Saturday, July 14, 2012

Christianity to disappear! Gnu Millennia to follow!

Tom Flynn, at the Council for Secular Humanism, and editor of the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, has just posted a cheerful report about the state of religion in America -- cheerful, that is, if you're a secular humanist, and you buy his arguments.

I fall into neither category, but the dual negation makes me feel upbeat, all over again.  Let's take a look: 

How many of us are there? Writing in FREE INQUIRY In 1993, the philosopher and religion researcher William B. Williamson estimated the total population belonging to atheist or humanist organizations or subscribing to “movement” publications at 178,000.  As minorities go, that’s vanishingly small. And if you listen to the religious Right, it’s about what you’d expect: a marginal fringe of village-atheist misfits whose concerns are hopelessly remote from the American mainstream.

Actually, from what you hear from a lot of Christians, the anti-God faction has already taken over Academia, the courts, Hollywood, and Washington.  So we conservative Christians have both our "glass half empty" and our "glass half full" voices, plus a few misfits like myself, who suffer mood swings.     

But maybe counting membership cards and subscriptions isn’t the best way to gauge the size of our movement. If we take the whole spectrum of nonbelievers—from hard-bitten atheists to those self-described “religious humanists” who nonetheless hold no transcendental beliefs—what do the numbers show?

It depends on when you look. Sixty or seventy years ago, just 2 percent of Americans would confide to pollsters that they had no religious preference. By 1990, that figure had risen to about 8 percent.

Does anyone suppose that only 2% of Americans really were irreligious in the 1940s?  Just yesterday morning, I read this autobiographical comment from a young Isobel Kuhn, who was waiting tables in Chicago to work her way through Bible school in the 1920:

(The new work) was not too strenuous, however, for it was work among Christians -- no more heathen Americans shouting at me.

Kuhn's accounts of Christian visitation likewise make it clear that a lot of people, if not the majority, were extremely irreligious.  (As does Jonathan Goforth's account of the same activity, a few decades earlier.) 

Likely the expression of a "religious preference" was more a tribal than spiritual comment.  "I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Catholic -- I must be a Baptist, what else?" 

And why should we start just 70 years ago, 200 years after the so-called Enlightenment began?  What were the forces of secularization doing all those centuries, enjoying a siesta?  Heck, Flynn's beginning date was 30 years after an atheist cult took over the largest country in the world!  Best I recall, that cult made considerable headway in America during our Great Depression, and had been causing rumblings for decades across Europe and Asia.  (It had conquered much of China, already.)  Honestly, the historical memory of many skeptics seems brief as a firefly!

As Rodney Stark shows in "Secularization, RIP" (more on this, below), irreligious attitudes have been as much the norm as the exception since the Middle Ages, at least.  Europe was seldom all that church-going a society.  America has often been more secularized than it is today: the number of those with church affiliations in early America was, Stark claims, much lower than it is today.

Today the number claiming no religious preference (nonreligionists, popularly referred to as the “nones”) stands at 16 percent. Let’s see: as I write there are about 313,000,000 Americans. The Catholic church counts babies and children, so we should too, just to keep the comparisons even. So that’s roughly 50,080,000 American men, women, and children who live outside of conventional religion.

This is supposed to be some sort of revolution?  Stark says only 17%  of Americans belonged to a church in 1776.  It is almost certain that the number of those who have no serious religious faith is a lot higher than 16% now, and always has been.  But most New Atheists, being young pups, lack the historical consciousness that would trigger their "baloney alert" sirens when their gurus make naval-gazing claims like this.  They haven't been around long, and haven't read enough to smell a rat when people talk glibly of past "Ages of Faith."  Christians sometimes make the same mistake, by romanticizing the past.  (Forgetting such evils as the intense racism of the same Southern culture that produced all those great Gospel songs you get just a small taste of in Brother, Where Are Thou.)  We are often told how abruptly Brits have left the faith in the past few decades -- forgetting that most of a century ago, C. S. Lewis already asserted that barely one in ten Brits were Christian. (As, I think, Chesterton did before him.) 

It was no anomaly that in 1738, less than 5% of the population of Oxfordshire even bothered to attend church on feast days: disinterest had long been the norm across Europe.  (Stark and Finke, 2000: 63-68)  The larger trend in America has been a fairly steady INCREASE in piety and church attendance. 

For belief in God, the great granddaddy of all data sources is the Gallup Poll. We’ve all seen the figures endlessly repeated in the media: “Surveys show more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, a figure that’s held steady since the 1940s.” Well, not exactly. The Gallup Organization asked Americans “Do you believe in God?” on at least six occasions between November 1944 and August 1967. In 1976, Gallup changed the question, asking not whether respondents believed in God but whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit.” Broadening the question in this way perhaps served to keep the number of reported believers stable, even though their notions of God had grown more diverse. Interestingly, in May 2011 Gallup tested the old “Do you believe in God?” question for the first time in forty-four years. The last time Gallup posed that question, in August 1967, 98 percent of respondents reported believing in God. In May 2011, only 92 percent said the same. Hmm—no wonder they changed the question.

This sounds a little paranoid, as if  Flynn is assuming that Gallup does its work chiefly to cover the exposed limbs of ragged and retreating country preachers.  The real reason Gallup rephrased the question should be obvious: New Age thinking, Hinduism, or Native American terminology, had become popular in the 1960s and 70s, and with it, "broader" definitions of God.

