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:
My post below on atheism and autism caused some confusion. I want to quickly clear up some issues in regards to the model which I had in mind implicitly. In short I’m convinced by the work of cognitive scientists of religion (see Religion Explained and In Gods We Trust) that belief in gods and spirits is intuitively plausible to most people. It does not follow from this that when you have an intuitive belief that that belief is unshakable. This explains the variation in levels of atheism across societies as well as shifts of views across one’s lifetime. But, it also explains why in pre-modern societies acceptance of supernatural entities is the null or default position, if not necessarily universal.
But what’s the basis for the idea that belief in gods is intuitive? To reduce a lot of results down to a few sentences, humans live in a universe of other actors, agents, which we preoccupy over greatly. Additionally, we can conceive of agents which aren’t present before us. In other words, the plausibility of supernatural narratives derives from our orientation toward populating the universe with social beings and agency. There’s a lot of evolutionary psychological models for why this phenotype is adaptive, but that’s not relevant to us here. The point is that religious beliefs and systems use these intuitions and impulses as atoms with which they can build up more complex cultural ideas.
Tyler Cowen points me to a PDF, Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism, which has some fascinating results on the religiosity (or lack thereof) of people with high functioning autism. I’ve seen speculation about the peculiar psychological profile of atheists before in the cognitive science literature, and there’s a fair amount of social psychological data on the different personality profile of atheists (e.g., more disagreeable). But there hasn’t been a lot of systematic investigation of the possibility that autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist because they lack a fully fleshed “theory of mind,” which would make supernatural agents, gods, more plausible.
You can read the whole paper yourself, but these two figures are the most important bits:
The media has been reporting a lot about Anders Breivik. I’m curious about the tendency of some to label Breivik a “Christian Extremist”. Additionally, there is widespread repetition of the Norwegian official deeming him a “Christian fundamentalist.” I think this is wrong on the specifics, but it also goes toward the general problem of our age where we attempt to fit everything into black-white religious dichotomies. For example, “moderate Muslims” vs. “Islamists.” “Islamic extremists” vs. “Christian extremists.” Because of the salience of notionally religiously motivated Islamic militant movements there has been a shift toward reinterpreting secular nationalist terrorist movements as religious ones. For example, the attempt to frame the Irish Republican Army as Catholic terrorists, or the Tamil Tigers as Hindu terrorists (in reality, both these are nationalist movements, often with a Leftist slant). Or consider the refashioning of Tim McVeigh into a Christian terrorist when he was a lapsed Catholic at best and probably irreligious by the time of his terrorist act. This religionization of all radical movements means that people have a really hard time today digesting the fact that 19th and early 20th century anarchists who committed what seem to be patently suicidal acts were generally atheists, motivated by politics and not religion! Similarly, the shocking raid on Harpers Ferry was executed by a cast of characters of diverse religious views. John Brown was famously Calvinist, but some of his followers, including one of his sons, were free thinkers who did not adhere to religion.
People who believe in the Bible’s literal truth (BIBLE=1) are much more satisfied with their jobs than people who believe it’s just a book of fables (BIBLE=3)….
Relatively speaking, this is a huge effect. But what’s going on? It’s not just a disguised left-right effect; Biblical literalism crushes self-identified ideology in a multiple regression. And it’s not a disguised social support effect; Biblical literalism crushes church attendance, too. Marxists will no doubt claim vindication for their view that religion is the opium of the people. But you could just as easily conclude that traditional religion successfully teaches gratitude.
In my personal experience with the GSS the BIBLE variable, which asks rather awkwardly one’s stance toward the nature of the Bible, is one of the most powerful predictors of a whole host of social metrics. I suspect that scriptural literalism has very strong personality correlates.
