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!

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

Atheists Don’t Mind Dying

One of the great benefits of belief in the supernatural is the calming effect of an afterlife. Many are reassured that their time on earth has meaning, that they will be reunited with loved ones, and that their good deeds will be rewarded, all in the afterlife. Many who transition from fervent belief into doubt find that this, the lack of heaven, triggers the existential dread which accompanies the dissolution of supernatural belief.

There’s now evidence, though, that atheists enjoy some of the same reassurance that believers do. In a meta-analysis of studies, researchers at Oxford found that high levels of religious belief were loosely correlated with lower levels of anxiety regarding death. This tracks from our general understanding of the benefits of belief. But the study also seemed to indicate that this low level of death anxiety was also correlated with strong atheists, indicating a U-shaped curve. This means that both highly religious and highly unreligious people experience similar low levels of death anxiety, while people in the middle, people who hold either belief less strongly, find themselves more anxious about death.

The research is also quite difficult to summarize and many of the studies indicated no relationship between belief and death anxiety at all. Like many social sciences, it is a sticky trick to develop a stringent study regarding such an amorphous concept as “belief” or “anxiety.” But this study raises a question: if one of the most significant benefits of belief in the supernatural is shared by strong disbelief as well, why bother with belief at all?

The Power of Prayer on Yesterday’s News

I stumbled upon a fascinating and wonderful research paper that has blown open my brain in the best way. In fact, the study itself is a little suspect but the impact it has already had on me is more useful than the study itself could ever be.

A researcher in Israel ran a clinical, randomized, double-blind study of patients hospitalized with blood infections. A person was given the list of the first names of one group, and this person prayed for the recovery for each individual and the group as a whole. The group that was the subject of prayer had a slightly shorter mortality rate and a significantly shorter length of hospital stay, thus supporting the efficacy of prayer as therapeutic intervention. The study recommends prayer as an effective, low or no cost therapeutic method with no side-effects that should be instituted in clinical practice.

Oh, and did I mention that the groups of patients were in the hospital 4-10 years prior to the study?

That’s right; in recognition that the power of God transcends space and time, these prayers were made several years after the diagnosis and treatment of the blood infection. The patients had all recovered or died already, making the study both easy to blind and easy to conduct. The researcher only had to randomize the selection of the groups, have someone say a prayer for one group without knowing the outcomes of the patients, and then look to see what had happened to them all once the prayer had been said.

This is a joke of an experiment. No, literally. It was meant as a spoof, a reductio ad absurdam on the problems with randomized trials for obviously impossible treatments. It was published in a reputable journal in full recognition of its silliness as a novelty, although some scientists called for the study’s retraction.

Besides the obvious flaws it demonstrates in our methods of randomization and trial construction, I wonder why this wouldn’t be a compelling support for a believer in the power of prayer. The scientific method relies on a concept of linear time as a presupposition; the idea of a retroactive effect doesn’t square with this basic assumption. But theological argument doesn’t require this given, at least if we recognize God’s power as being greater than space or time. If God transcends time, then why shouldn’t our petitions to them include requests that also transcend time? If God is omnipotent, why couldn’t they effect change in the past?

This is one of those thought experiment paradoxes like “can God microwave a burrito so hot that God can’t eat it.” But if the power of prayer is as transcendent as many say it is, why shouldn’t we pray for an end to world wars? For the elimination of deadly viruses before they even spread? For a change in heart in murderous despots? For a plentiful bounty in the grimmest historical growing seasons? Or does the existence of historical atrocity imply that we haven’t prayed hard or successfully enough in the present? If we had only prayed better throughout time would God have altered the devastation of those historical events? Or perhaps our prayers have worked and the horror of certain historical events has already been mitigated by God’s guiding hand? We don’t have an historical control group, after all.

It is always difficult to square paradoxes in time travel, as any sci-fi enthusiast will attest. This is probably because our limited means of understanding are entirely framed by time as a linear concept. But it is a pressing question to people who pray: can your prayers effect the past?