First Christopher Hitchens took her down, then we learned that her faith wasn't as strong as we thought, and now a new study from the Université de Montréal is poised to completely destroy what shreds are left of Mother Teresa's reputation. She was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was beatified and is well on her way to becoming a saint, and she's universally admired.
You might be aware, from discussions on the internet, about Joe Klein's slur on secular humanists in his recent Time magazine piece on returning veterans performing public service. Klein mentioned, after seeing church groups helping out after the Oklahoma tornado disaster, "funny how you don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals. . . "
That kind of canard is bruited about all the time, and a needed palliative for it has just been published in the…
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) - More than three in four of Americans say religion is losing its influence in the United States, according to a new survey, the highest such percentage in more than 40 years. A nearly identical percentage says that trend bodes ill for the country.
"It may be happening, but Americans don't like it," Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief, said of religion's waning influence.
That’s the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and it’s not terribly surprising given the widespread antipathy towards non believers (especially self-declared atheists). Also unsurprising is the fact that White Evangelical Protestants had the least favorable views (78%), followed by Black Protestants (64%). Continue reading
The Barna Group is an Evangelical Christian polling organization that focuses on the state of Christianity in the United States. Most of its research consists of determining the demographic and ideological makeup of American Christians. According to its official mission statement:
The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.
Given this goal, the Barna Group is considered a reliable and trustworthy source regarding Christianity — after all, since it wants assist fellow Christians in engaging with one another or reaching out to secularists, its imperative to provide only the most accurate information available.
So, I thus far trust its conclusions, including the following study concerning America’s most secular cities. See where yours ranks (my hometown and current residence, Miami, Florida, is pretty high at 20th place).
The group’s criteria for determining irreligion were as follows:
Barna Group tracks the following 15 metrics related to faith, which speak to the lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. Read more of Barna Group’s research on the “Nones,” secularization and post-Christian America.
Post-Christian = meet at least 60% of the following 15 factors (9 or more factors)
Highly Post-Christian = meet at least 80% of the following 15 factors (12 or more factors)
1. do not believe in God
2. identify as atheist or agnostic
3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
6. disagree the Bible is accurate
7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
9. agree that Jesus committed sins
10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)
Interesting stuff, although perhaps not terribly surprising, as most of the cities are in regions well-known for their secularism (the Northeast and the West Coast). A number of large Southern and Midwestern cities weren’t far behind though.
Meanwhile, the organization provides a list of the country’s most “Bible-minded” cities, based on an interesting metric: not only individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches. After all, many avowed atheists have read the Bible, while many pious Christians haven’t. By measuring both the knowledge and attitude toward the Bible, one can get a rough approximation of religiosity.
Unlike the previous study, this one offers a pretty detailed breakdown:
On trend with much of the New England area, cities within the state of New York were on the lower end of the Bible-minded rankings. As for patterns in the three other most populous states, the research reveals the following.
- Florida: Though in the South, most of the major cities on the peninsula rank near the bottom middle of Bible-minded cities, including West Palm Beach (28%, ranked 53rd out of 96 markets), Tampa-St. Petersburg (27%, rank: 57), Orlando (25%, rank: 64), and Miami (24%, rank: 70). The exceptions to these patterns are in the northern part of the state, including Pensacola / Mobile (45%, rank: 13) and Jacksonville (41%, rank: 20). These two cities are more on trend with other Southern states and likely reflect more of a native Floridian or Southern population and fewer transplants than the Southern Florida cities.
- California: In addition to San Francisco being among the lowest rated, most of the major California cities are in the bottom third of the rankings. The Los Angeles media market represents a pretty normal range for California cities with 24% of the residents being Bible-minded (ranking 68th out of 96 cities,). San Diego (24%, rank: 74), Sacramento (24%, rank: 72), and Fresno / Visalia (25%, rank: 66) were also bunched in the same range. Bakersfield, CA stood out as being among the most Bible-minded cities in the Pacific states (39%, rank: 26).
