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Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Is Atheism in America Growing? (Short Answer: Minimally) An Unbiased Examination of Survey Data

I was never a statistics wiz (in fact, in business school we called it “sadistics”). But for the longest time I believed statistics were the mathematical version of objective “truth.” It did not take me long to realize that statistics offer a great opportunity to manipulate the truth. And nowhere is this “creative” interpretation more apparent than in atheists’ attempts to quantify the number of unbelievers in the U.S.

The questions I present in this blog: What is the estimated percentage of adults who are atheists (including agnostics)? And has that number grown over the past decade?

Data pertaining to these questions can easily be manipulated for one’s purpose. The potential bias of greatest concern derives from the desire among doctrinaire atheists to claim substantial growth in the unbelieving population. Were atheists not able to make this claim, all their proselytizing, debating, and hammering through best-selling books will have been for naught.

Relying on recent surveys of American religiosity, atheist advocates claim that the unbelieving population approached 15% of U.S. all adults in 2009, an increase of 8% since 1990.

Before I evaluate the veracity of these numbers, I first want to define what is meant by “being religious.”

Definition of “Religious”

What makes a person religious is belief in and efforts to relate to a Transcendent Spiritual Reality, which has two necessary characteristics: (1) It is a spiritual mode of reality that is not subject to the physical laws and temporal limits of the natural world; and (2) It is an objective reality that transcends the material world, is the source or creator of that material world, and is usually conceived as being more real than our material reality.

The reference to a Transcendent Spiritual Reality (TSR) is synonymous with our Western (and Islamic) conception of a theistic or deistic “God.” The reason I use TSR as the basis for my definition is so that I can include within this umbrella the non-theistic Eastern traditions. Buddhism and many interpretations of Hinduism may not use the term God, but they clearly embrace a TSR.

Thus, in my conceptualization, you are considered religious even if your idea of God is indistinct and nebulous, such as this minimalist definition by Keith Ward: “God is a non-physical being of consciousness and intelligence or wisdom.” You fit my definition of religious if you do not specify a particular kind of spiritual entity, but believe that you possess a non-material soul or spirit that transcends death. You are religious if you borrow from Eastern traditions in postulating a higher or transcendent Self that exists apart from the ego-world of material phenomena.

Lastly, you are considered religious in any of the above contexts even if you do not express or practice your belief within an organized religious institution. I will have more to say about this last point later. But suffice to say that of the people who may repudiate organized religion, most are not necessarily rejecting a religious conception of reality or God.

The key qualifier for “religious,” therefore, is belief in and connection to an “invisible” reality that exists “beyond” the natural world and is not subject to the mandated laws of the material universe. Within that context, even the loopy belief of an out-of-touch celebrity counts as religious, such as this idea offered by actress Gwyneth Paltrow: “I believe Mohammad and Jesus and Buddha and Shiva are all the exact same thing: an energy, our link to something larger than ourselves.”

Atheists Claim 15% of the American Population

One of the more vociferous atheists, PZ Myers, weighs in with: “The results of a poll [The American Religious Identification Survey] are out showing that the godless are rising and promise to rise for years to come. In 1990, we made up 8% of the population; now in 2009 we are 15%.”

On the surface, this figure sounds high, but who can argue with statistics, right? Within the same survey, however, the people who explicitly identified themselves as atheist/agnostic in 2008 amounted to just 1.6%, an increase from 0.7% in 1990. How is this discrepancy possible? What is going on here?

While the number Myers uses is definitely too high, it can be argued that 1.6% is way too low. And we know partially what is going on: Few people openly admit to being atheists because that label is also a stigma. And so it is expected that many unbelievers are “in the closet.” But it is certainly not possible that this undercount is on the order of magnitude of 10 to one.

The actual percentage of atheists/agnostics is somewhere in between 2% and 15%. But how can we arrive at a reasonable and valid estimate? First it is important to understand where that 15% comes from.

The Importance of “Nones”

In the parlance of surveys, “nones” are people with no stated religious preference, who check the “unaffiliated” box on the religious questionnaire. This is where over-zealous atheists like Myers come up with the estimate that some 15% of the population consists of unbelievers.

It is true that Americans are shifting away from formal allegiances with specific faiths. That is why the “nones” category is growing. But affiliation is just one characteristic of a person’s religious life, and not the most important one. The root of religiousness has more to do people’s private beliefs and behavior than their official affiliation with a particular institution. In fact, William James famously defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of people in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

While religious institutions may be waning, a report by the University of Chicago, “Religious Change Around the World,” reveals that private religious practices and beliefs are on the increase – specifically prayer and belief in the afterlife. Just because a person does not practice in a public context does not mean he or she is an unbeliever. The Chicago report concludes that more Americans “no longer think they need to go to services every week, but they still have some type of religious belief and practice, more often personalized than organized.”

Thus over-zealous atheists are trying to appropriate the “nones” as their own. And they base their exaggerated claims a spurious logic: They assume that “no affiliation” means “no religion,” which means “no religious belief,” which means “no God” or atheism. But this is clearly not the case.

Why the Perceived Increase in Atheists?

There is no question that most people, if asked casually, would admit that there has been some growth in the absolute number of atheists , even an increase in the atheist proportion of the population. Most of that perceived growth is the result of increased visibility of the atheist presence in America through books, organizations and debates; in other words, atheists have been able to increase their overall share of noise in the marketplace. Whether there has actually been any real growth in the percent of the population that identifies as atheist/agnostic is an open question. And I say that because the same research that reveals “nones” to be 15% of the population in 2008 shows that their percentage has grown only 1% since 2000 when the comparable figure was 14%. This is significant because the period between 2000 and 2008 was when atheists were the most visible and aggressive via numerous best-selling books, public debates, publicity campaigns, and the like.

