Atheists in America – Part 4

                This is the last blog of my series on atheists which is based on a book, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). You can see the first three entries of this series here and here and here. In the past blogs there has been a debate with my use of the term “belief” in describing atheism. I have discussed my use of that word in my previous blogs and read nothing that discourages my use of “belief.”  Since I have already spent considerable space debating this term in my previous blogs, I will not debate it in this entry. Others wishing to register their disagreement in the comment section are free to do so, but I will not respond. New visitors to this blog series are free to go back to the previous blogs to see my comments on this matter.  

                In this last entry, I would like to discuss atheist morality. Several Christians have argued that atheists do not have morality. I know what they mean in that atheism as a philosophy cannot lead to moral conclusions. I will leave that debate to philosophers. When I think of morality as a sociologist, I am thinking about claims of right and wrong.  Since some have criticized me for “making up my own definitions,” I will provide the online Webster definition of morality which is “a doctrine or system of moral conduct”. To understand moral conduct Webster defines moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” My notion that morality deals with encouraging what is considered right actions and discouraging what is considered wrong actions is consistent with Webster’s definitions.

            Beyond the philosophical arguments about atheism as a source of morality, there is another reason why Christians do not believe that atheists endorse moral conduct. Traditional Christianity has created a set of moral rules that atheists do not accept. Because they do not accept the particular moral rules Christians endorse, some Christians believe that atheists do not use moral rules to order their lives. These Christians would be wrong.

            Traditional Christians, as well as traditionalists in other Western religions, legitimate their moral beliefs with appeals to a supernatural deity. Obviously this is not a source for those who do not accept the existence of such a deity. My previous blogs help us to understand an atheist social identity which can illuminate how atheists legitimate their moral expectations. An atheist social identity emphasizes rationality as a key principle. It is the concept of rationality that atheists tend to use to justify what we should do or not do in society.

            For example, several of our interviewed atheists, and atheists from our online questionnaire, freely talked about how individuals should use rationality to order their lives. Atheists tend to see themselves as rational and able to run their lives without religion. In fact they see themselves in control of their own happiness instead of reliance upon deities.

If I was not a person who sees my life as being in my control and my happiness a result of my own effort, I would be terrified of the Christian Right because they are attempting to create a theocratic state where sacrifice is the standard of good and where selfish living is considered evil.

As an atheist, you just know that, number one, there’s no expectations that you need to follow any rule that is not something that you can just rationally understand. So there’s more responsibility.  You can’t just read a book and be told what to do.  You have to actually think, so there is a pressure to be responsible for yourself more so than a Christian.  You can’t take solace in the idea that God will forgive me if I make a mistake.  If I make a mistake, then it was just me being stupid; I should have known better.

These quotes represent an ideology whereby religion leads to irrational actions based on foolish beliefs whereby atheism leads to self-control. Atheists trust humans to use their own intelligence to make their lives better. What is moral is doing what is rational. Religion is not merely irrational but it is also immoral.

This perspective is not limited to the actions of individuals but also reflects the direction we should take as a collective group. In other words, not only should we seek to use rationality to justify our personal actions, but we should also attempt to be rational in our social and political policies. Religion is seen as the antithesis of rationality and thus it becomes our enemy in the creation of a rational society. We can see representations of this philosophy in these quotes from the interviews and online surveys:

The perfect world for me would be you wouldn’t have religion.  Everything would be based on evidence and science and people would treat each other well regardless of it.

In general I want the government to be neutral in regards to religion, and that is what I fight for.  I would hope that conversation and being an example of non-Christian but a good citizen and promoting education and rational thinking will help elevate the country.

As you can see rationality and scientific thinking are core principles that many atheists use to justify individual action and their notion of how society should be organized.

            As I pointed out in a previous blog, atheists envision science as the opposite of religion. Science is also connected to the idea of a rational way of approaching the world. Thus science, and the educational systems that support science, are seen as morally beneficial. Religion, being seen as the opposite of science and rationality is seen as morally dysfunctional. This is not to say that all atheists believe that nothing good can come from religion. When we asked them about the benefits of religion, some atheists talked about how religion helps some people to feel better about themselves and for those individuals to do good deeds. But many atheists see nothing good coming from religion, which is to be expected from individuals who value rationality and conceptualize religion as irrational. So as it concerns moral expectations it is not surprising that atheists tend to see religion as bad while institutions they conceptualize as rational such as science and education are good.