- Texas: As part of the traditional “Bible belt,” Texas stayed fairly true to trend, with most of it’s major cities ranking in the top half of Bible-minded cities. Dallas / Fort Worth ranked as the top Bible-minded city in Texas (38% Bible-minded, ranking at 27th) over San Antonio (36%, rank: 33), Houston (32%, rank: 39) and Austin (29%, rank: 48). Notable exceptions to the Bible-mindedness of Texas cities were Harlingen / Weslaco / McAllen / Brownsville (28%, rank: 56), Waco (27%, 59), and most significantly El Paso (23%, rank: 80). These exceptions are likely a result of these markets having a higher percentage of Hispanic Catholics, who are less likely to engage the Bible.
This didn’t surprise me. California is a large and diverse state with around 35 million people, and it’s long been split between it’s secular and liberal coastal and southern regions, and its more religious and conservative north and central ones. The influence of its large and typically pious Hispanic community can certainly be felt.
Meanwhile, Florida and Texas are fast-growing traditionally conservative states that are receiving an influx of immigrants and northerners, many of whom are irreligious or non-Christian. Demographically, they’re also fairly young and urban, two features that characterize secularism in the United States. Even among the fast-growing Hispanic communities in these states, there’s been a growth in both irreligion and Evangelical Christianity. This state of transition is reflected in the fact that both of these traditionally conservative states have become “purple” politically, although established Republicans continue to maintain most of the political power.
Here’s more analysis:
Among the nation’s largest 30 cities, 10 of them are in the top half of the Bible-minded market rankings, while 20 of them are in the bottom half. Generally speaking, the more densely populated areas tend to be less Bible oriented. Only three of the most Bible-minded cities are among the largest 30 cities—Charlotte (7th), Nashville, TN (14th) and Raleigh / Durham, NC (22nd). The other 22 top Bible-minded markets have fewer than 1 million households.
Still, among the largest markets there are many more relatively Bible-minded cities, including Dallas / Fort Worth (27th), Atlanta (28th), Indianapolis (32nd), Houston (39th), St. Louis (41st), Cleveland (43rd) and Detroit (46th).
Philadelphia (28%, rank: 52) is among the most Bible-minded cities along the eastern seaboard, ranking slightly higher than the aforementioned Northeastern cities as well as Washington, DC (25%, rank: 63) and Baltimore (26%, rank: 60).
Chicago is the nation’s third largest city, and while it tends to be a bastion of many evangelical organizations, ranks between New York and Los Angeles in terms of Bible-mindedness (23%, rank: 76th). Colorado Springs, CO, which is also home to many Christian organizations, is right in the middle of the pack (29%, rank: 51st). By comparison, Denver is ranked lower (71st) with about one in four individual’s qualifying as Bible-minded (24%).
In the Northwest portion of the country, the cities are all fairly similar, with about a quarter of the population being Bible-minded, including most notably Portland OR (25%, rank: 65th and Seattle, WA (24%, rank: 69th).
I also find the commentary at the very end interesting, as it sounds like something out of a marketing agency (indeed, George Barna, the group’s founder, expressly stated that his aim was to provide “research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry”).
First, the large range of Bible-minded scores—from 52% in the highest markets to 9% in the lowest—shows just how diverse the nation’s population can be, from city to city. The rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible, and in some markets half or more of the population claim to be open, while in other areas the proportion that is open to the Bible is more like one in ten adults. These gaps make a significant difference in the tone and tenor of conversations about Christianity, morals, public education, and spirituality, among many other topics.
Second, although there are outliers—cities in which the Bible-minded rankings are significantly above- or below-average—the overall picture that is painted depends on one’s vantage point. The least sanguine way to analyze the results would be to emphasize the lack of Bible-mindedness in America; in 91 out of 96 markets a majority of the residents are not Bible minded.
However, a more optimistic way to view those markets would be to look at those cities with at least one-fifth Bible-mindedness—meaning those areas where at least one out of five adults are open to engaging and esteeming the Bible. Among some researchers, this proportion—20%—is often thought to be something of a social or technological “tipping point” (for example, once one in five people had mobile phones, the momentum toward more people owning mobile phones began to grow exponentially). In this analysis, 83 out of 96 cities in the U.S. have at least 20% of their residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Christian leaders should recognize that most of the major cities in the nation continue to have basis for biblical engagement among a significant share of the population.