Additional Countervailing Data

Here are some additional statistics and observations that further call into question American atheism’s growth to 15% of the population.

  • Men specifically are becoming less religious; women’s religiosity has been stable. Indeed, of the nones, a remarkable 60% are men, suggesting that much of the none-effect may be a result of self-alienation since men are much less social and communal than women.

  • Atheists have lower fertility rates than religious people. In Australia, the only country that keeps track of its parents’ religious belief, atheists have a fertility rate of just 0.85%, well below the replacement rate of 2.1%.

  • According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, remarkably 21% of self-identified atheists say they believe in God.

  • According to a Baylor University study, “What Americans Really Believe,” secular people tend make up for the lack of the numinous in their lives with a greater propensity to believe in the paranormal. Indeed, there seems to be a relationship between education and belief in such superstitions as demonic possession, psychic healing, and haunted houses.

  • Lastly, trust and confidence are declining in all major institutions. In addition to organized religion, in the past 30 years, reductions in trust have been recorded for financial institutions, the media, major companies, the government, and education. So one might ask: Why single out religion?

Conclusion: In the end, I estimate that 7% of U.S. adults are unbelievers, an increase of just 1% from 2000, and a total increase of perhaps 2% in the 20 years since 1990.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Would Eliminating Religion Mean the End of Fundamentalist Violence?” (Answer: No)

Atheists strenuously argue that the world would be a much better place without religion. I am of the mind that religion is so inextricably intertwined with history that it is virtually impossible to understand what a “world without religion” would actually look like.

In the New Atheist conception of history, articulating a secular utopia is easy. New Atheists merely subtract everything “religious” from world history and, voila, they have a “world without violence” because in the atheist mindset religion is the cause of all violence in human history. What could be more simple?

That is the conclusion one easily comes to when reading Dawkins, Hitchens and other New Atheists. In this essay, I will discuss a hypothetical world without religion, assessing specifically its impact on fundamentalist violence. This is an area where even many religious devotees are convinced faith is the cause of much sectarian conflict. But as we will see, the fundamentalist equation is more complicated than that.

I am not going to deny that religion plays a role in fundamentalist violence. But I am going to argue that religion is just one of many factors contributing to group violence - and is rarely the primary factor. Thus, if we eliminated religion, the number and severity of group conflicts will not appreciably decline.

Organizational Dynamics and the Sources of Group Conflict

The pre-eminent question to ask is not why religion becomes violent, but why people resort to collective violence at all. Much of this violence may appear to be religious in nature, but the reality of fundamentalist behavior is actually a complex interplay among individual psychology, group dynamics, and a mixture of cultural and political forces. In truth, radical elements can exist in any ideological group; religion by itself plays a relatively modest role in the fundamentalism process.

The militant atheist lament that religion is the foremost source of the world’s violence is contradicted by three realities: Most religious organizations do not foster violence; many non-religious groups do engage in violence; and many religious moral precepts encourage non-violence. Indeed, we can confidently assert that if religion was the sole or primary force behind wars, then secular ideologies should be relatively benign by comparison, which history teaches us has not been the case. Revealingly, in his Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips chronicled a total of 1,763 conflicts throughout history, of which just 123 were categorized as religious. And it is important to note further that over the last century the most brutality has been perpetrated by non-religious cult figures (Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Robert Mugabe -- you get the picture). Thus to attribute the impetus behind violence mainly to religious sentiments is a highly simplistic interpretation of history.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the central radicalizing forces that contribute to collective violence and fundamentalist behavior of all types. While this essay is not meant to be an all-encompassing study, it will clearly show that religion is just one of many factors in a highly complex process.

The need for group affiliation and identity is an integral part of what it means to be human. Indeed, one need go no further than a political rally, a World Cup soccer match, or an anti-war protest march to see how powerful group processes can be.

There’s Identity in Numbers

Group affiliation is often criticized by sociological observers who see it as a violation of one’s individuality and authenticity. But rather than surrendering our true selves, involvement in a group context paradoxically helps to constitute that very self. The problem is when those group affiliations become extremist affairs.

Arthur Koestler had some penetrating words to say about the dangers inherent in extremist group behavior: "The continuous disasters in history are mainly due to an excessive capacity and urge to become identified with a tribe, nation, church or cause, and to espouse its credo uncritically and enthusiastically. No historian would deny that the part played by crimes committed for personal motives are quantitatively negligible compared to those committed out of the self-transcending devotion to a flag, leader, religious faith or political conviction."

As Koestler is noting, there is a huge difference between individually motivated violence, typically an expression of self-assertive and defensive tendencies, and collective violence, which is most frequently an expression of self-transcending and group-identification impulses.

In the modern world, major conflicts are based on four modes of collective affiliation: religious, nationalist, ethnic, and socio-economic. Further, each instance of group conflict is structured as an in-group/out-group dynamic: the individual has a positive relationship with the in-group (affiliation, obedience, conformity) and a negative relationship with the out-group (differentiation, discrimination, opposition). This polarization is accentuated by the individual member’s isolation from outsiders and total submersion in group ideology.

Individuals in cohesive groups do not exhibit a personal conscience. Rather, they have a collective center of gravity where some higher purpose becomes the driving force for unity and action. Often group identity becomes more important than one’s individual autonomy. This is vividly expressed by a soldier’s experience in battle. Philip Caputo writes in A Rumor of War: "I have attempted to describe the intimacy of life in infantry battalions, where the communion between men is as profound as any between lovers. Actually it is more so devotion, simple and selfless, the sentiment of belonging to each other."

