you're dying.

Which, as each of the "4-horsemen" have said, is why religion will never disappear.

That's fine, although even a little examination shows such thinking is nothing more than soft focus "there are no atheists in foxholes."

A facile saying that is simultaneously wrong, and insulting to everyone -- believers and non-believers alike -- with sufficient intellectual horsepower to parse the sentence.

Or, as Harry said more spikily, a steaming pile of crap.

++++

So long as the religious are not engaged in trying to ram their particular fairy tale down others' throats, then atheists should take the same attitude towards religion that those of us who don't collect stamps take towards stamp collectors.

However, when the religious (e.g., Islam) cannot manage that minimal level of respect, it is difficult to overdo the scorn such magical certainty richly deserves.

April 25, 2008 5:20 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry,

I imagine that if you think you're going to hell, then no, religion wouldn't provide much comfort while dying. I wonder what percentage of believers think that they're going to hell?

The rest of the believers are probably at least a little bit comforted. That would, of course, include suicide bombers who are quite comforted by the thought of 70 virgins being made available.

April 25, 2008 10:44 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

If they tale the sermons seriously, all of them.

I have watched a number of unbelievers go to meet their whatever. All had what might be called good deaths.

I don't really care, though. What I object to are the believers who want to take unbelievers out before they go.

I had to laugh last week when the supposedly materialist, leftist, atheist, religion-scorning national press listened to il papa announce a Catholic jihad against the heretics and reacted as if he were re-enunciating the Gettysburg Address.

Heretics should be on their knees blessing us secularist-atheists that all they stand to lose are their low-paid seminary jobs.

While I have no doubt that Benedict would bring back the strappado if he could, he can't, no thanks to the believers

April 26, 2008 12:54 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I wonder what percentage of believers think that they're going to hell?

When I was a teenager and still a believing Catholic I was in great dread of it. As Harry points out, I took the religion seriously. I came to the same terrifying realization that Martin Luther did; that the nature of sin as defined by the Church made it impossible that you could ever receive adequate absolution through the sacraments of the Church to pay your freight into Heaven. Much like the structural disadvantages inherent in casino gambling (from the standpoint of the gambler), there was no way to beat the "house", the house being God's expectation of sinlessness.

A serious Catholic facing the confessional is akin to a Starfleet cadet taking the Kobayashi Maru test. Luther, like Captain Kirk, cheated his way out of it by nullifying the test and the test givers, and inventing his own reality where the test taker gets an automatic pass by paying the school geek (Jesus) to take the test for him. I wasn't so creative, so I just got really depressed.

This whole notion of faith as a comforting thing is a recent phenomenon. Religion was supposed to scare the bejeebers out of people, especially children. That was the priest/pastor's job, to scare his flock witless.

April 26, 2008 9:04 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry,

From the Church's perspective the worst possible sin is heresy. Millions of Catholics have had abortions, but you never hear of any of them being excommunicated. The same for pedophile priests. Yet heretics like Charles Curran are excommunicated. Why is that?

April 26, 2008 9:19 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I stand corrected by the facts. Curran was not excommunicated, just stripped of his teaching credentials. But other heretics are being excommunicated.

April 26, 2008 9:37 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It's an authoritarian system, so even small thought-crime is a serious threat.

Just as the Stalin-Kirov faction had to extinguish the Trotsky-Bukharin faction while it was able to ignore massive corruption.

I am always amused by Catholics who demand a smorgasbord theology -- women priests etc. They couldn't have been paying attention.

And the commentators, who are supposed (I suppose) to be more sophisticated than the lumpen-Catholics, who examine il papa's entrails for signs that he may be flexible.

Vaticanology is as fun to watch as Kremlinology.

April 26, 2008 1:38 PM  
Blogger David said...

You guys might want to not believe everything you read. Going back to the primary source, we see that "unaffiliated" is not a euphemism for "atheist." It means unaffiliated (that is, don't belong to a church, don't identify with a particular religion). Atheists, on the other hand, while unaffiliated, are vanishingly small, making up, according to Pew, only about 1.6% of the population. About the same, as it happens, as Jews, and a little bit less than the percent of Americans who have been abducted by aliens.

If we give atheists credit for all agnostics (as seems fair) and "Don't know/refused," we get up to a whopping 4.8% of the population.

Also, I assume that Duck was being ironical when he wrote:

You don't need a religion to tell you to visit people in the hospital, and atheists don't need an organization of their own to do so either.... Now sitting in a coffee shop reading the Sunday paper fills my need for ritual.

Because, otherwise? You're just making our point.

April 27, 2008 11:19 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Functionally, the difference between atheist, agnostic, and deist amounts to nothing more than spelling.

They are all Dunnoists. With respect to the survey, which is, after all, entitled Religious Landscape Survey, the third largest group in the survey does not believe any religion is objectively true.

