Why the Religious Should Value Secular Governance

Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans and clergy across different faiths, denominations, and political persuasions favor restricting political activity by churches and nonprofits (notwithstanding the existing workarounds they already use anyway).

That is because these institutions are already exempt from taxes and most reporting requirements, meaning they would be at risk of becoming channels for dark money into politics. Most people of faith do not want their churches corrupted by politics. This was a major impetus for separation of church and state being enshrined from the very beginning of American history, mostly by and with support from devout people. Continue reading

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The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing. Continue reading

Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

The End of Casual Christianity

As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.

Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.

Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism. Continue reading

The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists”, the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person”. (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.

…the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.

Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.

Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.

In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

A More Religious World

The Atlantic reports on a major new Pew study on global religious demographics that projects two-thirds of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim — with the latter outnumbering the former, albeit by a percentage point or two.

The Muslim population, for example, is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population between now and 2050, largely because Muslims tend to be young and have high fertility rates. A majority of Muslims will still live in Asia and the Pacific region, as they do now (even though Islam is the predominant religion of the Middle East, only one in five Muslims live there). While their life expectancy will likely rise over the next four decades, on average, Muslims will still die younger than members of any other religion, including folk religions. Jews, on the other hand, will live the longest; in 2050, the group’s life expectancy will be 85, compared with 75 for Muslims. This is partly because the Jewish population is so concentrated, Hackett said: Roughly 80 percent of Jews live in Israel or the United States, both highly developed countries.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that Muslims may gradually overtake Christians as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades.

The following graph charts this progression:

This trend is part of the wider shift in population and cultural power to the developing world, especially Asia, where countries like India and China will become battlegrounds of the world’s major religions:

One open question is how religiosity will play out in China. Right now, there isn’t a lot of reliable data about religious affiliation in the world’s most populous country, Hackett said. Most population information comes from the government, which has been more or less hostile toward organized religion since the late 1960s; even if the country’s citizens are religious, they might be unlikely to share their beliefs on a government questionnaire, he said. One scholar, the Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, says the country is becoming more faithful, though. He estimates that the percentage of Christians in China could grow from 5 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2050, based on the growth rate of the religion over time; if this came true, it would significantly shift the world’s total Christian population.

Meanwhile, the historic core of Christianity, Europe, will see its religiosity and subsequent influence over that faith decline:

In Europe and beyond, age, fertility rates, and migration are the most important factors in projected population changes, but religious conversion also plays a minor role in the results. Despite Christianity’s tradition of evangelism, the faith is expected to lose a net total of about 66 million people around the world due to conversions, accounting for both those who convert into the faith and those who convert out. A significant portion of those converts will likely become unaffiliated, a group that’s expected to grow by a net total of roughly 61 million purely due to people leaving their religions (as opposed to via higher birth rates, etc.)

We may well see a future where Christian aesthetics and even doctrine starts to become shaped by Chinese and African culture (not to mention visa versa). One can see widespread blending (e.g. syncretism) of folk traditions with Christianity in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another center of growth for the faith and Islam:

For both Christianity and Islam, the region with the most potential will be sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double in roughly four decades due to extremely high fertility rates. The number of Christians in the region is also expected to double, reaching over 1.1. billion people, and the Muslim population is projected to grow by an astounding 170 percent, hitting nearly 670 million. Largely because of these trends, researchers estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be Christian or Muslim by 2100.

And what about all the research and debate concerning the rise of secularism and atheism? Well as noted before, the religiously unaffiliated — which run the gamut from hard atheists to the nonetheless spiritual — will increase significantly, albeit mostly in the “old” Christian West.

Here is what the projections show from 2010 to 2050. Note that it looks at conversions alone, not natural birth rates (which are typically much higher among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus than among Buddhist, Jews, and the non-religious).

It is worth reiterating that these are just estimates, albeit ones based on fairly comprehensive and substantive research (Pew tends to have a good track record). There is no telling how much will change over the coming decades, especially in a world where religious conflict, dialogue, and interaction alike is higher than ever.

Moreover, this is hardly as clear-cut as Christianity vs. Islam vs. secularists etc. Each of these groups have their own internal problems and divisions; Protestants, namely the Evangelical kind, are making inroads into historically Catholic strongholds like Brazil and Central America, and are competing amongst themselves for souls. The Shia and Sunni split continues to spill more blood, while the more mystical and liberal Sufis are often distrusted and persecuted by Islamic conservatives.

Meanwhile, the broad tent that is “unaffiliated” encompasses such divergent groups as explicit atheists, agnostics, the vaguely spiritual and deistic, and even New Agers who otherwise believe in some sort of divine or supernatural power or another yet choose not to label themselves religious. Secular people hardly represent a united or coherent front (especially as the broader and more technical definition of the term would include practicing Christian or Muslims who simply do not want their religion to influence politics or social policy).