            Beyond the obvious distaste atheists have for religion, there are specific values and norms that atheists tend to endorse. For example, all 51 atheists we interviewed discussed, to some degree, progressive political ideas in a positive manner and/or discussed conservative political ideas in a negative manner. Furthermore, while we did not directly ask them about their political ideology, the atheists from our online survey overwhelmingly showed support for progressive political philosophy and/or opposition to conservative political philosophy. Neither sample is a probability one; however, research based on probability samples have also confirmed that atheists are more likely to endorse a progressive political agenda than non-atheists. This endorsement does not seem to be limited to particular political issues as the atheists in both samples discussed support for progressive political positions as it concerned cultural issues, economic issues, governmental issues, foreign policy issues and any other political issues one can conceive. Perhaps future research can identify which particular progressive issues appeal to an atheist’s sense of rationality, but for now it is reasonable to say that atheists tend to endorse all parts of a politically progressive agenda.

            I find this endorsement fascinating given the atheists’ emphasis on rationality. Whether one agrees with a conservative position on abortion, aggressive foreign policy, capital punishment, a smaller federal government, restrictions against undocumented workers, cutting taxes or other issues, there are sound rational arguments supporting these positions. It seems unlikely that the highly progressive disproportional support from atheists on these issues comes from simple rational deductions. I contend that this support can be understood given a point made in the last blog whereby the ideals of atheists often come from a reaction to the religion of the day. This is understandable given that atheists tend to see themselves as the opposite of emotional, irrational religion. If religion is bad then what people who are highly religious endorse must also be bad. Today the general image is that religion endorses conservative political philosophy. Thus, the opposite of conservative political philosophy, or political progressive philosophy, could be seen as a moral good by atheists.

            Let me elaborate on this point. There are religious and secular justifications for both good and bad ideas. The social gospel compels us to take care of the poor and is supported by religious justification. One could also use the ideas in a rationally based document such as the Humanist Manifesto I and II to justify the worth of the poor in society and enunciate a need to take care of them. On the other hand, white supremacy had religious support among Christians in the early part of our country’s history. Scientific ideas found within evolution have also been used to legitimate white supremacy (Check out the writings of Jean Philippe Rushton). Both religion and rationality can be used to argue  both sides of social and political issues. There is a social constructiveness to both religion and rationality which often makes it difficult to argue that religious belief or rational discourse automatically leads to a certain social or political outcome. So in looking at why atheists use rationality to support political progressiveness, it is not sufficient to enunciate that progressive policies are innately more rational than conservative policies. Rational arguments can be used to legitimate a variety of contradictory positions. We generally have sociological and philosophical reasons why we see some ideas as rational and other ideas as not rational. Their belief in the dysfunction of religion and opposition of all aspects of religion provides a powerful potential explanation for why atheists support political progressiveness.

           This leads to a final topic which is the sort of social world atheists state they want. We asked our respondents about the type of social world they would like to see. Generally they wanted a world where individuals were free to be religious but they want religion to be dying in that world. A few enunciated a desire to forbid religious individuals to hold public office, but for the most part, atheists espoused the ideas of religious neutrality and freedom. They saw religious neutrality as a two edge sword that not only kept the government out of religion but religion out of government. The value of church/state separation was also a powerful mechanism in the construction of atheist morality. Thus atheists did not talk of outlawing or removing religion by political or legal force, but they hoped that it will die out as people voluntarily choose to ignore religion in a rational society.

         Of course it is one thing to be asked when one does not have the power to create the social world and it may be another thing if one gains that power. Whether atheists would truly allow for religious freedom or they would incorporate some of the government mechanisms used in communist, and officially atheist, countries to oppress religion remains to be seen. For what it is worth I believe that the individuals I interviewed were sincere in their desire that people of faith were not oppressed for their faith, even if those respondents did not have respect for what religious individuals believe. Furthermore, some of the newer secular countries such as Sweden illustrate a society whereby religious individuals retain their social and political freedoms. Indeed several respondents referred to Europe as their vision of an ideal society as it concerned the presence of religion.  I suspect that there is a strong desire among many atheists in the United States to reproduce a European society over here in the New World, at least as it concerns issues of religion. When understanding the moral desires of atheists, it is reasonable to argue that whatever brings us closer to that European style society is good and whatever moves us farther away from it is bad.

          I hope you have enjoyed this blog series even if you have disagreed with parts of it. I am a believer in debate as an important way to understand the issues of the day. Nevertheless, I am limited by this sort of format to fully enunciate the points made in these four blog entries. So if you are interested in looking deeper into the issues raised in this series then please look up the book.

