Monday, August 27, 2012

Will Atheism Replace Religion?

I just received an e-mail from South Africa:

Hi David,
Thank you for your amazing Blog (Christ the Tao) I find it very informative and inspirational in the constant debate with atheists in my country (South Africa).
Would you please have a read this link . . .  and maybe comment on it as I might be out of my depth a bit in commenting positively in good Christian way, with out getting nasty and very angry . . .

Sure, Riaan, I'll be happy to give it a go.  (And thanks for the kind words.)  I didn't follow the link, since like most people, I sometimes get funky e-mails and tend to be (perhaps) overly cautious the first time I hear from someone.  But googling key terms, I found this article, which seems to be what you were linking: "Why Atheism Will Replace Religion," by "Adriaan," also apparently in South Africa.
Dr. Z.  I do admire
his haircut, though.
I'm especially happy to respond to  this article, since it cites sociologist of religion Phil Zuckerman, whose arguments I'm growing tired of.  I mentioned him last month in a post responding to similiar claims about the US.  In fact I have a partially-prepped post in the hopper readied to rebut him on another subject.  So maybe we should make this "debunk Dr. Phillip Zuckerman week." 

Let's take Adriaan's essay claim by claim, beginning with its title, which is where the trouble begins:
Why Atheism Will Replace Religion
Three big problems appear from the get-go:
* First, as every fool ought to know by now, no one knows the future.  Who expected the fall of the Soviet Union?  Who predicted 9/11?  Who foresaw 30 years ago, that China would have 80 million Christians?  This title involves a prediction far more tricky than any of those: what people around the world will choose (or will be forced by unforeseen events) to believe in the future.  How can anyone claim to know that?  For one thing, maybe Jesus will return next week. 
* Also, what is "religion?"  Is it really something that is "replaced" by atheism, or is it something that atheists succumb to, as much as anyone else?  This is a tricky semantic question, with deep implications, including for how atheists understand (or fail to understand) themselves.  Were Joseph Stalin and his masses of worshippers really "non-religious?" How about Ayn Rand? Sigmund Freud?  Academic scholars of religion define the word either in terms that Peter Berger called "substantive" (say, belief in supernatural beings) or "functional" (say, an "ultimate concern"), recognizing both kinds of definition as legitimate in different contexts.  Rodney Stark likes the first kind of definition, and therefore thinks "atheistic religion" is a contradiction in terms.  But even he admitted (when I asked) that atheistic belief systems often ACT like religions.  And many other scholars say that is because they ARE religions, in the most meaningful senses of the term.
* Adriaan then makes it clear that despite her title, she isn't just talking about atheism at all:
Please note that for this article "Atheism" also includes agnostics, deists, pagans, wiccans... in other words non-religious.
Now if it's controversial to deny that atheist belief systems are also religious, it's just ludicrous to claim Paganism and Wicca are "non-religious," as even most atheists will agree. 
Perhaps what Adriaan means by "religion" is "belief in God."  But that won't work, either. As self-described Chinese "pagans" Gu Hongming and Lin Yutang pointed out, "Chinese pagans always believe in God."  So what is Adriaan's point?  That Christianity and Islam are doomed? 
Ignoring all the warning signs of a doomed argument, we read valiantly on. 

You will notice this is a statement of fact. And to be fact it is supported by evidence (see references below). Now you can have "faith" that this is not true, but by the very definition of faith, that is just wishful thinking.

Again, Adriaan appears badly confused.  The definition of faith for Christians -- who as we have seen appear to be one of her main targets -- is nothing like "wishful thinking."  See my article, "Faith and Reason" at, which cites how great Christian thinkers have defined the term for the past two millennia, our book, True Reason, or my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, for numerous citations and bodies of evidence to the contrary.

The wishful thinking, and blind faith, is rather displayed by those who insist on projecting such nonsensical definitions of faith on Christians.
Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe (Barber, 2012). In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists.

Baby atheists, future Christians?
Poppycock.  Most of the atheists in the world today live in China, which as it develops, is losing those atheists by the million to Zen and Christianity.  Other large contingents live in Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, and Cuba. 

In South Africa it is easy to see this split with our 1st / 3rd world mixture. In economic hubs you will not be stoned to death for wearing a "I am Proud to be Atheist / Homosexual / Pagan ...." t-shirt; but venture off into rural areas and your t-shirt will spontaneously combust with the mixture of ignorance / superstition / blind faith / unscientific beliefs in the air.
Yes (cough, cough), I'm sure paganism is entirely new to South Africa.  Bloody good of those Europeans for importing it.  And smart of them not to bring any ignorance or superstitions along as well. 
Atheism is thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon.

