Over at The American Conservative Noah Millman and Rod Dreher are having a discussion over the basic premise that founding texts (e.g., Bible, Koran) and individuals (e.g., Jesus, Muhammad) have a deep influence upon the nature of a religion. Long time readers will be aware that I side much more with Millman on this. In fact I recall that years ago in the comments of Ross Douthat’s old blog at The Atlantic (alas, comments are gone from their archives) I took the more maximalist position that theology and logical coherency are not particularly relevant toward understanding religious phenomena in an exchange with Noah (he made an analogy with law, and I responded that that proved my point about the pliability of religious ideas).
This morning in Slate I encountered a rather peculiar piece, The Original Jewish Genius: How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement. The reason I found this piece peculiar is that it strikes me as something of a rewriting of the conventional historical narrative for anyone who is not what we today term an Orthodox Jew. The Gaon of Vilna may have been a luminescent mind, but a figure such as Moses Mendelssohn, also an Ashkenazi Jew of approximately the same period, is much more the spiritual ancestor of the typical modern Jewish intellectual, who synthesizes their cultural identity within the broader currents dominant in the gentile milieu.
The Gaon of Vilna was the culmination of over 1,000 years of Rabbinal Judaism, an intellectual tradition which had marginal impact on the gentile world, as Christianity and Islam sealed off the Jews from the outside in the centuries after the Babylonian Talmud came into being. The Lithuanian Mitnagdim who looked to the Gaon ultimately became foes of the Jewish Enlightenment, which witnessed the emergence of identified Jews as prominent figures in Western civilization for the first time in 2,000 years (since Josephus and the Jewish courtiers who were familiars with the Julio-Claudians). In short the Gaon of Vilna is rightly a marginal figure from a gentile perspective, no matter his parochial brilliance.
In a few days South Korea will have a new president, and this is very important because of how large North Korea looms in geopolitics. An interesting aspect of this race for Americans is that the candidate of the conservative party, Park Geun-Hye, may be an atheist, running against a Roman Catholic liberal. I say may be because there are some confusions over Park Geun-Hye’s religious identity. Her parents were Buddhist, she was baptized as a young woman as a Roman Catholic, and seems to have drawn without much discrimination from a variety of religious teachings to inform her world-view. It wouldn’t be shocking if Park Geun-Hye was an atheist. According to the World Values Survey ~25% of South Koreans are convinced atheists.
I was curious if atheists in South Korea leaned to the Left or the Right, and from what I can tell there’s no strong correlation. This may surprise Americans, but the historical experience of the two nations is very different. Until recently South Korea has had weak institutional religions, and a substantial portion of what we might term “progressives” were Christians, in particular Roman Catholics. Below are the results for the USA, Great Britain, Sweden, and South Korea for the World Values Survey using religious identification and political self positioning. Percentages and sample sizes are included.
It’s that time of the year, and I quite like “the Holidays.” I am, of course, looking forward to my daughter’s first Christmas. Though no one in our family believes in the religious justification for the holiday, it is still an important time of the year, for reasons I have outlined before. But for the first time in 16 years I am going to a “Hanukkah party,” and my feelings about this are a little mixed. The reasons is that the more I heave learned about Hanukkah, the more I’ve become irritated by the fact that this minor Jewish holiday just happens to align well chronologically with Christmas. Most people are aware that as a religious matter for Jews Hanukkah bears no equivalence to what Christmas does for some Christians. But most non-Jews, and even many Jews, know little about the festival aside from the miracle of olive oil.
