I can’t claim to be a prophet…yet


A reader has warned me that I might be guilty of the sin of prophecy. Back in 2014 I wrote this:

I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.

And then they pointed out the results of this Gallup poll from the summer:

beliefingod

Nope. Not going to claim I’ve been sadly vindicated yet. As the article from Gallup points out, there’s a lot of wobbliness due to the precise wording of the question. I’d also suggest that the previous year’s abrupt downswing in religiosity looks more like noise, so this year’s upswing is nothing but regression to the mean. There are still signs of a slow trend away from belief in gods, but it’s nothing dramatic, and we’re not seeing widespread acceptance of overt atheism. As the article explains, the variations may not be meaningful of any kind of shift in ideas.

The exact meaning of these shifts is unclear. Although the results can be taken at face value in showing that fewer Americans believe in God than did so in the past, it is also possible that basic beliefs have not changed — but rather Americans’ willingness to express nonreligious sentiments to an interviewer has. Whatever the explanation for these changes over time, the most recent findings show that the substantial majority of Americans continue to give a positive response when asked about their belief in God.

I’m still going to argue that atheism needs something more than a denial of the existence of gods if it is going to achieve wider popularity. We’re riding on a slow swell of anti-clericism, but we need to get into the curl of a more active social relevancy.

We also can’t deny that we hold a minority view. But the “good” news is that the resurgence of Republican theocratic meddling might yet inspire more anti-religious views!

Comments

  1. says

    ” . . . their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people.”

    Well of course that’s always been true.

    Work all day,
    Live on hay.
    You’ll get pie
    In the sky
    When you die.

    Religion is a con that offers its rewards only after death. Since nobody has ever come back to say it isn’t so, it keeps working.

    Now, as for the vocabulary issue, atheist vs. none, and the concept of organized atheism — I think people often make a category error by thinking they are arguing over something substantive when all they are really doing is insisting that a word have a particular definition. Word definitions are arbitrary, but if we want to communicate we need to know how each other are using them. PZ wants “atheism” to mean something more than non-belief in the existence of God or Gods. That’s a strategy in pursuit of his particular socio-cultural objectives, which is fine. I broadly share them although I don’t have much personal interest in the idea of “organized atheism.” But whether people want to call themselves atheists are PZ-style atheists, or whether people who are don’t want to call themselves that, is a separate question from what people actually believe, no?

    I would also note that if the trend in polling is because people are more willing to say they don’t believe in God, there are probably more of them still out there than 11%.

  2. tacitus says

    I becoming more convinced that in the end, the number of religious people in the country isn’t as remotely important as the number of right-wing conservatives. If the rise of Trump teaches us anything at all, it’s that crazy right-wing policies are do not need to be couched in religious terms to gain disturbing amounts of support.

    The main problem is that while religion is fading as a foundational worldview for millions of Americans, any ground we’ve gained is being snuffed out by equally irrational beliefs as people simply invent their own reality.

    Thus we get antivaxxers claiming that not only are childhood diseases not harmful, they are essential to the development of a child’s immune system. They don’t cite religious sources for their claims, they just make shit up and run with it.

    This is post-truth, post-fact post-science Trumpism, and it’s here to stay, even if Trump himself drowns in the swamp of his own making before the year is out.

  3. jason66 says

    Occasional lurker here. Not relevant to atheism per se, but as far as nones go the most rigorous way to estimate their future is to project them like you would any other population (replace “migration” with “religious switching” and it’s basically the same). Some papers have done this, e.g. (
    Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon. “Secularism, fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The religious composition of the United States to 2043.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 2 (2010): 293-310.) Suggesting that the none population will peak before 2043, but will remain relatively stable compared to other religious identification groups.

    Of course demographic projects are always loaded with all sorts of assumptions, but they’re probably as accurate as any other prognostications. On the note of anti-clericism, there’s some evidence that the association of religion with rightist politics has led an increase in nones among liberals and moderates:

    Hout, Michael, and Claude S. Fischer. “Why more Americans have no religious preference: Politics and generations.” American Sociological Review (2002): 165-190.

    (Apologies to people whose employers haven’t paid homage to the journal gods for access, but the abstracts have the basic take-aways).

  4. Owlmirror says

    @PZ: When I was searching Gallup’s site for that page on getting different results depending on whether people were asked their opinions on “Obamacare” vs “the Affordable Care Act”, this page came up:

    God is Alive and Well, by Frank Newport

    Note that Frank Newport is Editor-in-Chief at Gallup, and authored many of the analyses that get linked to. I am deeply baffled how someone who would presumably be aware of how confused people can get (people thinking that “Obamacare” is less worthy of approval than “the Affordable Care Act” being but one case in point) can possibly come to the conclusion that Americans may increasingly come to recognize the mounting evidence that religion is good for their wellbeing and health.

  5. Owlmirror says

    @jason66 — Google scholar is (sometimes) your friend for finding PDFs of journal papers for free access:

    Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon. “Secularism, fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The religious composition of the United States to 2043.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 2 (2010): 293-310.

    Hout, M. and Fischer, C.S., 2002. Why more Americans have no religious preference: Politics and generations. American Sociological Review, pp.165-190.

  6. jason66 says

    @ Owlmirror: Oh yeah, thanks for the heads up. I think if the research was done on a federal grant they have to publish a free version–or something like that–maybe that’s where the sometimes comes in.

  7. DanDare says

    Instead of arguing that atheism entails anything we could get some traction indicating how it liberates.
    E.g. you are free to discuss ethics and morality fully instead of just accepting religious dogma which contains demonstrably bad ideas and attitudes. And many atheists do do just that.

  8. rietpluim says

    The evidence suggests that the number of people believing in a universal spirit can be less than zero.

  9. Owlmirror says

    @jason66:

    I think if the research was done on a federal grant they have to publish a free version–or something like that–maybe that’s where the sometimes comes in.

    That’s certainly where some free access comes from. But more to the point, scholars have little or no financial incentive to keep their papers behind paywalls, and the prestige of being cited and referenced comes from people being able to read those papers, so there is an incentive to make those papers available to anyone, and little or no incentive to restrict access to the papers when they are made available by someone else (as by teachers making the paper part of their coursework).

    (There’s more to it than the above, but I don’t have the time/energy to delve into the matter of intellectual property rights involved.)

Leave a Reply