Why atheism is winning-11: Some concluding thoughts

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The last hope of religion is the fear of death. Fear of death is what religion thinks of as its trump card. In any discussion with believers, they will invariably get around to talking about how you (as an atheist) are risking your immortal soul and ask whether you are not fearful of what will happen in the afterlife. I know that this is coming and tell people who raise this that when I die, nothing spectacular will happen and that I will simply cease to be, with my body returning to the basic elements. I am quite comfortable with the idea. This clearly disconcerts the people who raise it since they are so obviously scared of death and see god as some kind of ‘get out of death’ card. It is important that we develop an acceptance of death as an inevitable fact of life and I am preparing a series of posts on atheist views of death that will appear some time in the future, unless I die first, of course!
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Why atheism is winning-10: Religion and insecurity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this post, I want to look at what is happening in the US and why. The US is the outlier nation in that it still maintains high levels of religiosity despite its modernity.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in their article titled Why the gods are not winning say that this is likely a temporary phenomenon and that the US will eventually fall in line with the trends in other modern developed states. As I have discussed earlier, the data suggest that this is already taking place.

The authors suggest that one factor that will drive this increasing disbelief in the US is that men are less likely to go to church. “Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here’s the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation.”

Paul and Zuckerman point to another factor that distinguishes other developed societies from the US and that impinges on religiosity. The security of middle class life in those societies leads to less of a dependence on god.

Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples’ need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life’s calamities, help them get what they don’t have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

Compared to people in the rest of the industrialized developed world, Americans have little sense of security. For most Americans, they are only too aware that they are just a pink slip away from dropping out the middle class and one major illness away from bankruptcy and even homelessness. In that climate of anxiety, religion finds a welcoming niche, providing soothing, if fraudulent words of comfort.

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

Paul and Zuckerman conclude, “In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern.”

The overall rise in modernity even in the face of increasing disparities within countries due to the growth of the transglobal oligarchy will lead to the inevitable decline of religion, even in those countries that are currently the most superstitious, such as the US and much of the Islamic world. The factors that favor religion’s continuance are the fecundity of some religious groups and fears of economic and social insecurity while what is working against religion is modernity.

The internet and ubiquitous global communication tends to increase levels of modernity while breaking down the isolation that results in people thinking that their own beliefs are the only ones that matter or even exist. When looked at dispassionately, religion is nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in modern dress. What it has going for it is the determined efforts of some people to make the superstitions seem to have some plausible basis. But it will go the way of other similar superstitions such as fear of black cats or the number 13 or walking under a ladder. A few people may take them seriously enough to take actions based on them while for most it will be at most a casual concern.

To be religious and believe in gods will increasingly be seen as anachronistic.

Next: Some concluding thoughts.

Why atheism is winning-9: The global picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning point out that the percentage of Christians worldwide is declining, that of Hindus is stagnant even as the proportion of people in its homeland India is rising, and the proportion of Buddhists is on a steady decline.

The only growth area is Islam but even here the picture is not optimistic for religion.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050. Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to Allah. Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex.

The authors conclude that “The absence of a grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated — the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a consistent, global basis.”

The numbers of people choosing to adopt religion is declining while the number leaving it is increasing. Paul and Zuckerman point out that religion has declined rapidly in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and signs that religion in those countries is on life-support are everywhere. “Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some.”

It is this fact that is most dangerous for religion because it shows that “religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous.” As societies become more modern, and we see this happening everywhere, people give up religion. The trend towards modernity cannot be reversed and one should expect to see the decline of religion along with it. That is the key point.

But what about the supposed rise in religion in the ‘new Europe’, the countries of the former Soviet bloc? The authors argue that religions in those countries seem more nationalistic than devout. “Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism, just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives, and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out that the “new” Europe is not turning out particularly godly.”

The one bright spot for religion is the developing world but even here it is tenuous as modernity takes root. “Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs. In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don’t believe in God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify themselves as strongly religious.”

Even in America, the outlier among modern societies that still seems to be holding on to religion, the trend is away from religion and what seems to be driving it is that belief in the literal truth of the Bible is decreasing. “What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.”

Next: Religion and insecurity

Why atheism is winning-8: Objective measures of religion’s decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

There are more concrete signs that the end of religion is nigh than the ones I gave in the previous post in this series. We have the phenomenon of churches closing all over the place. In Cleveland, the Catholic diocese closed a huge number of churches recently, angering the dwindling number of parishioners who still attended them.

Howard Bess, a retired Baptist minister, says that young people are leaving religion in droves.

In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches.
Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.

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Why atheism is winning-7: Signs of religion’s decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea that religion is in a period of inexorable decline is, unsurprisingly, not one that is shared by religious apologists. In fact, Alastair McGrath in his book The Twilight of Atheism argues the opposite, that it is atheism that is in decline. I have not read this book but Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has and in an essay that is well worth reading in full, challenges McGrath and in the process reinforces my case that it is atheism that is ascendant.

Parsons says that what is remarkable about the current debate on atheism is that it has generated enormous and widespread interest, extending far beyond the small intellectual circles that were the normal range for such controversies.

These days, says McGrath, we hear not faith’s but atheism’s withdrawing roar. Now, early in the 21st century, we are told that atheism is in decline and religion is resurgent.

How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller lists and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief. Is atheism becoming chic? The public response to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, appears to indicate a swelling interest in arguments for unbelief. A bestselling atheist book is really quite a novelty. Speaking from my own personal experience, an atheist book typically sells in the dozens, and its author will die of old age long before seeing a royalty check.

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Has atheism won already?

Some of you may be wondering what has happened to my series of essays on why atheism is winning. Do not fret, it has not been forgotten! It has just been displaced as the focus of the daily essay by the more immediate and timely issues of labor and the struggles in the Middle East. It will be continued.

