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8/12/08

Oops...An Upside-Down Analysis

A commenter from my first post mentioned an article from “Edge”, discussing the arguably growing world population of “disbelievers” (link here). The commenter was disputing my contentions that atheism, lived as fully as possible, has disastrous effects, rather than positive ones, and that consistent atheism is not compatible with human experience. The converse was a subtle contention of the linked article’s authors, but the more noteworthy point they made was accidental. In the midst of all the pseudo-intellectual psychobabble, Paul and Zuckerman manage to demonstrate just how unnatural irreligion – atheism in particular – really is to the human experience.+/-



The article doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that “hard” atheism is detrimental to society. That’s not their intent, though they repeatedly imply that progress and security are owed to secularization - a suggestion which is historically backwards. What the article does attempt to do is to show how freer, more prosperous societies tend to have lower rates of belief than less secure societies. The gradual spread of prosperity is followed by a general decline in religiosity.

Depending on your own views, this may or not may be controversial, but it’s an idea that Christianity, at least, has been well aware of for millennia. Jesus’ challenge to the rich young man, and His subsequent lament over the problem of wealth (Mark 10:21-23), demonstrates this idea clearly. Those with full stomachs and fat wallets tend (though not unavoidably) to falter into materialism of one stripe or another.

The article’s authors seem to miss the implications of their own data, though. The facts of history force a chronology into their assertion: a decline in religiosity follows an establishment of prosperity and security. They couldn’t rightly say that the decline comes first, since it doesn’t. This doesn’t say much about the societal value of overt irreligion. The article actually notes, quite blatantly, that non-belief struggles without a heavily supportive, pre-existing social structure:

“…secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous…”

Note, please, that in the course of this article the authors surreptitiously define “democratic, educated, and prosperous” nations, ad hoc, as those with near total social welfare systems and a strong endorsement of evolution. The sophomoric equating of “belief in evolution” with “disbelief in religion”, as though the two were mutually exclusive strains of thought, is indicative of a shallow grasp of the topic at hand. The rest of the analysis does not disappoint.

Question: if secularism in general, and atheism in particular, have something positive to offer humanity, if they have something resonant to add to the human condition, why then do they thrive only in times of ease, and wither in times of hardship? The authors continually note that only nations with expansive social welfare have pronounced levels of non-belief, and then make hysterically dense statements such as:
“So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition.”

So, either we are to believe that the “default” condition of humanity is extensive state-run safety nets, or that Paul and Zuckerman need to pay more attention to their own line of thinking. Intentionally or not, they went to great lengths arguing that societies with more social “safety nets” are less spiritual, then suggest that this is a condition inherent to humanity.

Ironically, one of the major counter-points is the United States, still the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth, as well as one of the most religious. Of course, this fact doesn’t fit with the authors’ preconception that truly modern, educated people don’t believe in God. So, they do some silly rhetorical gymnastics to paint the US as an insecure, not-quite-so-free, not-quite-so-prosperous place. One of their complaints, apparently is that the barbaric Americans allow people to lose their jobs. All this really does, though, is highlight this notable flaw with secularism: it only survives where people feel their every need will ultimately be met by the state. Paul and Zuckerman seem to be saying, inadvertently, that a nation featuring anything less than total guarantees of material security won’t be particularly irreligious.

Atheism should feel a particular sting from this article’s analysis. The authors make a lot of mention of “irreligion”, or “nonreligion”, and relatively little of atheism proper. They note that atheists’ numbers are expanding, but their proportions are actually decreasing. Even in the most heralded “secular” European nations, sizable majorities still believe in some level of spirituality or religion. This should also be considered in light of the other means by which atheism spreads: naked force. Much of Europe is less than a generation removed from government-enforced irreligion, a phenomenon that requires time to heal.

The danger with this aspect of the relationship between social structures and irreligion is exactly in line with my contention about the dangers of atheism. Irreligion is only going to be common in places where the state exerts greater control over the lives of the citizens, one way or the other. Either the state provides for practically all material needs, so people follow the common inclination to brush aside a God they feel no need for; or, the state throttles religion out of the people with the heel of its boot.

As I’ve often noted, people tend to act out the fullness of their beliefs when faced with extreme hardship, and extreme authority. In either of the above cases, once God is truly rejected by moving from irreligion to actual atheism, the state moves from the ultimate civil authority to the ultimate authority, period. If that coincides with some real or imagined crisis…enter Stalin, Mao, and on and on and on.

So, if you haven’t already, read the complete article to get a useful, if accidental, perspective on just how disconnected atheism (and irreligion in general) actually are from natural human experience. If irreligion can’t survive without social security, and faith can exist both in prosperity and hardship, perhaps it’s not religion, but secularism, which is really on “life support”.

[also posted at Gladio Mentis]

23 comments:

  1. I keep on coming back here. It is so bad it is good... plus, I like to hear my voice and purge the unholy atrocity and insanity that is my country and its future from my mind.

    Lets see your arguement- atheism only occurs when people are successful.

    I'll hit this point and ignore the others for now.

    Yes, it is true. However, the reason atheism occurs is NOT the prosperity- the Roman empire was prosperous, and not atheist. The Athenian empire was prosperous, and not atheist.

    So what causes it? Free inquiry, free expression and other basic rights. When people can look into things and voice unpopular opinions, science blooms. And atheism follows.

    It is worth nothing that "can't survive naturally" isn't an arguement against it- natural things have no more inherent worth than anything else.

