Archives for posts with tag: secularism

I’ve rediscovered a piece from 2007 that reads like the best news ever about organized religion: “Why the Gods Are Not Winning”, by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman. The authors find that secularism is eating away at religion, and will eventually swallow it whole.

Disbelief now rivals the great faiths in numbers and influence. Never before has religion faced such enormous levels of disbelief, or faced a hazard as powerful as that posed by modernity. How is organized religion going to regain the true, choice-based initiative when only one of them is growing, and it is doing so with reproductive activity rather than by convincing the masses to join in, when no major faith is proving able to grow as they break out of their ancestral lands via mass conversion, and when securely prosperous democracies appear immune to mass devotion? The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

Many people have reported a resurgence of religiosity since 9/11. Paul and Zuckerman counter that there is no evidence for this.

Since 1900 Christians have made up about a third of the global population, and are edging downwards. No growth there. Hindus are coasting at a seventh the total, no significant increase there either even though India adds more people each year than any other nation. The WCE predicts no proportional increase for these faiths by 2050. The flourishing revival of two megareligions whether by democracy, edification, or fecundity is therefore a mirage. Having shrunk by a quarter in the 20th century, Buddhism is predicted to shrink almost as much over the next half century. Once rivaling Christianity, paganism — whether it be ancient or modern as per New Ageism and Scientology — has over all contracted by well over half and is expected to continue to dwindle.

The reign of Bush II certainly saw an acute rise in public religiosity, including a full-scale war in Iraq that was theologically justified. P & Z’s statistics imply that although the voices of piety have become louder, they have not grown in number.

A decade and a half of sampling finds conservative (thought to be about two thirds to four fifths of the total of) evangelicals and born-agains consistently stuck between a quarter and a third of the population. The majority that considers religion very important in their lives dropped from over two thirds in the 1960s to a bare majority in 1970s and 1980s, and appeared to edge up in the Clinton era. But instead of rising post 9/11 as many predicted, it is slipping again.

Tell me more!!!

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. … Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it. From a high of three quarters of the population in the 1930s to 1960s, a gradual, persistent decline has set in, leaving some clerics distressed at the growing abandonment of small churches as the big ones gobble up what is left of the rest. Weekly religious service attendance rose only briefly in the months after 9/11 — evidence that the event failed to stem national secularization — and then lost ground as the Catholic sex scandal damaged church credibility. As few as one in four or five Americans are actually in church on a typical Sunday, only a few percent of them in megachurches.

Wow. To what do you attribute this trend?

Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

But we are a 1st world nation that is still pretty religious.

It is the great anomaly, the United States, that has long perplexed sociologists. America has a large, well educated middle class that lives in comfort—so why do they still believe in a supernatural creator? Because they are afraid and insecure. Arbitrary dismissal from a long held job, loss of health insurance followed by an extended illness, excessive debt due to the struggle to live like the wealthy; before you know it a typical American family can find itself financially ruined. Overwhelming medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

We’re religious because our health insurance is crappy?

In part to try to accumulate the wealth needed to try to prevent financial catastrophe, in part to compete in a culture of growing economic disparity with the super rich, the typical American is engaged in a Darwinian, keeping up with the Jones competition in which failure to perform to expectations further raises levels of psychological stress. It is not, therefore, surprising that most look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails compensate with a blissful eternal existence.

Now, wait a minute. You guys started out with statistical facts, but this is pure speculation. And it assumes that people really believe, and act on, religious propositions such as “God is love” and “Good people go to Heaven.” As I demonstrate in my upcoming book, there is little reason to think that religious “beliefs” are anything more than mechanically parroted phrases.

So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition. … To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. … Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

Ouch. Is the U.S. really that different, in terms of the average person’s experience? Makes me wonder again about moving to Canada, or Holland.

Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It’s guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation.

Yes, that does seem to be what they want.

In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern.

Well, I still think you have misunderstood what “religious belief” is. But from the international, statistical point of view, that probably doesn’t matter. And even if your speculations regarding its causes are false, the trend seems to be strong. Thanks for the best news I have heard in years.