In short, the picture, as can always be expected, is complicated. But if these projections hold out, it does indeed seem to be the case that while the world will remain religiously diverse — look at the growth, by conversion alone, of various folk traditions and “other” non-major religions — Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser degree Irreligion will represent the dominant strains of thought and lifestyle.

But even this does not show how such labels will change and what these faiths (or lack thereof) will look like doctrinally, culturally, and ideologically. Will Christianity continue to take on the indigenous concepts of its majority African and Asian populations; will Islam shift towards more traditional, moderate, or mystical forms, as it is currently contending with? Will secular people become more hardened into outright atheism or agnosticism, or lean towards vaguely spiritual New Age or Eastern manifestations?

I guess I will see for myself in my lifetime. What are your thoughts?

How Secular Is Your City?

The religiously unaffiliated — an identity that broadly encompasses everyone from strong atheists and agnostics, to New Agers, deists, and “unchurched” Christians — make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population (22 percent to be exact). Unsurprisingly, some regions, states, and cities are more likely to be irreligious than others. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) lists the major U.S. cities that have the most (and the fewest) people without formal religion.

Note that the data come from the results of over 50,000 interviews across these metropolitan areas. Perhaps it is little surprise that the northeastern and western parts of the country are where most of the least religious cities are located; these regions as a whole tend to be pretty secular, especially when compared to the “Bible Belt” of the south (where the least secular cities are situated).

With 42 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated, Portland occupies a space all its own. “Portlandia”, an urban mecca for eco-conscious free spirits, has substantially more unaffiliated residents than the next three most religiously unaffiliated cities, Seattle (33 percent), San Francisco (33 percent) and Denver (32 percent).

The least unaffiliated city in the U.S.? Nashville, with only 15 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated. A plurality (38 percent) of Nashville is white evangelical Protestant.

Granted, by the standards of the historically devout South, 15-18 percent nonreligious is pretty high. A large part of this may have to do migration of people from the less religious northeast, a trend that began in the 1960s and ’70s and has continued to this day. Aside from the secularizing effect of these transplants, the results may also reflect the tendency for cities in general to be less religious than rural or smaller urban areas.

Given the overall growth in “Nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation in Census surveys — it is likely that the percentage of irreligious people in cities across the country will continue to grow. Again, this hardly reflects the growth of atheists or agnostics per se, just in people unwilling to identify or associate with any formal religious label or institution.

As for my hometown and current residence of Miami, I guess I am not too surprised that we are just around the national average. The city has a large youth population buttressed by many international and northern migrants. While Hispanics tend to be fairly religious, their children and grandchildren — like younger generations of most other demographic groups — are often less so.

The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian says something like “You should convert because Jesus loved you so much he died for you, but if you don’t then you’ll suffer unspeakable torment forever and ever and ever”, I’m left wondering just what is being said here. Am I supposed to convert out of awe for this supposed act of love? Or am I supposed to convert out of sheer terror and a desire to avoid torment? Because I honestly can’t tell which tactic the Christian is going for. It doesn’t seem loving to torment people.

And the really bad news for Christian zealots is, you can’t really mix and match when it comes to love and terror. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which terrorizes us, or (to be more accurate) that which is used to terrorize us. If you want to go with the lovey-dovey stuff, then terror destroys it; if you go with terror, then it’s hard to squeak about lovey-dovey stuff after threatening someone with lurid torture and pain. That so many Christians seem perfectly content to do exactly this mincing dance seems downright grotesque to me. If they described a real person that way, as a man who would physically hurt me if I refused to do what he wanted but who loved me and wanted my love in return, then I’d tell them to stuff it and keep their abusive asshole of a buddy far away from me. The split-second that violence enters the equation, love leaves it–unless of course someone has internalized violence so effectively that it no longer disqualifies a being from slavish devotion.

When Ken Ham ominously threatens people with “God’s judgment” and says, regarding the possible destruction of Earth by a meteor strike, that “unbelievers should be afraid of Jesus Christ’s judgment instead”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s saying that people should convert because of their terror of this “judgment”–in other words, out of fear of going to Hell. But which is it? Is his god loving, or is he a sociopathic monster? Which gear is he picking here?

Now obviously, many Christians reject both this tactic and its theological underpinnings. Many religious people are genuinely loving and either downplay or outright repudiate the terrifying nature of God.

But in the United States especially, many people prescribe to this notion and utilize it in their preaching, proselytizing, or apologetics. It represents a cynical and totalitarian mentality that seems less concerned about others’ salvation and more focused on manipulating people: to use my earlier analogy, if the carrot of God’s love does not work, than the stick of His fear just might.