    As for the US being the exception... we torture people, we hold people indefinately AFTER they have served their time, we rig elections, we leave people in the swamps to die, we have 1% of the population in prison, we have a disproportionate number of police abuse of power instances, we have an incredibly stupid population (where is the US? 10% DON'T know!)...

    Let me be blunt- parts of the US are comparable to third world nations. We have organizations that were created to provide aid to Africa providing health care in the US!

    Not surprisingly, being in a shithole makes a lot of people religious. Or it makes the atheists shut up or deal with beatings. Hard to tell.

    As for "social welfare" meaning guranteed jobs, I believe that is just France. Social welfare generally refers to insuring citizens get medical care, food, disaster relief- you know, things so they don't DIE.

    And your final paragraph is just stupid. Lets see some other things that can only survive in prosperity: widespread literacy, republics, freedom of the press, assembly, speech and thought, etc.

    In fact, most of our rights CAN'T survive without widespread prosperity. Sure you can gather people together, but if the local landowner doesn't like it he will send his bully boys to break it up. See most third world countries for and example.

    You know how I know this is a stupid argument? Because you could use racism instead of religion and it would work EQUALLY WELL!

    "So, if you haven’t already, read the complete article to get a useful, if accidental, perspective on just how disconnected tolerance(and egalitarianismin general) actually are from natural human experience. If egalitarianism can’t survive without social security, and racism can exist both in prosperity and hardship, perhaps it’s not racism, but tolerance, which is really on “life support”."

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  2. Samuel Skinner said,

    ""So, if you haven’t already, read the complete article to get a useful, if accidental, perspective on just how disconnected tolerance(and egalitarianismin general) actually are from natural human experience. If egalitarianism can’t survive without social security, and racism can exist both in prosperity and hardship, perhaps it’s not racism, but tolerance, which is really on “life support”."


    If by egalitarianism you mean equal under the law, then you are incorrect. The US did not guarantee social security at the time that it pronounced each addition to the rolls of equality.

    If by tolerance you mean racial tolerance, or tribal tolerance, then you are wrong because such intolerance occurs regardless of social security or insecurity.

    If by tolerance you mean tolerating every possible activity in which a human can indulge, that tends to occur when prosperity seems guaranteed and God becomes remote.

    " As for the US being the exception... we torture people, we hold people indefinately AFTER they have served their time, we rig elections, we leave people in the swamps to die, we have 1% of the population in prison, we have a disproportionate number of police abuse of power instances, we have an incredibly stupid population (where is the US? 10% DON'T know!)...


    You have allowed your anger to boil over. The "population" is not "stupid" as you arrogate, it is increasingly ill-educated and taught to believe in personal self-esteem regardless of accomplishment - in the secular goevernment schools, under the (Atheist) John Dewey philosophy of creating a society of narrowly trained worker drones, happy with themselves and full of beer and burgers.

    As for all the other ills of society that you paint as the true status of the US, you have gone to the extremes expected of one who hates the US, and the attributes of a free nation. There is no good in the US in such jaundiced eyes.

    "unholy atrocity and insanity that is my country"

    You seem to resent and be angered that a free society does not float in a straight path, one that produces the perfect happiness in all individuals that is the stated objective of the humanists.

    Which country would you prefer? Russia is still mostly godless, as is China, Viet Nam, Cambodia etc. What do these offer that is better? each of these godless wonders engaged in genocide in order to establish their godless totalitarian closed societies.

    The on-going secularization of the US government will undoubtedly produce the increased socialization the you want, including the absolute right to kill an fetus from conception to after birth; the valuation of humans according to their worth to the whole of society; hate crimes to push absolute values into basements; relative values to allow the silencing of opposition, and all the other wonders of the secular social experiments of the 20th century.

    Be patient, perhaps things will get better for you and the humanist party apparatchiks.

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  3. Ahh, Samuel. I see you took your daily dose of hyperbole pills today. If you really think that the US is a nation of “unholy” atrocity and insanity, I suggest you start studying history. Or look at the news in other countries. I have no patience or respect for those who take that over-the-top attitude towards things they don’t like about the US. It insults those who have really, truly suffered in this world. You should be thankful that you haven’t had to learn first-hand what real governmental atrocity is like.

    I’m glad that you agree that, as the article showed, atheism is only viable in a stable, prosperous society. This is problem for atheism because it’s a metaphysical position, not a social structure in and of itself. It’s a simple matter of logic that literacy, social freedoms, and so forth are only possible in stable (though not necessarily prosperous) societies. These are not “truth” statements, though, they are structures which require some society to exist in the first place.

    Atheism is a statement about fundamental truths. You have to have a stable society to support literacy and social welfare. You don’t have to have a stable society to have a belief about the nature of the universe. This means that there is no good reason why atheism, if it’s generally beneficial (personally or corporately), shouldn’t be able to hold its own under all economic and social circumstances.

    Apparently, it can’t. If the only times that people are willing to voluntarily believe in atheism are when they’re fat and happy, that’s not a ringing endorsement of atheism’s inherent harmony with the human condition. That is, if people only voluntarily tend towards atheism when non-belief is easy, it follows that atheism fails to meet some basic human needs.

    Likewise, the question is not whether or not “natural” things are good. Racism is quite natural, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. The article’s authors attempted to imply that religiosity was not natural, using some terribly flawed argumentation, which I refuted.

