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disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 3

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IfGodMadeUs

Argument 7: God is the best explanation of the connection between the flourishing of the kinds of moral agents there are, and the necessary moral truths that apply to them.

Here we move more and more into the field of the preposterous, IMHO. He quotes a Christian philosopher, Gregory Ganssle, as saying:

Not only do we have beings to which necessary moral truths apply, but we have beings that are made up in such a way that doing what is right turns out to be good for them, it contributes to their flourishing rather than their languishing. Maybe only one in ten universes that are moral, in that they have the right sorts of beings that are such that moral goodness, and the flourishing of those beings involved, converge.

The last sentence is virtually meaningless, but the emphasis here on necessary moral truths is bizarre. I’m not sure what they are, but I’m certain that I haven’t the slightest interest in the concept. Vandergriff spoke earlier of the prohibition against murder as being a necessary moral truth, but many Christians are in favour of capital punishment, which is murder by the state. The murder of Bin Laden a couple of years ago raised very little moral outrage, nor does the murder of hostage-takers and other terrorists today. So these are apparently moral prohibitions that are on some occasions more ‘necessary’ than others.

I find the pretence of surprise that acting on ‘necessary moral truths’ seems coincidentally to promote human flourishing to be ridiculous and thoroughly disingenuous. The fact is that we’ve promoted human flourishing through social evolution. One of the most comprehensive explanations of how this has been achieved is presented by Steven Pinker in The better angels of our nature, a work of empiricism, not philosophy. Pinker has no more interest in ‘necessary moral truths’ than I do, he is concerned to explain how some human populations, and an increasing proportion of them, have been able to learn from the destructive errors of the past and to build better legal, economic, political, social, health and education systems, to better balance co-operation and competition, and individual and social goods. His analysis owes nothing to ‘necessity’, everything to the lessons learned through bitter and often traumatic experience. There are no perfect systems, but polities can be improved grindingly through continued analysis and experiment based on hard-won knowledge. Vandergriff and Ganssle put the cart before the horse. We flourish because the systems we put in place are designed for our flourishing. Yes, horror of horrors, our morality is all about enlightened self-interest, not ‘necessary goodness’. The horrors of the Great War drove us to attempt, for the first time in history, an organisation of international co-operation. Its dissolution was a setback rather than a complete failure. The later United Nations, with all its failings, has gradually grown in strength and will continue to be a force for peace, together with other international and intergovernmental organisations. The success of Medicins sans frontieres has spawned similar organisations ‘without borders’, and the trend is likely to continue. People get enormous satisfaction from helping others. Selfish satisfaction? Yes, but that vastly oversimplifies the matter. It is above all the satisfaction of being connected, which is so important for perhaps the most social species on the planet. And our increasing knowledge of our connections with other species is expanding our circle of sympathy, as philosopher Peter Singer has eloquently pointed out.

But as you might be able to detect, my sympathy with these arguments is starting to run out, and it gets worse.

Argument 8: God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings.

It should be pointed out that supernatural beings of any kind (let alone the mass-murdering war-god of the Old Testament) are always massively problematic ‘explanations’ because they have no empirical foundation. These are abstract objects, in spite of their variously imagined ‘histories’ in innumerable sacred texts. The development of self-awareness in many species on our planet is a contingent empirical fact.

Argument 8 and all the other ‘best explanation’ arguments given by Vandergriff, William Lane Craig and other theists are usually  accompanied by claims that ‘this situation/these events are extremely improbable under naturalism but entirely consistent/to be expected under theism’. That’s to say, they’re all ‘cart before the horse’ arguments. You define your supernatural agent as the repository of necessary truths, the generator of all value, the seat of ‘infinite consciousness’ (as Vandergriff quotes J P Moreland, another theist philosopher and theologian, as claiming), and the source of all meaning and ‘worthwhileness’ (argument 10), and then you say ‘hey look, we are value-seeking, meaning-requiring, self-aware, necessary-truth-understanding beings, so surely the whole kit-and caboodle was made by a god who made us as close to him as anything else, because he cares so much for us. Otherwise, all our amazing attributes are meaningless.’ I should point out that the amazing attributes of non-human species are constantly downplayed by theists, as they are in Vandergriff’s spiel, because they don’t contribute anything to this unique god-human relationship. They were downplayed throughout the Christian era too, of course, before it was challenged by the theory of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould has cited many cases in his essays: for example the early 19th century German embryologist Lorenz Oken wrote that