Consequently, atheists, agnostics, and deists share the same religious belief. Separating one particular subgroup is to take a woodpecker's view of the forest.

Because, otherwise? You're just making our point.

Whis is?

April 27, 2008 11:42 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David

What is your point? Because otherwise I'd be in church, not visiting someone in the hospital.

Yes, most of these unaffiliated may not be strictly atheists or agnostics. They probably don't care enough to think that hard about it. But they are pretty much functionally atheist. There's two aspects to theism. There's the metaphysical aspect, the question about "where does everything come from?" Then there's the question "if there is a god, what do we do about it?" It's the Pascal's Wager question. What is at stake for me over the question of god?

A functional atheist answers that question with "nothing". These unaffiliated believers don't seem very anxious about what they should do about the possibility of god's existence.

April 27, 2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Indifferentists.


It's like counting homosexuals. Not enough people are going to be honest to make the count reliable.

But it's way more than 1.6%

April 27, 2008 11:48 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Aaargh. I meant:

Which is?

April 27, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "They are all Dunnoists."

Perhaps, but there are a couple of different flavors of Dunnoists. There are the hostile to religion Dunnoists (such as yourself and duck) and the Dunnoists who are comfortable with the established religions and don't particularly want the religious organizations to change much (such as myself).

Those two groups, as we've shown in our debates here at The Daily Duck, are not even vaguely functionally equivalent.

My bet is that those who chose 'unaffiliated' are more likely the latter type. Otherwise, why wouldn't've they chose Agnostic (I would've chosen Agnostic)?

April 27, 2008 1:55 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

There are the hostile to religion Dunnoists (such as yourself and duck) ...

Just to reiterate, from above, this clearly explains my hostility towards religion. (I shall not speak for Duck):

"So long as the religious are not engaged in trying to ram their particular fairy tale down others' throats, then atheists should take the same attitude towards religion that those of us who don't collect stamps take towards stamp collecting.

However, when [a religion] (e.g., Islam) cannot manage that minimal level of respect, it is difficult to overdo the scorn such magical certainty richly deserves."

... and the Dunnoists who are comfortable with the established religions and don't particularly want the religious organizations to change much (such as myself).

Whereupon you completely prove my point. Should a particular religion attempt to ram its fairy tale down your throat, I have little doubt you would suddenly be standing beside Duck and me.

The sole reason you are loftily comfortable with established religions in the West is because there are darn few actual believers in those religions. There are essentially no Christians who have any fealty to The Bible beyond what cherry picking and ignorance provide. For all practical purposes, there are no Christians who would have been accepted as such even 100 years ago.

And, in the US, at least, such Muslims as there are either do not take the Quran on board at all seriously, or they are biding their time until the correlation of forces allows them to impose their beliefs upon the rest.

Pretend, for the moment, Catholics, having achieved sufficient political power in the US, imposed the Index. Perhaps you would become just that little bit hostile.

This is where David's focus on category names, rather than their characteristics goes off the rails. I'll bet dimes to donuts Pew allowed those surveyed to self-categorize. In other words, did anyone, having responded to a Pewster in the affirmative as a mainline Protestant have to provide some bona fides: do you believe in the virgin birth? does Satan exist? do people have to accept Christ as their personal savior to attain salvation? ad infinitum ...

Had those bona fides been required, I'll bet a great many mainline Protestants and Catholics would, in terms of their religious beliefs, find themselves indistinguishable from the unaffiliated.

Belief just isn't what it used to be; although, relying solely upon labels can give the appearance otherwise.

April 27, 2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, I wouldn't want to cite Mussolini as an ultimate authority, but I happen to be reading Ciano's diaries today, in which Ciano reports that Mussolini said Italians 'aren't religious, only superstitious.'

That has always been my understanding of the Italian Catholicism I was raised in. (It was a mixture of Irish, French, Italian and Arab, so I got the worst of many threads.)

April 27, 2008 3:19 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper,

We have to better define "ramming down the throat". If it's convert or die, then yes. But if it's put up with some religious symbols in the public sphere, the shaping of public education around religion (such as Creationism or ID in schools), generally pestering me to convert, or most other things that did not conflict with general freedom of speech and religion (and other bill-of-rights) then no, I wouldn't be beside you and duck. I'd rather just put up with it. Note that "the index" would require the elimiation of several of the bill-of-rights.

"There are essentially no Christians who have any fealty to The Bible beyond what cherry picking and ignorance provide."

This is different than through all of history how?

Do you really think that churchgoers in the middle-ages had a thorough understanding of the religion to which they belonged? Or did they understand only those parts that the priest cherry picked and were ignorant of the rest?