A generous definition of rare I would think is 10% or less (you might argue for a more stringent threshold, but let’s work with 10%). So what are the politics of atheists? I bring this up because someone named Bridget Gaudette is looking for conservative and libertarian atheists to ask them about their views (so naturally I came up), but prefaced her inquiry to me by the assertion that “conservative/Republican” and “Libertarian” individuals in the “Atheist community” are rare. I don’t think this is empirically valid, depending on how you define the atheist community (e.g., atheist activists are probably to the Left of the median atheist). But even among the types who are motivated enough to attend secularist conferences, a substantial minority are non-liberals. I know because many people approached me after I spoke about my conservatism at the Moving Secularism Forward event last spring, and expressed their libertarianism, or specific conservative heterodoxies. Many of the young male atheists who I encountered in particular tended to be libertarians. Genuine self-identified conservatives are moderately rare, to be fair.
Nevertheless, to probe this question let’s look at the GSS. The variable GOD has a category which includes those who frankly state they “don’t believe” in God. These are by any definition atheists. I limited the data set to 1992 and later so as to take into account the reality that American politics have become more polarized over the past generation along religious lines (I would have used 2000, but the sample sizes started to get small for atheists).
Pew has an important new report out, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Here is the bottom line in terms of numbers: over the past generation the proportion of Americans who explicitly reject a religious affiliation has doubled, from ~10 percent, to ~20 percent. In addition, the, the proportion who hold to Christian fundamentalist religious views has also declined. The United States of America is still a very religious nation in the context of the Western world, but 1990-2012 has been as second period of secularization after the “pause” of the 1970s and 1980s (after the initial wave of defections in the 1960s).
A few years ago I pointed out that as among American whites religious affiliation was often the best predictor of voting patterns among Asian Americans. The Republican party is for all practical purposes the white Christian party, but the minority of Asian Americans who are conservative Protestants are quite congenial to the Republicans. Their common religion transcends the racial gap. It is also no surprise that the two most prominent Indian American politicians who are Republicans are both avowed Christians (converts). It is unlikely that a non-Christian Indian could achieve national prominence as Republican; they would have two strikes against them, their race and their religion.
Pew’s new report on Asian American religiosity, Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths, highlights this well. American Hindus are stridently partisan Democrats. In contrast, evangelical Asian Americans leaned toward John McCain even in 2008 (though not as much as white evangelicals). People have made comparisons between Indian Americans and Jews before, and in some ways this is facile, but when it comes to socioeconomic status and politics the similarities are striking. Like Jews, American Hindus are well off and well educated. And like Jews they are strongly Democratic. 48 percent of Hindus live in families with incomes of $100,000 or above, and 57 percent have some graduate education. The respective value for all Americans are 16 and 12 percent. This seems to confirm Andrew Gelman’s supposition that it is among high income groups that cultural identity markers are particular relevant.
After the power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt made itself felt, and current domination of Iraq by Shia political parties, and the likely strength of Islamists in Libya, the media finally has become more cautious about pushing any narrative which makes them look as prescient as Paul Wolfowitz about the nature of the Arab body politic. So, for example, this article surveying the Islamist strands within the anti-Assad coalition in Syria. The problem for the Islamists is that Syria is “only” on the order of 75 percent Sunni, and they do not want to project the image of chauvinist exclusivity which has come to the fore in Egypt, lest the religious minorities dig in in their strongholds (e.g., along the coast). But I think it needs to be pointed out here that in Iraq the Shia Arabs are only somewhat more than 60 percent of the population. In other words, there is no question that a democratic order will result in the regression of minority rights in Syria if the Islamic Brotherhood wishes this to the the nature of things.
One of the non-science aspects of this weblog which I’ve been addressing over the past 10 years is attempting to get a grip upon cultural variation. There are two major dimensions in terms of the problem. One is positive, in that people don’t really have a good sense of cultural variation. This is simply a function of stupidity, or ignorance. In the latter case the primary problem is that the media and public intellectuals aren’t very good at concisely transmitting information (I don’t expect normally curious people to pick up ethnographic or historical monographs). For example, “elite” publications like Slate routinely flub facts which could be confirmed via The World Book Encyclopedia, such as whether Iran is an Arab country. Sometimes the confusions are more obscure, but nonetheless misleading. In 2004 I slammed an Iranian American writing for Slate (this publication deserves to be picked on because of its quasi-New Yorker superiority; it’s a “smart” webzine which doesn’t live up to its own billing too often in substance if not style) for asserting that Iran’s Islamic history has been predominantly a Shia one. Going back to that 2004 post, I realized now that it was written by Reza Aslan:
…On the contrary, Iran has been a continuous entity for nearly 2,500 years. Half of that time has been as an empire founded upon the ancient Zoroastrian ideal of the “just ruler”—the divinely sanctioned shah, or king, whose omnipotent rule reflects the authority of the gods. The other half has been as an Islamic, and distinctly Shiite, community anchored in the principle of the “righteous martyr,” who willingly sacrifices himself in the fight against oppression and tyranny….