    So, all of your confidence that this is a “stupid” argument is based on an amazingly obtuse misunderstanding of the point. There is an enormous (and obvious) difference between the presence of social structures and the presence (or lack) of metaphysical beliefs. The social structures require stabilized society by definition. Metaphysics does not. If atheism makes legitimate sense of human experience, and has real truth value, it should be able to compete in places of hardship and instability. It can’t, and doesn’t, so it hasn’t.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. "Not surprisingly, being in a shithole makes a lot of people religious."

    It can also make people turn to substance abuse. In fact, illegal drug use and alcoholism also thrive in prosperity and hardship! Is that an argument that staying sober "can't survive naturally"?


    "The Roman empire was prosperous, and not atheist. The Athenian empire was prosperous, and not atheist."

    This points to an even deeper problem with the argument. Not only were those societies not atheist, but also not Christian. The author is saying that ANY religion may thrive in a society. Therefore, the argument can't be used to validate any particular religion, since any number of contradictory religions have thrived within the various world societies throughout history. The author also ignores the fact that these societies often enforced religious belief, and many used conversion by the sword. People within such cultures had no choice to be atheist, at least not openly.

    It doesn't matter how prosperous a religion may be within any society, it doesn't make that religion true, nor does it make atheism untrue.

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  6. MedicineMan:

    I was going to post a comment but I don't think that I could get any better than yours....

    Excellent Post

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  7. No, by egalitarianism I mean treating people without regard to their skin color, ethncity or sex. If I meant equality under the law I would have said equal rights.

    You are aware that each of the advances in rights occured during economic expansion and faltered under economic decline? The blacks had a huge increase of rights... which were halted due to recession and then thrown back. The other 60s was the same, except without throw back.

    As it is you seem to be forgeting your own argument.

    "If by tolerance you mean racial tolerance, or tribal tolerance, then you are wrong because such intolerance occurs regardless of social security or insecurity."

    rebuttal vs orginal

    "If irreligion can’t survive without social security, and faith can exist both in prosperity and hardship, perhaps it’s not religion, but secularism, which is really on “life support”."

    You don't get the comparison- I am comparing acceptance of people with physical differances to atheism's position. They BOTH require prosperity. If you look at history antisemitism, racism, and other anti-other feelings burst foward in times of crisis, immigration or down turn in the economy. Look at antisemitism in Europe in the 1890s- it is the perfect example. Tolerance and acceptance almost always requires prosperity- it is a reason cosmopolitan people are tolerant- they are rich urban dwellers!

    "If by tolerance you mean tolerating every possible activity in which a human can indulge, that tends to occur when prosperity seems guaranteed and God becomes remote."

    You are mindlessly strawmanning. I hate tolerance. Tolerance means to put up with something that is unpleasent. I want people to ACCEPT that not everyone can look exactly like them, that not everyone has their same likes and dislikes and not everyone has the same hopes and dreams.

    As always, there are those whose dreams should NOT come true. I do NOT tolerate them- for evil is never to be tolerated.

    What you speak of is known as decadence- when people forget what the limits are and old taboos die. There are limits- your pleasure is not more important than anyone elses. You are a special and unique- just like everyone else on the planet. Deal with it.

    The population of the US is rather stupid. 30% of the US STILL backs Bush, 10% can't find the country on the map, a good portion embrace creationism, demagoges spout lies and are listened to, rather than being laughed of the stage!

    I admit that this is heavily due to the media, schooling, churches and other factors, but those are excuses- it doesn't change the fact that alot of people here are stupid.

    And, yes, I am aware the US can and has done good. We just have the complete inability to EVER back the right horse and we are hypocriticaal (which is a trait all nations engage in- not a big deal).

    However, the actions of the government and the population are not the same. The government can be decet and the people idiots and vice versa. We happen to have a stupid populance and a government that treats the constitution like toilet paper.

    I've actually talked to a person who is planning on fleeing the country to go to Russia. You see, they happen to belong to the class of people that kind, Godly people would beat to death.

    It is the Dutchess of Zion from Stardestroyer.net if you are curious.

    I however find such a statement stupid. "There are worse countries than the US". Well, there are worse countries than Burkina Faso- but I don't want to live there.

    There are also BETTER countries than the US.

    Dubai is richer, Canada is safer, Denmark is happier, the Netherlands are more sane and Sweden is the most atheistic state on Earth- 85% don't believe in God!

    More to the point, the US government is doing things it has promised not to, violating its own established law and procedures! This is a feature of the very totalitarian and athoritarian countries you displayed.

    I don't like authoritarian countries more- I hate that the US is becoming more and more like them!

    Thank you Medicine Man. Because, you know, it is okay for the goverment to torture some of its people some of the time- it is only bad when they become the worse country on Earth.

    I guess China is off the hook than? Sure, they are bad, but they haven't exterminated rebelious provinces recently now have they?

    Seriously, the whole "well compared to others the US isn't so bad..." is just stupid. Come one- you guys are theists and probably Christians! What happened to absolute morality?

    I know the worst nation on Earth is Uzbecistan (A staunch US ally in the war on terror- realipol is fine with me though). I also know that the government is supposed to actually keep its own word to its citizens. The government is the people's servant in a republic- NOT the other way around. I don't expect it to hand out free rides- I expect it not to abuse police power, torture people, bail out the rich and screw over the poor and start wars for its rulers egos.

