Wither Atheists

The new polling news from Gallup shows an even more pronounced trend away from religion and churchgoing. It isn’t surprising, as polling data for the past 20 years have demonstrated this trend, but the data shows the trend line passing over the notable milestone of 50%; now fewer than half of Americans go to church.

Pundits might have you believe that this is due to the malicious influence of Satanists and Atheists (or Communists, or devil-lap-dancing pop singers, or whomever is the villain du jour). If this were true, we’d be seeing Atheist affiliation skyrocket, and yet the number of atheists has barely budged. These formally church-going people don’t seem to become atheists, they instead get lumped in with the religious “nones,” that is, people who don’t claim any sort of affiliation.

Based on how defamed and vilified atheists are, this isn’t that surprising. Atheists are just unpopular, and they always have been. But it seems somewhat inescapable to me that if you begin to devalue or reject religion that you then must turn to some other worldview, which by definition becomes atheism or agnosticism. That people, in large numbers, aren’t making this logical jump indicates to me that they’re living in an even more relativistic metaphysical space than we’ve previously imagined. Lots and lots of people, in growing numbers, now refuse to say there is no God, and yet also refuse to support the existence of God in the guise of a religion. It is a liminal space between theism and atheism, a grey area. And we love grey areas! But it is hard to live in one regarding your fundamental belief about the nature of the universe.

One other note: this research says that 4% of religiously unaffiliated still attend church regularly. These people are the very definition of Catholic Atheists! Hey everyone!

Is the cool communist Pope maybe not so cool?

Pope Francis has been a refreshing liberalizing force in global Catholicism and a welcome change from Benedict’s regressive ideology. This Pope is a certifiable communist and seems more concerned with the actual lives of humans in the world than the minutia of canon, which is a big change over most Popes in history. So why is the Vatican again condemning gay-marriage?

By Deisenbe, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76694488

It is especially baffling that the church continues to pursue this condemnation of same-sex marriage in light of the overwhelming support for it. Vast majorities in the US and Western Europe support gay-marriage and have for a decade, and even South American countries are beginning to show majority support in polling. So just who is the Vatican appealing to by issuing these sort of statements? The articles on the decree interestingly point out that it isn’t clear who “asked the question” in the first place.

The stock answer would be that this is to shore up support in South America, but polling about homosexual acceptance in most South American countries shows the trend working against the Vatican on this topic. Perhaps it is meant as a play to appeal to African congregations, but Catholicism in Africa isn’t exactly thriving these days. At the very least, why not simply stay silent on the issue, so as not to alienate the growing numbers of people who believe in equal rights for all people?

Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.

What Reza Aslan gets wrong on Star Trek: The Pod Directive

Two great tastes that taste great together: who wouldn’t be excited about the appearance of one of the most well-known Muslim-American religious thinkers on the new official Star Trek podcast featuring two great comedians? Reza Aslan is, admittedly, an unexpected choice for the second episode of this officially sanctioned interview podcast, but his insight into The Next Generation’s episode on allegorical language is interesting for Trekkers and non-Trek-people alike. His idea of the future of religion, though, seems to have some holes, and not only in the context of a Star Trek future.

I recognize that a casual pop culture podcast isn’t a rigorous academic argument, and that his rhetoric was decidedly targeted towards an audience who didn’t tune in to hear him pontificate on obscure religious topics. Aslan and I share a great many opinions about the state of religion in the modern world, but his vision of a Star Trek era of religion seems off, it isn’t even reflected in the Star Trek universe as it exists, and seems to miss key elements of his own religious definitions.

First, Aslan notes that early Trek was modeled after Gene Roddenberry’s atheistic inclinations, and that the lack of religion in the Roddenberry years was a reflection of his idea that it would become obsolete.

“For Roddenberry, when he imagined a distant future, that’s the assumption that he had [that science would render religion obsolete]. No one in their right mind makes those claims any longer, because they have all proven to be spectacularly false.”

He references data that there is not, in fact, an inverse correlation between economic or social progress and religion; the move to middle class causes more religion, not less. He’s referencing the World Catholic Encyclopedia, and the span of time involved is vast. Yes, viewed over a hundred years, we see that religions have spread, but this ignores the more recent trend away from organized religion. Religious “nones” are on the rise. In America, many may identify as spiritual, but not religious.

Of course, even this recent American trend is misleading, because, across the world population, religion is projected to increase significantly over time. This is basically because religious people tend to come from religious families, and religious families tend to have significantly more children. Projecting 40 years into the future, we see how religion continues to dominate world culture. But what about 200 years in the future? And what about American culture specifically? How might growing irreligiosity in the states influence worldwide trends?

His prediction is that the global population with continue to become scientifically advanced and technologically literate, which will eliminate the need for religion to answer those questions. The divide between religion and science, he claims, has narrowed over time; that, surprisingly, the mystics from 1000 years ago are now being shown to describe some of the most theoretical discoveries that science has to offer today.

“When you look in the distant future, […] what you are going to see is not the eradication of religion, or the dissociation of religion from society, or even more the complete separation of religion and science, you’re going to see the complete opposite. You’re going to see the convergence of religion and science.”

We’ve already seen this trend among the religiously affiliated and “nones.” Believers have been forced to reckon with their supernatural beliefs in the face of scientific evidence, just as non-believers have been forced to acknowledge that some of religion’s outlandish claims are, in a certain sense, borne out by evidence. As the amount of knowledge undiscovered by science continues to diminish, we’ll be further forced to recognize scientific answers to big questions over supernatural ones. This trend seems inevitable, and demonstrable with current trends, but Aslan loses me with the next step:

“If you ask me, ‘what will religion look like 200, 300 years from now?’ We’ll just call it science. There won’t be a difference between religion and science. That’s primarily because they answer two different questions: […] science’s fundamental question is ‘how?’ Religion’s fundamental question is ‘why?'”

What he’s describing is similar to the philosophy of Stephen Jay Gould, who conceived science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” that is, two separate realms of thought which don’t infringe on one another. This way of thinking hasn’t stood up well to scrutiny over time, and for obvious reasons: things in the domain of science are frequently (and historically) appropriated by religion. For instance, if we wanted to study the efficacy of prayer, would this fall in the magisteria of religion or science? Certainly if we can conduct a study, this is a scientific pursuit; if science can be used to examine all physical phenomena we experience, where does the realm of religion even begin?

If, far into the future, science is able to chip away at the questions religion has historically answered, will that make science and religion converge? Wouldn’t that imply a unified world religion? There’s only one science, after all, yet many religions. If science leads us, universally, to the same conclusion, and we all understand that conclusion in the same way, there isn’t room for any religious interpretation. This converged science-religion isn’t much of a religion at all.

He seems to arrive at this conclusion by imaging a world where “how and why” are the same question, and he asserts that the Roddenberry idea that religion might be abandoned in the future (in favor of scientific discovery) is thus false. Host Tawny Newsome briefly mentions the robust religious identities of Klingons and Bajorans before the conversation pivots away from religion. These examples are, of course, post-Roddenberry and may not adhere to the same post-religious, scientific future that Roddenberry represented. But their example is actually a great counter to Aslan’s idea of a science-religion future.

The Klingons’ robust religious belief seems supernatural only in their concept of the afterlife, which provides a powerful psychological support as they frequently (and often recklessly) risk their lives in battle. The myriad customs surrounding their relationships (lots of hand slashing and bloodletting) all seem conducive to real-world applications for a warrior society. They don’t battle because “Khaless demands it” but because they have a cultural understanding that it is honorable, their God doesn’t demand sacrifice but rewards altruism. Outside of some lip-service paid to prayers, their beliefs seems remarkable non-supernatural. Their faith isn’t at odds with science.

The Bajorans believe lots of supernatural things, but these are, in the universe of Star Trek, actually scientific truths which are beyond the current understanding of their society. Their Gods are aliens in a spacial anomaly, and while no one quite understands their technology or non-temporal existence, it is made clear that these beings are constrained by the laws of the universe in some way. This is a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There are so many religions depicted over the several series, like the Vulcans who treat logic as a sort of deity, or the Romulans, close biological relatives of the Vulcans, whose major difference is that they have abandoned this religion. There are episodes where science is used to dispel religious myth (Audra the Devil comes to mind), but never is an entire culture’s religion invalidated by a scientific argument. These religions co-exist with scientific truth, not only because they don’t attempt to explain scientific truths but because they codify a cultural understanding of the relationship between religion and science.

Aslan’s conception of religion is fundamentally semiotic. Consider his definition:

“[Religion is] an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors that provide a common language for a community of faith to communicate, with each other and to themselves, the ineffable experience of being.”

Which is the whole point of his analysis of “Darmok,” that semiotics influences our experience. We’ll always need a common language to discuss the things which we struggle to name, and this will be the case for as long as communication is as limited as we currently experience it to be.

Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Aslan’s “religion becomes science.” Perhaps he’s saying the same thing I am, that even once we’ve discovered all there is to discover about science, we’ll still need a way to discuss the things which science cannot describe. Science and religion always intersect, they cannot be “non-overlapping,” but our personal experience of scientific truth can be described in a variety of ways, and the diversity of religious options provide us a number of structures by which to conceptualize these relationships. Science cannot be a religion in this way, even by Aslan’s own definition, because it doesn’t attempt to communicate anything about “the ineffable experience of being.”

I see the future of religion more or less in the way Star Trek depicts it: a huge diversity of religious belief, much of it central to cultural identity, but all subservient to scientific truth. Science and religion can never converge, but they can peacefully co-exist, much as they do now in people like Reza Aslan, or in myself, a Catholic Atheist.

A final thought: imagine far into the future where we’ve not only discovered all the scientific truth the material world has to offer, but we’ve also transcended linguistic communication as we know it today. Maybe we’ve developed psychic abilities, or created technology to merge consciousness without language. Will we still have a need for religion in this future? If in the beginning was the Word, once we dispense with the need for words, does that imply the end of religion?

Does your kid really care about church?

Whenever Pew releases another study on religious habits there’s always plenty of juicy details that don’t necessarily come out in the headlines. This month’s study has a few funny conclusions, and a few eyebrow-raisers, too.

It probably isn’t a surprise that both teens and parents think the other cares more about religion than they do. On both sides, the parents and children overestimated how important religion is to the other. That doesn’t seem too surprising; parents probably assume their kids’ faith is important aspirationally, while children probably perceive a greater importance because parents are making it a point to pass that faith along. When there are differences between teens and parents, it tends to be the teens who are less religious; again, not a surprise in a world where younger people tend to be overwhelmingly less religious than their elders.

It’s also not surprising that children overwhelmingly share their parents’ religion. Other research demonstrates that, when people leave the church, they tend to do so from 18-35. Of course, living under the influence of a parent and having little autonomy, a teen’s sense of faith is going to be almost completely guided by their parent’s.

Then there’s this little quirk:

Within the broad Protestant category, however, there are stark differences. Eight-in-ten parents who affiliate with an evangelical Protestant denomination have a teen who also identifies as an evangelical Protestant. But among parents who belong to mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 55% have a teen who identifies in the same way – and 24% have a teen who is unaffiliated.

Why is it that evangelicals teens are more likely to identify with their parents’ religion? Is there something about the fire-and-brimstone consequences that makes them more likely to stay involved? Or is there something less engaging about “mainline” denominations?

Also notable is the trend among teens towards a relativistic or pluralistic view of religion. Excepting the evangelicals, a slight majority of religious teens believe that “many religions may be true,” a marked change from the historical concept of religion. It seems to indicate a future in which religious conflict is tempered by an understanding that truth may take many forms, or perhaps indicates an abandonment of objective truth that might make it difficult for any two people to agree on something.