The animal kingdom is only a dismemberment of the highest animal, that is, of Man

and in an 1835 work, naturalist William Swainson reflected thus:

When we discover evident indications of a definite plan, upon which all these modifications have been regulated by a few simple and universal laws, our wonder is as much excited at the inconceivable wisdom and goodness of the SUPREME by whom these myriads of beings have been created and are now preserved, as at the mental blindness and perverted understanding of those philosophers, falsely so called, who would persuade us, that even Man, the last and best of created things, is too insignificant for the special care of Omnipotence.

We readily forgive these dated claims, partly because they don’t directly challenge us any more, bit it seems clear that many theists have learned nothing and forgotten nothing over the centuries. There are many obvious problems with this way of thinking, but the one I find most indigestible is that in order to avoid the horrors of contingency, which, certainly in the case of William Lane Craig, is the greatest and most unacceptable horror of all, theists are still forced to conclude that everything – the possibly-infinite multiverse, the big bang, quasars, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, gravity, quantum mechanics, the laws of nature, the elements and their proportions etc etc – was created by their god for us. We, containing so many of the god’s qualities, albeit in infinitesimal proportions, are the fulfilment of his purpose. We are what he created it all for. Not a geocentric universe perhaps, but an anthropocentric one for sure, with a complexity that the god gradually reveals to us as our privilege to work out.

So theism here presents us with a choice, or so it believes: total meaninglessness, or the humbling knowledge that we are central to a god’s plan, the pinnacle of his creation, created in his image, fumbling caretakers of his multiverse. As fantasies go, it’s a whopper. From an empiricist perspective however, it’s a non-starter, except in psychological terms. It has helped our forebears to get through many dark nights of history.

I’ll dispense quickly with Vandergriff’s last two arguments. Argument 10, God is the best explanation for the worthwhileness of life, is just more of the same and requires no further analysis. Argument 9, probably the most preposterous of all the arguments, is that ‘God is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth’. There are no historically established facts about Jesus of Nazareth, even of his birth, his preaching, his trial and his death, let alone of his putative miracles and resurrection. Scholars may argue to and fro about these matters, but their arguments are entirely textual and have no serious empirical value.

Okay, I’m done with this. Never again, I hope.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 1

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then_a_miracle_occurs

I’m always taken in a thousand different directions by my vagabond mind, as the history of my blog shows, but philosophy has long been an interest, more recently neglected due to trying to keep up, unsuccessfully of course, with the wonders of scientific discovery and speculation. A move away from rational to empirical stuff you might say, if only it was that simple.

So I recently listened to a very wordy debate presented on the Reasonable Doubts podcast between Jeffrey Jay Lowder (atheist) and Kevin Vandergriff (theist) on whether metaphysical naturalism (essentially the scientific approach) or Christian theism yields the best understanding of the universe (or multiverse?), based on ‘the evidence’. It sounded like a good idea at the time, as it sounded like it might be as much a report on empiricism – presenting the evidence – as a philosophical debate. Not surprisingly though, I became increasingly frustrated as I listened, especially to Vandergriff’s long-winded, fast -paced exposition of way too many points (he had to get everything in within the specified time limit, and was still gushing when the end-game theme music started playing). Vandergriff has clearly been inspired by the ‘success’ of William Lane Craig’s debating tactics, even trying to outdo WLC in the number of debating points that he claims must be rebutted by Lowder in order to ‘win’. Well, if wishes were fishes the sea would be swarming.

So the bewildering number of points (though many of them tediously familiar to anyone acquainted with WLC’s arguments) and the speed of delivery naturally reminded me of the old ‘gish gallop’, and my response is to regain control by taking my own good time to pick apart the arguments, so replacing the debate approach with a more effective ‘philosophical’ one, in writing. Not that this was a public debate; it was a written-and-read audio exchange, and many of the comments, linked to above, deal pretty effectively with Vandergriff’s fails. I’m just doing this to get back in the saddle, so to speak.

I won’t be dealing so much with Lowder’s pro-naturalism argument except where it supports my own, but generally I thought that there was too much emphasis, on both sides, on the old philosophical approaches, and not enough on evidence per se.