I’m going to be speaking at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando next week. They invited me because I’m a conservative atheist public intellectual, and the three other conservative atheist public intellectuals in the United States were presumably busy. In any case, going over what I’m going to talk about I was double-checking political breakdowns by atheist & agnostic proportions and ideology in the General Social Survey for after the year 2000.
I used the “GOD” variable, which asks people about their belief in God. Those who did not believe, or said there was no way to find out, I classed as “atheists & agnostics.” This means that the total percentages in the population are higher than self-reports; that’s because the word atheism in particular has a negative connotation (I recall that Julia Sweeney’s parents were tolerant of the fact that she did not believe in God, but were aghast that she was an atheist!). “POLVIEWS” what the variable which I crossed “GOD” with. It has seven responses, from very liberal to very conservative, and I just put all liberals and conservatives into one category.
The first table displays what proportion in the whole society atheist & agnostic liberals (or conservatives) are. Since the total proportion of atheists & agnostics is small, naturally these percentages are small. The two subsequent tables just display what percentage of atheists & agnostics are liberal, or what percentage of liberals are atheist & agnostic.
Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, White Working-Class ‘Seculars’:
What’s interesting to think about is that these working-class non-churchgoers are probably not secular in the same way white intellectual elites are secular. I bet if you polled them, 999 out of 1,000 would say they believed in God and considered themselves to be Christians. It’s just that they don’t go to church. Where I live, during deer hunting season, to be a white male is to be seasonally “secular” in this way.
One way to answer this question is look at the GSS. I used the ATTEND (attend church that is) variable to ascertain secularity. Those who never attended church or did so less than once a year (in other words, some years they did attend, in other years they did not), are “secular.” Those who attend nearly weekly, or more, are “religious.” To assess class I simply divided the non-Hispanic white population into those who had a college degree or higher (middle class), and those who did not (working class).
Below are some responses to a selection of questions.
I have seen references to this around the web, and don’t really know if I can believe this, because the details are so disturbing to consider. So I’ll pass it on, You can expect threats if you discuss Sharia:
It was cancelled by the Queen Mary Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society organisers after police had to be called in due to Islamist threats. One Islamist filmed everyone at the meeting and announced he would hunt down those who said anything negative about Islam’s prophet. Outside the hall, he threatened to kill anyone who defamed the prophet. Reference was made to the Jesus and Mo cartoon saga at UCL.
The University’s security guard – a real gem –arrived first only to blame the speaker and organisers rather than those issuing death threats. He said: ‘If you will have these discussions, what do you expect?’ Err, to speak without being threatened with death maybe?
A crazy British Muslim threatening to kill someone for defaming the prophet isn’t too surprising. ~3 percent of British Muslim university students think apostates should be killed. What is disturbing is that the establishment institutions are accepting this sort of disproportionate response as normal behavior. As in centuries past it is now the atheists who are by their nature offensive, and disturbing public order.
In the Netherlands the Dutch Muslim Party is going to contest for parliament. It already has some purchase in major cities with large Muslim minorities. Naturally one of its planks is to prosecute those who give offense to religion and religious people. Just jump to article 2.2. Welcome to multiculturalism!