Atheists in America – Part 2

This is a continuation of my series on atheists which is based on a book I have coming out, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). In the first blog I discussed how I collected data on atheists. Now I can dive into the findings. The first finding I want to explore is how atheists perceive science.
In the first blog, I noted that atheists tend to use science to legitimate their beliefs. I am not just talking about their beliefs about the possible existence of the supernatural, but also their beliefs about themselves and what is important in life. This is reasonable given that atheists, for obvious reasons, cannot use religion to justify their concerns. Atheists tend to see science as the way to create a better world and religion as the barrier to that better world.
In contemporary society there is a tension between science and religion. While there may have always been a tension between science and religion, it is not clear that science and religion have to be seen in conflict with each other. In fact, there is solid philosophical work arguing that science and religion do not contradict. Perhaps most famous is the argument of “non-overlapping magisterial” by Gould which suggests that there are areas where science reigns supreme and areas where religion reigns supreme but that those two areas are distinct from each other. Regardless of arguments such as this one, it is clear that science-religion conflict is seen as normative today. In that conflict atheists envision themselves on the side of science. The image of science as a rational methodology for understanding reality appeals to the average atheist’s own sense that he/she bases his/her actions on rationality instead of on emotionalism.
It is not surprising that atheists see religion as incompatible with science. For example, one of the atheists we interviewed, let’s call him Ralph, is especially confused at the idea that scientists can be religious. For Ralph science and religion do not mix as he sees science as “based on the idea of experimentation involving knowledge and change of knowledge” while religion is “fundamentally based on faith and I don’t see particularly how they (science and religion) can coexist.” Accordingly, Ralph contends that for individuals to have religious beliefs they must be ignorant of science. When the topic of religious scientists came up he made it clear that he had a hard time understanding how a highly educated scientist is able to retain religious faith. In fact, one of the last statements he made at the end of the interview was “ …it would be an interesting conversation to have somebody highly intelligent, you know well educated person that has a religious belief that might be a conversation I will undertake, it is going to be really curious to see how they can reconcile that.”
In Ralph we see the belief of the incompatibility of religion and science. His interpretation of this conflict is religion being conflated with ignorance and irrationality while science is connected to a rational approach to life. Another one of our interviewees reinforces this perspective:
Science is about finding the best way of doing things, the best knowledge that we can acquire. Religion has nothing to do with either of those, absolutely nothing. They’re not compatible ‘cause they’re going to ignore the facts. You can’t be a scientist. If you wanna be a scientist you can’t be religious. They don’t fit together. Oil and water.

This was a common theme in both the interviews and online responses. This perception establishes the relationship of religion to science in the eyes of the atheists. It also plays an important role in the social identity atheists have developed. Atheists clearly define themselves as not religious and since they do not see themselves as religious, they perceive themselves as not having the problems they associate with religion, such as the inability of the religious to understand scientific truth. For many respondents, being an atheist is akin to being a lover of science and a lover of truth.
For many atheists, science is the way to discover truth. Our atheist respondents were rarely nihilists who state that there is no truth. Perhaps the belief that truth cannot be discovered is more common among agnostics or those who are spiritual but not religious. But atheists contend that truth can be discovered with the proper application of science. They see people of faith as afraid to seek out truth since finding that truth may mean the end of their faith. In the example below, note how this respondent is sympathetic to her friend but envisions her friend as hiding from the truth through religion:
For some people, they may not be willing to question things or are happy where they’re at. I know someone who’s very, very strongly a Christian, mostly because she has found happiness in religion, so to her, why upset that? Because she doesn’t feel that truth has its own intrinsic value. She feels that the search for happiness has its own intrinsic value, and so it has a lot to do with your values, your personality, of course your upbringing and how you’re been taught to question things and think about things.

Atheists see themselves as clear thinkers in comparison to their religious peers. They do not limit this perception to their ideas about social and political activism, but also envision their decisions in their everyday lives as the products of clear thinking.
Humans have a need to create a social identity that supports their self-esteem and one which they believe leads to the right values. This is true across different cultures and sub-cultures so it is not a surprise that atheists create a social identity that meets such social needs. In light of their need for a social identity that builds esteem, we can make more sense of the atheist claims of understanding reality in a superior manner to religious individuals. This confidence leads to the development of an atheist social identity based on the perception that their personal and social decisions are centered in “rational” science as opposed to “irrational” religion. For some atheists it is not just that religion is illogical. Religion is also problematic to society. This is particularity the case when religion threatens to interfere with government. Because atheists tend to have a dichotomous vision of science being logical and religion illogical, they tend to see the intrusion of “illogical” religion into government as troublesome. In a future blog I will look more at the sort of solutions atheists suggest for our society, but obviously those solutions will include less religious influence in the government and our general society.
Atheists envision the priority of science as a key component of their social identity. Science is not merely a social tool to many atheists, but it is also an important way they conceptualize a vision of their place in our society. Understanding an atheist social identity is important for comprehending why certain individuals become atheists. Given the centrality of science in the creation of the atheist social identity, there is little wonder that atheists are overrepresented in elite positions in scientific fields. But it is not the only element of an atheist social identity. In my next blog I will look closely at another important element of that social identity.