I'm sure everybody self-categorized. But so what? I think that if you self-categorize as belonging to one of the christian religions, you generally believe in the christian god even if you don't know much about the specific doctrine you believe in. Again, sounds to me like it's probably the same as it always was. There may have been periods, especially in the last couple of centuries, thanks to the printing press, when more people had read through a lot of the doctrine, but I'd bet that's the exception, not the rule over the millennia.

I'm far from convinced that the education and understanding behind belief is any different now than it's typically been in the past.

April 27, 2008 4:02 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

The problem with defining "ramming down the throat" is that you are negotiating the difference between grasp and reach.

Because no religion in the West any longer is able to meaningfully impose upon you, you view yourself as not beside Duck or me. Without, it might seems, noticing that given a chance to avoid giving a damn, I will take it.

Of course, where the religious heap opprobrium upon non-believers, or make claims that are either ridiculous or self-negating, they are entitled to reap as they sow.

This is different than through all of history how?

It is different because if you actually asked what mainline Protestants and Catholics believe, what you would find might very well be difficult to distinguish from Dunnoism.

If you do not believe in the virgin birth, resurrection, or miracles, then in what sense are you a Christian and not a deist?

In what sense, other than (possibly) gathering on Sunday mornings to sing hymns and recite incantations by rote, should you be distinguished from someone else who also does not believe those things?

You need not deal with anything more than religion as devotional wallpaper in the public sphere precisely because so few religionists actually, really, believe what their books insist they must.

As opposed to, say, Indonesia. Where the believers actually believe.

April 27, 2008 6:19 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper,

I'll admit that we're a bit beyond the realm of my rather limited knowledge of religion, especially variants of the Christian variety. I really don't know the range and statistics of what people who self identify as Christians believe. I also have no idea how to judge whether not believing certain bits of the doctrine are show-stoppers as far as being a real Christian.

I don't even really know what my extended family believes. When I go to a bar mitzvah (or whatever), out of politeness and a desire to be supportive, I usually recite the prayers with everyone else. Maybe everyone else is doing the same thing? Maybe nobody believes any of it, we're just all being polite? For the rabbi it's just a job? For the kid getting bar mitzvah'd, his parents are making him do it, but s/he doesn't believe any of it either? The parents just feel obligated to the community to force their children to do it?

Maybe. Then it's clearly the "Emperor has no clothes" perspective on religion. All it would take is one person to get up and ask, "Nobody really believes any of this crap, do they?" and everybody would wake up from pretending, as if from a bad dream, and save themselves lots of time and hassle in the future by shedding the shackles of religion.

But I'm skeptical. I'd be surprised if all that many people go to church on a somewhat regular basis, yet believe that the vast majority of the doctrine is bogus. If so, it's very interesting that all these people are binding themselves to a religious organization.

Why?

April 27, 2008 10:24 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

bret:

First off, I must admit that my assertions of what Christians actually, as opposed to what they should (based upon divine revelation), believe is somewhat notional. However, when looking at the longer term, it is unmistakable.

Contrast the actions of believers now against, say, during the Reformation.

Clearly, over 500 years, the practical effect of religious belief has changed to the point that scarcely any believer today would qualify as such then.

Similarly, contrasting the long standing Shia - Sunni sectarian conflict against the current state of Protestant - Catholic conflict, it is hard to escape the conclusion that whatever people check on a surveyor's form, the West -- and America -- is effectively post-religious.

So, when David argues that Duck is drawing too much water from too small a bucket, I think he is assuming there is a direct connection between label and contents.

The number of cars that are not in church parking lots on Sundays is a tipoff.

April 30, 2008 9:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Perhaps, but there are a couple of different flavors of Dunnoists. There are the hostile to religion Dunnoists (such as yourself and duck) and the Dunnoists who are comfortable with the established religions and don't particularly want the religious organizations to change much (such as myself).

Bret, it's hard for me to square your complacence with regard to religious organizations and your attitude during our last abortion debate that religion is a dying myth that will be gone in a few generations. If that is how you feel, why aren't you hostile to it?

And don't confuse hostility toward an idea with hostility toward the people who hold the idea. I argue about religion because I care about what is true and what is false. I guess you could subdivide the dunnoists into the dunnoists but care-ists and the dunnoists and don't care-ists.

It seems odd, though, if you are a don't care-ist, that you spend time on blogs arguing with the care-ists.

April 30, 2008 10:46 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

But if it's put up with some religious symbols in the public sphere, the shaping of public education around religion (such as Creationism or ID in schools), generally pestering me to convert, or most other things that did not conflict with general freedom of speech and religion (and other bill-of-rights) then no, I wouldn't be beside you and duck. I'd rather just put up with it.

You have to ask yourself at what point such nuisances become too much to just put up with, and then you have to ask yourself how easy you think it would be to reverse the situation once it got to that point. Have you ever heard of the term "nipping it in the bud"?