    Appearently I should simply be happy that the government ISN'T beating me down in the streets as MM argues. Of course, the government actually said it would adhere to a higher bar, but blatantly lying to its population is okay with him. After all, if it isn't eating you up, it is fine!

    And then you go into a metaphysical argument. Yes, I am aware that religion is a metaphyical belief about the nature of reality. So why would prosperity be necesary?

    Here is a hint- think for a moment. Go back... to the 20s. What was the big cause of the conflict back then? The city vs rural dwellers. You see, people did things in cities that they simply couldn't do in the countryside- either lack of opportunity, social pressure or being killed. Cities bring amonity. Amonity means that people aren't watching you and making sure you stay in line.

    In short, the reason that atheism requires prosperity isn't only because it makes people have enough room to question- it is also because showing religious opinions differant from everyone else could get you booted out of your job or killed! The Quakers got repeatedly attacked, the Amish left the Old World, the Mormons got a state to try to exterminate them and the JWs got sent to concentration camps. In more "liberal" socities, punishments for deviance (like for Unitarians) would be things like losing your job.

    Think of it this way- the metaphysical idea that divine right of kings is BS and that a Republic is not only better, but the only moral choice- nay, the best society man can aspire to, only occured in a prosperous society. Why? Because the governments in authoritarian countries crack down on such beliefs!

    And in the case of atheism, which undermines the justification for all traditional beliefs and systems, you have everyone in power- from the Emperor, to the village elders trying to keep you in place.

    Think about it- there are punishments for apostacy, blasphemy and other crimes that stretch way back. So there were atheists then to. They just were punished and given the severity of punishments in tribal societies... they don'thave to kill you- if no one helps you out, you starve just the same. And you serve as an example to what happens to those that stray.

    Basically
    "So, all of your confidence that this is a “stupid” argument is based on an amazingly obtuse misunderstanding of the point. There is an enormous (and obvious) difference between the presence of social structures and the presence (or lack) of metaphysical beliefs. The social structures require stabilized society by definition. Metaphysics does not. If atheism makes legitimate sense of human experience, and has real truth value, it should be able to compete in places of hardship and instability. It can’t, and doesn’t, so it hasn’t."

    is false if said metaphysical beliefs are actively opposed to the social structure. Than the require a structure that doesn't kill its members for them to exist.

    You might think "well, some will get through" and some do. We have a few atheists in the past here and there. However, suppression is very effective- need I remind you that the most pious nation on Earth has the highest rate of religious violence? And people who are differant have a habit of dying- gays are a partically notorious example.

    Actually, they are a good example for history- the number of gays in the record fluctuates through time. Why? Because homophobia changes through time- many stay in the closet due to fear of pain, rape and death.

    Atheism is a belief, not an inherent trait, but the nature of being hidden applies equally.

    Do you get my point yet?

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  8. This urban legond that atheism is growing is absurd. The Zuckerman fantasy is nota study, it is crap and it is

    Easily disproved

    Adherents.com says that Zuckerman's "data" can't be used to say how many atheists there are. Figures that show more than 3% are including people who believe in god but are not involved in organized religion and counting them as "unbelievers."

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  9. All the major studies done in the last few years, including the most recent by Pew Charitable trust, which was released just this March, show that atheism is below 3%. Pew puts it at 1.6%. They have a larger group of "non allienged" people who aren't into organized religion but may believe in God. they equal 16%

    the day that came out atheists began counting their ranks as 16% of American society.

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  10. MedicineMan:

    I am absolutely flabbergasted at how you have distorted the findings and the message of the Paul & Zuckerman article. Your manipulative demagoguery and reality-distortion is on a par with Craig, you deserve some kind of medal.

    Disembowel this diatribe, shall we?

    "Paul and Zuckerman manage to demonstrate just how unnatural irreligion – atheism in particular – really is to the human experience."

    They do no such thing. Please cite the parts where you think this happened.

    "they repeatedly imply that progress and security are owed to secularization - a suggestion which is historically backwards."

    It's your reading that is backwards. Cite please. There is a correlation, but the causal connection they propose is the exact opposite of what you said.

    "Note, please, that in the course of this article the authors surreptitiously define “democratic, educated, and prosperous” nations, ad hoc, as those with near total social welfare systems and a strong endorsement of evolution."

    No they don't. And do cite. The words "democratic", "educated" and "prosperous" hardly need explicit definitions for people to know what is implied. They never invoke evolution for any such definition. What's wrong with using the word prosperity as an umbrella term for good national economy, high socio-economic standards and security and a contented population?

    "The sophomoric equating of “belief in evolution” with “disbelief in religion”"

    This is just false, nowhere do they make that assumption or rely on it for the analysis. They explicitly acknowledge the existence of pro-evolution religions in one paragraph.

    "The authors continually note that only nations with expansive social welfare have pronounced levels of non-belief, and then make hysterically dense statements such as:
    'So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition.'

    What guileful quote mining. That statement referred to their observation in the preceding paragraph that "...hundreds of millions have freely accepted being nonreligious mortals in a dozen and a half democracies" and that the driving forces behind mass-faith "...can be operative only if socio-economic circumstances are sufficiently poor to sustain mass creationism and religion."

    Establish the conditions wherein people can freely choose to be religious without feeling any pressure (social, psychological, or otherwise), and very few will choose it, this is what they're saying. If you want to argue that having such freedom is what is unnatural and should be constrained....well. Let's just say I'd like to see you make that argument.