One thing that’s rather amusing also is that Biblical fundamentalists are naturally skeptical of evolution, but they’re rather reproductively fit. Here’s the trend from the GSS:
I’ve had to deal with vulgar* expositions of Pascal’s Wager my whole life from friends and family. The basic logic is “you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!” There are many ways to critique this “argument”, but the bizarre media circus around Harold Camping’s prediction of apocalypse illustrates an extreme case of one the major issues with the wager: people turned their lives upside down based on their sincere belief. If they were right, they would be “Raptured.” If they were wrong, what did they have to lose? Well, it turns out a lot. Their life savings, their jobs, their self-respect. It reminds me of the logics which you encountered after the Branch Dravidians fiasco. Some members of this cult were faced with the choice: follow the Messiah, or follow the false Messiah. They struggled with the possibility that if they turned their back on David Koresh they were turning their back on the Messiah. But of course this really wasn’t a 50/50 proposition. The risks, as we now know, of continuing to follow Davis Koresh were actually rather high. Belief was not without cost.
The New York Times has a weird article up, Is Your Religion Your Financial Destiny?, which digests the Pew Religious Landscape Survey descriptive statistics on the demographics of American religious denominations. It’s kind of a strange piece because the basic correlations have long been known. The traditional rank order in the “Social Register” way of looking at it would have been Episcopalian > Presbyterian > Methodist > Baptist. The article itself is frankly kind of embarrassing in a 10th grade paper sort of way. For example, “That stands in contrast to the long history, made famous by Max Weber, of Protestant nations generally being richer than Catholic nations.” I think this sort of fact should be introduced very carefully to the general audience. One can posit plausible explanations for why staunchly Catholic Bavaria is one of Germany’s most affluent states, or why it is that Protestantism is much more popular among lower class Chileans, and still maintain a Webberian model, but that obviously isn’t possible in a newspaper article. But these realities are often totally surprising to people who aren’t too “information rich,” but who have heard of Webber’s thesis at some point. And let’s not get into the specific point that Webber was focusing on Calvinist Protestants in particular, rather than Protestants more generally! I probably am on the skeptical side of when it comes to evaluating the core thesis of the Protestant ethic, but that’s neither here nor there.
The piece could have addressed some serious possibilities of the correlation between particular denominations and wealth being due to a “virtuous circle” or some sort. For example, Episcopalians and Jews using their religious institutions as important social networks for career advancement and prudent investment tips and advice (don’t tell that to members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue!). In the town where I grew up it was rather clear that particular types of service professionals whose business was built around rapport and trust, such as insurance salesmen, benefited if they were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, which provided a relatively large built-in local client base.
A few interesting demographic breakdowns within a religious group which might invite a lot of explanation occurs with Jews. The following comes from the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001. There are three classes of Jews in this: Jews by religion, Jews with no religion, and Jews with another religion. The majority of the last were Christians.
I’ve mentioned Elaine Ecklund’s research before on ‘spiritual atheists.’ Though I had a hard time understanding the thrust of her conclusions or inferences on occasion I could grapple with her raw quantitative results. But now she has a long paper out in Sociology of Religion, Scientists and Spirituality, which is based on long qualitative interviews. It is open access so you should be able to read the whole thing. Honestly I have a hard time figuring out if this is all a big semantic confusion. I’m curious if you can extract something interesting. Here’s the abstract:
We ask how scientists understand spirituality and its relation to religion and to science. Analyses are based on in-depth interviews with 275 natural and social scientists at 21 top U.S. research universities who were part of the Religion among Academic Scientists survey. We find that this subset of scientists have several distinct conceptual or categorical strategies for framing the connection spirituality has with science. Such distinct framings are instantiated in spiritual beliefs more congruent with science than religion, as manifested in the possibility of “spiritual atheism,” those who see themselves as spiritual yet do not believe in God or a god. Scientists stress a pursuit of truth that is individualized (but not characterized by therapeutic aims) as well as voluntary engagement both inside and outside the university. Results add complexity to existing thinking about spirituality in contemporary American life, indicating that conceptions of spirituality may be bundled with characteristics of particular master identity statuses such as occupational groups. Such understandings also enrich and inform existing theories of religious change, particularly those related to secularization.
