Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Why Evangelicals Believe Weird Things

From Jonathan Dudley, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, a student at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics:

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens lamented “the evangelical rejection of reason.” The lay evangelical community, they explain, would rather get its science from folks like the young-Earth creationist Ken Ham than from the evolution-believing NIH director Francis Collins, even though both are evangelicals.

As someone raised in the evangelical community, I am poignantly aware of the problem they describe. I grew up listening to James Dobson on the radio, reading books by Ken Ham, and learning to view the environmental movement as a left-wing conspiracy. I was shocked, then, when upon going off to study biology at an evangelical college, I discovered that the vast majority of professors at such colleges accept evolution and support the environmental movement.

Why is there such a disconnect between the lay evangelical community and the best evangelical scholars when it comes to science? In my book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, in addition to critiquing popular evangelical beliefs, I also explore the sources of this discrepancy.

Lay evangelicals evaluate the arguments made by “experts” in a manner different from many non-evangelicals. The latter will often ask: How prestigious is her academic pedigree? Is she representing the consensus of similarly credentialed experts? Insofar as I can understand her arguments, do they convince me? Lay evangelicals ask different questions: How good of a Christian is this guy? (Or, in evangelical parlance, “How is his walk with the LORD?”) How closely do his arguments line up with my understanding of the Bible? Is this guy one of us?

Evangelicals also tend to come under the sway of those with the biggest microphones, not the best arguments. Although many evangelical scholars are also capable of projecting piety, they rarely have the resources to flood the airwaves or the communication skills to connect with the average believer. What’s more, evangelical scholars, despite often lamenting the intellectual problems with the lay community, are generally more interested in pursuing scholarship than becoming the type of rousing, populist leader necessary to redirect evangelical Christianity.

The evangelical community also keeps its scholars in check. When a college’s base of donors, prospective students, and even board of trustees are made up of lay evangelicals, this places severe limits on what its scholars can say publicly. This fact became apparent at my alma mater, Calvin College, when public outcry and the powers that be combined to silence two scholars advocating the acceptance of human evolution.

A final major source of this disconnect is the evangelical community’s understanding of the Bible. Most lay evangelicals understand the Bible as offering all they need to know on matters ranging from the origin of species to imminent destruction of the Earth. This notion makes experts unnecessary to form valid beliefs. But it is also untenable; what communities think is the “clear teaching of the Bible” varies throughout time and among cultures in a manner that can be directly traced to different starting beliefs. How lay evangelicals interpret the Bible, ultimately, reflects how those they take as authority figures interpret it.

The disconnect between lay evangelicals and scholars is a problem with tremendous consequences, both for politics and for the level of scientific literacy in America. The vast majority of evangelicals are lay people, and thus, their beliefs, and not those of their scholars, are what end up mattering politically. What the lay evangelical community believes about evolution or global warming impacts which GOP candidates will succeed (Jon Huntsman doomed his campaign by voicing his belief in science on both issues). It impacts how much support will exist in the House and Senate for legislation dealing with climate change. It impacts what local school boards will teach in public schools about human origins.

It’s a problem, therefore, that affects every American. The first step to addressing it is to understand that. Secular America often laments the impact of evangelicals in politics, thinking their anti-intellectualism is inherent in evangelical Christianity. But as the community’s scholars demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be this way. The real question is how to replace the James Dobsons and Ken Hams of the world with their more qualified evangelical counterparts.

Neuroscience of Religious Experience

From Randall Stephens, a history professor at Eastern Nazarene College:

Patrick McNamara, the director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory in the department of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, has worked on “developing an evolutionary approach to problems of brain and behavior and currently is studying the evolution of the frontal lobes, the evolution of the two mammalian sleep states (REM and NREM), and the evolution of religion in human cultures.”

McNamara is also the author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. “For billions of people the world over,” he writes, “religious experiences and beliefs influence who they marry, how they rear their children, whom they spend time with, and how they comport themselves in dally life. It may well be that we would not be as we find ourselves in the 21st century if our ancestors had not been intensely religious for most of the ‘life’ of our species.” McNamara thinks it’s the perfect time to develop a “real science of religion,” aided by breakthroughs in “anthropologic, cognitive, and neuroscientific studies of the manifold features of religious experiences and in evolutionary approaches to religious experiences and behaviors.”

I met up with McNamara at his office at Boston Medical Center about eight months ago. In the two-part interview embedded here, I ask him about recent developments in neuroscience and pose questions about how the biological sciences can inform religious studies and, even, religious history.

The Future of Neurotheology

From Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals:

In my latest book, Principles of Neurotheology, I try to espouse a set of principles that might help guide the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences moving forward. The goal is to address the philosophical, theological, and scientific issues related to this field. The question is, what will the future of neurotheology look like? What might neurotheology accomplish in the next five, 10, or even 50 years?

Neurotheology is still very early in its development. Truly combining neuroscience with religious and spiritual phenomena was only possible with the advent of modern brain imaging techniques. Before the development of these techniques, the rudiments of neurotheology were developed based primarily on animal models and speculation. Today, we have begun to uncover substantial information regarding the relationship between the human brain and religious and spiritual practices and experiences

In the next five years, neurotheology will likely continue to advance our understanding of how the brain is associated with religious and spiritual phenomena. Most likely, the brain imaging studies that have become an important aspect of neurotheology will continue to expand. There are many types of practices and experiences that remain to be evaluated using brain imaging techniques. Traditions might be compared, as well as the wide variety of practices within each tradition. Imaging studies, along with other clinical studies, will help us better understand not only what happens in the brain at the time of a particular practice, such as meditation or prayer, but also how such practices affect us over time. Already, we understand that practices like meditation and prayer can lower anxiety and depression, and even help the brain remember better. Such improvements are associated with long-term changes in the brain’s function. Thus, religion, spirituality, and God all can change your brain.

In addition to what we know about general brain function, future studies in the next five to 10 years will hopefully evaluate how a variety of neurotransmitter systems relate to religious and spiritual phenomena. Several early studies suggest that both dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are associated with practices like meditation. This is interesting since dopamine is associated with the reward system, movement, and memory. GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, perhaps related to blissful experiences, that helps shut the mind down. But other neurotransmitters may be involved in complex interactions during religious and spiritual practices.

It may be that in the next 10 years, we can begin working toward what might be called a “religionome.” In this context, a religionome would be an attempt at cataloguing every different type of religious and spiritual practice and experience across all people, cultures, and traditions. This would integrate both subjective experiences, doctrinal and theological concepts, health-related components, and physiology in an overall evaluation of how human beings are religious and spiritual. This would also require an understanding of the differences between those who are religious or spiritual and those who are atheist or agnostic. In addition, neurotheology must help us try to understand when religious and spiritual beliefs turn negative, leading to hatred, violence, and terrorism.

In the far future, neurotheology could open up some fascinating possibilities. Since practices like meditation result in altered states of consciousness, neurotheology may help us understand the nature of consciousness and how it relates to the material world. Perhaps we might better understand how our consciousness affects ourselves and the world around us. Neurotheology may help us fully realize our religious or spiritual potential, finding the most effective ways of optimizing this part of ourselves and hopefully contributing to a more compassionate and understanding period of human existence. And it has always been my hope that a neurotheological approach might yield answers to some of the greatest questions in human history: Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the true nature of reality?

While these questions may seem impossible to address, I would argue that the best attempt requires an approach that integrates the best we can derive from science and the best we can derive from religious, spiritual, and philosophical pursuits. Will neurotheology lead humanity toward a new enlightenment? Only time will tell.