Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society.
I’ve mentioned before that many (most?) Muslims are Creationists, broadly understood. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey 42 percent of American Muslims accept that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. This is roughly in line with the American public, if a touch on the Creationist side. The numbers are similar in Turkey. Also, it must be mentioned that unlike most I have some experience with educated (and scientifically trained) Muslims, and can attest to the fact that many are Creationists (my family).
So the results of a new survey of the world’s Muslims by Pew took me aback a bit, in that it reports widespread acceptance of evolution among Muslims. To add to the plausibility the results for Turkey are in line with previous findings: a bit more of Turkey’s population are Creationist than not. The results for highly secularized European Muslim populations are plausible, though the gap between Albania and Kosovo is somewhat strange. But look at the results for Bangladesh and Lebanon!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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: