Friday, September 16, 2011

The Social Science of Happy Atheism

Against my claim that human beings show an evolved natural desire for religious understanding, some of my critics have argued that the modern history of increasingly secular societies shows that human beings have no natural need for religious belief. On the other side of this debate, some proponents of religion insist that religious belief is necessary both for individual happiness and social health.

The role of Darwinian science in this debate is complex. On the one hand, the evolutionary account of the origins of life, including human life, is seen by many people as supporting a purely secular understanding of life and the universe that supplants any religious understanding of divine creation. On the other hand, some evolutionary theorists argue that human beings have a naturally evolved propensity for religious belief that gives meaning to human life and sustains social cooperation. On the one hand, there are lots of theistic evolutionists, and Darwin himself spoke about the Creator as the First Cause of those natural laws that allow for evolution. On the other hand, public opinion surveys in the United States and around the world suggest that deeply religious believers are less likely to accept the truth of evolutionary science than are people who are not religious.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Friedrich Nietzsche showed an ambivalence about the "death of God" that continues to run through the modern discussion of secularization and its consequences. In his middle writings, Nietzsche adopted Darwinian evolutionary thinking as a "joyful science" for "free spirits." But in his earlier and later writings, he yearned for a new religion that would give eternal meaning to the universe and thus save the modern world from the nihilistic consequences of modern secularism. A similar ambivalence is manifest in all the modern talk about how the inevitable triumph of scientific secularism brings with it a "disenchantment of the world."

This worry about the degrading effects of atheism is an old one. It's expressed in the Bible--in Psalms 14 and 53. In the New Jerusalem Bible, Psalm 14 reads:

The fool has said in his heart,
"There is no God."
Their deeds are corrupt and vile,
not one of them does right.

Yahweh looks down from heaven
at the children of Adam.
To see if a single one is wise,
a single one seeks God.

All have turned away,
all alike turned sour,
not one of them does right,
not a single one.

Are they not aware, all these evil-doers?
They are devouring my people,
this is the bread they eat,
and they never call to Yahweh.

They will be gripped with fear,
where there is no need for fear,
for God takes the side of the upright;
you may mock the plans of the poor,
but Yahweh is their refuge.

Who will bring from Zion salvation for Israel?
When Yahweh brings his people home,
what joy for Jacob, what happiness for Israel!

So is it true that those who believe there is no God are all foolishly corrupt and vile people who can do nothing good?

Phil Zuckerman--an atheistic sociologist--surveys the evidence from social science research supporting his claim that this is not true, because, in fact, atheists are happy, moral people, and societies with large numbers of atheists and people who are indifferent about religion can be healthy societies. Although he clearly wants to emphasize the evidence supporting his position, he does at least point to some of the evidence against his position.

In most countries around the world, Zuckerman indicates, the majority of people have some kind of religious belief. In a few countries--such as Japan and South Korea--some surveys indicate that a majority of the people have no religious belief. In the East, the state of religious belief is hard to determine, because some of the major religious traditions--such as Confucianism and Buddhism--show no belief in the God of the theistic traditions. In the West, many of the European countries show high levels of secularity, with 25 to 50 percent of the people reporting no religious belief. In the United States, religious belief is more prevalent, but even so, some surveys indicate that 5 to 19 percent of Americans have no religious belief. And in the United States, there is some evidence that religious belief has been declining in recent decades, especially among the young.

Older people tend to be more religious than younger people. Women tend to be more religious than men. Less educated people tend to be more religious than more educated people. Among natural scientists and university professors, rates of religious belief are much lower than for the general population.

If atheism were corrupting, as the Psalmist declares, one might expect that atheism would promote criminality. As Zuckerman indicates, that does not seem to be true. Murder rates are lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations. In the United States, the more religious regions of the country have higher rates of violent crime.

American religious believers seem to be more charitable than secular Americans as measured by charitable donations from their income. And yet the most secular countries in the West--the Scandinavian nations--contribute more aid (per capita) to poor countries.

Atheists seem to be capable of heroic altruism. For example, during the Holocaust, the more secular people were more inclined to rescue Jews.

The weakest part of Zuckerman's social scientific case for happy atheism concerns indicators of psychological well-being. Many studies report that religious believers report themselves as happier and less inclined to depression than secular people. Zuckerman tries to counter this by noting that the countries reporting the highest rates of general happiness tend to be highly secular.

The most dramatic indicator of unhappiness is suicide. Among Americans, devout religious believers have lower rates of suicide than secular people. Moreover, the countries with the highest rates of suicide include the more secular countries, particularly in Scandinavia.

The evidence for the influence of religious belief on family life is somewhat mixed. Some evidence indicates that religious believers have lower rates of divorce than is the case for secular people. But some studies contradict this. One difference in the style of family life is clear: religious individuals and religious nations tend to have high birth rates. And since children tend to follow the religious propensities of their parents, this difference in birth rates could lead to a future growth in religious belief as the believers out breed the atheists.

As Zuckerman indicates, one major problem running through all of these studies is that "correlation is not causation." The correlation of religious belief or atheism to various social indicators leaves us unclear as to exactly how or whether religion or atheism directly causes any particular outcome.

Despite all the difficulties in interpreting this research, we can conclude that the Bible is wrong about atheists. It is not true that "their deeds are corrupt and vile, not one of them does right."

Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment (New York University Press, 2008).

Zuckerman, "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions," Sociology Compass 3/6 (2009): 949-971.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for citing Zuckerman. I think he gives a fair and accurate representation of the sociological data on atheists.

I think this data does more than refute the biblical claim that atheists are all corrupt and vile, however. I think it also counts as evidence against Nietzsche's belief that modern secularism breeds nihilism. If largely secular countries are operating at a high level of peaceful, organized civilization, and if the nonbelievers in those countries are scoring as highly as they do on measures of happiness (such as those reported in Jon Haidt's work, The Happiness Hypothesis ), then they are hardly nihilistic.

I also think that Zuckerman's work shows the necessity for theorists of all kinds - including the layperson who uses the Bible or other texts as a primary lens for understanding the world - constantly to check their premises against the hard data available in empirical studies.

Anonymous said...

In order to prove your final claim, you would have to be sure that the "right" of which you speak is the "right" of which the scriptures speak. The passage you cite seems to speak of disbelief as if it were itself the chief evil. If so, then it not only is not but cannot be "wrong about atheists." The proof is contained in the definition of the word. This may beg a question or two. But whatever problem may exist here, I don't think it's an empirical question.

Anonymous said...

Of course it's an empirical question. If you want to beg the question and say "anyone who disbelieves is evil, and therefore all atheists are evil," then you're saying nothing substantive about the world.

But if we want to express a substantive claim about the world -- namely, that atheists are somehow less moral or more corrupt than believers -- than Zuckerman's review of the empricial social science goes a long way toward falsifying that claim.

As a nonbeliever who lives in the U.S., I can testify to how often I hear believers express the uninformed opinion that morality requires religious belief. And in doing so, sometimes they cite biblical passages such as the one Dr. Arnhart notes. Zuckerman shows, however, that this claim is not true for all people. In fact, Zuckerman even shows how nonbelief sometimes correlates with higher levels of morality (e.g. lack of violent criminal behavior) than belief.

CJColucci said...

I'm puzzled by the claim that there is a natural, evolved, desire for "religious understanding." There does appear to be a natural, and, therefore, probably evolved desire for understanding of the sorts of questions that religion -- but not only religion -- purports to answer, but that seems to me to be a very different thing from a desire for a specifically religious understanding.

Anonymous said...

CJColucci -- I would think that history weighs in more heavily on Arnhart's interpretation of religion over yours. Virtually every culture in human history has advanced a religion or religions, replete with all of the social and ritualistic dimensions of religion normally understood. Very, very few cultures have harbored a majority of people who "answer religious questions" in a non-religious way. So the cultural evidence weighs heavily in favor of some evolved desire for answering religious questions religiously.

tony c said...

I think its much harder to say anything is a society without religion because You open up the whole "what is religion" question. When you say there are religious questions that can be answered in non-religious ways I get unsure of why those ways are exactly not religions too.

If you just stick to theism or atheism as your distinction you still struggle with the odd convention that puts Daoism in with theism and confucianism with atheism because one is more "mystical" than the other. Buddhism, some psycotherapy, Wicca, are just some "religious atheisms".

So let's accept what we're assessing for moral impact are theological distinctions which themselves are sensible only in contexts. When Roman stoics or the New Testament talk disparagingly about atheists they are talking about people who have abandoned the moral framework of their culture - not people who have moral frameworks borne of entirely non theistic cultures. eg Zen Buddhists

So how do we translate that to pluralist cultures where atheism and theism and pantheistic atheism (!) are all not outcast cultures? I don't think we can.

In fact I wrote a post ( where I argued that ones metaphysical positions can't directly lead to a morality. There is always an illogical leap between them - the Is/ought divide.
Theres no reason why you can't believe the world is senseless and introduce order or that the world is ordered (by god or genetic imperatives) and refuse to submit.