    "So, either we are to believe that the “default” condition of humanity is extensive state-run safety nets,"

    In the way that they use the term "human condition" it is something that can apply to each individual. What you describe is not, but rather a condition of society.

    "Ironically, one of the major counter-points is the United States, still the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth, "

    Plain BS. The US has the largest prisoner population per capita in the world, and the US is #13 on the quality-of-life index, behind all of Scandinavia. Here's some local reading for you: How Canada stole the American Dream.

    "Of course, this fact doesn’t fit with the authors’ preconception that truly modern, educated people don’t believe in God. So, they do some silly rhetorical gymnastics to paint the US as an insecure, not-quite-so-free, not-quite-so-prosperous place."

    LOL. What you call "silly rhetorical gymnastics" is simply statistics: Happy Planet Index. Some more numbers: the US is #20 on the corruptions perception index (CPI), behind most of Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan, and the US is way down the list of income equality (Gini coefficient), way behind even the EU average.

    Socio-economic disparity is a phrase used frequently in the article in describing the conditions in the US, which seems to have gone right over your head:

    "Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity."

    "They note that atheists’ numbers are expanding, but their proportions are actually decreasing."

    You're reading backwards again: Christianity has been stagnant for the last century, with a trend downwards in recent decades. Irreligion expanded greatly between 1900-1970, but proportionally less so than Islam between 1970-2000, which has substantially enlarged its proportion simply by lots of unprotected sex. That should come as no comfort to you.

    "Irreligion is only going to be common in places where the state exerts greater control over the lives of the citizens, one way or the other."

    To offer people welfare, security and freedom is to "control" them???

    "Either the state provides for practically all material needs, so people follow the common inclination to brush aside a God they feel no need for; or, the state throttles religion out of the people with the heel of its boot. In either of the above cases, once God is truly rejected by moving from irreligion to actual atheism, the state moves from the ultimate civil authority to the ultimate authority, period."

    Aha now I get it. There is something very basic that you don't understand here. First, a separation of church and state as observed in secular Europe assures that atheism or irreligion could also never become state doctrines. The modern democratic welfare state, as repeatedly pointed out by Paul and Zuckerman being the precursor for natural secularization, has the responsibility to provide their citizens with freedom of choice. You're so ingrained with your image of atheism as inseparable from communism that you don't get this.

    Secondly, without theism constantly forcing the issue there would also be no need for atheism to offer an ideological platform from which to make a stand. Atheism would simply evaporate in tandem with theism. This is why many atheists keep insisting that atheism is really a "lack of belief," because without theism around to provoke the polarization this would really be true.

    There really is no culture of atheism or irreligion in Sweden, because religion has subsided into the cultural backdrop without making a fuss, and religion is never forced down people's throats. When those conditions arise, non-religion becomes the unspoken norm and atheism needs no spokespeople to trumpet out this fact. This is exactly as Zuckerman reported in the article, and this is the prediction that they arrive at: when these conditions are met, casual secularization follows.

    "If irreligion can’t survive without social security, "

    Even with your last breath you get the causal implication arrows backwards. Nowhere is it suggested that irreligion can not survive without social security. The implication is the opposite: when socio-economical conditions are beneficial enough, then secularism stands a better chance of spreading naturally.

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  11. Atheism is a statement about fundamental truths. You have to have a stable society to support literacy and social welfare. You don’t have to have a stable society to have a belief about the nature of the universe.

    Really? Go ask an indigenous tribesman in Brazil if his identical twin flew in a spaceship at near the speed of light and came back if he would still be the same age as his twin or not.

    Understanding truths about the nature of our universe requires education, which requires a stable, properous society.

    Care to qualify your statement further?

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  12. Kuhlman,

    I don’t need to make any “qualification”, but apparently you need a clarification.

    This isn’t a question of accuracy of beliefs. It’s a question of availability, utility, and preference of beliefs. This is not about accepting certain scientific minutiae, it’s about whether or not a certain belief is worthwhile enough for mankind to accept it under diverse circumstances.

    A tribesman is perfectly able to believe in God, or disbelieve in God. According to the information provided by the article’s authors, disbelief is not something that occurs without rather extensive societal assistance. Since disbelief is not a social structure, like civil rights or education, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be able to hold its own in situations where there are no such magnifying effects; if, that is, it really has some positive relation to human experience.

    Please see the distinction. Beliefs about fundamental metaphysics are not made possible by social structure – but they can be made more popular. There is a huge difference, and not a positive one for irreligion. A belief that withers when conditions get tougher apparently has little real value for humanity. Non-belief, by what this article seems to say, has very little competitive value, since it only gains ground when society props it up.

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  13. Adonais,

    Paul and Zuckerman state, rather clearly, that irreligion only grows where, as they put it, societies are stable and prosperous:

    As I quoted in the post, they state:

    “…secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous…”

    It’s also part of their dismissal of the notion that the US counts a democratic, prosperous, and educated place. Irreligion struggle here, they say, because the country is not, in fact, all that prosperous or educated, starting with the sentence, “It is the great anomaly, the United States…” and going from there. That’s pretty slippery, if you ask me. In any other topic of conversation, people are more than willing to acknowledge the US as one of the freest, richest, and most stable nations on earth. Paul and Zuckerman are struggling to define the US differently because it flies in the face of their pre-formed opinion that no modern society could possibly still believe in God.