What nonsense.  My old prof, an atheist and head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington, pointed out that in his study of Chinese villages, there were always skeptics and unbelievers, even if they played along with village rituals.  Indeed, atheism goes back in China at least to Xun Zi, well before Christ, as it did in the Greco-Roman world, India I think, and probably everywhere else. 

Why do modern conditions produce atheism?
First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (*6). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%).

Adriaan has forgotten Eastern Europe, which could once bost probably better than 90% -- I think Albania hit 99%.

She also conflates "subSaharan Africa" of today with the world as a whole, before modernization, and then relies on some survey from Phil Zuckerman.  How many African languages does Zuckerman speak, one wonders?  How trustworthy, then, might his sources be?  No hint of a skeptical question.  This is "scientific rationality" as the skeptical bloggosphere takes it. 

In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%. In United Kingdom "No Religion" has overtaken "Christians" in a 2007 poll. Interestingly enough in Mexico separation of church and state is guaranteed by Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which also designates religious leaders as ineligible for public office, while the majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (89%); if only Mexico's neighbour can learn from this! 

Which neighbor?  Guatamala? 

Does Adriaan have any idea of the history of repression, persecution, and warfare that anti-clerical statutes in Mexico led to, or the tens of thousands of deaths?  (See Michael Burleigh, Sacred Causes, 123-7)  All in all, I think the American guarantees of religious liberty have worked better.  And unlike the European states Adriaan admires, the US does not have a state church.  Is she unaware of this fact?  What, exactly, is her point in praising Mexico? 

One  is amazed, sometimes, at the ignorance our Internet Age seems to foster.  Maybe Google explains all that atheism.

 Further, non-religion has increased in the USA, South America, Oceania and Asia. In Israel, 47%-50% of Israelis who were born ethnically Jewish consider themselves "secular" while (more than) 50% shy away from the traditional monotheistic faith.

Yeah, and their grandparents and great-grandparents in Europe were largely communist, as was Karl Marx himself, a German Jew.   

But will atheists retain the next generation?  This graph suggests they are unusually bad at that. 
The question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non-belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence.
Depends on the country.  In modern America, the higly-educated are slightly more likely to be socialized into atheism.  In Singapore, they are some five times more likely to adopt Christianity.  In Medieval Europe, the founders of modern science seem to have been far more orthodox than most ordinary people.  I explain these patterns, to some extent, in The Truth Behind the New Atheism

Adriaan is like the frog in the well in the Chinese proverb, who sees one little patch of the sky, and takes it for the whole sky. 

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. The current economic and social uncertainty in the world certainly seems to polarize people more.
There is some truth, here, and some silliness, again. 

Jesus himself predicted that wealth and desire for material goods would, like thorns, choke out the "seeds of the word" planted in human hearts.  This is an important theme in the Bible, and does not require unbelieving sociologists to discover.  This pattern is, perhaps, one reason why financially-secure and healthy young intellectuals may accept the anti-religious sociolization they receive in college.  It is also, no doubt, why the Power Elite in communist countries seems to have been comfortable with their atheism, until some grave trial shook them out of it -- as happened to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many others, in the Gulag. 

But which process involves more self-delusion?  Our recognition of fragility, spiritual hunger, and cosmic need -- which surrounds us at every turn, whatever our age or socio-economic condition like galaxies in the sky, the silent infinity of space that made Pascal quake -- or the adolescent illusion of self-sufficiency, that any ant might feel, lugging a tasty crumb of Wonder Bread into his colony?  To paraphrase Bacon, a little schooling in scientism may foster unbelief, but a profound encounter with the world around us, often seems to bring people (or their children) back to faith. 

Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the election showed that 75% of Mr Bush’s supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11’ . . .

What prompted this sudden leap into politics?  Does Adriaan suppose polls of South African whites would reveal no mistaken beliefs about geo-politics? 

Many Democrats, it turns out, believed the far more risable claim that the US was involved either in blowing up its own Twin Towers, or covering up for the agents responsible for their destruction.  I wonder how many atheists buy such myths?  Again, Adriaan ought to think hard on the fact that most atheists in modern times, have learned their atheism from communists, along with the whole blind kit-and-kaboodle of Marxist-Leninist superstition and human sacrifice on a scale that made the Aztecs look tentative.  Let's not even talk about Ayn Rand, or that best-selling lunatic, Alfred Kinsey.   
And from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If it were possible for anything to be more devastating than the unnecessary deaths that have accrued over the past 10 years, I would argue that the damage that has been done to global relations between the so-called Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds must be a candidate.”