Vandergriff starts by saying he wants to defend three claims:

1. Christian theism is not significantly less simple than specified naturalism.

(Vandergriff doesn’t explain what he means by ‘specified’ here, and seems to use it as a technical term. A google search on ‘specified naturalism’ has come up with nothing (though the creationist William Dembski likes to use the term ‘specified complexity’), so I will assume he simply means metaphysical naturalism as per the debate title.

2. If God [i.e. the god called God] exists necessarily, then the prior probability of naturalism, no matter how simple, is zero.

3. Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism.

Before listening to Vandergriff’s defence of these claims I want to make some preliminary remarks. On (1), presumably Vandergriff has the Ockham’s Razor heuristic in mind – keep your assumptions to a minimum. But obviously Christian theism involves two assumptions over and above the assumptions of naturalism (that all is natural and potentially explicable in naturalistic terms). It assumes not only that there’s a supernatural agent responsible for the multiverse, but that the said supernatural agent is the god called God, who had an earthly son who was also a god, sort of, and all the other baggage that attaches to him, or them. These are big assumptions, and, to my mind, far from simple. On (2) yes, if any supernatural agent exists necessarily, I suppose that means supernaturalism reigns supreme and naturalism is vanquished. All we need is evidence, but not only can we not find any, we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Concepts like supreme goodness and maximal power are no more real than Plato’s ideal forms. We don’t call them ideal for nothing. And on (3), it seems to me that the explanatory power of naturalism is virtually infinite, because each new explanation leads to a host of new things to be explained (e.g the DNA molecule is discovered to be the essential building block of all life, but then why is it made up of precisely these amino acids, and why this sequence and why the helical structure, and why introns and exons, etc etc). Christian theism seems to me more like an evasion of explanation, and the ‘don’t question God’s handiwork’ argument was in fact quite prevalent in the 17th century and before, and was often used effectively to limit scientific inquiry.

Vandergriff next defines his god for us, with the usual ‘ideal form’ language. The god called God is maximally powerful, intelligent and good. I’ve elsewhere described this abstraction as a boob: a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being. Do boobs really exist? I’d like to hope so, the more the merrier. But I may be confusing my concepts here, so I’ll stick with gods. The god called God, according to Vandergriff, is a transcendent, personal being who created the physical world, and who sent a set of moral messages to us via Jesus.

Vandergriff emphasises his contention that a personal being (a being with personhood, just like us?) caused the physical world (presumably the multiverse) to exist, and that this multiverse is value-generating rather than indifferent, as it is claimed to be under naturalism. He also claims that, under naturalism, the universe or multiverse is eternal and uncaused, which his theism disputes. I would’ve thought naturalism remains open to the questions of ‘eternality’, finitude or infinitude, and ultimate causation. My own recent readings on the universe/multiverse tell me that cosmologists have many positions on these matters, though all approach them from a naturalistic perspective.

Next Vandergriff returns to the 3 claims stated above. He takes issue with Lowder for presupposing an indifferent universe in some of his arguments, which he cites another philosopher, Paul Draper, as claiming ‘is roughly equal in simplicity to theism’. One wonders how these various simplicities can be weighed or measured, by Draper or anyone else. Presumably all that’s meant by this is that it’s just as straightforward to posit a naturalistic universe, with no intrinsic value, as it is to posit a supernatural-being-created universe, full of value. Vandergriff thinks that this goes a long way to prove the claim that theism is not a more complex explanation than naturalism, and this somehow bolsters theism. But it seems to me, on reflection, that the two cases are not roughly equal in simplicity, because with theism, first you have a supernatural creator, second you have value-adding, so to speak. In fact, these two elements struck me as separate when I first leaned about a supernatural creator as a child sent to Sunday School. Full of skepticism and curiosity about this new entity I was learning about, I wondered, how do we know this being is so concerned about us being good? If he created the world in the long ago, why does that automatically mean he’s still obsessed with us? If he’s so all-powerful and super-clever, why wouldn’t he want to test his powers on some new project, just as I might build a fabulous house out of lego and then abandon it for bigger and better projects? In other words, couldn’t a supernatural creator be indifferent too? Or only interested for a period before turning his attention to something else? Vandergriff would get round this objection, I suppose, by pointing to his assumptions about the supernatural being, especially the one about ‘goodness’. An all-good god would never abandon his creation but would, apparently, be eternally obsessed by it. But I’m not sure that perfect goodness (whatever that means) entails this, and anyway these are just assumptions.

