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.

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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What I Think About Atheists

brother guyFrom Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and author of the new book The Heavens Proclaim:

I know plenty of atheists (“some of my best friends…”) but, like most of my churchgoing friends, they don’t make a big public deal of it. The ones who are most likely to go in front of an audience to proselytize their atheism seem to fall into two camps. One group are Brits. What is it about being raised in Britain that turns so many people vehemently against religion? The other group are those who have rejected a faith that is very publicly not-mainstream: apostate Jews, Southern Baptists who have moved to the north; that sort of thing.
I get the feeling that they are desperately trying to distance themselves from roots that they feel somehow embarrassed by, to try to fit into what they see as the mainstream—if not the mainstream of popular society, then at least the mainstream of the “scientific” society they desperately want to fit into. (I am familiar with this desperation myself, of course; like every other graduate of MIT, I am convinced they let me in by accident, since everyone else there was clearly smarter than me.) I’m not saying this is why they are atheists; there are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist—or not to be one. But this may be why it is so important for these proselytizers to be aggressively public about their lack of belief.
We can all recognize that, of course, as the flip side of religious fundamentalism. It’s when you fundamentally lack faith in God’s salvation that you insist on saving yourself by following the minutiae of the law. (St. Paul warned against that.) It is exactly when you are insecure about your own holiness that you most feel the need to parade it, aggressively, in front of everyone else. That is what motivates a few of our more publicly outspoken co-religionists to heap abuse upon science, even as they show how little they understand it. Sadly, they are trying to earn brownie points with God by scorning the study of the handiwork God loves.
Likewise, what I find in many of the proselytizers of atheism is a very naive understanding of religion. If religion were anything like the rigid brainwashing it’s often caricatured as, I would have no part of it either. Clearly, anyone who thinks everyone in a religion rigidly believes the same thing hasn’t been to any parish council meetings lately!
Yet this thinking speaks to the deeper need for teaching, yes, sophisticated theology to an intelligent public that is starving for it. People don’t want debates full of fireworks; they want an understanding of the complexities of good and evil that we all struggle to live with every day.
Clearly, the atheists aren’t providing that. But just as clearly, most of our pastors aren’t either.