The Gallup survey also shows that faith in God rose and declined (as Stark and Finke predict, against Secularization Theory), having been as "low" as 94% in 1947 -- only two points higher than the present.   
Given that 5% of Americans are now of Asian origin, one might (a priori) expect theism to drop a couple points due to the increase in people from the least-Christian part of the planet alone, even without the recent Gnu fad.  But no doubt the Gnu fad has had some impact, as fads generally do.  (As, at the same time, many Asian immigrants have also converted to Christianity.)  Why assume the trend will continue?  Both European and American history suggest that religious commitment waxes and wanes.   (See the graph to right, for one possible causal mechanism: children of atheists tend to defect more often than those raised in any religion.)

Unbelief among Scientists

The media have an insatiable appetite for news about religious belief and unbelief among scientists. This seemingly arcane statistic strikes a chord because fundamentalists hope to scare people away from Darwin by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists—while secular humanists hope to show what a smart option unbelief must be by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists.

The measurement of belief and unbelief among scientists began with pioneer sociologist James H. Leuba (1868–1946). He grew up in Switzerland, where his experience of the stern Calvinism in power there led him to atheism—and to lifelong curiosity about religion. He moved to the United States as a graduate student and stayed for life. From 1898 to 1933, Leuba was a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College.

In a famous 1916 study, Leuba surveyed the religious opinions of one thousand biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists. He attracted enormous attention with the then-scandalous finding that only about 40 percent of American scientists believed in God or an afterlife. Leuba repeated the survey in 1933, obtaining similar results.

In April of 1997, University of Georgia science historian Edward J. Larson and Washington Times reporter Larry Witham announced in a letter to Nature that they had replicated Leuba’s 1916 and 1933 studies. Restricting themselves to a sample of one thousand scientists in the same narrow selection of specialties Leuba had chosen, Larson and Witham also administered exactly the same now-archaic questionnaire in order to maximize intercomparability between Leuba’s data and their own.

What did they find? As in 1916 and 1933, about 40 percent of responding scientists believed in God or an afterlife . . .

One year later, Larson and Witham were back, advising Nature that they had replicated one of Leuba’s other studies—a survey of elite American scientists . . .

In 1914, Leuba found that 27.7 percent of elite scientists had a personal belief in God. By 1933, that figure had fallen to just 15 percent. For Larson and Witham in 1998, only 7 percent of top scientists had a personal belief in God. By the way, this statistic is the source for that endless repeated sound-bite claim that only 7 percent of top scientists believe in God . . .

I mention such findings in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and suggest various explanations.  The least likely, it seems to me, is that "elite scientists" are clearer-thinking, and more familiar with the evidence for and against God than anyone else.  For one thing, in some societies higher education levels corresponds dramatically with an increase in Christian commitment.  Perhaps "elites" just like to be different from the common herd.  Probably there are "people movements" among some elites pulling them towards secular humanism - a social, not intellectual, phenomena.  In any case, as one biologist pointed out to me, to become an elite scientist or social scientist requires an enormous investment of time in one's speciality.  Someone who invests 80 hours a week in chemistry experiements and in reading the literature may not have time to go to church, still less to rationally and fairly investigate the evidence for Christianity.  (I submit Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion as Exhibit A to demonstrate the callowness of resultant diatribes by "elite scientists" -- if one can count Dawkins as such.)

Thus we get graphs like this, from Flynn:
Figure 2
Figure 2. Composition of 16 percent of Americans, an all-time high, who declared themselves unnaffiliated with any religion (Pew-Bliss Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, 2004). Atheists, agnostics, and seculars combined outnumbered believers (10.7% – 5.3%).

Nevermind the fact that "all time" here carries the special meaning of, "since 1940."  That is, after all, when time began, is it not?  And never mind the fact that the number is absurdly low, anyway. 

Some Dubious Numbers

The demography of religion has given rise to its share of questionable data. September 2006 saw the release of a provocative but badly flawed study from Baylor University’s Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.19 To give you an idea what to expect, know that Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university; that the study was partly funded by the highly pro-religious John Templeton Foundation20; and that one of its directors was Rodney Stark, famous for his erroneous proclamation of the death of secularization. Baylor researchers took joy in reporting that one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical, and that almost 92 percent of its respondents reported belief in God.

Wait -- isn't that the same figure Flynn himself reported, earlier in this article?  Why was that figure correct when reported approvingly from Gallup, but "badly flawed" when reported disapprovingly from Baylor?  Is it not possible they both got the number approximately correct? 

And what does Flynn mean by saying Stark is "famous for his erroneous proclamation of the death of secularism?"  For anyone who knows much about religious scholarship, Stark is really famous for being one of the most intellectually productive and insightful sociologists of religion in the world -- which is why even smart Gnus, like Daniel Dennett, site him to buttress their arguments.  The radical sociologists Flynn sets against Stark (see below) are mostly small potatoes by comparison, which is why Flynn's dismissive comment sounds like one of those boomerang snears.  Secondly, it sounds as if Flynn is referring to Stark's article in The Sociology of Religion, 1999, 'Secularization, RIP.'  To be clear, what Stark describes there is the death of Secularization Theory, not an end to secularists, or the precipitous decline of unbelief, nor is he denying ups and downs in religious belief.   