The influence of group identity on extremist behavior is often underestimated. Regarding Islamic terrorism, for example, the majority of casual observers attribute participation in jihadist movements to aversive factors such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, America’s presence in Islamic countries, economic deprivation, and disaffection with government leaders -- when it is attractive factors within the group that are actually more influential in bringing together and convincing members.

Scott Atran, an academic, and Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative, found that the biggest determinant of which people go on to become terrorists from among millions of potential warriors is group dynamics rather than religious, economic, or societal factors. They found that some 90 percent of terrorists were influenced by friendship and/or kinship in joining groups through which they derived a powerful sense of belonging and purpose. Indeed, for such terror-group members, often community is more important than ideology in the radicalizing process. And frequently the commitment of individual members can become so passionate that group goals justify almost any means, including violence.

Extremist groups are transformative to the point that, paradoxically, while individual group members tend to be clinically "normal" people, the group exhibits psychotic behavior. This explains a surprising phenomenon: psychologists tell us that suicide bombers and other terrorists generally have unremarkable personalities. One observer cited in Walter Reich’s The Origins of Terrorism stated, "The outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality." Another observer wrote, "The best documented generalization is that terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology." Yet terrorist groups are capable of the most heinous and horrific acts. Once together, group members tend to radicalize each other, the more strident leading the way, to the point where even martyrdom can become a symbol of success within a group context.

In one such instance, a 25-year-old Jordanian jihadist who had yet to die in combat lamented to a New York Times reporter that his martyred friends are the lucky ones.

The Political Corruption of Religion

Large-scale group conflicts are rarely about only one form of affiliation. Nazism, for example, was a combination of ethnic, nationalist, and political-social forms of group affiliation; religion technically played a minor role. Indeed, for more than two centuries from the American and French revolutions to the end of the Cold War, major conflicts had little to do with religion. Thus, to single out religious organizations for their political failings is unfair. In one amazing example, the former Yugoslavia has disintegrated into seven different countries, with economic conditions and ethno-nationalism playing a much bigger role than religion.

The more combustible religious conflicts emerge when other forms of group affiliation are involved, such as ethnic identification, state and economic interests, and nationalistic ambitions. I call this the political corruption of religion, where religion is essentially subordinated to non-religious objectives. Usually cultural observers unfairly emphasize religion’s contribution to these conflicts, while downplaying the political dimension. For example, religious differences are certainly part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict is kept red-hot largely by nationalist and tribal-ethnic considerations. Further, sectarian conflicts in Nigeria (between Muslims and Christians) and India (between Hindi and Muslims) have been potentiated by tribalism and nationalism.

All this goes to show that dogma is not the exclusive province of religion, and secular political movements are just as destructive as religious ideologies. Every belief system has its hardened acolytes and its sectarian divisions. And it is clear that most modern examples of collective violence (such as between Serbs and Croats of former Yugoslavia; Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda; Fatah and Hamas in Palestine) have had little to do with religion per se. In still another example, the Sudanese war in Darfur is considered more about ethnic and tribal tensions than religious identification. And Muslim citizens rioted in France but not in the U.S., suggesting that the tensions had more to do with social discrimination and economic integration than religion.

Further, the recent Tibetan convulsions in China were not about Buddhism, but were essentially an expression of a nationalist and ethnic liberation movement. This 60-year-old conflict is largely secular in nature. While the atheistic Chinese government is well known for its persecution of religious groups, it is not because China considers religion evil, but because religion is one organized ideology among others it considers competitive with the ruling communist party. Indeed, China’s nationalistic paranoia was recently on display when it banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. The real purpose of this decree is purely political: It prevents the Dalai Lama from being succeeded by someone outside China.

The Fundamentalist Personality

After World War II, a group of scholars developed the idea of a particular personality type to help explain the Holocaust and racial/ethnic hatred. Among other insights, the authors noted this individual’s inclination to "submit blindly to power and authority" -- hence the title of their now-classic study, The Authoritarian Personality.

I want to revise this theory for the contemporary world of collective violence. Contrary to what many believe, it was not primarily religious faith that inspired 10 Islamists to navigate two jets into New York’s World Trade Center, but a particular psycho-social type that I call the fundamentalist personality that applied to these men (note: they are most frequently men), but which did not apply to the tens-of-millions of other people exposed to the same religious and socio-political forces.

When we think of fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism immediately comes to mind. The term was first used by conservative Protestants in the nineteenth century who wanted to re-emphasize the "fundamentals" of the Christian tradition. And well respected books by Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God), Martin E. Marty (Fundamentalism Observed), and Malise Ruthven (Fundamentalism) have interpreted the issue entirely in religious terms. But that is unfortunate, because fundamentalism broadly defined can be found in all kinds of group affiliations, collective behavior, and belief systems. Fundamentalism is certainly not an exclusively religious phenomenon; secular fundamentalists must also be acknowledged.

Within every belief system or political movement, individual members exist on a continuum that ranges from pragmatic accommodation to uncompromising fanaticism, where some group members are more easily inclined to extremist behavior than others. I want to explain the characteristics that differentiate the extremist or fundamentalist personality from the majority of people who, despite similar experiences of oppression and victimization, are not radicalized and merely seek to live and let live.

The more we analyze belief systems of any kind, the more we understand that certain individuals are specifically attracted to extremist groups and are prepared to help radicalize any ideology. And religion is just one factor among many in the development of the fundamentalist personality. Indeed, fundamentalism doesn’t have to be of a religious nature -- any secular ideology will do. So if you happen upon a Christian extremist -- one who holds steadfastly to his belief, brooks no challenge, and is excessively critical of competing creeds -- it is a good bet that person was not made a fundamentalist by his religion. Rather, a number of genetic, experiential, and socio-political factors conspire to make a fundamentalist, especially one who is inclined towards collective aggression.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Can We Be Good Without God? A Challenge to the "New Atheism"

During the past holiday season, atheistic organizations used buses and billboards in cities around the world to proclaim the non-existence of God. For example, the American Humanist Association sponsored a message, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.” Ultimately, these public relations efforts have been designed to assert that nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else," according to a representative of the Secular Coalition for America.