    So, they most certainly DO perform a subtle-redefinition. Their attitude is that any nation not sufficiently irreligious cannot really be stable or prosperous…and so the US has to be explained away.

    In regards to secularization being the cause of prosperity and security, the implication is made several times. Mexico, they say, is progressing because they are discarding religious values (see “Mexico is liberalizing…”). They also imply that irreligion breeds progress in the paragraph starting “Nor is it all surprising…

    Their equating of “belief in evolution” with “disbelief in religion” happens here: A paragraph that begins with “It is well documented that Christianity has withered dramatically in Europe…”, continues with, “Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population…”, and ends with “Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some.

    They make it quite blatantly, starting here: “Those who feel the opposite about religion doubled…” So, disbelief in evolution is seen as a de-facto rejection of religion, or at least a step towards irreligion. Now, in their defense (sort of), they use the phrase, “liberal, pro-evolution religions…” later on, somewhat contradicting their own ideas, but this is also in the context of a paragraph claiming that churches which accept such ideas risk dissolution because the two ideas are mutually incompatible.

    You’re accusing me of “guileful quote-mining?” That’s absurd. My entire point was that the whole idea that irreligion is natural to humanity was blatantly contradictory to everything else they’d said. The context immediately preceding the quote was part of the contradiction. Remember, they themselves are contending that irreligion only happens when social conditions are sufficiently supportive of it. So, to act as though that irreligion is therefore natural to humanity is laughable.

    And here, you’re completely off your rocker:

    “Establish the conditions wherein people can freely choose to be religious without feeling any pressure (social, psychological, or otherwise), and very few will choose it, this is what they're saying.

    I’d love to know what definition of “very few” you use in everyday life. Lets take the vaunted example of Sweden, for starters. 76% of Swedes either believe in God, or some generic spirituality. “Only” 23% profess disbelief in any spiritual reality. That’s awfully high, but less than ¼ of the population. Even in social conditions that supposedly make non-belief the easiest, outright disbelief is not the norm. Both the statistics presented in that article, and the ones that I linked to, as well as every other study I’ve ever seen, support this.

    So, for you to say that “very few” people choose religion when placed in the ideal social conditions is not only false, but willfully blind. Neither the data in that article, nor anywhere else, support that conclusion.

    In regards to “safety nets”, I’m saying that a personal state of financial, social, and civil security is, as you said, something external to a person. It’s not something humanity is naturally infused with – it requires overt systemization. Hence, the authors’ quip that religiosity is proved not to be the “default” human condition since irreligion creeps up under social welfare structures is just plain silly. It’s like saying that compact, efficient chest muscles are apparently not the “default” state for turkeys, since, after all, turkeys raised in pens, with hormones, and ultra-feed, and protection from predators, and selective breeding, grow chests so big they can barely walk.

    The more sensible interpretation would be to say that any belief that can only survive in ideal social conditions (and rarely, if ever as the majority view) must suffer from some level of disconnect from the basic human experience.

    So, the US isn’t as socially liberal as Scandanavia, therefore we’re neither free or prosperous? If the topic was whether or not the US should support humanitarian aid, would you agree that we should not, since we’re not as prosperous or free as other nations? Are atheists being thrown in jail in the US? No, they’re on the best-seller lists. However, Christians who preach from the Bible have been thrown in jail in Scandanavia. Does that make Scandanavia less free than the US?

    Offering vast social welfare is the state taking control of a part of a citizen’s life. That’s not bad, or good, it’s just a fact. The US takes control of a part of its citizens’ lives by providing physical security (the police and military). I didn’t say that the government was controlling the citizens themselves.

    However, on a related note, please note that many of the overtly non-religious places mentioned in the article were once under government-enforced atheism. That would be controlling the lives of the citizenry, and seems to be the only way atheism becomes dominant.

    ” First, a separation of church and state as observed in secular Europe assures that atheism or irreligion could also never become state doctrines.”

    Even if you were a Christian, saying the same about how theocracies “could never become” present, I’d answer the same way: wrong, dead wrong, and please get a clue. There is no “assurance”, especially when one particular metaphysics gets preference. Preferring “no religion” is not neutral, it’s favoring irreligion. For instance, court rulings stating that religious expression in government buildings like schools are not allowed isn’t religious freedom – it’s state-enforced “irreligion”. I’d say there’s no question that Stalin promoted a separation of church and state.

    My point is that when “separation of church and state” moves towards “keep everything remotely religious out of the public or civic sphere”, that’s not a step towards freedom, it’s a step towards oppression. The state may have a “responsibility” to provide freedom of choice, but may I ask, to whom are they responsible? Where does this obligation come from? I realize it’s a bit of a side point, but it highlights a danger of a society that totally disconnects from the idea of God. Logically, there has to be some “final” authority. Once the state feels that they are that authority, then any sense of “responsibility” to the people becomes extremely fragile.

    “The implication is the opposite: when socio-economical conditions are beneficial enough, then secularism stands a better chance of spreading naturally.”

    My point is one of simple logic, backed up by the very evidence the authors noted. Irreligion lags where socio-economics are less comprehensive. There’s no logical way around it: secularism can’t make it unless it gets support through social structures.

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  14. Samuel,

    You’re still missing the point. Irreligion and atheism are beliefs about the fundamental nature of the universe, and about human experience. They don’t require certain social structures to exist in the first place. The fact that irreligion only finds moderate success when people have extensive social props for their material needs doesn’t compliment its ability to speak to the human condition.