In other news, an atheist has been charged with blasphemy in the world’s largest Muslim nation, where Islam is a moderate religion of peace. Dismay After Indonesian Atheist Charged With Blasphemy:
It is well known that President Obama has a religion issue. The big looming one has to do with whether he is Muslim or not. My own position that he’s as Muslim as I am. With that out of the way, is Barack H. Obama a Christian? To borrow a turn of phrase from Hillary Clinton, I accept him at his word that he is a Christian. But not everyone does. Some people, such as my friend Eliezer Yudkowsky, Steve Sailer, and Ann Althouse, believe that he is not particularly religious, and his avowal of Christian faith and identification is a matter of political necessity.
Obama has said some things which have raised eyebrows. For example, that evolution is more grounded in his experience than angels. Or his lack of certainty about the afterlife. Finally, there is Obama’s tendency toward universalism, which is a major bone of contention in many quarters.
For some reason The New York Times has given the execrable Lee Siegel space to write on its website. Ruminating on Mitt Romney’s candidacy Siegel puts up a post with the title What’s Race Got to Do With It?, and states:
In this way, Mr. Romney’s Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.
There is something to this. The ancient leadership of the present day Mormon church grew up in a very different America, and they sometimes reflect that America in their pronouncements. For example, despite the fact that plenty of Mormons are in interracial marriages (I know this from my Facebook friends), there is still some literature floating around in the Mormon church discouraging the practice. Now, granted most Americans’ revealed preferences indicate that they aren’t too into interracial marriage personally, but the social norm is strongly against expressing disapproval in the abstract against the practice.
All that being said, one needs to be careful about overemphasizing the whiteness of Mormons. First, remember that most Mormon males are missionaries abroad at some point in their life, so it isn’t as if they are unfamiliar with societies where non-whites are the majority. And, it is probable that around half of Mormons in the world today are not white (the claims vary on this issue). But it is also notable that Mormons in the USA today are far less white than they were just a generation ago. To illustrate this point I’ve replicated some religious data from the Pew survey. I’ve highlighted in blue some historical mainline/liberal Protestant denominations, and in red some of their evangelical/conservative counterparts.
The above results are from an Ipsos MORI from last summer. Please note, the opinions above are restricted only to those who asserted a religious affiliation. Obviously in Saudi Arabia this is irrelevant, as nearly the whole population has a religious affiliation. But it is important in Japan, because there nearly 2 out of 3 individuals in the survey reported no religion, so these are results from the minority who reported having an affiliation (mostly Buddhist). As they say, read the whole thing. Here are some conclusions I drew from these data:
Anthony Shadid has a poignant piece up, … But There’s a Slim Hope in History, on the specter of extinction facing Arab Christianity in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is an issue which I think most of my Left-liberal friends simply seem unable to confront forthrightly: ethnic and religious cleansing are often the consequences of populist national self-determination. This isn’t a speculative proposition, the history of Europe is a testament to this, as well as what occurred in newly independent European colonies (e.g., the fate of Indians in Burma and Chinese in Vietnam). This reality is often emphasized by a sort which is very rare in the United States: cosmopolitan imperialists. To these partisans of the old regimes the Austro-Hungarian Empire is often held up as an ideal. This ‘prison house of nations’ was notoriously fractious and muddled, held together only by the history of the House of Habsburg. To illustrate this in a manner accessible to modern Westerners, Jews were often arch-imperialists because they saw themselves as likely receiving a better deal in a situation of imperial ethno-linguistic pluralism than in the possible nation-states where they would be a prominent minority overshadowed by the majority (I think the subsequent history of Jews in the inter-war states does confirm this fear as being grounded in reality). Additionally, in the mid-19th century it was reported that some military units resorted to English as their lingua franca! (the language being popularized by migrants who had returned from the United States).