Not only do these ads offend billions of believers around the world, but we also have a representative of the Freedom from Religion Foundation asserting that “Religion is a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” -- further indicating that strident atheists do not understand the cultural import of religion.

In this installment of Atheism 3.0 (conveying a kinder, gentler and more humanistic brand of atheism), I show that it is always possible for individuals to be moral without religion (“good without God”); yet I also reveal the failings of a purely secular morality and how religion makes for a more moral and benevolent society than would otherwise be the case without religion.

Religious Sources of Charity

According to Giving USA, American charitable contributions reached a total of $307 billion in 2007, a figure that represents more than 2% of the GDP, well above that of any other nation. Of that $307 billion, 33% was given to religious organizations – just over $100 billion.

Arthur Brooks, who has performed extensive research on charitable giving, has shown that religious people are 38% more likely than secularists to give money to charity and 32% more likely than non-religious people to volunteer their time. Thus, religious people donate about 3.5 times more money per year ($2,210 vs. $642) and volunteered more than twice as often (12 times vs. 5.8 times). Indeed, when looking at the difference between the populations that give the most vs. the least, on a percentage-of-income basis, religion is the most salient and reliant predictor.

Looking at other measures of religious affiliation, people who pray every day (whether or not they go to church) are 30 percentage points more likely to give money to charity than people who never pray (83% to 53%). Further, people who say they devote a “great deal of effort” to their spiritual lives are nearly twice as likely to give as those devoting “no effort” (88% to 46%). Moreover, these practices are not exclusive to any particular religion. It does not matter what religion one practices so long as it is practiced seriously.

Although the charity gap is not as great when we examine giving to non-religious causes, religious people are still 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give to nonreligious charities such as the United Way (71% to 61%) and 21 points more likely to volunteer for secular causes such as the local PTA (60% to 39%). In addition, the value of the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities was 14% higher than the average secular household’s. The same is true when it comes to informal acts of kindness to others. Religious people were far more likely to donate blood than secularists, to give food or money to the homeless, and to express empathy for less fortunate people.

Atheists’ Misperceptions of Religious Morality

Atheists often exhibit a lack of understanding of religious morality. They assume that, for the believer, morality is very simple: whatever God dictates is right is right, and whatever God dictates is wrong is wrong. Atheists speak about religious morality purely as a reward-and-punishment relationship to mythic parental figures. Religious people are seen as moral automatons; believers are commanded to obey. The most cynical see in religion a blind obedience to moral authority and an oppressive behavioral-control system.

There is no question that some religious adherents exhibit an authoritative orientation, but the same can be said for many nonreligious people. For the vast majority of people, however, authoritarianism is not the defining feature of religious morality. God is not seen as a parent in a disciplinary or authoritarian sense, but in the sense of a loving father who teaches the way to achieve salvation or liberation. God represents the moral high ground to which humans aspire.

The great moral advancement of religion comes from putting forth an ethical code that is rooted in an Absolute. Every major religion stresses the objective existence of moral ideals, the importance of moral conduct, and the possibility of individuals and societies attaining a good and happy life. The believer sees a god who holds humans to the highest moral standards; and he feels a loving obligation to do what is right for God and for other human beings. Religious people do not strive to be good because they want to avoid punishment and earn bonus points in the heavenly sweepstakes; they strive to behave consistent with God’s love and grace in much the same way we naturally strive to be good for anyone we love.

The most essential contribution to cultural values is the sense of the sacred, of something so absolutely good that it is worthy of unconditional reverence. And morality is a manifestation of people identifying with and participating in those transcendent values. Righteous deeds, charitable acts, service to others, and ethical adherence are all primary vehicles for reaching the realm of the divine.

Moral values are central to a religious view that claims the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God concerned with human flourishing, and that posits a supreme goodness as the basis of all reality. The fundamental moral position that flows from a religious conception is that all of life, being a mode and manifestation of that ultimate reality, is holy and intrinsically valuable, and that moral action is the path to a union with the divine. This understanding necessarily obligates the believer into a moral contract under which by doing good he is participating in the highest good, the natural outcome of which is overflowing compassion and a deep, intuitive certainty of the common linkage among all living creatures.

Humans were said to be made in the image of God, an ideal that laid the ground for a Christian humanism that made individual persons objects of respect in their own right. Since humans were meant to share in the divine nature, they are to be respected as children of God and not treated as a means to an end. So wrote St. Augustine in his City of God: “Whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or color or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.”

Such a moral conception has led to the highest sacrifices among humans. If religion does motivate some people to heinous acts, it is more than balanced by the myriad good deeds performed in the name of God every day. It is unfortunate that a large conflagration attributed to religion attracts far more attention than the billions of small candles lit by religious people all over the world.

Explaining the Morality Paradox

In truth, it is not possible to be as good without God as with God. But it is also wrong to say that atheists are in any way immoral because they do not believe in God. How do we explain this paradox?

Marc Hauser, a Harvard psychologist, has shown through interviews around the world that all people – religious and secular – have similar moral inclinations; all of us, he says, are born with an equivalent moral code that grows out of humanity’s evolutionary need for pro-social behavior. In his book Moral Minds Hauser has written, “We evolved a moral instinct, a capacity that naturally grows within each child, designed to generate rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong based on an unconscious grammar.”

