Religious Independents Not So Easily Fooled


From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on religious independents. From the article:

According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, only 76 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 86 percent in 1990. But interestingly, while non-Christians are not choosing Islam or Judaism, neither are they choosing atheism. A poll done by Gallup in 2008 found that 15 percent of Americans—up from 8 percent in 1999—say they don’t believe in God, but they do believe in a “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit.” More and more, Americans believe that the world was created by a spiritual being, but they reject the Torah, the Quran, and the New Testament as the explanation for it.

That article notes a well-known observation that, “Demographically speaking, the Religious Independents, like their political counterparts, are more affluent and well-educated than traditional God-believers.” More than one study has shown that people become less religious when they perceive themselves both as reasonably affluent and as much so as their neighbors. Moreover, a lack of income inequality and insecurity is a nice way to liberalize the religious outlook. Add a strong educational element and a pluralistic social environment, and that becomes a sure-fire formula against traditional religious affiliation.
Not surprisingly, such religious independents are also more likely to care about ethics and social justice than metaphysics and dogma:

Perhaps most importantly, 83 percent of Religious Independents say it is more important to be ethical than to be devout, compared to only 64 percent of traditionalists. Seventy-two percent of Religious Independents say that living a good spiritual life depends on how you act, not what you believe—compared with only 59 percent of traditional followers. In other words, Religious Independents have just as strong a desire for repairing the world, even as they reject the habits and practices of religion.
All this has substantial implications for American culture. Religious Independents don’t want to get involved in cultural wars or fights over Christmas crèches. They are focused on self-improvement, not evangelism. Without high priests of any sort, they’re more apt to resolve political and ethical questions on issues like abortion on a case-by-case basis, rather than with dicta handed down from on high.

That might be frustrating to advocates of institutional religion, since such an autonomous, case-by-case thinking style makes it difficult for such organizations to tell people what and how to think. Independent thinking on religious matters might merely be a corollary to the growing attitudes about privatization of religion. Indeed, for some time now, Americans have been sliding into a mode of privatized religion, one that see-saws opposite from their institutional religious loyalty. On the hit list of most likely to be privatized are men, whites, young Americans, liberal Protestants, and people of an indeterminate religious affiliation. Pacific and New England states also appear to be the most privatized. There is, of course, the subtle matter of teasing out the difference between independent thinkers generally and religious independents, for neither the latter nor the former entail one another. Still, both camps could present new kinds of difficulties for traditional religious institutions.
First, independent thinkers might come to decide that even if science never presents a complete and final explanation of the world, its method of encountering the world can, in fact, function as a fully satisfying, overall philosophy of life—something akin to the popular proverb that it’s the journey, not the destination that gives life meaning. In fact, there are even new kinds of collaborations in contemporary music that outright support this link between a scientific worldview and its unique, underlying aesthetic for human existence.
Second, religious independents might come to decide that large institutions are ultimately a corrupting force for true spirituality, and that such social structures are merely the dying relics from an age when kings and corporate titans were required to manage people. But human coordination now trends toward flat, highly networked models of teamwork rather than vertical models of authority. So, with the ever-growing connectivity of both technological and social networking, religious advocates can finally decouple themselves from the necessity (or perhaps even necessary evil) of large, managing bureaucracies and any  concomitant subordination to their autocracies of piety.

What Makes Religion Popular—Or Not

jesus-thumps-up1From Gregory Paul, a freelance paleontologist, researcher, and artist:

Although there has been contention between the forces of supernaturalism and the (until recently small number of) rationalists going back to ancient times, the struggle ramped up 150 years ago when On the Origin of the Species scientifically removed the need for a great designer. Since then, it has widely been assumed that the spiritual portion of the culture war is primarily an ideological struggle in which the side with the better arguments, or public relations campaign, will win. This view is unsubstantiated, however, in that it is not based on a scientific analysis of data published in the technical literature. Instead, it is the sort of conversational opinion that too easily becomes the conventional wisdom.
I am increasingly fed up with conversational opinions of all stripes, and for the last few years have been working to solve some of the basic problems concerning popular religion—why is it popular, why is it failing in the Western democracies, and do societies need religion to be successful as theists contend (to the degree that nonbelievers are the targets of discrimination in much of the world)?
Sociological research by me and others is producing results that at long last are answering some of the basic questions about popular religion and secularism. The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth happened to see the publication of an unprecedented number of technical papers on the subject, four, which were built upon a series of earlier studies. It is becoming increasingly clear that much of the conventional wisdom about religion is wrong. Most people do not believe or not believe in the gods because they have examined and weighed the arguments, or even because they have been persuaded by propaganda from one side or the other, or are following their heritage. Nor do highly religious societies perform better than those that have abandoned supernaturalistic faith in the context of democracy.
A remarkably clear pattern provides the critical information for understanding why religion is and is not popular.
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Some Atheists Dissent and Modify Their Claws