Roy Sablosky, 2008.
~2,000 words.

In April 2008, published an article by Stuart Kauffman, Breaking the Galilean Spell, adapted from his forthcoming book, Reinventing the Sacred. Not having read the book, I am not sure what Kauffman’s conclusions or recommendations are, but his assumptions are quite wrong.

This response is structured as a long string of quotes from Kauffman’s article, with a comment following each one. The quotes are in their original order.

… Laplace’s particles in motion allow only happenings. There are no meanings, no values, no doings. … [For the reductionist,] human choices, made by ourselves as human agents, are still, when the full science shall have been done, mere happenings, ultimately to be explained by physics.

Of course they are all mere happenings–and of course they also have whatever meanings any human beings care to assign them. The idea that everything is, in principle, “ultimately to be explained by physics,” is in no way incompatible with human meanings, values, choices, or actions. This is a common misunderstanding. It has been meticulously debunked by Daniel Dennett–see, for example, Freedom Evolves.

Biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. “Real” here has a particular meaning: while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe.

Of course they are real. Who ever said otherwise?

A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion.

Well, they are made of particles. This is beyond dispute. On the other hand, it is fair to say that they are “not mere particles.” But I don’t see what the problem is, exactly.

Some billions of us believe in an Abrahamic supernatural God, and some in the ancient Hindu gods. … About a billion of us are secular but bereft of our spirituality and reduced to being materialist consumers in a secular society.

Maybe you feel “bereft” and “reduced”–I sure don’t.

But I see, now, where the controversy came from that you are positioning yourself as knowing how to resolve. It came from religion, and it’s imaginary.

Religion says that secular science deliberately strips life of its meaning. But this is slander. Religion is anti-science, not the other way around. Science studies the world, ignoring religious concepts because they are false and spiritual concepts because they are not applicable. It is not inherently anti-religious or anti-spiritual. This is a myth, invented by religious apologists to demonize scientific thinking and therefore make religion less vulnerable to questioning.

If we the secular hold to anything it is to “humanism.” But humanism, in a narrow sense, is too thin to nourish us as human agents in the vast universe we partially cocreate. I believe we need a domain for our lives as wide as reality.

If you define humanism narrowly enough, it becomes “too thin to nourish.” Define it more liberally, and it is indeed “as wide as reality.”

With Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace, reductionism began and continued its 350-year reign. Over the ensuing centuries, science and the Enlightenment have given birth to secular society.

Did they?–or did secular society gave birth to science and the Enlightenment?

Reductionistic physics has emerged for many as the gold standard for learning about the world.

Well, reductionistic physics is certainly the gold standard for learning about how matter is put together. But you are implying much more than that when you use the phrase “learning about the world.” You are, in effect, quoting the often-heard claim that “science is one way of learning about the world, and religion is another.” But surely you know that this is absurd. Science is a way of learning about the world; religion is a way of not learning about the world.

In turn, the growth of science has driven a wedge between faith and reason.

No, it has not. Religion is responsible for this “wedge.” We are dealing with the same myth as before: the religious myth that science threatens to destroy our spirituality. Science is no more opposed to spirituality than it is to poetry, or love. Most scientific work does not touch on these topics simply because they are not the topics in question. If you are studying superconductivity, or RNA, or metabolic pathways, spirituality is not relevant to your work. On the other hand, it is not forbidden. You can be as spiritual as you want to be, as a person, in your heart. No one’s stopping you. Contrary to the claims of religious apologists, there is no conflict between science and spirituality at all.

You have also left unexamined the background assumption that if one attacks religion one is also attacking spirituality, because religion equals spirituality. The truth is, no one who understands these two can confuse the one with the other.

Today the schism between faith and reason finds voice in the sometimes vehement disagreements between Christian or Islamic fundamentalists, who believe in a transcendent Creator God, and agnostic and atheist “secular humanists” who do not believe in a transcendent God. These divergent beliefs are profoundly held.

No, this is wrong and misleading. Some people believe in gods; others do not. But these are not “divergent beliefs.” I do not believe in any gods–which is not the same as believing that there are no gods. I have no beliefs regarding any gods. To say that a religious fundamentalist and I have divergent, profoundly held beliefs implies a symmetry between our views that does not exist. He has profoundly held beliefs (or so it would appear); I do not.

Furthermore, when we have “vehement disagreements” they are not over religious or spiritual matters. My not believing in their god is nothing like an attack on them; nor is their belief harmful to me. What makes us vehement is our different opinions regarding practical matters: whether it is legitimate, for example, to kill people who do not share one’s religious belief.

Indeed, the most serious disputes between the religious and the secular are all of this type. They arise when the religious are performing or advocating some sort of injury or coercion which we humanists know to be inhumane. We object to harm, not to belief.

[Reductionism] has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values … .

Nonsense. Reductionism is not some immense force, like the Gulf Stream or American Idol. It’s just a rule of thumb that sometimes comes in handy when you’re trying to figure out how stuff works. Reductionism has not cast us into a meaningless world. It doesn’t have that kind of power.

We often turn to a Creator God to explain the existence of life.

Speak for yourself.

My claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. It is that these things are inherently beyond prediction. Not even the most powerful computer imaginable can make a compact description in advance of the regularities of these processes. There is no such description beforehand. Thus the very concept of a natural law is inadequate for much of reality.

No, that does not follow.

Of course everything unfolds under natural law. That’s what ‘natural law’ means. Whether, given what natural laws we do know, we can predict the future is a different question. Limitations in our predictive powers do not invalidate the laws. The laws are there, and we know what some of them are. That we cannot wind them forward to see where every particle goes next does not prove them false.

Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us, all that we participate in, in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all.

You are conflating religion and spirituality, making both of them difficult to think about.

Here is the trick to thinking about religion: put your attention on the men at the top. Nothing happens in the religious sphere unless these men want it to happen. Without these men, there would be no religion, because it has no benefits for anyone but them.

Religious leaders will tell you that religion is a source of “awe, gratitude, and respect,” but this is an excuse. The overwhelming reason for the existence of religious organizations is that they provide a livelihood for their organizers. To recruit customers, the organization claims to possess a cornucopia of invaluable and irreplaceable products and services, but all they really have to sell is their beautiful bill of goods.

There are plenty of ways to find “awe, gratitude, and respect” in this world. Religion has no monopoly on such things–it does not even have special expertise. Religious leaders are not interested in insights, epiphanies, truth, people, or the world. They will implement the policies, and recite the words, that seem likely to foster the growth and profitability of their organization.

Your hope that the emergent-universe paradigm might appeal to religions the world over is based on a misunderstanding. Religions are not really concerned with ontological, metaphysical, spiritual, or cosmological issues–to say nothing of humanistic concerns. They talk all the time about such things, but this is a ruse. None of religion’s entrepreneurs will adopt your framework unless it looks like a good way to fill the collection plate.

[A]gnostic and atheist “secular humanists” have been quietly taught that spirituality is foolish or, at best, questionable. Some secular humanists are spiritual but most are not. We are thus cut off from a deep aspect of our humanity. Humans have led intricate and meaningful spiritual lives for thousands of years, and many secular humanists are bereft of it.

Define spiritual, and tell me what’s good about it. But do so without referring to religion. Until you separate the two you cannot speak meaningfully on this issue.

[A]ll of us, whether we are secular or of faith, lack a global ethic. In part this is a result of the split, fostered by reductionism, between the world of fact and the world of values.

Our lack of a global ethic–if indeed we do lack one–can more reasonably be linked to our just recently having emerged from the hunter-gatherer world wherein one would never meet anyone from the other side of the valley, to say nothing of the world.

We lack a shared worldwide framework of values that spans our traditions and our responsibilities to all of life, one another, and the planet. Secular humanists believe in fairness and the love of family and friends, and we place our faith in democracy.

Don’t you think fairness, love, and democracy is a pretty good framework? You bring in secular humanism, and then at religion’s insistence you toss it aside. But this is exactly the framework we need.

How strange this world would seem to medieval Europe. How alien it seems to fundamentalist Muslims.

Thank God for that!