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some people really don’t like atheists

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stephen-prothero-speech

‘Atheism is not a great religion. It has always been for elites rather than for ordinary folk. And until the 20th century, its influence on world history was as inconsequential as Woody Allen’s god. Even today the impact of atheism outside of Europe is inconsequential. A recent Gallop poll found that 9% of adults in Western Europe (where the currency does not trust in God) described themselves as ‘convinced atheists’.  That figure fell to 4% in eastern and central Europe, 3% in Latin America, 2% in the Middle East, and 1% in North America and Africa. Most Americans say they would not vote for an atheist for president.’

Stephen Prothero, from God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world & why their differences matter (2010).

I should admit at the outset that I’ve not read Prothero’s book, and probably never will, as time is precious and there are too many other titles and areas of knowledge and endeavour that appeal to me. However, since, as a humanist and skeptic I have a passing interest in the religious mindset and in promoting critical thinking and humanism, I think the above quote is worth dwelling on critically.

First, the claim that ‘atheism is not a great religion’. It’s an interesting remark because it can be interpreted in two ways. First, that atheism is not a religion of any kind, great or small; second that atheism is a religion, but not a great one. I strongly suspect that Prothero has the second view in mind, while also playing on the first one. Of course atheism isn’t a religion and it’s tedious to have to play this game with theists (assuming Prothero is one) for the zillionth time, but my own experience on being confronted with the idea of a supernatural entity for the first time at around eight or nine was one of scepticism, though I didn’t then have a name for it. I don’t think scepticism could ever be called a religion. And nothing that I’ve ever experienced since has tempted me to believe in the existence of supernatural entities.

Next comes the claim that atheism has always been for elites rather than ordinary folk. This is probably true, but we need to reflect on the term ‘elite’. I assume Prothero can only mean intellectual elites. The Oxford dictionary succinctly defines an elite as ‘a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society’. Generally, therefore, the best of society, or the leaders. It’s broadly true, especially in the West, that you won’t get to the top in business without a good business brain, you won’t get to the top in politics without a good political brain and you won’t get to the top in science without a good scientific brain, and these are all positive qualities. The elites are the best, and the best tend to be society’s movers and shakers.

Yet Prothero doesn’t appear to agree, quite. His juxtaposing of the two sentences intimates that atheism is not a great religion because it has always been for elites. What are we to make of this? My guess is that he’s trying to downplay atheism but has made a bit of a mess of it. And there’s more of this. Before the 20th century, we’re informed, atheism was as influential ‘as Woody Allen’s god’, by which, I presume, he’s referring to Allen’s farce of 1975, God, with which I’m not particularly familiar. I do know, though, that it’s fashionable these days to trash Woody Allen, so the message appears to be that, before 1900 or so, atheism was very inconsequential indeed.

A reasonable person might wonder here why Prothero seems so keen to diminish atheism. A big clue is surely to be found in the subtitle to Prothero’s book. Which raises some questions: What are these eight religions? Are they really rivals? Do they run the world?

The contents page answers the first question: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism and Daoism make up the Premier League. Presumably Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism are struggling in the lower divisions. There is some debate amongst authorities as to whether Confucianism or Daoism are recognised religions, and they’e often found blended, along with Buddhism, in Chinese folk tradition – so, maybe not so much rivals.

Surely the most important question, though, is whether these religions ‘run the world’. I have the strong suspicion that Prothero hasn’t given deep consideration to his terms here, but I’ll try to do it for him. What does ‘running the world’ entail? I’ve heard people say that multinational corporations run the world, or that various superpowers do so, or have done so, but the idea that the major religions run the world between them is a novel one to me. Of course, if I want to find out whether Prothero provides evidence for his claim, or sets out to prove it, I’d have to read his book, and I’m reluctant to do so. It’s surely far more likely he’s tossed in the subtitle as something provocative, a piece of unsubstantiated rhetoric.

A lot of ingredients make the human world run, including trade, transport, law, festivals, education, sex, empathy and new ideas. Customs, habits and religious rituals play their part for many of us too. However, there’s no doubt that, for most westerners, global networking, the take-up of higher education, multiculturalism and travel have transformed earlier customs and habits, with religion taking a major hit in the process. The places where religion is holding its own are those where such modern trends are less evident.

Prothero also seems to be downplaying the 20th century when he writes that the influence of atheism was negligible before that time, as if to say ‘setting aside the 20th century, religion has been the most powerful force in humanity.’ Maybe so, but you can’t set aside the 20th century, a century which saw the human population rise from less than two billion to around 7 billion, a century of unprecedented and mind-boggling advances in science and technology, and in the education required to keep abreast of them, and which has seen a massive rise in travel and global communication. Continuing into the 21st century, these developments have been transformative for those exposed to them. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the same period has seen ‘the rise of the nones’ as by far the most significant development in religion for centuries – or more likely, since the first shrine was constructed. Of course, correlation isn’t causation, and I’m not going to delve deeply into causative factors here, but the phenomenon is real, though Prothero engages in what seems to me a desperate attempt to minimise it with his data. I’ll examine his statistics more closely later.