Let’s analyze the second claim first. That 92 percent figure turns out to be a composite, combining four groups holding distinctively different conceptions of God (see figure 3):
  • Thirty-one percent believed in an authoritarian god who is engaged in world affairs and angry at humanity’s sins.
  • Twenty-three percent believed in a benevolent god who is less likely to judge but has nonetheless given us absolute standards of right and wrong.
  • Sixteen percent believed in a critical god who monitors world affairs with a judging eye but never intervenes—no miracles, no thunderbolts of judgment.
  • Twenty-four percent believed in a distant god, essentially the aloof god of deism.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Composition of 92 percent of believers in God reported by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion in 2006. The suspect study also found one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical.

The Baylor study should have made news for finding that only a third of Americans hold the picture of God that fundamentalist evangelical Christians would consider “correct.”

This argument seems remarkably silly. 

What is God like, to orthodox Christians?  Is he distant?  Sure, sometimes -- even Jesus reported such an experience.  Is he critical?  Often -- even Jesus' disciples came in for quite a bit of tongue-lashing.  Is he benevolent?  We see that clearly in the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and sometimes in our own lives.  Is he the principle authority in our lives?  That's what the word "Lord," one of the most common names of God in the Bible, means. 

So God is all of these things at once, in the theology of the religion Flynn imagines himself to be attacking, but really shows little sign of comprehending, here. 

It is rather simple-minded to "quadfurcate" these four aspects of God's character, then to identify one as orthodox ("fundamentalist") doctrine, and discount people who mark the "wrong" answers as therefore unorthodox.  Flynn should read the parable of the blind men and the elephant: he is one of those blind men.   

Writing in FREE INQUIRY, a prominent religion scholar called the Baylor study “deficient in uncountable ways” and “all but useless.” As evidence, consider this astonishing factoid: the study found that 86.5 percent of evangelical Protestants have “no doubt that God exists,” which would imply that 13.5 percent of evangelical Protestants do have doubt that God exists. Make of that what you will.

What I would make of it, again, is that people who read Free Inquiry are often deficient in common sense. 

I sometimes doubt God's existence, as apparently did Mother Teresa.  Does that make us agnostics?  Hardly.  I am a committed Christian, who would be happy to debate the existence of God with Richard Dawkins or any other leading atheist, and who has invested his life (in some sense) in the work of the Gospel.  But reality can be an ambiguous thing, providing fodder for thoughtful people of all views to feel doubts, from time to time, especially those of us of a "glass half full today, half empty tomorrow" temperament.  What amaze me are people who never doubt, but sometimes I envy them, too. 

And who knew that "prominent religious scholars" issued their careful, ground-breaking arguments in Free Inquiry magazine? Flynn is referring to R. Joseph Hoffman, who was also an editor of Free Inquiry and a legitimate (if somewhat fringy) scholar, but certainly none so prominent as Stark. 

Though numerous other studies have been unanimous in documenting sharp growth in both the unaffiliated population and the overtly nonreligious population since the 1990s, disagreeing only as to exact percentages, the 2008 Baylor study would seek to prove that the idea that the nonreligious population is increasing was all a silly mistake. For example, it maintained that America’s atheist population has remained essentially unchanged at about 4 percent from 1944 through 2007.

Independent scholar Gregory S. Paul analyzed the 2008 study in a lengthy report released early in 2009 by the Council for Secular Humanism.  Paul described numerous alleged errors and instances of bias in the Baylor group’s interpretation of its data.

Paul is no stranger to bias and errors.  His own work, I have found riddled with both; Stark was quite dismissive of Paul, when I sent him a rebuttal I wrote to Paul's earlier work, which I found terribly sloppy.  But that would be the subject for another day.   

Secularization: Are Reports of Its Death Exaggerated?

This brings us to one of the most controversial principles in religious demographics: the so-called secularization hypothesis. This is the theory, originally formalized by the nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber, that religion should diminish in influence as education, prosperity, and public understanding of science spread. Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable for mainstream demographers to pronounce the secularization hypothesis a failure, at least as regards the United States. The aforementioned Rodney Stark did so with gusto in a 1999 paper titled “Secularization, R.I.P.,” which was adapted into a chapter of his 2000 book Acts of Faith coauthored with Roger Finke. I criticized “death-of-secularization theory” in a retrospective 2007 FREE INQUIRY op-ed, noting that since 2000, both internationally and even across the United States, signs are growing that the process of secularization is proceeding after all. I noted the rapid rise in nonreligionist Americans, flattening growth trends among evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches across the United States, and signs that America’s fast-growing Hispanic population is beginning to surrender to the “secularizing tug of American life.”

Independent scholars Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have examined the state of secularization today in depth. Paul is the author of two FREE INQUIRY cover stories, the mammoth entry on “Demography of Unbelief” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, and the previously mentioned critique of the 2008 Baylor religion study. Zuckerman, now at Pitzer College, is author of Society without God (2008), which profiles life in highly secularized Norway and Scandinavia, and Faith No More, a collection of interviews with largely American apostates.

I seem to have misplaced my rebuttal of Paul and (perhaps) Zuckerman.  If I find it, or find time to reproduce it, I may post it here in the future: these gentleman are cited quite often, and I think many of their arguments are very simplistic. 

Among their findings: contrary to what you might have heard, the world religions are not enjoying conspicuous growth spurts (with one exception). Christians made up about a third of the global population in 1900, and they still do today. Hindus are static at one-seventh despite strong population growth in India. Buddhism shrunk by a quarter in the twentieth century and is predicted to shrink by about as much in the next fifty years. Only Islam has gained ground, moving from one-eighth to one-fifth of the global population in the twentieth century. By 2050, it is projected that one human in four will be a Muslim. But conversion has little to do with it; Islam is growing solely because of very high birthrates across the Muslim world.