As ministry leaders in particular, it’s important to keep both vantage points in tension. Whether you live in a city ranked in the top half of Bible-minded cities or in the bottom half of Bible-minded cities, there are still tens of thousands of people to reach regarding both the message of the Scriptures and their importance. However, no matter what type of city you live in, there is also a significant remnant of Bible-minded individuals. The key is to not merely “preach to those insiders” but instead to equip and empower those who do believe with a strong and relevant message to take out into their communities, vocations and spheres of influence. They are the tipping point and can have great influence on the greater city.
Take all that as you will. Personally, I find it disquieting to speak of Christianity as if it were some product to sell, but of course, that’s not surprising given my own secularism.
Dawkins is perhaps the most recognizable face of atheism, and one of the most vocal critics of religion. I’m sure most readers are familiar enough with him to know that he’s a controversial figure that’s derided even by many secularists for his harsh and uncompromising approach towards religious belief (which he explicitly considers to be a form of delusion).
Some time ago, he got in a spat with Will Hutton of the Observer, who, among other criticisms, takes issues with Dawkins’ style. The pugnacious nonbeliever responds to these arguments in a piece in the Guardian, “What is the proper place for religion in Britain’s public life?” Continue reading
The label “atheist” is so odious and stigmatized that even many atheists themselves shun it (admittedly, myself included sometimes). Interestingly, most national polls report a higher number of people who “don’t believe in God” than people who explicitly identify as “atheists” (usually by a margin of 2 to 1). The position of non-belief is less disquieting to the irreligious than the term used to describe it – the quaint result of generations of demonization, condemnation, and prejudice. The negative connotation of atheism is so pervasive across the public consciousness that not even the godless themselves can shake it off and be at ease with it. Continue reading
From yesterday's National Public Radio's "On Point" show, Tom Ashbrook discusses The Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, whom you surely know by now. Ashbrook has two guests (Susan's book is new, and she's quite eloquent about the man):
Susan Jacoby, author, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.”
Dale McGowan, writes the secular parenting blog “The Meming of Life.” Author of “Parenting Beyond Belief” and the upcoming “Atheism For Dummies.” (@memingoflife)
I’m a big fan of NPR, as it has helped me through many a long and stressful commute with its solid reporting and interesting talk shows. The public broadcaster (which, contrary to popular belief, is overwhelmingly self-sufficient), never seems to run out of quality programming. Just this past Sunday, it began a new daily special Losing Our Religion, which explores the various issues concerning the secular community here in the United States. Continue reading
Jared Diamond, a polymath with a number of professions and specialists, has written a new piece in Salon about religion titled “Jared Diamond: It’s irrational to be religious.” It’s an excerpt from his latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which I haven’t yet read, but certainly plan to (his most well-known book, and the one that introduced me to him, was Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies).
Diamond, who is an atheist that regards religion as mere superstition, nonetheless raises some fair academic questions about the origins and character of religion – namely, why do religious beliefs take the particular form that they do, and why do they seem so compelling to the majority of the human species?
It’s a question I often ask myself as well, given the universal prevalence of religion even to this day (albeit a prevalence that is both waning and altering in its character). I know that religious people aren’t simply stupid or crazy (at least not all of them, though that could be said of many secularists as well), and that like most human phenomena, there are complex reasons for it.
Diamond’s conclusion, which others have postulated as well, is that religion serves a sociological and psychological purpose: it is a form of bonding through group solidarity, a way of maintaining community and cooperation, which are vital to our survival as a social species.
The more of one’s life is wrapped up with one’s group, the more crucial it is to be able to identify group members correctly and not to be deceived by someone who seeks temporary advantage by claiming to share your ideals but who really doesn’t. If that man carrying a Boston Red Sox banner, whom you had accepted as a fellow Red Sox fan, suddenly cheers when the New York Yankees hit a home run, you’ll find it humiliating but not life-threatening. But if he’s a soldier next to you in the front line and he drops his gun (or turns it on you) when the enemy attacks, your misreading of him may cost you your life.
That’s why religious affiliation involves so many overt displays to demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment: sacrifices of time and resources, enduring of hardships, and other costly displays that I’ll discuss later. One such display might be to espouse some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of our senses, and that people outside our religion would never believe. If you claim that the founder of your church had been conceived by normal sexual intercourse between his mother and father, anyone else would believe that too, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your commitment to your church. But if you insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was born of a virgin birth, and nobody has been able to shake you of that irrational belief after many decades of your life, then your fellow believers will feel much more confident that you’ll persist in your belief and can be trusted not to abandon your group.