But until then, here is Marcus Brigstocke in a debate arguing in favor of the proposition that religion has had its day.

The response by the Christian is pathetic. No wonder the largely young audience overwhelmingly agrees with the proposition.

Why atheism is winning-6: The death of religious philosophy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, recently caused a bit of a stir when he said that he has given up teaching the philosophy of religion to his students because all the arguments for religion, old and new, have been so effectively debunked that he simply could not even pretend to take them seriously anymore. He felt that he would be doing a disservice to his students because of his inability to present those arguments as if they made any sense, which is what good teachers try to do when teaching ideas that they personally disagree with.

For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic “explanations.” Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.

Chiefly, though, I am motivated by a sense of ennui on the one hand and urgency on the other. A couple of years ago I was teaching a course in the philosophy of religion. We were using, among other works, C. Stephen Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God. In teaching class I try to present material that I find antithetical to my own views as fairly and in as unbiased a manner as possible. With the Layman book I was having a real struggle to do so. I found myself literally dreading having to go over this material in class—NOT, let me emphasize, because I was intimidated by the cogency of the arguments. On the contrary, I found the arguments so execrably awful and pointless that they bored and disgusted me (Layman is not a kook or an ignoramus; he is the author of a very useful logic textbook). I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (My italics)

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Why atheism is winning-5: The battle for hearts and minds

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury says he opposes new atheists for our ‘less tolerant attitude towards religion’, what I think is driving his concern is the fear that the new atheist message is reaching the ordinary flock. After all, atheists are currently in the minority. We have no power over anyone except the power of persuasion. If we are as intolerant or arrogant or rude as our critics claim, we are only hurting ourselves by such alienating behaviors and religious institutions should be pleased. Their concern about the new atheist message only makes sense if they are worried that our message is getting through to large numbers of people. The news report about the Archbishop’s call says that “The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.” (My italics)
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Why atheism is winning-4: The new and decisive shift by the new atheists

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous posts, I said that it is the firm knowledge that almost everything in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran are fiction that will destroy religion. But right now that knowledge largely exists amongst a small group of theologians and philosophers of religion and does not percolate out to influence ordinary religious believers who do not read their works. The clergy who deal on a daily basis with ordinary believers have some awareness of this knowledge but also realize that to disseminate it to their flock would cause an uproar and destroy their careers and so they keep it to themselves or discreetly share it with a very few of their colleagues and parishioners. As a result of this, beliefs that religious texts are mostly true have remained largely unscathed.

It is the new atheists who have upset the status quo. The new atheists are well aware of the power of this knowledge in undermining religion and have been using it in their attacks on religion, repeatedly pointing out that there is no evidence to supports its strong claims and that the religious texts are largely fictional and contradicted by science.

Doubts about the plausibility of god are not new. Many philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks argued persuasively that the idea of god made no sense and created all manner of logical contradictions. What those philosophers did not have were the insights provided by modern science. The rapid advancement of science that began with physics in the 16th century and joined in the late nineteenth century by dramatic advances in biology and geology resulted in deepening our understanding that the world works perfectly well without the need for divine intervention at any stage. The archeological findings in the late twentieth century that have shed light on human history have been combined with these other scientific findings to discredit the factual claims of religion.

The decisive new development is that we now know that not only is god unnecessary as an explanatory concept for anything, but that the Bible itself is false in almost all its historical details and that its main characters are fictional. What is new about the new atheism is that it is the new atheists who are taking this knowledge out of academia and intellectual circles and broadcasting it to ordinary people, to the believers in the churches and mosques and temples, using popular books, newspaper articles, radio, TV, films, the internet, in short any and all forms of accessible media.

I think that the new atheists are on the right track in thinking that the best way of fighting religious extremism is by attacking it at its foundations, the literal truth of religious texts, and taking that message directly to the general public. But it is undoubtedly true that this will result in moderate religion suffering irreparable collateral damage because they too depend, even if to a lesser extent, on believing in the truth of those texts. Even if I were sympathetic to the accommodationist idea of preserving moderate religion, I frankly do not see any way out of this.

As long as doubts about the existence of god and the truth of the Bible stayed within elite circles, it did not cause serious damage. I think that it is clear that the leadership of mainstream religions is well aware of the danger that this knowledge presents if it became widely known. This is why there has been such a strong reaction to the new atheists amongst the religious hierarchy. They cannot, of course, argue that the new atheists are wrong on the facts because they realize we are right. They want to avoid at all costs a debate on the historical truth of the religious texts because that would only give more publicity the fact that is false. Instead they attempt diversionary tactics.

One such tactic is to attack the ‘tone’ taken by new atheists and argue that we are not ‘tolerant’. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom one could label as a religious moderate, has called upon his clergy to fight back against the new atheist message.

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as “a social problem” and says the next five years are set to be a period of “exceptional challenge”.

Pope Ratzinger has also decided to come out swinging against what he calls “atheist extremism”, an undefined quantity. What would he consider non-extreme atheism, I wonder? His top aide Cardinal Walter Kasper also stoked fears about the danger of the atheist message taking hold amongst the general population.

I am actually heartened by the responses of Williams and Ratzinger. It shows that the new atheists are having a major impact on the minds of ordinary believers.

Next: The battle for hearts and minds.

Why atheism is winning-2: Religion’s Achilles heel

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I looked at some of the theoretical arguments made by accommodationists for not criticizing religion and discussed why I did not think them very credible.

The other arguments that accommodationists make are practical ones. Belief in a god, we are told, serves some positive ends, such as inculcating moral values or causing people to refrain from bad actions for fear of divine retribution, and eliminating it would result in antisocial behavior by some. The counter to this argument is that there is no evidence that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or that lack of religious beliefs drive people to evil actions.
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