A_From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

In my mind, it all started with those signs on the sides of city buses. You know, the ones that say things like, “You can be good without God” or “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” There are quite a few other pithy sayings as well, if you care to look. Soon enough, it hit me—the quaint social roles of the sly village atheist or disenfranchised ex-believer just ain’t what they used to be.
What’s put the “new” in the New Atheist movement is their assertiveness, or even outright aggressiveness, in the public space. For instance, at a recent speech at the University of Toronto, Christopher Hitchens exhorted that “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt,” and he is well known for practicing what he preaches when on the speaking and debate circuit.
This is in contrast with the more laid-back style of traditional atheists, such as that practiced by Paul Kurtz, the original founder of the Center for Inquiry (among other secular and skeptical organizations). Kurtz sought to offer a positive alternative to religion, known as eupraxsophy—roughly, a collection of philosophical commitments and practices that provide a cosmic outlook and ethical guide to living. He often joined in alliances with religious groups on matters of social justice, and hence had a much more cooperative disposition with religious institutions (though not with religion itself). Fortunately for everyone, some atheists, like Kurtz, dissent and modify their claws.
Then there’s Sam Harris, a subspecies of atheist with yet a different rhetorical manner than either of these two kinds. He takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach between the aggressive and cooperative style. “It’s really just a matter of conversation, and releasing these taboos that prevent us from applying pressure to people’s religious beliefs,” he says. As an example of where pressure is needed, he points to evolution-denying politicians: “there’s no penalty paid by these guys endorsing the starkest ignorance about the state of our knowledge about biology.” In Harris’ view, “there has to be a price paid.” Social pressure is being successfully applied to racism, which has fallen into disrepute in the last 50 years, and “real progress” has been made in talking about this social problem; likewise, he argues, “we can make the same kind of progress in talking about religion.”
Harris might want to recalibrate his manometer, though, since the pressure against racism and the pressure against religion are not of the same variety.
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The Hidden Problem of Asymmetrical Expectations

seesawFrom Jeff Schweitzer, a marine biologist, neurophysiologist, and the author of Beyond Cosmic Dice:

The early days of the holiday season have brought into sharp relief a deeply disturbing trend that seems innocent enough at first glance, but in fact is the genesis of much that ails humanity. I speak of asymmetrical expectations borne from the destructive belief that one faith has more validity than another. Oddly, this pernicious impact of religion is seen most clearly during the secular holiday of Thanksgiving.
Through the miracle of marriage, one part of my extended family keeps a kosher home, and this plays an important part in the story to unfold. What does kosher mean? Reaching back to the archaic ways of nomadic tribes and rituals dating thousands of years, kashrut describes a body of Jewish laws that proscribe certain foods, explain what foods must be separated, and detail how certain foods must be prepared. Kosher can be used as a synonym for kashrut, but is more often used more restrictively to mean the foods (rather than the laws regulating those foods) that meet the standards for consumption and ritual use.
Kosher is not only broadly and badly misunderstood by non-Jews, but by the Jewish community as well. Ask any of your Jewish friends why kosher laws were developed, and almost all will say to promote better health. This is the biggest and most annoying myth of all, that kosher laws are some kind of primitive health code. The idea is complete nonsense. Yes, the methods described by kosher slaughter are sanitary, and were ahead of their times. But kosher laws are not driven by or a consequence of health concerns. Camel and rabbit are no less healthy than cow or goat. Having a cloven hoof does not make an animal healthier to eat than one that is not so endowed. And grape products, like wine, made by non-Jews are not in any way distinguishable from Jewish wines from a health perspective. Just compare a Manischewitz to a Rothschild.
The prohibition against eating meat with dairy is also entirely arbitrary, with no associated health benefit. Perhaps gulping down a huge glass of milk after eating an 18-ounce prime rib would interfere with digestion, but a little dab of butter used in basting a turkey would not. Some rabbis prohibit the consumption of turkey altogether, while others do not, because the poor bird was unknown to the authors of the Torah. The symbol of Thanksgiving remains permanently in kosher limbo.
Kosher laws are not health laws, and they are completely and utterly arbitrary. The only reason why Jews observe kosher law is because the Torah says to, and for no other reason. The Torah is perfectly silent on why the laws are promulgated. Not once does the Torah explain the chosen from the forbidden; never does the Torah state why a falcon drumstick is prohibited but a duck breast is OK with God.
The other prominent myth is that kosher and Jewish are synonymous. Not true by a wide margin. Keeping kosher is a choice, and not a popular one at that. At most, only 15 percent of American Jews observe kosher law. The inverse means that 85 percent of American Jews believe that keeping kosher is irrelevant to being a good, pious Jew. Let us be clear: The vast majority of American Jews are no more kosher than the Catholic priest down the street.
And so now we come to Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by my extended family. Non-Jews, kosher Jews, and non-kosher Jews all converge onto the tableau of a Norman Rockwell painting for the quintessential American celebration. The fireplace glows with a warm heat while guests gather around, drinks in one hand, nosh in the other. The din of happy conversation mutes the flurry of last-minute instructions escaping from the kitchen.
But trouble is brewing beneath the oil-painted veneer of family bliss.
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