Hauser's research revealed that moral decisions are made intuitively, and that all people come up with the same conclusions when faced with the same moral dilemmas, regardless of culture, religion or economic status. These findings usually lead to a “eureka” response from secular humanists like Hauser, who believe this proves religious people are no more moral than atheists or agnostics. Hauser has written that “our own nature, not God, is the source of species morality.” And he further states, “These observations suggest that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine.”

It is clear that Hauser’s aim is to assert there is no difference in morality between religious and nonreligious people. And on the level of innate moral capacity, I think he is correct.

The Essential Role of Religion

However, nowhere in Hauser’s 400-page book does he seriously pay attention to the factors that result in the gap between moral instinct and actual behavior. He thus neglects the most important question to arise from his book: If we all intrinsically know what’s right and good, why don’t we all behave that way? There is a clear need for an intermediate dimension between the innate sense of right and wrong and the actualization of moral behavior. And as I will show, in this capacity religion plays an indispensable role.

In actuality, our innate moral capacity is just a vague moral inclination that points us all in the same general direction. This is to say that people are innately good, but that such goodness remains largely a potentiality and does not mean that people will always do the right thing. Science shows us that we are born with an undercurrent of good that is ready for adaptation, but which must first be activated, articulated, and actualized through culture.

It makes sense that the evolution of our nervous system would be biased in favor of pro-social behavior for the sake of our collective survival. But Hauser completely neglects to explain why if we are all hard-wired for moral behavior, we can be so immoral. Our history is one long list of people doing the wrong thing thinking that it is the right thing to do. Thus being in possession of a moral instinct does not mean that people will always do the right thing. In reality, there is a huge gap between our innate moral tendencies and our actual behavior. And because of the almost infinite variability of culture, it is consequently a long and variegated path to actual moral behavior, which is where religion comes into play. Therefore to say that people do not need religion for moral guidance is incorrect.

Hauser’s conceptualization does not begin to articulate the complexity of moral decision-making. I suggest that our moral behavior results from a dynamic interplay of eight factors on five interrelated levels, wherein religion plays an essential role both historically and currently.

The following five levels begin with two universal dimensions, one intrinsic (the moral sensibility) and the other externally derived (religious principles); followed by two culturally created dimensions, one applying to all people in a society (laws, education, and the social contract) and the other pertaining specifically to an individual’s immediate socio-cultural environment (parenting and peer-group norms); finally, these dimensions are influenced by an individual’s distinctive genetic make-up.

Level 1 – Intrinsic Universal: Innate Moral Sensibility
Level 2 – Extrinsic Universal: Religious Moral Principles
Level 3 – Extrinsic Objective: Social Contract, Education, Laws
Level 4 – Extrinsic Subjective: Parenting, Peer Group Norms
Level 5 – Intrinsic Subjective: Genes

The interrelationships among these five levels are so variable that it is almost impossible to generalize. The two absolute pillars are the Intrinsic Universal (innate moral sense) and Extrinsic Universal (religion). Over time, these absolutes are filtered through the level of Extrinsic Objective, which codifies the moral absolutes into broad social norms, institutionalized education, and a society’s laws. On a more immediate level, these norms and principles are further filtered through the levels of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Subjective, where they can further split and diversify like light through a prism.

Remarkably, with respect to generalized moral situations, religions agree much more than they disagree. And this is because, I believe, they are the primordial linkage with the universal innate capacity. Religion deserves its own category because it is antecedent and pervasive, because it trickles down to all other levels, and because it is attributed to an absolute (divine) source of validation. The greatness of the contemporary version of this moral principle is that it accepts and tolerates all people, including those who we might otherwise find unacceptable. My enemy is united with me in something that is above him and above me, the ultimate ground of Being that is in each of us (the absolute good). The other factors – society’s laws, education and social norms as well as parenting and peer-group norms – vary from culture to culture, and from individual to individual.

Thus religion does two things: It explicates the innate moral sense and objectifies it, making it into an external absolute that, in turn, is re-internalized as it becomes the conscience.

Morality Weakened without God

Coming back to our original question: Can we be good without God? It would seem that the innate moral sensibility obviates the need for religion. But it actually makes the role of religion all the more important. The “moral language” as described by Hauser and other evolutionary psychologists is inchoate, amorphous and abstract. Religion for millennia has been humankind’s most important intermediary between our selfish imperatives and our ethical behavior. That internal moral sense requires external articulation and reinforcement. And throughout history, the closest we have come to a formal moral education has emerged from exposure to religion.

Every atheist will say, correctly I think, that it is entirely possible for a nonreligious person to be moral. But to say that we can have a vibrant moral culture independent of religion is true in only a narrow sense. I believe we can hypothetically eliminate religion and still have a strong moral tradition in place, subject to three qualifications:

1. This transition to a religion-free culture can only happen if there is a determined, collective effort to replace religion with an explicit commitment to formally teach ethics to children via parenting and educational institutions to a degree that at this point does not exist in any sector of our society.

2. We must not forget that whatever ethical culture prevails today in our secular society was formed over centuries of religious moral education as an antecedent.

3. This hypothetical exercise does not apply to most of the developing world, where the educational and legal systems are considerably underdeveloped.

Religion for millennia has been humankind’s most important moral intermediary. And throughout our history, the closest we have come to a formal moral education has been derived from religion. The other sources of morality (education, parenting, legal system, cultural norms, and peer groups) are variable and insular, and not appropriate or adequate for the development of a moral society.

I do believe that atheists have the same moral capacity as religious people. But whether that capacity is fully actualized is another question. I am afraid that while taking religion out of the moral equation may mean fewer acts of martyrdom among a few thousand people, it would also leave a huge moral vacuum for billions more. I do not believe, as Dostoevsky did, that without God everything is permitted. But it is wishful thinking and not consistent with empirical findings that people will act just as morally without religion as they do with religion. Look around – outside of religion, where does the average child formally learn about morality? Religion is the only cultural institution intrinsically committed to the moral improvement of humankind, which cannot be said of education, government, business, the legal system, or any other institution.