The fact that you have the luxury to consider such things minor nuisances now is thanks to some brave people who protested when it was a lot more than a nuisance.

April 30, 2008 11:06 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't think that "true belief" is as rare as Skipper makes it out to be, but Christianity as it is practiced in the US is certainly a mixed bag. The Barna Organization does a lot of polling on religious topics, and it's interesting to see some of the results they come up with. Here's a survey of what Americans believe about the Trinity and Satan:

Jesus Christ

* More than two out of every five adults (41%) believe that when Jesus Christ lived on earth He committed sins. (2007)
* Across ethnicity, 49% of Hispanics, 41% of blacks and 40% of whites agree with the idea that "when He lived on earth, Jesus Christ was human and committed sins, like other people." (2007)

Satan

* In 2007 more than half of adults (57%) say that the devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.
* In 2007 46% of born again Christians deny Satan's existence.
* Two-thirds of Catholics (64%) say the devil is non-existent and only a symbol of evil. (2007)

April 30, 2008 11:11 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

duck wrote: "it's hard for me to square your complacence with regard to religious organizations and your attitude during our last abortion debate that religion is a dying myth that will be gone in a few generations. If that is how you feel, why aren't you hostile to it?"

Why would I be hostile to it? I think it's unfortunate that it's a dying myth that will be gone in a few generations. Religion serves an important purpose in my opinion. Just not for me.

May 01, 2008 9:22 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

duck wrote: "You have to ask yourself at what point such nuisances become too much to just put up with..."

I certainly have asked myself that and the answer is that we're so far from such a point, it isn't worth fighting at this point. It can be reversed if things go too far since they were once like that and here we are.

May 01, 2008 9:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

bret:

Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways.

It is extremely difficult to oppose Islamism, which, after all, is based upon taking what the Quran says seriously without completely invalidating the divine source of the entire book.

Presumably, you take some umbrage at those who insist, based upon Quranic invocations, that the Ummah is destined to rule the world.

You can only do so by concluding the notion that the Quran is divinely revealed is flat wrong.

Unfortunately, having taken that position, not even Barackian contortions can save any other divinely based text.

May 01, 2008 3:13 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper,

I'm having trouble deciphering your last comment addressing me. Which "both ways" am I trying to have it?

I believe that all religious texts, revealed, reformed, or otherwise are extremely unlikely to be True. On the other hand, I believe that people more or less thinking they believe in those texts (especially the heavily reformed ones) is, on average, a good thing. I these are the "both ways" I'm not sure why that's contradictory?

May 01, 2008 4:33 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Which "both ways" am I trying to have it?


These are the both ways:

If it's convert or die, then yes. But if it's put up with some religious symbols in the public sphere, the shaping of public education around religion (such as Creationism or ID in schools), generally pestering me to convert, or most other things that did not conflict with general freedom of speech and religion (and other bill-of-rights) then no.

The problem is that the provenance for the belief in either case is the same: divine revelation.

One cannot criticize "convert or die" without invalidating the underlying divine revelation.

Having done that, though, undermines all divine revelation.

Hence, you cannot have it both ways.

May 06, 2008 12:19 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I'm still not getting the both ways thang.

If I let my daughters eat one slice cake, does that mean I'm having it both ways if I don't let them eat the whole cake? Even if they believe they should be able to eat the whole cake?

Likewise, as far as I'm concerned, I'm willing to let people guided by revelation have some of their cake in the public sphere, but I'm all for limits at a certain point.

Surely, we can all operate with shades of gray?

May 06, 2008 11:38 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

I'm not doing a very good job of making myself clear.

Since your cake analogy is not appropriate -- after all, we are not discussing whether the cake exists -- here is a not so hypothetical: homosexuality.

Now, in this regard I would be willing to bet you find the Phelps and OJs of the world worthy of derision, and advocate using the power of the state to prevent them pestering gays anywhere near as much as they would like.

Presuming that is the case, I feel on fairly firm ground in concluding the reason you resist their particular incarnation of "convert or die" is that you find the Biblical injunctions against homosexuality wrong in detail: Deuteronomy may say God said so, but according to your say so, it aint so.

I agree.

However, having taken a position against Phelps and OJ, your basis for doing so acts with equal force upon Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well.

Never mind that wasn't your intent.

Advances in knowledge of the human brain have, to almost everyone except Phelps and OJ, clearly demonstrated that homosexuality is inborn. Without saying another word, or even bringing up religion, that yanks the ground right from under Phelps and OJ's feet: God hates the gays God created. Huh?

The inevitable consequence is to further undermine the case for divine revelation, wherever, by whomever, for whatever reason, it might be made.

Every time you resist the "convert or die" crowd, you undermine all other religious belief at the same time.

This has nothing to do with shades of gray, but rather the increasingly questionable existence of religion's sine qua non.

May 06, 2008 2:38 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home