Prothero also presents the ‘inconsequential outside of Europe’ argument, which, apart from dismissing Australians like me – where more than 23% professed to having no religion in the last census (2011), with some 9% also choosing not to answer the optional question on religion – seems to dismiss Europe as an aberration in much the same way as he dismisses the 20th century. Yet in the last seventy years since the end of WW2, western Europe has only been an aberration in terms of its stability, its growing unity, its overall prosperity, its high levels of literacy and other positives on the registers of well-being and civility. Surely we should hope that such aberrations might spread worldwide. Many of the western European nations are regarded and valued as ‘elite states’, where religious strife, a problem in the heart of Europe for centuries up to and including the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, is now almost entirely confined to its immigrant populations. These are now among the least religious countries in the world.

So let’s look at Prothero’s data. He states that 9% of Western European adults are ‘committed atheists’. Why, one wonders, does he choose this category? Most atheists aren’t ‘committed’ if by this is meant proselytising for non-belief in supernatural beings. They don’t go around ‘being atheists’. As I’ve said, I consider myself first and foremost as a sceptic, and it’s out of scepticism and a need for evidence and for the best explanation of phenomena that I consider belief in creator beings, astrology, acupuncture, fairies and homeopathy as best explained by psychology, ignorance and credulity.

My view is that Prothero chooses the ‘committed atheist’ category for the same reason that William Lane Craig does – to minimise the clear-cut ‘rise of the nones’, to reduce non-belief to the smallest category he can get away with.

Prothero cites a website for his figures on ‘committed atheists’ (9% in western Europe, 4% in eastern and central Europe, 3% in Latin America, 2% in the Middle East and 1% in North America), which is a 2005 Gallup Poll. I cannot find the 2005 poll, but an updated 2012 Gallup Poll is very revealing, as it compares some figures with those from 2005. What it reveals, sadly, is a degree of intellectual dishonesty on Prothero’s part. Prothero claims that atheism is inconsequential outside of Europe, yet the same Gallup Poll from which he took his figures – but this time the 2012 version – states that 47% of Chinese self-describe as committed atheists*. Presumably this was slightly up on 2005 (the 2005 figure for China isn’t given), because almost every nation shows a rise in atheism in recent years, but the huge percentage, together with 31% of Japanese ‘committed atheists’ completely discredits Prothero’s ‘inconsequential outside of Europe’ claim.

It’s worth giving more comprehensive data on western Europe here, based on the 2012 poll by Gallup International. The 9% figure for ‘committed atheists’ is now 14%, with a further 32% describing themselves as ‘not religious’, and 3% ‘no answer or not sure’. The rest, 51%, described themselves as religious. It’s clear that, by the next poll, most western Europeans will not describe themselves as religious. Only 14% of Chinese people currently describe themselves as such – and as we all know, China will soon take over the world.

I was surprised, too, that only 1% of North Americans were committed atheists, according to Prothero. I can’t confirm this, but according to the 2012 poll, the figure is 6%, with a further 33% claiming to be ‘not religious’. The percentage of the self-described religious is a surprisingly low 57%. Perhaps Prothero combined the North American and African figures to arrive at the 1% mark. Who knows what paths motivated reasoning will lead a person down.

The 2012 poll, if it’s reliable, is revealing about the speed with which religion is being abandoned in some parts. In France, for example the percentage of ‘committed atheists’ has jumped from 14 to 29%, an extraordinary change in age-old belief systems in less than a decade.

But beyond these statistics about how people see themselves, the change is most marked, in the west, by the vastly diminished role of religion in public life. It’s precisely Prothero’s claim that religions ‘run the world’ that is most suspect. In virtually every western country, secularism, the insistence that the church and the state remain separate, has become more firmly established in the 20th century. The political influence of the Christian churches in particular has noticeably waned. Of course there are a few theocratic nations, but their numbers are decreasing, and none of them are major world powers. If you believe, as most do, that the world is run by governments and commercial enterprises, it’s hard to see where religion fits into this scheme. In some regions it may be the glue that holds societies together, but these regions appear to be diminishing. Religions these days receive more publicity for the damage they do than for any virtues they may possess. Any modern westerner might think of them as ruining the world rather than running it.

The fact is that, in every western country without exception (yes, that includes the USA), the trend away from religious belief is so rapid it’s almost impossible to keep up with. I’ve already written about the data in New Scientist suggesting that the ‘nones’ are the fourth religious category after Christians, Moslems and Hindus, numbering some 700 million. Wikipedia goes one further, putting the nones third with 1.1 billion. Of course these figures are as rubbery as can be, but its indisputable that this is overwhelmingly a modern phenomenon, covering the past fifty or sixty years in particular. It’s accelerating and unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable.

Books like Prothero’s are symptomatic of the change. Remember The Twilight of Atheism (which I also haven’t read)? Deny what’s going on, promote the positive power and eternal destiny of religion and all will be well.

Well, it won’t. Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Prothero?

 

*To be fair to Prothero, it looks like no 2005 figures for China were available, though the large figures for Japan certainly were. Also, though these figures for China have been uncritically reported by the media, the sample size, as mentioned on Gallup International’s website, was preposterously small – some 500 people, less than one two-millionth of the Chinese population. The survey was apparently conducted online, but no details were given about the distribution of those surveyed. Given the resolutely secular Chinese government’s tight control of its citizens and media, I would treat any statistics coming out of that country with a large dose of salt.

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Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2014 at 10:33 pm

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