Now that I’m out of Christianity and have been for a while, I can see these fearmongering, terroristic tactics for what they are: attempts to strong-arm compliance and force obedience. If you want to see what a Christian really thinks is persuasive, wait to see what that person’s big guns look like. Look for what follows the “but” in their proselytizing. If you let people do it, they’ll tell you exactly what’s really important to them. “He loves you, but if you don’t obey him then you’ll suffer mightily” is the message of way too many Christians.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, as Isaac Asimov put it long ago. Threats are what bullies use when they can’t get their way any other way. When someone can’t win by reason or logic or facts, and that person lacks a moral compass and has no empathy or compassion for others, then such a person will use force to try to win by any means possible. If Christians actually had a good reason to fear the threats they make, they’d already have given us the goods.

Once you’ve identified the threat being made, then you can ask for evidence that it’s a threat you really need to fear. If Ken Ham really thinks that his god’s judgment would be scarier and worse for humanity than a meteor hitting the Earth, but can’t come up with anything solid and credible to explain why his threat is something anybody needs to fear, then I’m safe in dismissing what he blusters as the bombast of a bully angry that he can’t get his way any other way. And I call shenanigans on him claiming that Christians aren’t scared at all of catastrophes; I was a Christian myself for many years and can absolutely tell him that why yes, a great many Christians are downright terrified of the end of the world. He’s talking out of his ass, but what else is new? His followers will eat it up with a spoon and parrot it, many hoping that their own fears will be allayed if they do.

For me, this strain of Christianity says more about the psychology and personality of its adherents than about the religion as a whole (though insofar as Christian doctrine gives fuel to such a common approach, it definitely has its problems).

Just as I have met many friendly and compassionate people who prescribe to a more friendly and compassionate form of Christianity (which in some forms seems more Deistic or New Agey than anything), so too do less than kind people, often with an aggressive and domineering streak, just happen to apply their Christian faith in that way.

Quite a few non-believers and even many Christians have already abandoned threats and the very idea of Hell as incompatible with the idea of a loving god. But to those Christians who use their religion as a way of expressing aggression and dominance, those threats are their primary tools, and they’ve got all kinds of rationalizations already made up in their minds about why they can’t possibly stop threatening people. Phrases like “for their own good” figure prominently here.

The funny thing is that all we’d need is one single credible piece of evidence supporting their threats. Just one. That’s all. But they can’t do that. Instead, they are content to keep issuing threats. And if someone vulnerable happens to fall for the threats and converts on the basis of them, then these Christian bullies will feel 100% justified in continuing to use threats and bullying to get their way. But even if the threats don’t work, they’ll keep using them because threats are what they, personally, think are compelling–as I’ve mentioned before, these threats overshadow even the very best intentions for many Christians.

If the fear of God’s wrath and punishment is the strongest incentive you have, or think others should have, for believing in your religion, you need to reevaluate the basis and sincerity of your faith. Most of these individuals would never accept fear as a legitimate reason to trust or follow political leaders, or any human being. Does God’s divine nature and / or status as our alleged Creator make him immune to such reasonable considerations? Are we supposed to cower in fear of a loving, fatherly creator and use that terror — in some bizarre combination with love and awe — as a basis to believe in Him? It sounds like an abusive relationship more than anything. How can genuine love be compelled by threat of violence of the worst kind imaginable?

What are your thoughts?

Two Tragic Blows To Freedom Of Conscience

Over the past weekend, two prominent figures in activism and politics were killed.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American engineer, writer, columnist, and secular activist, was hacked to death by extremist Islamists while he and his wife were riding home from a book fair in the country’s capital, Dhaka (his spouse survived).

Roy founded and wrote for Mukto-Mona, an Internet community for freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. He was a prominent advocate of free expression in Bangladesh and human rights, coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. He had long received death threats for his taboo works.

The following day, Boris Nemtsov, one of the few major opposition leaders and critics of the Putin administration, was shot in the back by unknown assassins while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow.

A physicist with a storied political career since the tumultuous 1990s, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was working to organize a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the country’s financial crisis. He was working with Russian journalist Kseniya Sobchak on a report proving the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine.

A long-time organizer of protests against the government, Nemtsov came into conflict with the government several times over issues of corruption, human rights violations, and policy abuses. In the weeks before his death, he expressed fear that Putin would have him killed, yet continued with plans to hold the rally. His last tweet called for Russia’s divided opposition to unite for an anti-war march.

The “Divine command” theory of ethics: is it more common than we think?

Why Evolution Is True

Caveat emptor: I am not a philosopher and proffer these posts, as always, as tentative thoughts, designed to hone my ideas, inspire conversation, and learn from my readers.

It has always seemed to me that Plato’s Euthyphro argument pretty much disposed of the claim that morals are grounded in God.  If you need a refresher, that’s simply the argument that if morals are underlain by God’s commands, then anything that God commands is good by definition. (Plato used “piety” rather than “morality,” but the argument is the same.) But by those lights God could say, “Stoning adulterous women is the moral thing to do” and we’d have to go along with it.  (This is, in fact, the “divine command” theory—DCT used by William Lane Craig to justify the genocide of the Canaanites.)

But of course few of us want to adhere to the notion that whatever God says

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