A friend mentioned last night that he was watching a bit of A Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ll probably wait until after the DVD version comes out, if I watch it at all. I’m not generally impressed by visual media adaptations of science fiction and fantasy literature, and have even less use for film & TV only science fiction & fantasy. I’m not a snob, I’m just easily bored. In any case, George R. R. Martin has gotten The New Yorker treatment. I had to laugh at this sentence from near the end of the piece: ‘Martin hopes that, after he surmounts the particular thorny problems of “A Dance with Dragons,” the final two books will come much faster.’ Of course he he said this after the last book. To be fair, there wasn’t that much of a gap between book two and book three.
The house lights came up and it was intermission at “The Book of Mormon,” the new Broadway musical about a pair of innocent young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to spread the faith. John Dehlin, a graduate student who flew in from Utah to see the show with a group of Mormons from around the country, was still riveted to his theater seat, having flashbacks.
“It’s way, way too close to home,” he said, recalling his own missionary years in Guatemala: the shock at the poverty and violence, the pressure from the mission president to baptize more natives, the despair when his mission companion ran off with a local girl — and the Mormon mandate, above all, to repress doubt and remain relentlessly cheery.
A friend in the crowded theater aisle, Paul Jones, passed by and gave Mr. Dehlin a high-five and a hug. “It’s right on,” said Dr. Jones, a dentist from Gilbert, Ariz., “but I cringed a little bit, a couple of times.”
The arrival of a Broadway musical that ridicules their religion, produced by the creators of the scathingly satirical television show “South Park,” is proving to be a cringe-worthy moment for many Mormons.
And yet, even though the very name of the show appropriates the title of the church’s sacred scripture, there have been no pickets or boycotts, no outraged news releases by Mormon defenders and no lawsuits.
This is intentional. Mormons want people to know that they can take it.
Not all religious communities react in the same way. In Birmingham, England, 2004, Theatre attacks Sikh play protest:
The other day I was listening to NPR and they were discussing at length the upheavals in the Arab world. Offhand I noted how the discussants would occasionally shift between “the Arab world” and “the Muslim world,” and naturally they all took for granted the central role that Islam would play in the Egyptian polity (and likely the Libyan one). There was nothing shocking about any of this, but imagine you engaged in some substitution. Switching from “Western world” to “Christian world” would sound old-fashioned and anachronistic. The European Union famously omitted mention of Christianity in its constitution several years back, from which erupted a controversy between its more religious and secular member nations (e.g., Poland vs. France). Western societies may still have Christianity as the dominant religion, but in most cultures it does not have the same relationship to the broader culture that it once did.
This is in part due to some radicals on this continent. As outlined in The Godless Constitution the United States of America was founded with a federal government which did not operate under the explicit umbrella of a religious institution. Nor did that federal government engage in any subsidy toward religion. This was a shocking act in its age, as Western civilization had long been predicated on the favor of the gods, and later the Christian God. Not just Western civilization. Even religiously pluralistic and diverse societies, such as that of Imperial Rome or Imperial China, freely mixed the sacred and the secular, under the presumption that the polity would benefit from heavenly favor. This was not exceptional, it was universal. Church and state have been united for all of human history, and only in the past few centuries has the idea of an explicitly secular political system taken hold.
Since 9/11, and even earlier back to the Iranian Revolution, Western journalists have served as oracles for the mass public, decrypting the ethnographic confusions of the Islamic world. There are many subtle shadings which no doubt can’t make into finite copy. But I get really exasperated when extremely basic factual misinformation makes it into the pages of The New York Times. I know, I shouldn’t, but it is the “paper of record.” It is made all the worse when the piece is an analysis which attempts to do more than report the straight facts, but rather place events in a broader context. A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War?:
Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers — lamented his own tribe’s lack of guns for the fight.