    You need a social structure to “enact” things like education and civil rights. No such structure is required to consider the question, “is there a God?” Metaphysical beliefs don’t require the cooperation of your neighbors, or the sanction of your government.

    To put it another way: if irreligion had something positive to offer, why wouldn’t people experiencing economic or social hardships turn to it in larger numbers? Disbelief, it seems, only grows when it’s easy. That’s not a positive indicator of its ability to speak to the needs of humanity.

    Honestly, I stopped reading the rest of your post once you got into full-blown political rant mode. None of that paranoid baloney has anything to do with the question of whether or not atheism (or irreligion) are really viable worldviews. If you want to orally excrete some nonsense about the President being the most evil human being who ever lived, how we’re living in a fascist dictatorship, and how Americans are all mentally retarded, find a political site.

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  15. MedicineMan "However, Christians who preach from the Bible have been thrown in jail in Scandanavia."
    You mean Ake Green? We're on the same page. I'm against "hate speech" legislation, too (provided that the speech isn't an incitement to violence, which is generally covered less nebulously under incitement laws).
    If the latter link is accurate, this bit makes for a terrible law:
    "Anyone who, through expression or other form of communication that is spread, threatens or expresses disrespect for a group of people or other such groups of persons with reference to race, color, national or ethnic origin..."
    The way that it's worded (and the way that all "hate speech" legislation is inevitably worded) will end up catching oodles of non-hate speech as hate speech, as everything "disrespects" someone.
    Heck, there goes satire entirely.
    Threats, on the other hand... T-shirts with that Leviticus passage get awfully close to the line (what the "they shall surely be put to death" bit). That moves from "I think you're stinky" to "I think you're stinky and must die".

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  16. MedicineMan,

    I don’t need to make any “qualification”, but apparently you need a clarification.

    LOL! Anyway, moving on...

    This whole god idea serves a lot purposes. You're right that when people fall on hard times, they turn to religion. But that's just one aspect of a much more complicated phenomenon.

    Look at every function God serves in the life of a believer. The degree to which people have natural replacements for each of those functions, the less need they have for a belief in God.

    When you understand evolution, you don't need to believe that the complexity of the human body comes from being made in god's image.

    When you accept the natural origins of our moral instinct, you don't need god to tell right from wrong.

    And yes, when you have material comfort, you don't need to tithe and pray to 'receive the Lord's blessings.'

    People have basic needs. It should be no surprise that fewer people believe in god when their needs are fulfilled by other things.

    Theists find the secular answers unsatisfying. Atheists find the religious answers unsatisfying. It seems like we both agree that as societies move in the direction that they have been moving, people will become less religious. We just feel differently about whether this is a good or bad thing.

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  17. "I’d love to know what definition of “very few” you use in everyday life. Lets take the vaunted example of Sweden, for starters. 76% of Swedes either believe in God, or some generic spirituality. “Only” 23% profess disbelief in any spiritual reality. That’s awfully high, but less than ¼ of the population. Even in social conditions that supposedly make non-belief the easiest, outright disbelief is not the norm. Both the statistics presented in that article, and the ones that I linked to, as well as every other study I’ve ever seen, support this.

    So, for you to say that “very few” people choose religion when placed in the ideal social conditions is not only false, but willfully blind. Neither the data in that article, nor anywhere else, support that conclusion."


    Of course I was talking about the youngest generations that are growing into adulthood and forming their opinion now, not the part of the population that made their choices 50 years ago.

    But again you have missed the whole gist of the article. They do not base their prediction on a current snapshot of the statistics, but on the trends over time. Only two generations ago Sweden was indeed much more religious, but since my grandparents' generation the decline has been steady. Now get this: Sweden has an old demographic (low death rates), low birth rates, and a significant immigration. Almost all of the muslims, Jews and Buddhists are from immigration, and the religion of my grandparents' generation are still reflected in the polls by their relative large numbers; furthermore the low birth rates makes the trend in natural secularization a slow one.

    But break it up into age groups and the trend is definitely there: this study (in Swedish) from SIFO gives some more interesting numbers. When polled in 2000, only 8% believed in the Jesus and the God of the Bible; 13% believed in some other kind of God (though not Allah), 46% believed in some "higher power" (but not a God - that was the previous category), and 31% did not believe in any of the above. The "higher power" adherents were equally distributed over age groups, but the God adherents (both categories) had the highest fraction of believers in the oldest age group 65+ (which is almost a fifth of the population), and this age group also had the smallest proportion of non-believers. The trend is clear, and it all fits with the larger scope of observations by Paul and Zuckerman.

    "I’d say there’s no question that Stalin promoted a separation of church and state."

    Did he also have an advanced democracy and a welfare state? You miss the important point of Paul and Zuckerman when they note that these conditions in certain parts of secular Europe have never existed before! They are an historical first. And that is exactly why they are so interesting to study, and why the authors think that by observing these it may be possible to draw some conclusions and maybe make predictions about societal development and natural secularization. You can doubt and disagree with their predictions all you like, I have no issue with that, but please do it without grossly misconstruing what they were actually saying.

    "There’s no logical way around it: secularism can’t make it unless it gets support through social structures."

    It is not a question of "support" but one of enabling something to happen without there being a direct causal connection. Another social structure that is required is social acceptance: here in the US atheists are still the most reviled minority - that is a very disabling social structure. No such stigma exists in Sweden, and I mentioned this before - there does not even exist any outspoken culture of atheism or irreligion in Sweden like it is here in the US. The process of secularization is casual, as noted by Zuckerman.