Notice what is missing in this analysis -- an enormous and important worldwide revolution. 

Since 1900, the percentage of the world that was "Western" -- broadly, white -- has plummetted dramatically.  This is where almost all the world's Christians were in 1900.  Given the fact that "Christian" countries have plunged off a cliff, demographically, and that secularization is supposedly occuring in most of those countries (not to mention an atheist empire swallowing many of them) one would expect the number of Christians in the world to plunge even faster.  One would expect, maybe, 10% of the world to espouse a marginal Christianity, by this time.   

This has not happened.  The percentage of self-declared Christians has remained fairly steady.  The percentage of real Christians has probably risen. 

Why is that?  Simple: the Gospel has spread to the rest of the world in a dramatic fashion.  Millions of Christians in subSaharan Africa have become hundreds of millions, many of them fervent.  Christo-pagans in South America have become Bible-reading believers.  Almost a hundred million Chinese have converted to Christianity, along with tens of millions in India, Indonesia, and Korea.  Brand-new churches have started from nothing in countries like Nepal and Mongolia, while movements to Christ have even begun in Iran, Egypt, and Algeria. 

So even while the percentage of Christians has remained steady, due to slower biological growth (a factor Flynn finds worth emphasizing, when it comes to Islam!), Christianity has, in fact, enjoyed tremendous growth, at the very same time.  Also, more of these new Christians seem to be serious about their faith than mere genetic church attendance.  Plus, we can rejoice that the communist attempt to wipe out religion, the largest anti-religious movement in history (which our present Gnus try hard to forget about) largely failed, and the gates of the Gulag were flung half-open. 

Viewed even from the perspective of the fastest-growing sects, the explosion of secularity is still unprecedented, dwarfing the Mormons’ climb to twelve million during the century and even the growth of Pentecostalist Protestantism from nearly nothing to half a billion.

I don't begrudge Mr. Flynn his momentary thrill, and there certainly are many (often young) converts to the New Atheism.  But in truth, the closest parallel to the most spectacular rise of atheism -- which held one third of the world under its political sway, just a few years ago, though Flynn seems to have forgotten -- was early Islamic jihad.  The causes of success in both cases was the same: violence and terror.  A few decades ago, more than a billion people worldwide would almost certainly have called themselves atheists.  The number has shrunk, since, and seems to shrink soon after young people in remaining communist countries leave college. 

Moreover, secularity has made its spectacular gains almost entirely through the mechanism of adult choice.

Nonsense.  Most atheists in the world today are in China.  Most young Chinese college students call themselves atheists.  About half (based on my own limited survey) seem to shed this ephemeral self-identity after they graduate. 

No faith or sect has grown as rapidly by conversion alone. Doubters like us seem to be piling on the numbers as millions of men and women worldwide examine and reject the religions of their childhoods. Paul and Zuckerman call it “the first emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances. . . . Disbelief in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion.”  This conclusion would be echoed by the previously discussed ARIS 2008.

Flynn appears to be a bit intoxicated with triumphalism.  Again, look carefully at the graph of religious retention rates, above.  I hope for the best on both sides of the generational gap, but atheists have not been very effective in transmitting their creed to their children.  Maybe this is one reason why secularism seems to come and go in waves, of which the Enlightenment can perhaps be seen as one. 

Why Is America So Different?

Even so, the phenomenon called American exceptionalism must be accounted for. Though religiosity is not ballooning in American life as widely supposed, public piety is nonetheless far more widespread in America than in Europe, Canada, or Australia. In fact, the United States is the only first-world country that displays high levels of religiosity seen otherwise only in third-world countries.

This is untrue, as well.  South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are, by any reasonable measure, "first world countries."  Exuberant religious belief thrives in all three places: in Singapore, even Anglican churches are evangelical. 

Why might this be? The well-known demographers Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offered a hypothesis with distinctly political overtones. In their landmark 2004 book Sacred and Secular34 they hypothesized that first-world countries other than the United States differ from American society in having such attributes as stronger handgun control, a rehabilitative approach to incarceration, vigorous sex education, and until quite recently, greater leisure time and a much stronger social safety net. Largely protected against misfortunes that might upend a comfortable middle-class life, citizens of first-world countries other than the United States may well have felt that they could afford to dispense with the dubious protections that religion provides.

Or to put it in traditional Christian terms, as in communist countries, people who think government is God, often forsake the real God. 

But this handgun stuff seems a bit of a red herring.  Handguns are not at all widely available in Singapore or Taiwan.  Anyway, does anyone really think churches are full in America because guns are for sale in Big 5?  This looks like an almost superstitious form of liberal thinking.    

As to whether life is really more secure in a Western Europe that has experienced two (or three, depending how you count) world wars in the past century, and now runs the risk of financial ruin and demographic implosion, than in, say, pre-Obama North Dakota, is another issue.  The unadorned answer, I think, would have to be "No." 

In contrast, American life is significantly more uncertain, particularly (but far from solely) as regards the risk of bankruptcy in the event of catastrophic illness whose costs exceed an individual’s or family’s insurance coverage, coupled with the fact that once an American becomes poor, the resources available for relief are far more limited than in other first-world countries. Agreeing with Norris and Inglehart, Paul and Zuckerman declared it unsurprising that so many Americans “look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails, to compensate with a blissful eternal existence.”

All I can say to that is -- if Greeks and Spanish aren't praying right now, they're making foolish use of their time.  It may be that they have vainly trusted in their governments.  In fact, Stark's theory predicts that government monopoly of religion tends to suppress overall participation in religious services, so Flynn may be onto something, by accident. 

Again, brief consideration of history strikes one with how vacuous Flynn's analysis (and probably politics) are, and how far superior Stark's market explanations seem to be, whatever their flaws. (Which I do recognize.)  Is Flynn really maintaining that Americans go to church more because life has been so much more dangerous in America than in Europe over the past century or so?  Does Flynn remember Stalin?  MAD?  Either of the world wars fought on European soil?  None of this can be compared to the failure of Republican administrations to adopt Hillarycare when it comes to (literally)  scaring the hell out of people? 

What planet does this fellow live on?  And we haven't even mentioned the Autobahn, or English soccer.   

Whatever your own political orientation may be, the data genuinely seem to show that if, as a people, Americans took better care of each other, they might feel less need for a caregiver in the clouds—and presumably become more like their counterparts elsewhere in the first world.

Actually, as Arthur Brooks shows in Who Really Cares, Americans DO take better care of one another than Europeans do.  We (especially believers) tend to give four to eleven times as much in personal charity than Europeans.  Unfortunately, we have come to rely on government to take over a lot of the giving in recent years, producing mountainous debt, dependency, entitlement mentalities, and that bureaucratic nightmare, Obamacare, to the grave harm of the nation.

It also suggests that if Norris and Inglehart’s hypothesis is correct, the rest of the first world may be due for a tragic resurgence of popular piety. In the wake of the global financial crisis, other first-world nations are adopting austerity programs that fray social safety nets—perhaps reintroducing levels of risk to life in Europe, Canada, and Australia like those previously common only in the United States. In that event, citizens of formerly highly secularized first-world nations may begin to display a heightened demand for “invisible means of support.”

Again, this seems a very simplistic notion, evincing gross historical amnesia.  But Stark also predicts an upsurge in European piety, as churches are disestablished and factionalize.  And I agree that it behooves Europeans to fall on their knees before God in the present crisis.  Perhaps they should begin by repenting of the wreckless and deeply immoral ways in which they (along with us Americans) have spent the wealth of our children on ourselves, in effect selling our own kids into slavery to bond-holders in countries like China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. 

Religion Behind Bars: The Great Cover-up?

I’ve saved the best digression for last. I am often asked what numbers show about the prison population. If believers are correct that morality is impossible without religion, then our prisons and jails should be overflowing with atheists.

Which believers say that morality is "impossible without religion?"  This is not the normative Christian view, which claims that God has planted moral truth on all our hearts.  (Though the Gospel has been the heart of human reform down through the centuries -- including in the prisons, by the way.) 

First impressions would suggest the opposite—namely, that jails and prisons are awash in zealous believers at a rate far outstripping the general population—in which case religion’s boast as a guarantor of morality might seem questionable. But what do the numbers tell us? Not much, it turns out, because hard numbers are amazingly hard to come by. I suspect this is because from the believers’ point of view, the numbers are really, really bad.

Who records this alleged "first impression" that "jails and prisons are awash in zealous believers?"  Is Flynn talking about his own experience in prisons?  Before we launch into speculation, we need a few solid facts to base it on.   
In his 1895 book, The Criminal, pioneer psychologist Havelock Ellis reported that “It seems extremely rare to find intelligently irreligious men in prison.” Writing in 1928, criminologists Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith said that only one-tenth of 1 percent of convicts had had no religious training. At around the same time, University of Pittsburgh psychologist W.T. Root found that less than one-third of 1 percent of those executed at Sing Sing Prison were nonreligious. A study by the researchers Steiner and Swancara found almost no agnostics among a multistate sample of prisoners. In 1936, three Franciscan priests who were also prison chaplains released a book titled Crime and Religion. They noted sadly that “Convicts as a class seem to be the most religious people in the country. . . . Therefore, what use religion?”

These are our solid facts? 

Anyone who has a nose, should smell a whole colony of rats, here.  999 out of 1000 convicts had religious training in 1928?  What is that supposed to mean?  Stalin (my fingers slipped, and almost typed Satan, which would have worked, too) had plenty of religious training.  He then became a doctrinaire, murderous atheist, who killed far more innocent people by himself (well, with help from other doctrinaire, murderous atheists) than all murderers of all creeds in the United States have ever killed. 

What Flynn offers here are not statitics, they are pious and palpably absurd urban myths.  What is most obvious about criminals, is that they tend to lack family training, tend to be illiterate, tend to be intellectually untrained.  Anyone who reads that "999 out of 1000 criminals received religious training" "stat" and does not laugh out loud, should be flipping hamburgers at McDonalds, with careful guidance as to how many hamburgers to flip, and how many squirts of ketsup and mustard to put on each bun. 

The most recent work in this area is apparently a body of surveys mailed to prisoners in 1961 by ex-priest and bombastic radio commentator Emmett McLoughlin. McLoughlin found that Roman Catholics were drastically overrepresented in the prison population . . . and unbelievers were drastically underrepresented. It’s all summed up—along with the best summary of prior religion-in-prison studies in print, from which the previous items in the series were drawn—in McLoughlin’s cranky 1962 book Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church.