Atheism by itself does not motivate people to do bad things, but it is lacking one hugely important moral dimension. In our modern secular society, many moral values have already been institutionalized and on some level we can possess these values apart from the religion that developed them. These values will not disappear if we eliminate religion, but the infrastructure that has held those values aloft will substantially weaken. Of all the cultural templates we have, religion is the most robust and explicit about moral behavior.

People of faith have often insisted that in the absence of God human morality would cease to exist. At one point in time that was probably true. Atheists like to point out that we can learn morality from secular sources. But none of those insights is remotely conceivable apart from the religious contexts out of which they emerged.

In other words, eliminating religion from the cultural morality equation can take place only under rarified and highly qualified conditions. For most people under most circumstances, religion remains the primary model for morality. The innate moral sense is necessary but not sufficient. There is an additional need for a codification and articulation of this moral sense through culture, a process taken up historically by religion.

The conclusion is that we are hard-wired to know the difference between good and bad, but religion helps people make that distinction in a way that fosters a moral society.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The Schism Within: Distinguishing Between Militant “Hard” Atheism and Humanistic “Soft” Atheism

Since writing my book, An Atheist Defends Religion, two increasingly differentiated expressions of atheism have become apparent: (1) vociferous, militant “hard” atheism, what Daniel Burke of Religious News Service called “Atheism 2.0” to distinguish it from the "classical" atheism that had its origins in nineteenth-century Europe; and (2) more tolerant and humanistic “soft” atheism that is on display in my book, which Burke identified as “Atheism 3.0.” His description:

The old atheists said there was no God. The so-called "New Atheists" said there was no God, and they were vocally vicious about it. Now the new "New Atheists," call it Atheism 3.0, say there's still no God, but maybe religion isn't all that bad.

Classical Western atheism (the 1.0 version) was developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whose ideology was essentially a response to the theological perception of God in the West. The more recent Atheism 2.0. is found in the work of four vociferous religious antagonists: the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the academic Sam Harris, the scientist Richard Dawkins, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens, which is largely a response to contemporary Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.

Books by these “militant” atheists have highlighted the destructive legacy of fundamentalist religion. In this blog, I focus on the other end of the ideological spectrum: the deleterious effects of extremist atheism and how militant unbelievers misuse science in an effort to challenge the validity of religion as a meaningful paradigm for understanding the world. In this blog, a moderate atheist takes a critical look at militant atheism.

“Militant” Atheism 2.0

Militant atheists’ bias is revealed by their argument that in religion we find all that is malevolent in humankind. Religion is perceived as being false and dangerous. To aggressive atheists, the only legitimate response to religious faith is an unremitting assault on its credence using the tools of reason and science. Certainly as a response to Islamic and Christian extremism, atheists have some legitimate points to present. But by including the rest of the religious world in their condemnation and by arguing for the elimination of all religion, they are essentially a mirror image of their fundamentalist enemy.

According to militant atheists, to understand religion we need look no further than to its extremists, literalists, deviants, inquisitors and terrorists - as if these fringe elements represent all religionists. These uncompromising atheists not only reject God, they reject religion as a cultural institution and seek to extirpate it from society. They consider religion the “root of all evil” (Dawkins) and that only when religion is eradicated “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world” (Harris).

These angry atheists present an extremist perspective that of necessity excludes any ambiguity or openness to opposing views. My book An Atheist Defends Religion is an attempt to expose the extremism in the militant atheists' arguments, the same “fundamentalist” qualities exhibited by the religionists they so strenuously oppose. Indeed, fundamentalist atheists are in the thrall of an infallible belief based on the deity of Natural Selection as revealed to the prophet Darwin, proselytized by the apostles Dawkins and Gould, and disseminated to devout disciples like Harris and Dennett who preach conversion and salvation to the unenlightened masses.

Crusading atheists fanatically adhere to an inerrant orthodoxy -- just like the religions they so vehemently vilify. Self-righteous atheists even write evangelical manifestos in which they assert their moral superiority -- just like the religions they so stridently censure. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary theory just as religious fundamentalists misuse the Bible -- for their own ends.

Sanctimonious atheists have created an us-versus-them, good-versus-evil world replete with a polemical jihad against infidels (that would be unbelievers’ unbelievers). When asked to identify just one positive thing, however minor, that religion has contributed to humanity, Dawkins was defiant and uncompromising: “I really can’t think of anything.” Militant atheists prove that religion does not have a monopoly on dogmatism, absolutist fervor and idolatry.

Let me point out that militant atheists are not wrong to disbelieve in God; that is, after all, their choice. But they are certainly wrong to repudiate religion as a force for good in human history. And they are clearly wrong to base their animus on what amounts to little more than a caricature of “religion” -- a religion that is, ironically, unrecognizable to everyone except atheists. By turning a-theism (a personal belief in the absence of God) into anti-theism (a public effort to negate religion as a cultural force), they are taking their creed way beyond its original meaning.

I am among the atheists who think this kind of blatant, in-your-face crusade will fail. It certainly makes a point, but it’s precisely the wrong point. It includes such luminaries as Chris Hitchens who has said, “I think religion is sinister, dangerous and ridiculous. I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt.” When asked why he feels compelled to be so blunt, Hitchens responds: “I believe it’s more honest, brave, and courageous simply to state your own position.” In short, I have found most militant atheists to be shallow thinkers who delude themselves into thinking they are courageous free-thinkers, when in fact they are all followers of a dogmatic creed.

