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Faith No More

I recently listened to an interview with Phil Zuckerman, who is the professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He has recently written a book called “Faith No More” criticising faith in religion, a theme which I have taken up here in this blog on more than one occasion!

So what were his points? Mostly stuff I have covered in the past, but there were a few new arguments which I haven’t really mentioned before. So what follows is a list of his points and my commentary on them.

How many non-religious people are there in the world? A conservative estimate would be 500-750 million but there are many more who label themselves as belonging to a religion in surveys and their national census, but don’t participate in religion in any way and are essentially atheists or at least agnostics (or maybe more accurately just don’t care).

So without doubt there is an increasing number of secular people, but there are more fundamentalists too. What is going on here? It seems that as religion is increasingly threatened by science and secularism some elements become more hardened against that change and become even more irrational and dedicated to their belief system.

Fundamentalists tend to appear in socially stressed areas, such as the Middle East (the home of Islamic crazies) and the Southern USA (the home of Christian nutters). Please note: the terms “crazies” and “nutters” are mine, not Zuckerman’s! He was a bit more diplomatic, but that’s essentially what he meant.

Most strongly religious people (that’s the more diplomatic term) are born into a belief system and the birth rate of a population tends to be inversely proportional to its degree of belief in rationalism. It’s no accident that so many religions discourage birth control. That’s a primary mechanism the religion sustains itself through. Religion is a meme – like a virus of the mind – and successful religions have evolved mechanisms to create more hosts for infection. Having a higher birth rate is a very obvious one and I think that is undeniable especially when considering groups such as Catholics and Muslims.

But despite all of the obstacles there are more people than ever escaping from the belief system of their birth. Zuckerman has examined the mechanisms underlying these changes but there is no one reason which is easily identifiable.

For many people religion just stopped making sense. They noticed the inconsistencies and lack of logic in almost every religion. They suffered the psychological pain and loss as a result of unanswered prayers. They became more educated in the philosophy of theology. They were influenced by their friends who might have been non-religious yet were happier and more balanced than most believers. They realised that their own morality was better than that offered by their religion, because they realised religious rules are based on punishment and reward rather than being primarily based on care for others.

In most cases the conversion process was slow. It typically took 3 to 5 years but it happened even if the person involved didn’t really want it to.

There are several correlations between a person’s religious belief and other factors. There is a strong correlation with lack of religion and bright, intelligent, knowledgable people. Yes, the smarter you are the less likely you are to be religious. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bright people who are believers and stupid people who are non-believers but it does mean there is a strong trend. Naturally atheists like myself love quoting this correlation!

Interestingly in every study, irrespective of country, race, education, or other factors, men tend to be more secular than women. No one seems to know why. Of course it is easy to offer some stereotyped view like women being more emotional and men more rational but I would hate to even suggest that as a possibility!

Secularism isn’t just another religion as some believers like to say. There is a genuine difference, apart from those mentioned above (intelligence, etc). Non-believers really are more open to ideas and less restrained by a single belief. Studies show that religious people usually limit their kids to experiencing their own religion, but seculars tend to say “try them all” (or none).

It’s not as simple as it would appear up to this point though. Religion offers some benefits such as the increased charitableness of church-goers and the increased sense of community which often results. These are good outcomes even if they are for the wrong reasons.

But look at the big picture. Compare secular and religious countries. The places which are less religious are happier, they have the lowest crime rates, the best health care, the best child care, and are the most democratic and stable (according to a Gregory S Paul study).

The conclusion is clear: we need faith no more.

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  1. October 17, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Great post. I agree that faith in religion is not required, certainly not from an atheist in any event. The correlation that you probably hate to quote though is the number of intelligent people who, while not religious, have faith in God (like me). There’s actually a much smaller sub-set of that group who have actually had the experience of God coming into their lives, in which faith is almost unnecessary. I wonder what Zuckerman would say about that.

  2. ojb42
    October 17, 2012 at 9:21 am

    If you have faith in God then you are religious. How can you be one without the other? Also, I didn’t deny there are smart people who believe in a god, just that there is a correlation in the opposite direction. Some people think a god has come into their life. Interesting belief but there’s no evidence it’s real.

    • October 17, 2012 at 9:39 am

      A person can have faith in God without being religious simply by believing in a higher power without subscribing to any religious dogma and without going to church. With respect to God coming into the life of an individual, there is proof (at least for the person that it happens to). I can attest to that because it happened to me.

  3. ojb42
    October 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    From the Oxford dictionary: “Religious (adj) (of a belief or practice) forming part of someone’s faith in a divine being.” Sounds like faith in god to me!

    Proof to an individual is almost meaningless. People have many contradictory experiences. They can’t all be right… but they can all be wrong! Whenever supernatural experiences are tested they fail to stand up to real scrutiny. These people often genuinely believe something real has happened but the facts don’t really support that. That’s why faith is so important to religion: it allows people believe things which aren’t true.

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