This section of the Shadid piece emphasizes the broader concerns in the Arab world today:
In a rambling column at Slate on (ir)religious intermarriage Jesse Berring observes:
Still, I concede that the irreducible alchemy of romance makes my cold logic rather difficult to apply to individual marriages. There are more things to a person—and to a relationship, one hopes—than religious beliefs. But since atheistic bachelors and bachelorettes are very rare specimens (there are no exact statistics available, but just 1.6 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as “atheist”), deciding just how important it is to find a godless mate is indeed a real issue.
There are two small issues, and a big one. First, the 1.6 percent figure is a low one because the term “atheist” is somewhat taboo. Atheist as defined by those who don’t believe in God (as opposed to those who admit to being atheists) is closer to 5%. Second, the main issue with “atheist dating” is the sex ratio problem, though that’s more modest in younger age cohorts today than older ones.
But the broader point is that it’s totally ridiculous to assume that mating is random within the population. Jews are ~3% of the American population, but Jewish-Jewish pairings are not 0.03 × 0.03. I’m sure Bering saw that “religious nones” (of which 1/3 are de facto atheists) have a 50% probability of being with someone of the same lack of beliefs, despite being 15% of the population.
Overall I think it’s right that people should align reasonably well on big metaphysical questions for increased probability of amity. If possible. I don’t think metaphysics (or lack thereof) really matters much day to day, but it does start to matter when there’s a discordance. I just don’t get why Bering ends up writing stuff that’s plainly meant to provoke when there are serious and interesting questions which he is really addressing.
A few weeks ago over at Slate Dave Weigel stated that “Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” I tweeted to Weigel that this was just plain wrong. There have been plenty of presidents who rejected orthodox Christianity, the last one being William Howard Taft, a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. And now Jeffrey Goldberg is saying the same thing in Bloomberg View:
But theological honesty demands that we recognize that. Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.
There is much in Mormonism that stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, including the belief that the Book of Mormon completes the Christian Bible. Christianity had an established creed about 1,500 years before Joseph Smith appeared in upstate New York with a new truth, codified in the Book of Mormon, which he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni.
“The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”
There’s a rather vanilla piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer which reviews the ideas of how humans became human. I say vanilla because the headline is somewhat more sensational than the text itself, which seems sober and accurate. But this paragraph jumped out at me:
A main source of the idea that we humans are above the rest of the living world is religion. Even religions that accept evolution espouse a kind of human exceptionalism.
It is obviously true that human religions tend to place a special importance on humans. And it is accurate as well to observe that consistent messages of human uniqueness are most prominently espoused by particular religions. Even those religions such as Neo-paganism and Hinduism which adhere to a monism which collapses the distinction between human and non-human operationally do seem to privilege the human perspective.
But I think for the purposes of analysis we need to step away from the idea that religion is the “source” of any one particular thing. Like morality it’s pretty obvious that human exceptionalism in religion is an extension of our natural intuitions, which derive from the fact that natural selection tends to shape lineages to at least a minimum level of self-absorption. I think this issue needs to be generally kept in mind when we praise religion (e.g., “there would be no charity without religion”) or condemn it (e.g., “there would be no war without religion”). Rather than an ultimate wellspring of human behavior religion is more accurately conceptualized as an intermediating phenomenon. It takes the elements of humanity and recombines them into more complex cultural units. It does does not provide the inputs, it is a function which operates upon the inputs.
Update: An ungated version of the paper.
I used to spend a lot more time talking about cognitive science of religion on this weblog. It was an interest of mine, but I’ve come to a general resolution of what I think on this topic, and so I don’t spend much time discussing it. But in the comments below there was a lot of fast & furious accusation, often out of ignorance. I personally find that a little strange. I’ve been involved in freethought organizations in the past, and so have some acquaintance with “professional atheists.” Additionally, I’ve also been a participant and observer of the internet freethought websites since the mid-1990s (yes, I remember when alt.atheism was relevant!). In other words, I know of whom I speak (and I am not completely unsympathetic to their role in the broader ecology of ideas).
But the bigger issue is a cognitive model of how religiosity emerges. Luckily for me a paper came out which speaks to many of the points which I alluded to, Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God: