Using language apparently borrowed from Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell, in which the philosopher encourages his readers to regard religious adherence as a subject that can and should be studied scientifically, the Guardian asks contributors to do the same for the atheist point of view.
Science must consider atheism as naturalistically as it considers religion. The word describes a number of beliefs around which social structures may form, or may not. It clearly isn’t natural or any kind of human universal, since it is unknown in most cultures and at most times. But the same is true of any particular theological belief. They are all equally susceptible to sociological and psychological analysis.
The first two contributors, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (Institute for the Study of Secularism at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA) and Wendy M Grossman (Skeptic Magazine), paint a not unflattering picture of the evidence on the non-religious. Beit-Hallahmi notes that the non-religious are generally “younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society. Such findings have been reported in the US, Australia, and Canada.”
Irreligiosity is tied to greater political liberalism, and to being less prejudiced.
… The claim that atheists are somehow likely to be immoral or dishonest has long been debunked. Studies that looked at readiness to help or honesty showed atheists standing out, not the religious. When it comes to the more serious matter of violence and crime, ever since the field of criminology got started, and data collected of the religious affiliation of criminal offenders, the fact that the unaffiliated and the non-religious had the lowest crime rates has been noted.
Starting in 1925, LM Terman and his colleagues studied 1,528 gifted youth from California with IQ levels higher than 140 who were about 12 years old. Members of this group were followed up throughout life, and were found to be consistently irreligious. Studies on the religiosity of scientists and academics have shown consistently low levels of religiosity, and the prevalence of atheism. Moreover, the more eminent scientists were less religious than others.
… Can we speak about an atheist personality? A tentative psychological profile can be offered. We can say that atheists show themselves to be less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well-educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life.
Drawing mainly on research by one Jon Lanman, Wendy Grossman indicates that higher levels of irreligiosity are to be found when people are more “comfortable” and have less reason to start attributing agency and finding Fate where none exists.
[T]he US has massive inequality and a weak welfare state and a very small percentage of (open) non-theists. In the mid-20th century, Scandinavia built a very strong welfare state and now has a high percentage of non-theists.
Strong atheism, however, is a different matter: “Atheism can also be an identity,” [Lanman] said (just as religious beliefs can serve as markers for social groups), “though I wouldn’t call it a religion.” As an ideology, strong atheism tends to emerge under the threat of theocracy. Strong atheism found its public voice in the US under the twin stresses of George W Bush’s second term in office and 9/11′s demonstration of the worst dangers of fundamentalism.
“The UK,” Lanman concluded, “seems right in the middle between Scandinavia and the US.” The UK had Blair, and has blasphemy laws [ed: actually the blasphemy laws per se were abolished in 2008], a growing perception of the dangers of militant Muslims, and increasing numbers of faith schools – “but you don’t have Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee”.
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]Breaking the spell… of atheism,