Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On Atheism, Humanism and the Nones

by Don Wharton

We are obviously approaching, based on polls, having twenty percent of Americans with no religious affiliation. These are increasingly being called the Nones. According to a recent Pew Forum study “Nones” on the Rise:

“In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”

There are very few demographic changes that are this ferocious in the rate of change in our nation as a whole. The nearly 20% figure is up from 7% in 1972. These are not seekers looking for a new religion. Only 10% of those with no particular religious affiliation say that they are looking for a religion.

The same study showed that the change was largely based on age related differences:

“A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%).”

Back in 2008 the American Religion Identification Survey (ARIS) had 34 million with no religion. This survey had 90,000 humanists, 1.98 million agnostics,1.62 million atheists and 30.4 million of others reporting no religion. There are some notable differences with the Pew survey. There is a dramatic increase in the proportion of those with no religion willing to adopt an explicit term to identify their lack of religion. ARIS in 2008 had 10.8% of those with no religion saying they were humanists, agnostics or atheists. The Pew study had 29% of those with no religious affiliation reporting that they were atheist or agnostic. This is almost a three times higher proportion using an explicit term of secular self-identification.

The ARIS numbers suggested that there were 18 times as many atheists as humanists. The Pew survey did not even bother to ask if anyone identified as humanist. My research using the Google Ngram viewer indicates that there has been a dramatic decrease in the average use of “humanist” in the English language. The polling of the readers of major humanist magazines indicate that they skew much older than the case with the Nones in all recent surveys (ie. Average age of 50 for readers of Free Inquiry). My theory is that secular humanism was the term of opprobrium for Jerry Falwell and other preachers during the 1980's and early 1990's. Since then atheist has increasingly become the term of choice to talk about those with no religion.

Secular people of any designation are in general much less likely to want to organize than those who are religious. There might be about one percent of those with no religion are are organized in any way whatsoever. My data suggest that all secular organizations of any sort, national and local combined are likely to have less than several hundred thousand members. The great majority of those who consider themselves traditionally religious are affiliated with specific groups.

Gregory Berns has documented with fMRI scans that our brains have two very different mechanisms to articulate our moral instincts. He called them utilitarian and deontic. The utilitarian moral system weighs the choices available to people based on the projected well being or harm that will come from the various choices. The deontic mechanism articulate rules conveyed by the cultural group. Deontic means rule based. It also is strongly associated with actual membership in groups. The evolutionary history of our species is strongly influenced by the positive cooperation that was possible by being a member of a tribe. People who were not a member of a tribe died and understanding the rules of a tribe was critically important for a person's survival. People vary to a very significant extent in the degree to which they are motivated by these utilitarian or deontic mechanisms. A reasonable hypothesis is that secular people are less motivated by the deontic mechanism which includes great motivation to be loyal to the tribal group. We are more inclined to weigh the evidence and support rules only if we see evidence that the consequences are better with that rule. This individualistic thinking is the antithesis of tribal loyalty. Thus secular people are radically less inclined to be a member of a group.

Looking at Meetup, there are very few groups with agnostic in the name. Although there are a great many agnostics relatively few of them will chose to organize with a secular group. Atheists and humanists are the categories that are most willing to actually organize with a group. Looking just at the numbers in groups with atheist or humanist in their names suggests that there are about five times as many atheists than humanists who desire to join a group. A five to one ratio is much different than the 18 to 1 ratio found by by the ARIS survey. This could be in part from the feeling of secular humanists that they were under ferocious attack from Falwell and associates in prior decades. The feeling of being under attack greatly increases the desire to be loyal to one's tribe in response to that attack. Many urban atheists became so because they encountered reasons to distrust religious claims. If they did not feel any threat or attack for their subsequent unbelief there was little need to be part of a tribe in response to attacks from Christians. In many cases there is very little emotional investment in their atheism. For the majority of atheists their atheism is felt to be radically far down on the list of things that they feel to be central to their identity. This implies that their behavior is likely to be quite similar to the evidence we have for agnostics.

There is a minority of humanists who rather passionately tell me that atheists are awful because they are too strident, confrontive and unsophisticated in their understanding of the moral good. I find these claims to be preposterous when I compare it to my personal experience. There seems to be very little difference to me in the range and sophistication of views held by humanists and atheists. There are just more young atheists because atheist become more the term of choice in recent decades.

However, there seems to be real evidence that supports the toxic attack mode that many associate with the term atheist. In any group having an 18 fold greater number of people there will be by any normal statistical distribution a far greater number who are willing and able to articulate passionate credible criticism of opposing views. The drama of that makes for press copy that sells. However, it is even more complicated than that. Consider the so called four horsemen of new atheism. Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett both tried to popularize bright as a term of choice for people with a secular worldview. Dawkins even now prefers to call himself a tooth fairy agnostic. He does not want to claim any absolute knowledge that God does not exist. He feels that is consistent with the caution implicit in the scientific method. In 2007, at the Atheist Alliance International, I was present when Sam Harris asserted that we should not be calling ourselves atheists. He felt that we should just be concentrating on critical thinking and the use of evidence. Thus three of the so called four horsemen explicitly tried to distance themselves from atheism as a term. They were forced by the media into being atheists because the media pinned that term on them. Frankly, I typically find very little difference in the actual arguments about religion articulated by humanists and atheists.

I fully support the entire range of strategies that we have for talking about religion. David Silverman of American Atheists is very self aware about his very strong visible role in secularism. He has called his very visible and expensive messaging with billboards “shouting.” Apparently he privately told Margaret Downey that his role is to make her more subtle messaging “look good.” Those who prefer to work in a positive way with religious communities will sometimes claim that the more ferocious attack mode of American Atheists somehow does not work. There is real evidence that frontal attack of someone's deeply held religious beliefs will work on average. However, that is profoundly irrelevant in a world where much of religious belief is loosely held. Every day there are millions of religious people who question their beliefs because of objections raised by those with no belief. Thousands of those will lose their religion because of that. Frankly the stronger varieties of atheism are doing a better job of grabbing media attention and deserves in my opinion a disproportionally large share of the credit for the massive increase in secularism in recent years.

Chris Mooney is a secular person who is deeply critical of people like Dawkins and Sam Harris. I communicated to him my views that it was precisely people such as Dawkins and Harris that voice reasons that inspire our tribal neural programming to want to join with others. He did not think so. He says we should behave more like Republicans and join together because it is rational. Well, I certainly will endorse his message that it is rational for us to join together and be loyal to our secular cause. However, personal loyal to a group will remain largely a “conservative” quality. I seriously doubt that Mooney's assertion of rationality will make much difference.

I do want to ask those who are turned off by what seems to be strident attacks on religion to get over it. If we don't have such people included in our group we will not have the work and loyalty needed to make a group work. If arguments are factually false let's point out the evidence and reasoning to that more clearly communicates what is real. On the other hand, if we are every going to have 10,000 atheists as members of secular groups in our area we will need to include the apatheists who just don't care much about religion. The majority of those with no religion (including the majority of atheists) will just be those who have outgrown religion. If we are to have them as members we need to do much more than just attack religion. In fact if we have a robust program to work positively with religious groups we will be able to include vastly more people in our group. We need to do both.
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