Another militant atheist-follower, PZ Myers, says that the more outrageous the message the better. Myers even unrealistically calls for the end of religion. That’s like saying, “capitalism is bad - so let’s toss it into the trash in its entirety.” That is the immature thinking of a high school junior. But then, Myers admits that his message is directed to high school students. “Edgy is what young people like. They want to cut through the nonsense right away and want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I’m sorry but the old school of atheism is really, really boring.”

Engaging in a civil debate and addressing issues in rational manner -- since when did that go out of style? Myers neglects the fact that high school students don’t need more MySpace friends; what they need is leadership, something that militant atheists like Myers are incapable of providing. (And I would not expect much more from a man whose blog is subtitled, “random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.” As school kids would say, “Gross.”)

The Misanthropic Principle

My definition of a militant atheist is someone who denies the beliefs held by people who are happier than he is. That is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Surveys indicate that religious people are happier overall than non-religious people. And I believe that militant atheists are resentful that religious people are generally happy people -- to the extent that such happiness is contingent on what atheists consider superstition and ignorance. Militant atheists would love nothing more than to “cure” religious people of their “false” happiness. To that point, I am astonished by this statement by Christopher Hitchens, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”

But I don’t think militant atheists are unhappy merely because they deny God; I also think they deny God because they’re unhappy. As proof, one need look no further than Hitchens to find a correlation between atheism and a cranky, crotchety, crabby personality. Indeed, some of the most famous atheists were also notable pessimists: Bertrand Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw, Schopenhauer (Studies in Pessimism), H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, and Miguel de Unamuno, whose magnum opus was The Tragic Sense of Life.

By disdaining and disparaging the core beliefs of the vast majority of people, extremist atheists reveal they are contemptuous and cynical. The head of one atheist group, Ellen Johnson, has tried putting a positive spin on it by saying, “Atheists are self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent people.” But I read it differently: Militant atheists are lonely and alienated people. How else can we explain the profane remarks that routinely emanate from many atheists? It’s almost as if anti-Christianity has become a new form of bigotry.

It should be clear that atheists are not motivated by a love for their fellow human beings. In fact, I would go further and say that militant atheists are motivated by misanthropy. Their strident, arrogant and belligerent posture reveals a palpable contempt for humanity. Extremist atheists derive a perverse satisfaction from negating the dominant beliefs that have provided comfort and meaning to people throughout history and across all cultures.

The militant atheist version of the Golden Rule might go like this: “Do unto others as you have had done unto you.” Because atheists anxiously face the mysterium tremendum of existence without any hope for redemption or immortality, they figure everyone should. Because strident unbelievers are denied the consolations and affirmations of religion, they want to make sure that everyone is.

Scientism: The Abuse of Science

Militant atheists are scientific materialists who believe that science will someday explain all of reality and that there is no need to resort to “supernatural” agents. They denounce religion as “superstition” and continue to think that humanity will one day “outgrow” it. According to their scientific creed, everything ultimately “reduces” to the quarks and leptons of physics. And if one’s individual life has any meaning at all, it is based on what the person brings to it. Facing the travails of living and dying without the consolations of religious “delusion” is a hardship, they admit, but is preferable to living an inauthentic life.

In my book An Atheist Defends Religion, I criticize not science, but scientism -- the effort to make science into a competing ideology to religion. I question not the veracity of science, but the ability of science to answer the most pressing human concerns -- specifically, our need for transcendent meaning. Put another way: I accept the reality of science totally, but I am not sure that science reveals the totality of reality -- or ever will.

Scientism is the atheistic community’s version of fundamentalism; it assumes that only science can describe and understand the world, and that only the material or natural world is real. Militant unbelievers attempt a polemical subterfuge by drawing an association between atheism and science, whereby they claim atheism is justified by a natural science evaluation of theistic belief.

In truth, science is intrinsically agnostic towards religion; it neither confirms nor denies the existence of God. Scientism, however, is inherently atheistic. And when militant atheists commandeer the “verifiable evidence” orientation of science to justify their unbelief, they are debasing science. When atheists make science into a competing ideology, they are exploiting science. Such an effort infuses science with a bias aimed to refute religion and uphold atheism -- a distortion not compatible with the values-neutral mission of science.

It is not science that is incompatible with religion, but scientism that is so strongly opposed to theism. Thus scientism is little more than atheism masquerading as science. And the height of scientism is the belief that science actually proves God does not exist. In this regard, note the subtitle to militant atheist Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis - “How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” In his book Stenger argues, “By this moment in time science has advanced sufficiently to be able to make a definitive statement on the existence or nonexistence of God.” And his “scientific” conclusion: God is impossible.

Very few religious people actually oppose the progression of science. What they object to is militant atheists’ presentation of science as inherently anti-religious. To the extent that militant atheists misuse science in a way that denies the divine, religious people see in science the contradiction of their most cherished beliefs. Most scientists are respectful of religious sentiments, but many, such as Dawkins and Myers, exhibit outright contempt. Telling people that their deepest beliefs are wrong and, worse, silly, does not endear scientists among the majority of religionists. When prominent atheist-scientists claim religion is a “delusion” that “poisons everything” and is the “root of all evil,” it is easy to understand why religious people feel that science threatens their beliefs.

By establishing an oppositional relationship between religious meaning and scientific understanding, militant atheists do not engender a conciliatory climate. Rather, to the extent that atheists antagonistically position science against religion, they actually produce the opposite effect to the one intended: Religious people’s confidence in science is undermined; science becomes the “enemy.” The fundamental irony that results from pitting science against religion is that it serves to harden the extremists on the other side of the debate -- an outcome we see playing out in American classrooms and courtrooms, in the mass media and the public square.