Now to Vandergriff’s second claim. Again he quotes Paul Draper, who says that if the god called God necessarily exists, then naturalism is incoherent and theism has a probability of 1. That’s a long-winded way of saying if theism has to be true, it’s true, like absolutely. Of course, that’s a big if, possibly bigger than the known universe. However, at this stage, Vandergriff provides no evidence for this necessary existence (though he says he has two arguments up his sleeve).

On the third contention, Vandergriff goes straight into argument.

1.  God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.

Here, Vandergriff cites the 2003 Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem relating to an expanding universe (and, I think, other universe models), to support his argument that the universe is non-eternal, to which one commentator on the Reasonable Doubts blog replied tersely ‘Yet another William Lane Craig clone abusing the Borde Guth Velenkin theorem’. In fact I’ve dealt with this claim myself well enough in one of my responses to WLC’s typical debates. Of course the issue here is not whether the universe had a beginning, but what was the cause of that beginning, or what were the conditions at that beginning, or is it meaningful to talk of a ‘before’ the beginning. But here’s where the likes of Vandergriff and WLC make the leap into metaphysics or the supernatural with wild talk of a transcendent, miraculous cause, which, of course, allows tremendous scope for the imagination. The fact is, we’re far from clear about the origin. I’ve read one hypothesis that the big bang may have been the result of a collision or interaction between two ‘branes’, of which there are presumably many in the multiverse. I’ve also read that, as we get asymptotically close to the big bang (going backwards), the laws of nature break down in the super-intensity of it all, so who knows? The Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem, moreover, even on Vandergriff’s (and WLC’s) much-disputed interpretation of it, doesn’t disconfirm naturalism at all, because naturalism is not dependent on an eternal, uncaused universe. Says who?

But it really gets ridiculous when Vandergriff, having proved to his satisfaction that the universe must have a cause, ‘wonders’ what that cause might be, and concludes that it must be an ‘unembodied mind’ (gifted, of course, with miraculous powers). How did he come to this conclusion? Well, this mind must be miraculous because it ‘created the world with no prior materials’. How does Vandergriff know this? The obvious answer is: he doesn’t, he’s just making stuff up. And why would this ‘transcendent’ cause have to be an unembodied mind? Because, according to Vandergriff, only abstract objects and unembodied minds can transcend the universe, but since abstract objects can’t cause anything, the cause must be an unembodied mind!

But of course an unembodied mind is just another abstract object. There are no real unembodied minds that we know of (though Fred Hoyle sort of created one in The Black Cloud, but that one didn’t go around creating universes, in spite of being super-smart), and Vandergriff doesn’t even consider it a requirement to prove that such things exist. As for ‘miraculous’, that just reminds me of the old cartoon – which I’ve put on top of this post.

I’ll have a look at Vandergriff’s next argument, and so forth, in my next post, though I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It’s good mind-exercise I suppose.

For now, though, I’ll watch some FKA Twigs videos, for delightful relief.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom

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Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states

GallupAttendance

The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.

france

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 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

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.

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2014 at 10:33 pm

the strange case of school chaplaincy

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Ron Williams - hero of the High Court challenge

Ron Williams – hero of the High Court challenge

The National School Chaplaincy Program is on the face of it a curiously retrograde program that first came into being in 2006, near the end of Howard’s conservative Prime Ministership. It apparently began its life with a conversation in May of that year between the Victoria-based federal minister, Greg Hunt, and one Peter Rawlings, a member of Access Ministries and a volunteer in primary school religious instruction. Rawlings suggested to Hunt that it would be a great idea to install Christian ‘support workers’ in state schools throughout the Mornington Peninsula area. Hunt, whose religious beliefs are a mystery to me, apparently though this a great idea, one that should be extended to the whole nation, with federal support. His boss, PM Howard, who claims to be a committed Christian, was also whole-hearted in his support as were various other conservative MPs.

Given that over 23% of Australians are openly non-religious (a decidedly conservative figure), and that the rise of the non-religious over the last twenty years is the most significant change in religion in this country, and given that every Christian denomination is in decline, some of them spectacularly, and given the fall in church attendances, and the increasing multiculturalism and multi-religiousity of that proportion of society that is still religious, I personally find it unfathomable that this proposal has received such support. I can only suppose that such organisations as the Australian Christian Lobby, Access Ministries and Scripture Union Australia have far more political power and clout than I could ever have thought possible.