Exactly what Sufi Islam is is a matter for doctoral theses. But I can assert with 100% surety that one could agree that in terms of how Sufi Islam is practiced in the real world it does not resemble a “pacifist sect” like the Quakers at all (there are similarities in terms of language used to describe Quaker and Sufi religious experience, but that sort of mysticism is very general, and not specific to just these two traditions). This is blatant misinformation, the kind of stuff you might hear in Sedona, but could be debunked with a very superficial understanding of the history of the Muslim world.
For example, the Safavid dynasty of Persia, which made Shia Islam synonymous with the Iranian nation in the 16th century, began as a militant Sufi order. King Idris of Libya was head of a an Islamic order which has been characterized as Sufi and engaged in violent rebellion against Italian colonialism. And here’s an article which explicitly addresses the question of Sufi Islam’s purported pacifism:
I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.
Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.
But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?
About 20 years ago I lived for a year in a rural area where Amish were a common feature of country roads and farmers’ markets. My parents, being Muslims, would sometimes buy chickens from the local Amish and slaughter them according to halal. We had a relationship with a particular family. They were nice people, though I have to admit that their chickens were a bit tougher than I was used to. In many ways the Amish lived predictably parallel lives from the “English” (we referred to them as “Dutchees”), but they’d always pop up from the background in unexpected ways. Amish don’t seem to have a problem with modern medicine, so we’d run into them at the hospital sometimes. Whenever my father saw an Amish fruit or vegetable stand on a country road he’d pull over, because they’d often let us sample a bit before we purchased (we always purchased watermelons from the Amish for this very reason). It’s been a long time, so I haven’t thought about the Amish in much depth. Living on the West coast you don’t run into their kind very often (I don’t recall ever running into Amish on the West coast in fact). But it turns out that the number of Amish in the United States of America has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Their population went from 123,000 in 1991 to 249,000 in 2010. The fertility of the traditionalist Old Older Amish is 6.2. Here’s the Old Older Amish fertility rates in an international perspective:
The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us has been getting a lot of press, as it should. It’s pretty rich in data, and finally puts a spotlight on one of the most underreported trends between 1990-2010, the massive surge in irreligion. Because of the power of the Religious Right many Americans perceive that this is a nation in religious revival. And it is. But only among a subset of the population. A more numerous segment has been disaffiliating, silently, but consistently. The data’s been around for ten years now, though pop culture hasn’t caught up. Probably the biggest surprise in American Grace are results which imply that people tend align their religious views with their politics, not the other way around. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is, and that’s because many people hold that the best predictor of religious views are conscious and reflective. The reality is that implicit social cues and pressures are probably more important. You align yourself with your milieu, as much as you select your milieu to align with your own views and attitudes.
If you aren’t inclined to read the book, Pew released many of the top line findings online over the weekend. Some of the graphics are pretty cool. Here are religious trends over the last generation:
In response to my two posts below on atheism statistics, people in the comments and around the web (e.g., Facebook) have pointed out that Buddhism is necessarily/can be atheistic, and that Buddhism, is not/not necessarily a religion, and therefore that explains the statistics. Some of these people are lazy/stupid judging by the way the argument is delivered, but they are clearly grounded in a reality which is expressed in books and documentaries which introduce people to Buddhism. There is a small issue which confounds this analysis of the atheism statistics: most East Asians do not identify as Buddhist. This is mostly because most citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not identify with Buddhism. That being said, Buddhism is clearly the dominant organized religion historically in many East Asian nations (though that has not been true in South Korea for the past generation). I reject the equivalence between the role of Catholicism in much of Europe and that of Buddhism in East Asia (the Church was a much more powerful, prestigious, and influential institution than the Buddhist sangha with only a few exceptional periods), but it can be argued that these are Buddhist cultures, just as they are Confucian societies.