Well that certainly sounds convincing.  I, of course, readily believe any survey sent to illiterate, often mentally- deficient murderers and thieves, chosen on Heaven knows what basis, asked Heaven knows what questions, responding by carrier pidgeon no doubt to a "bombastic crank" and defrocked Catholic priest, then sifted carefully by Tom Flynn, the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism.  We Christians, after all, are known for our credulity. 

And there the data ends.

Ends?  Where did it start? 

After McLoughlin’s widely publicized report, wardens apparently added direct-mail surveys to the list of things routinely screened out of prisoners’ incoming mail. In the half-century since, no prison I know of has permitted researchers to catalogue inmates’ religious affiliations. No such data has been kept by any department of corrections—or if kept, no such data has been released.

In the so-called freest country in the world, there’s been a fifty-year embargo on information about the religious status of prisoners—and it’s worked. Perhaps officials know that the pattern hasn’t changed, and that—even allowing for the pressures for inmates to affect religious conversions in order to obtain privileges and seek parole—the overwhelming overrepresentation of religious believers among the prison population would stingingly disprove the notion that belief fosters morality.

Yeah, prison wardens, like the Gallup Organization, are all part of the Baptist Conspiracy, General Conference, to hide the fact that rapists and arsonists are a bunch passionate Bible-thumpers, each and every one a product of 12 years of Sunday School.  (Even if one of the favorite things they like to burn, is churches -- no doubt they learned the concept and techniques of hell-fire in church!)  Never mind studies conducted by John DiIulio, professor of political science at Princeton, which seem to indicate the opposite:

The evidence is growing that the only people who are now doing something to make inner-city blacks part of 'one nation, indivisible' are those who seek 'one nation, under God, indivisible.' . . . the most important missing endnote to America in Black and White is a reference to the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Why is that?  Because church-going cuts crime and other risks dramatically.  This from a social scientist who has actually spent time in the neighborhoods he's talking about, and studies how real people live their lives.   

Wonderful social science methodology, Mr. Flynn.  You have me convinced: Chesterton was right.  People who refuse to believe in God, really will believe in just about anything.


John W. Loftus said...

David wrote:

Anyone who reads that "999 out of 1000 criminals received religious training" "stat" and does not laugh out loud, should be flipping hamburgers at McDonalds, with careful guidance as to how many hamburgers to flip, and how many squirts of ketsup and mustard to put on each bun.

One thing about you is that you write very well. If I could only write that well I might have the chance to be the Stephen King of Atheism.

Crude said...

If I could only write that well I might have the chance to be the Stephen King of Atheism.

Alas, the bar's a bit higher. David also thinks very well, and very clearly.

You should realize your limitations.

Crude said...


I'll just repeat this poll again, re: Norway:

According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005,[4]

32% of Norwegian citizens responded that "they believe there is a God"
47% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
17% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".
4% answered that they "do not know".

When atheists start counting 'people who believe in God and reigning spirits/life forces' as 'irreligious', you can see the obvious frustration.

Religion and religious belief is getting odder and less orthodox Christian, but atheist, much less Cult of Gnu? Not really.

David B Marshall said...

Crude: Thanks, also for the interesting cites from Norway. But that was rather mean to John. He said something very generous, and he's certainly not without talents, as well. If you guys have a history, please wait until he says something nasty, to blast him!

David B Marshall said...

John: Very kind of you to say that.

This illustration came from life -- flipping hamburgers at the OLD Herfy's in WA state, one of my first jobs. You really do have to keep track of time and quatity for that job, especially just before and during rush hour. And the ketchup and mustard guns take some art to manipulate, as well.

John W. Loftus said...

It was a compliment. I cannot forget your memorable description of me:

"Loftus sees himself as a sort of missionary to the working classes. Usually shown in his trademark cowboy hat, John wears his heart on his sleeve, being passionately self-promoting in an oddly humble way."

Crude said...


Thanks, also for the interesting cites from Norway.

I believe that pattern holds for all of the netherlands as well, and many other places. If you're interested, hit up "religion in (country)" on wikipedia sometime for stat after stat.

But that was rather mean to John.

I thought it was simply the truth, and an honest evaluation of his talents. Direct, perhaps, but please remember that John's entire gimmick is one of positioning himself as a kind of modern day Prometheus, attempting to shock Christians out of their beliefs - not even with reason, by his very own words, but by any means necessary, including mockery, disdain, attacks, and quite a bit more. He's never apologized for this, or really, backed off from it.

It's your blog, and your rules. If you wish me to be nice as a rule, I will follow it without complaint. I really mean that, I respect you. But I have little desire to pretend Loftus is a man of imposing intellect or literary skill as a show of politeness, or to turn a blind eye to his long-standing methods and behavior just because he has yet to engage in them in this specific conversation.

He said something very generous, and he's certainly not without talents, as well.

Generous? He said something accurate. You're a prolific writer with keen insight and a pleasant execution, and exceptionally gracious. (Just look at this exchange.)

Loftus suggested that if he could write a swell as you, he'd be some kind of giant among atheists. I disagree, and I think his track record bears that out.

If you guys have a history, please wait until he says something nasty, to blast him!

No personal history. I've just seen his act for years, from the "starting a blog under a fake name to attack someone, then pointing at under his name and pretending like there's a third party doing the attacking" to the wretched reasoning to fake reviews to equal or worse. I'm uniformly unimpressed with the level of talent, the strength of his arguments, and the character he displays.

I can name several atheists and irreligious bloggers who haven't done these things, and who do have talent. It feels wrong to turn a blind eye to Loftus' track record and behavior out of what I think is misplaced courtesy.