The Emergence of Atheism 3.0

In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by militant atheists who argue that religious faith is synonymous with the most perverse behavior. More recently, a new contingent of nonbelievers, which includes this writer, has emerged arguing that there's no reason to belittle faith or push religion out of the public square. In An Atheist Defends Religion, I assert that while the debates over God's existence have reached an insolvable impasse, we can still affirm the multiple values of religion.

One secular blogger announced upon hearing about Atheism 3.0, “Wow! This is indeed interesting, and good news. Maybe now both sides can get back to discussing the issue with civility instead of the rancor and belligerence that has passed for ‘discussion’ in prior years. Hopefully, we can now actually engage in substantive arguments rather than hurling insults.” Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplin, is also among the new-new atheists who preach accommodation: “When the goal is to erase religion,” he said, “rather than embracing human beings, we all lose.”

In my personal belief system, I do not embrace any form of a Transcendent Spiritual Reality (my generic term that incorporates Western as well as Eastern notions of a God-like entity). I hold a naturalistic view of the world. I truly love science and strongly value the scientific method. However, I am forever grappling with what I call the Modernist Paradox: Religion does not satisfy me because I do not believe it is true; science is true, but it lacks substantive meaning. Indeed, I aspire to believe in something more meaningful than Nobel-physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s dictum that “Life can perfectly well emerge from the laws of physics plus accidents.”

We are often labeled “sympathetic atheists” because we do not prima facie despise or repudiate religion. We express a kinder, gentler form of atheism. We “soft” atheists are unbelievers not by deliberation but by default -- we just have not discovered God and probably never will find God. We are atheists not by conviction, but the lack of conviction: We just do not believe God exists.

Being an atheist is not something that I or anyone else rationally chooses. I did not think through all the competing belief systems and select unbelief. It is just something that I am. I must admit, however, that the more I understand the world as revealed by science, the more I find the materialist and reductionist explanation for our human destiny terribly devoid of depth, value and meaning. This offends not my religious sensibility (of which I have none), but my existential vanity -- the strongly held personal view that my life counts in the scheme of things. Thus, I am an atheist who is sympathetic to religious aspirations. And while moderate atheists may have little use for organized religion, we are still capable of acknowledging the positive contributions of religion to civilization.

Moderate atheists accept that faith provides meaning and purpose for a multitude of believers, inspires people to tend to each other and build communities, gives them a sense of union with a transcendent power, and provides numerous health and wellness benefits. Moreover, we recognize that religion’s historic misdeeds may make for provocative headlines, but the everyday good works of billions of believers is the real history of religion, one that parallels the growth and prosperity of humankind.

Religious people have responded quite favorably to Atheism 3.0. That alone is enough to make militant atheists detest us. One prominent atheist even called me a “traitor” to the atheist cause. But maybe that is reason enough to believe that we are on the right track.

At this juncture my question is: Where is militant atheists’ much-touted reason in all this? The lunatic fringe that has taken root in extremist atheism is so far beyond rational thinking that one wonders how atheists might be capable of engineering a post-religion world ruled by reason. We sympathetic atheists rely on tolerance for differing views in the public square, rather than the desire to eliminate all competing views.

By now we should understand why religion is so integral to human nature and culture. Religion incorporates many expressions of mental health, from community-building to enduring values, from moral behavior to a transcendent sense of purpose. Religion helps people cope with many of life’s greatest questions, dilemmas and problems. One has to ask, therefore, what militant atheists are thinking when they propose to eliminate religion from the lives of 250 million Americans. Religion is so deeply integrated into the activity of every devout person, it is such a vital unifying meaning-system, that eliminating religion would seem to be impossible and undesirable, if not an act of great cruelty.

The Danger of Extremism

If you pay attention to the headlines, you could be excused for believing that science and religion are mutually exclusive and incompatible. In truth, that characterization applies only to a minority of people, the extremists on either side of the debate. But since extremists are usually the most vociferous, theirs tend to be the only voices we hear. Because extremists are the ones writing books and giving speeches, it is easy to think that this conflict reflects the sentiment of the majority of Americans. But it is a manifestation mainly between religious fundamentalists on one end of the spectrum and militant atheists on the other end.

Physicist Freeman Dyson said of the extremists: “The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect.” Thus the battle under way is not between religion and science, but between religious and secular extremists -- hardened adherents who believe they hold the exclusive truth.

The enduring lesson of this blog is that we should not desire the end of religion or atheism, but the end of ideological dogmatism. Fortunately for the well-being of humanity, the vast majority of people are not comfortable with the fanaticism that infects both sides of the argument. We seek a spiritual and practical center where the best of the religious and secular positions can be preserved. We want to be receptive to the ideals espoused by religion at the same time we embrace the tenets and teachings of science.

In the midst of this ongoing argument, it is not surprising that for many religionists “science” is met with hostility because it is presented in a way that contradicts core religious meaning. But positioning science against religion, as militant atheists do, does not diminish the power of religion. It merely serves to intensify the fundamentalist’s antipathy to science.

It is not the particular belief that is detrimental, but the rigidity and tenacity with which that belief is held. Most Americans have no problem with any moderate ideology. We are a receptive and welcoming society. America is remarkably hospitable to both religion and science, suggesting that there is little real contradiction between the two. It is only when science is used to justify one or another extremist belief or religion is politicized by one or another extremist position that conflict is engendered.

It is unfortunate that in the seemingly interminable debate between religion and science, the discipline with the most to lose in this competition is science, for two reasons. First, science is the realm least accessible to most Americans. Second, science does not go to the heart of a person’s identity the way religion does. Consequently, in a conflict where people are pressured to embrace one realm and repudiate the other, science is usually the discipline that is sacrificed.

Because of my love of science, I find this outcome terribly unfortunate. But to the extent that militant atheists misappropriate science for their own ends, science will continue to suffer from a pervasive public relations problem.
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