But there’s a bigger issue with this objection: most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists. This is also the case for American Buddhists. Some people have objected that theism in a Buddhist context is not equivalent to theism in a Hindu, and especially Abrahamic sense. There is no creator god obviously. That is fine, but I think it is important to point out that no matter the theological details of their beliefs, most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people of Chinese origin who tell me that they’re Buddhist, they believe in god, when I tell them I’m an atheist (usually in response to the question about whether I am Muslim).
The previous question as to whether someone was a “Religious person,” “Not a religious person,” or a “Convinced atheist,” can be broken down by religion. I did so. Below are the data for Buddhists alone. I also provided the sample size for Buddhists. The overall N’s were on the order of 1,000-2,000. So you can see that only a small minority (5% actually) of Chinese in the People’s Republic identify as Buddhists. The other values are obviously percentages.
Whenever I blog religion and atheism I brace for a bunch of uninformed comments. Everyone has an opinion, but few seem genuinely interested in digging for data, or reading about the history of religion, and the empirical realities of the phenomenon. If you are an exception to this trend, you’re awesome, and more power to you. Seeing the responses around the blogosphere to some of my posts it is immediately obvious that people don’t make recourse to the GSS, WVS, or The Religious Landscape Survey, let alone read books like In Gods We Trust or The Reformation. I could go on, but there are so many data sources, and proportionally so little interest in relation to the broader enthusiasm for opining on the topic.
As an aside, in my previous post I alluded to the fact that atheism is not a white thing. I didn’t lay it out explicitly, but far too much of commentary on power dynamics and human affairs is locked into the age of white supremacy. There are Chinese mining towns all over Africa, and we’re still fixated on the legacies of the mustachioed men of yore. Some new thought is needful.
In any case, whenever I post on atheism or religion the data comes calling to me, and begs me to revisit it. Questions, questions. I’m always curious if I can find something new, a twist, a novel inference. So I decided to look for patterns in the WVS wave 5 in regards to the well known phenomenon of male excess in the area of atheism. The data are country-by-country. Below are some plots. The asked was if one was a religious person, and I’m looking at those who asserted they were “convinced atheists.”
Over at Comment is Free Belief (where I am an occasional contributor) there is an interesting post up, The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists. Actually, I disagree with the thrust of the post pretty strongly. But here’s the important section:
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, James Randi … if you’re a regular Cif belief reader, you’ll already have spotted the pattern – these are the names of arguably the most prominent, outspoken atheists and “sceptics” in the world. There’s something else you should notice – they are all white men. The atheist and sceptic movements are dominated by white men and I think this is a problem.
I was involved in an atheist organization in my younger years. The president was a Eurasian woman, and I was the vice president. The treasurer had a Muslim Arab father, so I suppose we didn’t fit this profile. But I think the generalization holds. But I don’t think it’s a problem really for the Richard Dawkins of the world. In fact, there isn’t even that big of a deficit when it comes to non-whites if you look at it from a world wide perspective. The World Values Survey asks people if they fall into the categories “Religious Person”, “Not a Religious Person”, or “Convinced Atheist.” Below are some bar plots from the 5th and 4th waves, take in the mid-2000s and around 2000 respectively.
no images were found
Clark of Mormon Metaphysics says below:
My impression is that atheists, Mormons and Jews did best simply because all three groups tend to be well educated. (Someone mentioned stats adjusted for education but I couldn’t see where that was noted although maybe I just missed the obvious)
This is not an unfounded assertion, as it is “common knowledge” in the Zeitgeist that Mormons are high achievers. Ergo, posts such as The Latter Day Ruling Class. There’s one problem here: it’s not really true in a full-throated sense. The sample size for Mormons in the GSS is very small, so that’s not what we need to look at. First, American Religious Identification Survey 2008:
As you can see Mormons have about the average proportion of college graduates for an American ethno-religious group. We can drill-down further with the Religious Landscape Survey. First, comparisons of various religious groups by educational attainment class as proportions:
By now you probably know that:
Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.