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  18. Modus,

    I’m glad we can agree there. It’s the “disrespect” thing that bothers me the most, as well. I wonder how society is ever supposed to advance if no one is allowed to say something that someone else might be bothered by. I’d rather tolerate (as it’s really meant) opinions hostile to mine, rather than be worried about saying something non-approved.

    The other problem is that those kind of laws invariably wind up protecting certain groups more than others. You know darn well that a hate speech law passed in the US won’t be used to prosecute Christopher Hitchens for calling religion evil.

    The Leviticus thing is a tough call. I think it’s in poor taste, and very easily misunderstood. There's a nuanced relationship between OT and NT laws, and that's not something most people get. I’m not sure if it’s a certain call for “incitement”, though. Then again, someone wearing it really might mean something aggressive. Either way, I couldn’t really defend anyone who wore a shirt like that, but I wouldn’t ever support a blanket ban on them either.

    BTW, I think hate speech laws are also dangerous for the secularist. Once we accept the idea that the government gets to decide what kinds of criticism are or are not acceptable, then those definitions will change as the government does. That might be good for the secularist when it’s secularists in control…but what happens when attitudes shift, and suddenly you have that kind of power in the hands of a religiously charged government? Nothing good, for sure.

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  19. Adonais,

    Ahh, so now we’re in to the “well, the truth fits the larger scope of the observations” schtick. How very ‘Dan Rather’ of you. Especially when, according to your own argument about “social acceptance”, we should sort of expect a nation that throws Christian preachers in jail to be less than enthused about faith.

    No one is arguing with the idea that increased freedom, combined with increased material security, creates a trend towards irreligiousity. That’s not only not the question, it’s something I noted was clearly understood by Christians two thousand years ago.

    You’re trying to suggest that those factors result in a gigantic groundswell of overwhelming non-religion in those born and raised in those conditions. Your own data don’t seem to support that. You might stretch that argument out for apathy towards religion, which would be sort of obvious. But, as I’ve said, that’s absolutely not so for outright atheism. More pertinently, that does nothing to dull the point of my major criticism: people apparently don’t turn to secularism unless that belief is easy. Human beings don’t tend to see secularism as meaningful or helpful, unless they’ve had their perception of certain needs taken away. That does not give a good endorsement of its ability to speak to the basic human experience.

    Your contention to the contrary gets a little ridiculous, especially here:

    “Another social structure that is required is social acceptance: here in the US atheists are still the most reviled minority - that is a very disabling social structure.”

    For worldviews that don’t connect with human needs in a durable way, sure. For ideas that don’t have any meaningful connection to useful truths, of course. Not so for Christianity, as one example. The fact is that Christianity is amazingly resistant to persecution – in fact, it tends to spread the most rapidly where it’s being persecuted the most fervently. By the arguments you and the authors of the article make, irreligion is simply not seen as a suitable way to approach the world, unless you’re numbed to the concept of need by intensely supportive social structures.

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  20. Kuhlman,

    These are useless, because you’re phrasing them as truisms:

    When you understand evolution [and by that, you mean ‘accept naturalism without question’], you don't need to believe that the complexity of the human body comes from being made in god's image.” and “When you accept the natural origins of our moral instinct, you don't need god to tell right from wrong.

    Yeah, and I guess once you accept that the moon is made of cheese, you don’t need astronauts to tell you it’s made from rocks. When you understand astrology, you don’t need to believe that the stars have no impact on our destinies. That’s circular logic, so what’s the point?

    All your examples do, at best, is re-demonstrate the idea that many, many a human being chooses some belief or non-belief solely because they like what is says the best, not because they have reasons to believe it’s true.

    The fact that people only seem to turn away from God in large numbers when their material needs are met, and yet an even larger proportion of those “fat and happy” folk still have supernatural spiritual beliefs, doesn’t say much for atheism’s ability to speak to those basic human needs, does it?

    Apparently, very, very few people find atheistic answers satisfying when those answers aren’t easy to believe in. If atheism only makes inroads when there are no perceived consequences at all, what does that say about its solvency? Christianity, for instance, has demonstrated an ability to gain and hold ground when professing that belief comes with severe earthly consequences, and when Christian answers can be hard (personally risky) to believe in.

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  21. MedicineMan "MBTW, I think hate speech laws are also dangerous for the secularist."
    They're dangerous for everyone. Unpopular speech is the speech that needs to be defended the most. Free speech is the unpopular speech. No social reform is possible without unpopular social reforms and their (at the time) unpopular speech. That we have to put up with Phelps is unfortunate, but silencing him means silencing everyone else, too.

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  22. Modus,

    "That we have to put up with Phelps is unfortunate, but silencing him means silencing everyone else, too."

    You have a problem with American swimmers?

    Seriously, though, you're right, tough as it is to say when referring to scum like Fred Phelps. I'd rather be deeply offended at his shenanigans than be worried about what will happen when the government considers my speech "unapproved".

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  23. You do realize the government has the power to control your speech right now? They control the airwaves, and if your speech is seditious they can try you for treason.

    So far it has only been used against left wingers (ranging from commies to labor organizers). It might be interesting to see them try Card on the grounds that he is "agitating for the overthrow of the legitimate goverment of these United State".

    No, I'm not kidding. He wants a revolution... because of gay marriage.

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