Adriaan seems to have lost the thread of her argument, now.  We were talking about how atheism (including Wicca!) is going to conquer theism!  Is Adriaan suggesting 9/11 is some sort of "divide and conquer" plot?  Maybe she means that with Christians and Muslims quarrelling, people like her are growing tired of all these superstitious religions, and want to become atheists or (non-African) pagans, now?   
And from religion scholar Karen Armstrong says it’s time for religion to be a force for good. “Ten years on, the world is even more dangerously polarized and religion, for obvious reasons, religion is seen not as part of the solution but as part of the problem . . . "
Here is this word "religion," again.  We are forgetting, again, that 100 million innocent people were murdered by militant atheists in the last century?  After the Gulag, is it any surprise that newer waves of evil would be perpetrated more often under some other banner than that of "militant atheism?"  But apparently we are forgetting, because the childishly naive thinking displayed in Adriaan's post, seems common as wet grass in fall, these days. 
I do not favor "religion."  I favor the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 
Does Christianity "polarize" people?  Of course it does, as does every important truth claim, again, as Jesus predicted. 
One can avoid polarizing people only by saying nothing important.  And that includes, standing in a bar and saying which team you happen to root for.

Human beings polarize naturally.  We are (one often suspects) only happy when we're reigning blows off of one another's backs.  Certainly that seems to be the case with a lot of on-line atheists: like us Presbyterians, when they have no one else to fight, they "bite and devour" one another.   
In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage, according to copious data reviewed by Sanderson (2008). Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed "atheist" countries, women have exceptionally small families and do not need religion helping them to raise large families.
We were talking about why religion is going to die out!  It is because religious people have such large families, compared to atheistic Swedes, that they will disappear?   Has Adriaan decided her post was too short, so she will now argue the opposite side of her thesis, just to make things interesting?  Or are we lost in the woods, having to try to piece together an argument that zealously rational Gnus can't seem to make for themselves? 
And so Adriaan peters out in windy socio-political commentary.  Then she seems to rouse herself, and concludes:
The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.
Here she may finally be onto something.  I can well believe that many young people prefer to zap space invaders on-line than sit in a pew next to old ladies with outlandish hair pieces and sing old hymns.  It is more fun to go after devils that are visible, and that explode to satisfying visual effects. 

And certainly, from the great early totalitarian regimes of the Aztecs and the Qin Emperor on, it has often been demonstrated that one can substitute faith in government for faith in God.  The Old Testament prophets were well aware of this danger, which is one reason the historian Donald Treadgold recognized Israel as the only country in the region that mostly avoided the trappings of despotism.  The West, too, emerged as the most prosperous and free civilization that had yet existed on this planet, under the tutelage of biblical values, even if we only followed those values occasionally and half-heartedly.  The influence of the Gospel on our greatest achievements -- the reinvention of science, formation of practical democracy, care for the poor, elevation of women, mass education, limits on the power of kings and other bureaucrats -- has been profound, and worldwide.
But no doubt, many people would rather be slaves without God, than free under His authority  Nanny State government, sex with no cost, and addiction to video games and virtual realities (in place of bread and circuses, those Romans were SO technologically backwards), may indeed prove more attractive to the present generation of whelps.  Then again, Voltaire thought Christianity was on its last legs, 200 years ago, yet here we are.  One of my delights in recent years, has been meeting sharp young Christian intellectuals from dozens of countries around the world, including some I'd never heard of, in a little town north of London where oxen used to ford the Thames -- home to Richard Dawkins, but also to Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, John Wycliffe, John Wesley, John Locke, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, John Lennox, Alister McGrath, and young people who schooled themselves in a tough environment under such teachers.
So don't count your chickens before they've hatched, sister.  And even if you're just counting eggs -- please do try to count them a little more carefully, next time.     


Laura said...

Great post, as usual.
It brightens my day when a new article pops up in my Feedly (awesome feed reader, but they don't have an IE version. I like Chrome, anyway).
Atheists seem especially plagued by thinking categorically. Atheism is a manifestation of societies with a higher standard of living. Except when it's not. LOL

Crude said...

One serious problem with the sort of reasoning Adriaan engages in is that there's always a shell game going on. "Non-religious" becomes mixed with "atheist" or even "naturalist/materialist", even when it's not.

David B Marshall said...

I'll be debating Phil Zuckerman next month in California. He sees a lot more reasonable than most of his Gnu followers.