John W. Loftus said...

David, it's people like Crude that make me mock people like him. I'll confess that I do. I don't suffer fools gladly.

I was wondering though, since you and I have interacted for a few years now, if you share his assessment of me. Am I to be taken seriously, or not? I see you wrote a chapter on my OTF and visit at DC almost daily. Why do you do that?

I've often seen Christians dismiss the arguments of atheists because of things unrelated to their arguments. Surely you've seen Paul Johnson's book, "The Intellectuals," which highlighted the poor character of some of the most influential atheists in history. I smell sweet compared to them even if I'll never be as influential as they were. So let me put it to you, what does the character of a person have to do with assessing their arguments, even granting I'm a bad person (which I reject vehemently!)

Crude said...


David, it's people like Crude that make me mock people like him. I'll confess that I do. I don't suffer fools gladly.

That's funny. I mean, I seem to remember this little quote from you: "It’s not just the utter buffoons I’m talking about, which are many, but all of them. Christians are illogical and delusional. This I know, after spending years in my own delusion and after years of dealing with them since my deconversion. How can they be so deluded, I ask myself? How can they be so dumb?"

So, John is (what a shock) being dishonest. When he sputters out his poorly considered line of "It's people like Crude that make me mock people like him" - really, just meditate on that one for a moment, as if it were a koan - realize the backdrop of his position. In his own words, Christians - all of them - are illogical and delusional. He knows this, because he was illogical and delusional himself for decades. (One would add, he never stopped being so, so I suppose he has particular insight into such a mentality.)

Not to mention, David, really. Take a look at the compliments he's paid you. Did you notice that all of his compliments were just compliments to himself? How, if he could write as good as you, HE would be the Stephen King of atheism? How nice you are, because hey, look at this nice quote you said of him that one time?

Likewise, where did I say - at any point - that Loftus' arguments should not be addressed, owing to his character issues? I never said this, or anything like it. Take apart his arguments, as many have done in the past - they're pretty weak stuff. What I objected to is the call to pretend that he is brilliant or a good writer, or really, that he has a character worthy of respect.

As I said, Loftus has never apologized or taken back these words. He's explicitly endorsed belittling people as a means to change their minds. He's never apologized for his fake blog attack antics, or his Amazon antics, or otherwise. So what's the point in pretending he's a great fellow? Because he's made some arguments? Splendid. Address his arguments, as is easily done. It doesn't require pretending he's anything other than what he is - a guy who's low on writing talent, low on intellectual ability, and unapologetically shoddy on character.

John W. Loftus said...

Crude is a fitting name. I suspect he discredits all of the blurbs for my book, "Why I Became an Atheist," and Dr. Randal Rauser for co-writing a book with someone "who's low on writing talent, low on intellectual ability, and unapologetically shoddy on character."

If there is a liar here it's not me. It's Crude. That's the best explanation for the different evaluations of my work and person. I supect he will not apologize for this. I don't expect someone of his character to do so. The irony is that I use my real name. He's a coward since he doesn't.

David B Marshall said...

I just don't see any reason to return pleasant words (though admittedly not directed at you) with unpleasant ones.

Lots of things are true. That doesn't mean it all needs saying.

But I don't get paid to referee quarrels, so I won't say any more. We all make our own evaluations, and mine are sometimes pretty critical, too, so I'm in no position to demand rhetorical pacifism from everyone else. Nor am I like PZ, who can call a few dozen visitors "morons" in a week, and just get more fan mail, like OJ Simpson getting letters from girls after he snuffs his wife. You usually have interesting things to say, and I'm glad you show up, from time to time.

But it would be more interesting to talk about the articles.

David B Marshall said...

Gentlemen, you've both had your shots, now. Since the character of neither of you is relevant to the OP, please take that discussion somewhere else, if you want to go further with it.

Crude said...

Sorry David, that came while I was writing this.

Duly noted, I'll be quiet.

Rudy said...

David, I don't really have any quarrel with your article, but I am a little (no, a lot) distressed at the politics you reveal in passing.

A Christian, Malaysian friend used to tell me that she was bewildered that American Christians ran capitalism together with Christianity. My wife (who went to univ. in the UK) says the same thing. You seem to be doing this too.

Americans do *not* take care of each other more than Europeans, by any stretch of the imagination. Do you see tin cans in rural stores in Europe, collecting quarters for kidney transplants or surgeries? It is commonplace here in the Carolinas. In Europe (or Canada!) you would just get the care. We may or may not give more to charity (I'm skeptical) but we don't give nearly enough to make up the difference.

Much of the charity distributed by religious philanthropies(like Catholic Relief Services) in the US comes from federal funds, by the way.

(And you think our economic problems started with Obama? Hello, the real estate bubble burst during the Bush admin. It's also rather odd that you mention North Dakota: this was the most socialized state in the US for quite a long time (it still has a state-owned bank).

Read up on Social Darwinism vs. the Social Gospel in the US. Socialism is the Christian position in US history.

I can tell you from personal experience that Eastern Europeans during the Communist era did *not* think of the government as God. It is worth noting in this regard that East German communists regarded North Korea as nearly a fascist state, though for geopolitical reasons they had to publicly support them (as the US supported fascist states in other parts of the world).

I can tell you personally that none of the liberal Christians I know who support government health care think of the government as God.

Rudy said...

