With the number of Americans identifying themselves as non-religious growing, scholars are beginning to do serious research into that segment of society to find out what we are like, what we believe and how our lack of religious belief affects our lives and our behavior. The results are very interesting. Der Spiegel reports on some of that research.
The director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in the US state of Connecticut, [Barry] Kosmin is among the few researchers focused on the study of non-believers. This umbrella covers various groups including atheists, agnostics and humanists, as well as those who are simply indifferent to religion.
Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion). Despite their large numbers, little is known about this group of people. Who are they? And if not religion, what do they believe in?
“Sometimes I feel like Christopher Columbus on an expedition to an unknown continent,” says Kosmin. “For example, many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religious — but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.” …
So what do these increasing numbers of non-believers believe in, if not God? Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California’s Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.
But their knowledge doesn’t seem to do them much good, since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US, falling behind even Muslims and homosexuals. In the states of South Carolina and Arkansas, those who deny the existence of a supreme being are not even permitted to hold public office.
The secularists’ problem is that, unlike the religious believers, they do not have a strong organization backing them. There is no such thing as a “typical” non-believer and every society has its own version of secularism.
That is a problem politically, perhaps, but I suspect it’s actually helping in terms of demographic numbers; because this is such a broad category, it inflates the number of people who fall under such a broad umbrella. Clearly there are many variations on those who are not a part of religious communities, and there are different groups that appeal to those variations. That can be both a weakness and a strength depending on the context.
My friend Luke Galen, a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry’s Michigan chapter that I belong to as well, is a psychology professor who has done a major study of non-believers, drawing on questionnaires filled out by members of CFI Michigan and local churches (a second phase of the study had an international sample). One of the fascinating results was how non-believers chose to label themselves. When asked to pick a number of labels that apply to them from a list, with the instruction that they could pick as many as they think are accurate, 77% said atheist, 63% said humanist, 29% said agnostic and 3% said spiritual. But when given the same list and told that they could only choose one, 57% still said atheist, 24% said humanist, 10% said agnostic and 2% said spiritual. Galen also looked at how emotionally healthy those people tend to be:
The relationship between certainty of beliefs and emotional well-being in our nonbeliever sample was a mirror image of general population studies. In overwhelmingly religious samples, certainty and confidence in one’s beliefs tends to be related to characteristics of emotional health and a sense of purpose, whereas religious uncertainty and doubt often correlate with anxiety and depression. (See in particular Smith, McCullough, and Poll; see also Hunsberger, Pancer, Pratt, and Alisat.) When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability. Taken together with the personality findings, confident nonbelievers (and apparently confident religious believers) are better situated emotionally, although the lower agreeableness indicates that strong nonbelievers appear to be somewhat less likely to acquiesce to or to trust others.
I think it would be really interesting to look a little closer at that question. I think there might be an interesting distinction to be found between those who have more certainty in their conclusions and those who recognize an ultimate uncertainty but are okay with that. I do not, for example, contend that I know there is no god. My position, in fact, is that we have no way of answering the truly core question of what, if anything, began existence itself. I see an inherent uncertainty in even attempting to answer that question. But I’m also perfectly fine with that. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I suspect people like me would be considered uncertain, but would not have that uncertainty affect their emotional well-being because we accept that uncertainty as inevitable and not troublesome.
But looking at the results of non-belief may be less interesting, ultimately, than looking at the causes of non-belief. Der Spiegel mentions one study of that question:
Boston University’s Catherine Caldwell-Harris is researching the differences between the secular and religious minds. “Humans have two cognitive styles,” the psychologist says. “One type finds deeper meaning in everything; even bad weather can be framed as fate. The other type is neurologically predisposed to be skeptical, and they don’t put much weight in beliefs and agency detection.”
Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. “There have always been two cognitive comfort zones,” she says, “but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble.”
This is a fascinating area for study and that research is just beginning.