One thing to add is that such rituals and norms won’t bond you to your group unless 1) you believe that others genuinely believe them and 2) you also sincerely believe. There’s no genuine sense of bonding if you follow these rituals simply to conform to the social and religious norms around you.
Accounts from “closet atheists” – among whom are clergy – reveal that they continue to publicly conform to these beliefs largely to avoid being ostracized (or worse), but no longer feel any sincere sense of connection or solidarity. Similarly, people will often drop out of their congregation, if not abandon organized religion entirely, largely because they perceive their coreligionists to insincere, due to demonstrations of hypocrisy or duplicity.
Perhaps this also explains (partly at least) why heretics, apostates, blasphemers, and others who don’t toe the religious line are are usually met with repression or even death: they undermine the social cohesion that is so vital for maintaining order (or consolidating the power of ruling elites, whose relationship with organized religion was close, if not intertwined).
Obviously, this religiously-based social cohesion can have beneficial results as well, especially in helping to respond to individual or community tragedies. Religion’s help to maintain the institutional and organizational framework that helps facilitate everything from charity or even job searches (indeed, in many small towns and communities, the church is the center of cultural, political, and economic life). This is why many atheists nonetheless see religions as practical, or at the very least acceptable, even if they don’t agree with them. Of course, the potential for abuse is always there, as history has shown time and again.
Anyway, Diamond goes on to note another key reason for religion’s potency:
Nevertheless, it’s not the case that there are no limits to what can be accepted as a religious supernatural belief. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have independently pointed out that actual religious superstitions over the whole world constitute a narrow subset of all the arbitrary random superstitions that one could theoretically invent. To quote Pascal Boyer, there is no religion proclaiming anything like the following tenet: “There is only one God! He is omnipotent. But he exists only on Wednesdays.” Instead, the religious supernatural beings in which we believe are surprisingly similar to humans, animals, or other natural objects, except for having superior powers. . . Hence it doesn’t surprise me that gods in many religions are pictured as smiting evil-doers, but that no religion holds out the dream of existing just on Wednesdays. Thus, religious supernatural beliefs are irrational, but emotionally plausible and satisfying. That’s why they’re so believable, despite at the same time being rationally implausible.
This reminds me of surveys (none of which I could locate at the moment) that asked individuals the reasons they “found” religion after having previously been secular. In most instances, they cited emotional or psychological factors: a traumatic experience, a purported miracle, the need for a sense of purpose or longing, and so on. Indeed, I’ve encountered such motivations through my many engagements with religious believers of all persuasions.
It reminds me of the correlation between high rates of religiosity in a given society, and a higher prevalence of crime, poverty, violence, and other socioeconomic ills. If one looks at the majority of the world’s most prosperous and stable nations, they are relatively more secular than the global average; conversely, nearly all of the world’s most impoverished and politically troubled countries demonstrate higher rates of piety.
This pattern can be seen in the US as well, with the deeply religious states of the “Bible Belt” typically recording far higher rates of crime, poverty, and so on than the more secular states of the Northeast and Northwest. Basically, the parts of the world in which people have less to worry about – in terms of money, civil liberties, personal safety – tend to be less religious. Secularism (and to a lesser extent atheism) rises in conjunction with individual and societal prosperity. There are exceptions of course, and this is merely a trend, not an iron rule. But it’s something to consider.
Obviously, the reasons for human social dysfunction (like that of all of our behavior) are very complex, but this relationship between piety and one’s socioeconomic or psychological conditions – both individually and socially – suggests that religion’s serve some sort of practical role as a source of comfort, purpose, and community (the last of which also gives us comfort). This also helps to explain why religion is so universal in our species, and why religions often alter in conjunction with economic and political developments (for example, more organized and politically developed civilizations tend to have more organized religions).
On a more personal level, this explains why my atheism was more comforting following my adoption of a secular humanist framework. Atheism in itself offers little to nothing to work with – it’s merely the absence of religion, and to have no religion is one thing, but to have no purpose or guiding principles is another. Embracing secular ethics and guidelines – and the growing community of those who share them – has served as my substitute to supernatural religion. It’s not for everyone, but it suits me just fine.