Atheists in America – Part 1

This is the start of a series on atheists. I am not sure how many blogs I will write on them but it is connected to a book I have coming out titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). It is a book I co-wrote with David Williamson. Being a Christian, I believe it to be important to understand those who do not agree with me. Furthermore, atheists have been understudied, and I love doing research on understudied topics.
A disclaimer or two is in order. Although I do not share the beliefs atheists have, this series, and my book, is not a critique of atheism. That critique has been made by smarter people than I. My work is intended to describe atheists, not atheism. It is about the community in which atheists sustain their social reality. On the other hand, whenever a researcher looks at a social community, one usually sees strengths and weaknesses. I do not intend on describing atheists in a particularly negative or positive light, but if some of the findings create those impressions then so be it. I know that many atheists see themselves as marginalized, and there is research backing their claims. I have no desire to add to that feeling, but I am not going to fake a glowing report on atheists just to be politically correct.
This entry will help to set up the rest of the series. I basically want to discuss how we did our research. The findings I will talk about in the rest of the series are based on that methodology. Actually our idea for this research emerged when we did research on cultural progressive activists. We used an online survey with open-ended questions to gather their ideas about the Christian Right. Our sample was 61.7 percent atheists, which is an incredibly high percentage for a group that is 3-5 percent of the population in the United States. We ran some preliminary tests comparing the atheists to the other cultural progressive activists and knew that we had the potential to do interesting research.
But it was research that needed to be augmented. To do this David and I decided to interview about fifty atheists. We wanted to see if atheists have a different experience when they lived in a highly religious region of the country as compared to a more secular region. As a result, we interviewed half of the atheists in an area in the Bible Belt and the other half through an atheist organization located in a less religious region of the country. The atheists we found in the city in the Bible Belt were found through networking contacts we found in a small atheist group. There was no large formal organization we could use to find respondents which is likely a feature of the lack of a non-religious presence.
Our research question focused on why individuals became atheists, how they logically justified their atheism, their perceptions on religion and the sort of society they want. We developed a questionnaire to address those issues. We asked about our respondents religious background, how they became atheists, their logical reasons why they became an atheists, what they saw as the benefits of atheism, their concerns about religion and what their ideal society looked like.
It is worth telling why we spent time trying to learn how atheists logically justify their beliefs. We had learned that rationality was a core value with cultural progressive activists (See our book What Motivates Cultural Progressives by Baylor University Press). The atheists in our previous research consistently argued that religion is illogical, and atheism is logical. So we wondered what sort of arguments atheists used to justify such confidence in their claims. Thus, we did ask them for the most powerful argument that supported their beliefs in atheism. I will provide you the answer for that in a future blog (this is my nerd version of a teaser).
Over the next few blogs I will summarize some of the findings from our work. But to understand those results, it is important to consider who atheists are. In our sample, we had a high percentage of individuals with college and post-graduate degrees. This is reflective of the reality that atheists have higher levels of education than others in our society. We also interviewed more men than women. We even made an attempt to interview more women but still interviewed almost three men for every woman we interviewed. Research has shown that men are more likely to be atheists. I wished we had interviewed more women so that we would be in a position to look at possible gender differences between the atheists and non-atheists. Our respondents were also highly likely to be white which also matches what national probability samples have indicated about the racial makeup of atheists.
The educational, racial and gender status of atheists suggests that this is a group with a relatively privileged societal position. As I pointed out earlier, many atheists feel marginalized, and there is research indicating that atheism is less accepted than other religious beliefs. In fact, I have done some of the research showing that atheism generates more relative animosity than other religious beliefs. So it is true that as it concerns religious status, atheism is a marginalized position. But in other ways, atheists are not so marginalized. Being more likely to be white, male and educated means that they have advantages in society that offset the disadvantages their beliefs about religion can bring them.
It seems to me that the term status inconsistency applies here. It is a term developed by Max Weber that describes the fact that status indicators such as wealth, power and prestige are not perfectly correlated to each other. A gangster may have a lot of wealth and power but that person does not have a lot of prestige in our society. Likewise, someone like Mother Teresa has a lot of prestige and even some power but not a lot of wealth. People living in status inconsistency are in a position to use their status advantages to compensate for their status disadvantages. So a gangster may not be able to enjoy status but the ability to enjoy wealth and power helps that gangster to feel good about him or herself even with this low status. Status inconsistency is part of what makes atheists fascinating. They generally have educational, racial and gender advantages to help compensate for their religious disadvantages. I believe that some of the findings to be presented in the next few blogs are connected to this attempt to manage status inconsistency. For example, in the next blog I will look at the values atheists place on science. Using science as a way to legitimate their beliefs is logical for some atheists to work towards a society where their education, rather than religion, becomes a source of status. Hope you come back in a couple of weeks to check out that


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X