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).
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.
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.
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:
Josh Rosenau has a post up discussing the impact of “New Atheism” on public perceptions of atheists. He mentions offhand that “New Atheism” as a movement really only crystallized in the mid-2000s, which made me wonder: what does Google Trends tell us about interest in atheism?
Unfortunately there wasn’t any information on “New Atheism.” The search query didn’t have enough volume, alas. But “atheist” did. So I compared “atheist,” “Christian,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” and “Muslim.” I limited the data set to the United States.
You can’t really tell what’s going because the volume for “Christian” is very high. So let’s remove that.
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.
Recently a “hot story” in the barbaric nation that is Pakistan is that a politician did not know how to recite a prayer properly. An important back story here is that Muslims generally pray in Arabic, but most Muslims are not Arabic language speakers (and in any case, colloquial Arabic is very different from “Classical Arabic” which is derived from the language of the Koran). So deviation from appropriate pronunciation is a major problem for Muslims as a practical matter. And, since the words one recites in ritual prayer are derived from the Koran they are the literal Word of God as transmitted to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Proper delivery is of the essence (and for your information, I can still bust out sura Fatiha, thank you very much).
But the major point illustrated by the incident is the importance of public piety in Pakistan. The father of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was so Westernized that he had to have mullahs prep him on how to recite lines of the Koran during speeches. He was himself from a heretical Muslim sect (heretical in the eyes of the Sunni majority at least), the Ismailis, and married a woman of Zoroastrian background. Like much of the Pakistani elite today and upper class men of the British Empire during that period Jinnah had a soft spot for various liquors. Pakistan has come a long way from those days, re-branding itself as an extremist nation par excellence. The “moderates” may be the majority, but they are not moved to place themselves between the extremists and their victims.
And this brings me to the USA. How is it like Pakistan? We’ve also have come a long way since the Founding in terms of the respectable “orthodoxy” which we demand of our politicians. A new Pew survey on religion in Congress puts this into stark relief:
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.
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Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic? Look at the Data asks Chris Mooney. He’s referring to a new book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. Here’s the Amazon description:
… In Science vs Religion, Elaine Howard Ecklund investigates this unexamined assumption in the first systematic study of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. Ecklund surveyed nearly 1700 scientists, interviewed 275 of them, and centers the book around vivid portraits of 10 representative men and women working in the physical and social sciences at top American research universities. She finds that most of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. Nearly 50 percent of them are religious. Many others are what she calls “spiritual entrepreneurs,” seeking creative ways to work with the tensions between science and faith outside the constraints of traditional religion. Her respondents run the gamut from Margaret, a chemist who teaches a Sunday-school class, to Arik, a physicist who chose not to believe in God well before he decided to become a scientist. Only a small minority are actively hostile to religion….
Some of Chris’ readers are rather agitated about this all, and he suggests that perhaps they should read the book to answer their questions. I haven’t read the book, but you can read much of it on Google Books or Amazon’s text search feature. Skimming a bit I encountered the term “spiritual atheist,” which many might find an oxymoron. Rather than present her interpretation, let me post some of the tables which have data in them.