Excuse me, I should have said "socialism was the Christian position for a long period of US history". It certainly hasn't been the mainstream position after WWII, at least among Protestants (though national health care almost got passed after the war; the AMA spent heavily to stop it though).

Crude said...

In Europe (or Canada!) you would just get the care.

I think there's a considerable difference between personal charity and state run programs. In Europe you 'just get the care' A) insofar as it's provided by the government (and considering that means provided by means of guns and laws, that's hard to call charity), B) you 'get the care' on paper - whether you actually get it depends, and C) we're already seeing the fallout of that kind of mentality in states like Greece.

Regarding 'thinking of the government as God', it really sounds as if you're using the standard of "they have to be theists who believe that the government is, somehow, a divine being with immaterial powers" - I think the sense I take David to be using is justifiable, and doesn't turn on whether someone says "I think the government is God!"

Nor are the only options raw social darwinist capitalism or socialism.

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: In fact, Americans do give many times as much per capita to charity than Europeans. Brooks gives detailed statistics, from many sources.

I have no problem (morally) with the fact that many Christians support left-wing positions. I strongly disagree with those positions. I think left-wing policies are (by and large, maybe not every one of them) terribly harmful. I think the greatest sin this generation is committing, is what John McCain called "civilizational theft," spending trillions of dollars we don't have, then sending the bill to our kids. The second-worst crime, and it vies for number one, involves fostering an attitude of dependence, that saps initiative and tends to break families apart. And western left-wing parties are deeply complicit in these evils. But I recognize that people can sincerely take what I regard to be the wrong position.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not in favor of the status quo on health care. The American system is irrational and terribly expensive. But Pelosi seems to have made things worse, not better. It would have been better if she'd tried to work with the other party, to craft a bipartisan plan. I rather liked the Japanese system.

rockingwithhawking said...

Thanks for your helpful response, David! I especially appreciate the useful stats you've cited.

If I could add my measly two cents' worth to your rich contribution:

"In any case, as one biologist pointed out to me, to become an elite scientist or social scientist requires an enormous investment of time in one's speciality. Someone who invests 80 hours a week in chemistry experiements and in reading the literature may not have time to go to church, still less to rationally and fairly investigate the evidence for Christianity."

As someone who is pretty familiar with science and who has worked among world class scientists, and who is slated to do some (hopefully) publishable research, I concur with this point! We all have the same amount of time in a day.

Also, even if we consider factors like individual brainpower and intellectual aptitude (e.g. some people are able to study as well as grok a lot more info than others in the same period of time), at the most "elite" levels of scientific research, almost everyone seems to be equally highly intelligent. Or at least intelligence is more negligible than other factors and qualities including the amount of time devoted to a project. (Although granted there are others which may be quite significant like the dynamics of one's research team and collaborators, funding, sheer good fortune, and so forth.)

And if we leave out the more theoretical aspects of scientific research and focus on the more empirical forms of scientific research such as lab-based scientific research, then I'd say time commitment is an even bigger factor.

"[Flynn:] public piety is nonetheless far more widespread in America than in Europe, Canada, or Australia...

"[Marshall:] Exuberant religious belief thrives in all three places: in Singapore, even Anglican churches are evangelical."

I'd add in places like the UK, Canada, and Australia, Anglican churches can often likewise be evangelical. For example, check out the tremendous Sydney Anglican movement in Australia led by the brothers Peter and Phillip Jensen, and how much of an impact it's been making in the land. Not just among Australians but also among Asian, Middle Eastern, and other immigrants to Australia. If I'm not mistaken, heavy-hitting evangelical ministers like John Piper as well as others like D.A. Carson and Mark Driscoll have recently made their way Down Under by way of the Sydney Anglicans.

rockingwithhawking said...

On the topic of health care, Michael T. Kennedy is a retired surgeon and medical historian who has written a pretty good book on the history of medicine titled A Brief History of Disease, Science, and Medicine. For what it's worth, if anything, it's gotten largely positive feedback on Amazon too.

He also maintains a weblog. On his weblog, Kennedy has done some fairly detailed comparisons of various health care systems including our own (American). I believe he favors the French system.

David B Marshall said...

Tom: Thanks for dropping by. After years of reading `'great scholars,'` and interacting with others, I've lost faith in the concept of genius. I tend to think everyone is smart about what they really love, and ignorant about other stuff; there is no such thing as transcendent, generalized genius, though there are many very smart people. So I believe more in the "Absent-Minded Professor" theory of academia. Heck, it's not a theory, it's my life.

Great to hear about Sydney. I'd love to get out that way during my upcoming book tour: Perth YWAM used to buy some of my China books, would also love to connect with them.

David B Marshall said...

Rocking: Sorry, why did I call you "Tom?" See what I mean about absent-minded?

Rudy said...


John Piper is spreading a *much* older religion than Christianity, namely Patriarchy. Telling people with power that they deserve to be powerful is easier than fighting the powers and principalities, and will make you more popular too.

David B Marshall said...

Rudy (still stalling): What does Piper say along those lines? The only one of his books I've read was Desiring God, which I liked very much.

Rudy said...

Yes, I've seen good reviews of Desiring God. And I sounded like I was blaming Piper across the board, which is the kind of internet snark I always hate in other people.

What I had in mind was his views that men should have "leadership" (ie be the boss) over women, in the family and church. Outside of evangelical circles (i.e. for people like me), that is what he known for.
Maybe that is not what he *should* be known for, and it may not even be fair for me to say that's what makes him popular (how do I know that anyway?) But men who *want* to boss women love that message.