In any case, Labor, under its devoutly Christian PM Kevin Rudd, chose not to throw the scheme out when it came to power in late 2007. Labor has long supported the separation of church and state, a position reinforced, one would’ve thought, by the increasing secularisation of our polity in recent years. Rudd himself was keen to reassure people that he supported church-state separation, as did his Education Minister, Peter Garrett (another Christian). So why did they persist in this program? Wouldn’t a financial boost to school counselling have been a simpler, more effective and far less controversial option? Of course the program fits the current conservative government’a agenda perfectly. It has hit schools hard with its recent cost-cutting ‘share the pain’ budget, while at the same time earmarking some $245 million for chaplaincy over the next four years or so. The program will replace the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015, thus undermining school counselling and psychological services. In May of this year, a provision to allow for non-secular ‘chaplains’ was struck out. It was a finicky provision in any case, only allowing for non-secular welfare workers when all attempts to find an ordained chaplain for the job had failed. However, the striking out of the provision gives a clear indication that this is a federally-backed religious (or more specifically Christian) position. It can also come at a great cost to individual workers and to recipients of their services, as this story from the Sydney Morning Herald of May 21 shows:

Last week’s budget delivered a double blow to youth welfare worker Joanne Homsi. For the past 18 months, Ms Homsi has worked in two high schools in the St George and Sutherland area, supporting students with drug and alcohol issues, low confidence, family problems and suicidal thoughts. As well as talking with students, she has connected them to mental health centres, remedial learning programs and other services. Ms Homsi loves the job, and the schools value her work. But in December she will be looking for a new job – and there will not be a safety net to catch her if she cannot find one. Because she is under 30, she would have to wait six months before she can receive any unemployment benefits under tough new rules for young job seekers.

The federal government, in any case, hasn’t generally been in the business of providing funding for these kinds of services, which is usually a states responsibility, but of course schools will look for funding anywhere they can, and to have that scarce funding tied to a Christian belief system seems wildly anachronistic. This Essential Report poll gives the clear impression that the program is unsupported by the general public, but maybe there’s a larger ‘silent’ public that the conservatives are appealing to, or maybe they simply don’t care about what the public prefers. Their argument would be that take-up of the program is entirely voluntary. In other words, cash-strapped schools are faced with this option or no option as far as federal funding is concerned.

There are plenty of parents who are willing to take a stand on this issue, however. One of them, Ron Williams, Australian Humanist of the Year in 2012, was recently successful yet again in his second High Court challenge to the NSCP, though the government, and the Labor opposition, are perversely determined to find their way around the High Court’s ruling. In a 6-0 result worthy of the German national team the High Court found that the funding model of the government was inappropriate. When Williams’ first High Court challenge was successful in 2012, the then Gillard Labor government rushed through the Financial Framework Amendment Legislation Act to enable it to fund a range of  programs without legislation. Some $6 million was provided to the Scripture Union of Queensland. To add insult to injury for Williams, a father of four school-age children, funding was provided to his own children’s school to employ a chaplain.

The recent High Court finding says that the funding mechanism is invalid. This affects many other federal government funding mechanisms too, as it happens, and that’s a big headache for the government, but the most interesting finding related to the NSCP is that the funding, in the overwhelming view of the High Court, did not provide a benefit to students – which it should according to section 51 (XXiiiA) of the constitution, in order to be valid. In other words the High Court overwhelmingly disagreed with John Howard’s claim, made at the launch of the NSCP in October 2006, that ‘students need the guidance of chaplains, rather than counsellors’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had the money been earmarked for counsellors, the High Court would indeed have seen that as a benefit to students.

So the government is trying to find new funding models for a variety of programs it wants to hold onto, but it’s got a problem on its hands with chaplaincies. They have to be Christians, but they can’t proselytise, they’re there to give spiritual guidance to students, but this isn’t seen legally as providing a benefit, and how do they do that anyway without proselytising? What a holy mess it is, to be sure.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 2, 2014 at 5:45 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia

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This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide

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But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

what can we learn from religion?

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atheists

 

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am