Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Atheism in America

Have you noticed the recent increase in conversations about atheism lately? You've seen books, TV programs and more talking about atheism. If you read ScienceBlogs, you might think that a supermajority of scientists are atheists. Two recent posts there have shifted the conversation away from the screaming edges, and I would like to comment here on them. Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science posted a recent Barna survey showing that Christians tend to donate time and money to the needy more than atheists, and Josh Rosenau from Thoughts from Kansas posted a recent analysis of belief on America.

I'll say right now that I am a Christian, a liberal and a scientist. I wish to contribute to a dialogue about topics like this rather than pick a fight.

Nisbet's post and subsequent discussion centers on the image problem that atheists have in America, and the comments seem to me right on. If, however, he is interested in addressing the findings of the Barna survey, there seems to me an important consideration missing.

I believe that among atheist scientists, there are considerable negative stereotypes of religious - particularly Christian - people. A vast majority of comments (and posts) on ScienceBlogs refer to Christians is cynical hypocrites. I know that this text lashing is not representative of all atheists, but if ScienceBlogs is taken as a representative section of atheists, I might wonder if the negative impressions that society at large holds of of atheists are founded. I have had close interactions with a few groups of atheist secular humanists, and I would characterize only a very small minority of them as something resembling 'militant' or 'cynic.' So I think that Nisbet and colleagues are on to something when they suppose that community (as provided by a church, for example) is linked to good works. It is also possible that people interested in social justice are more social to start with, so seek out places like churches, community groups and political organizations.

My question related about what the Barna study says about atheism is: Are atheists willing to accept that Christians honestly pursue their religious teachings?

If you would like to understand how Christianity can be a religion of social justice, read the Sermon on the Mount. (The summary at Wikipedia is good as long as you don't read the muddled interpretation section.) Christ's teachings advocated giving alms (as the Barna study examined), reducing war, withholding judgment, healing sick, and were against materialism. Jesus interacted with and helped women, lepers, the underclass, tax collectors, priests and aristocrats. Paul preached to and formed friendships with Jews, Greeks, slaves, prisoners, soldiers and Roman leaders alike.

You will, of course, be able to cite contradictions to these points - mostly in the Old Testament. And surely you will find Christians that do not place the social justice commandments high on their priority list. I am just saying that there are stereotypes of atheists and stereotypes of Christians, and to shake off one, you may just have to let go of the other.

Finally, Rosenau identifies that there may be a trend toward a less religious America, and the Barna survey indicates that Americans are increasingly misinformed about the poor. Let's hope that we are not trending toward an era of callousness and fewer good deeds.


Drugmonkey said...

I'll say right now that I am not a Christian, I am liberal and I'll claim to be a scientist too.

The point you seem to be missing is that atheists in America have a LOT of data on which to base their "stereotype" of religious, particularly Christian, people. More personal and group data than the reverse, going by the apparently tiny minority of atheists in the US. The question you should be asking is not how many atheists are "cynical" but rather what the data suggest is the true state of affairs. In other words, is the "cynicism" of atheists toward Christians well founded?

I agree with you that a central issue is whether atheists are willing to believe Christians are sincere. I certainly am and I know a few sincere ones myself. That's right. A FEW individuals who I have come to know in my life who I can look at and say, gee, that person really tries to live his/her life consistent with my reading of the New Testament. You may be one of these people, I don't know. Nevertheless the minority I know personally stands in some contrast to the majority of people I know to a similar degree who claim to be Christian and certainly in stark contrast with our most public versions of Christianity.

I realize you get insulted because you think "Hey, but I'm sincere and I'm a Christian". Anecdote. The question you should be pursuing is what fraction are sincere and (separate issue) what style of Christianity holds sway over our public life.

you can try to excuse on the basis of "well the social justice thing is not on everyone's priority list". Trouble is, it often seems as though very little in the New Testament is actually on some self-declared Christians' priority list. So another thought question for you is how do you tote up sincerity in a self-declared Christian. Are some aspects more important and others somewhat peripheral? Which ones and to what degree?

All we atheists see is behavior, btw. So if the most essential items are sincerity of faith, adherence to the one-god thing and other non-observables, well you can see our problem. It's all very well for someone to beat the breast about the depth of their belief, but if there are also a series of things in the religion that would seem to call for observable behavior and one cannot observe those behaviors...again, problem. As a related issue, there are plenty of atheists who live in a way consistent with many of these behaviors that seem to be called for in Christianity. Yet the mainstream Christian approach does not appear to credit this in atheists, presumably because the belief component is missing. In addition to being insulting to the atheist to suggest that they cannot be "good" because they do not believe this also testifies to the relative priority said Christian perspective puts on the behavior aspects.

thomas said...

I appreciate your comments and particularly appreciate their honest sincerity. I think that you and I will agree on many points. Most notably:

*The extent to which certain viewpoints dominate the public expression of Christianity and that it is heartbreaking or infuriating to hear these folks' ideas about their role in society.

*Whether you are a member of any particular religion or pursue any particular belief system has little or no impact on your potential to do good or harm to society.

*We all, Christians and others, tend to judge others too much and unfairly, but there is a tendency for adherents to Christianity to be more vocal in their judgments.

*With groups as large and diverse as 'atheist' or 'Christian' it is difficult to make any sort of blanket generalization.

I take seriously my own decision to be a Christian, and am always wrestling with different aspects that are difficult to reconcile with other ways that I approach the world (science, philosophy, politics). There is of course a huge gulf between what (I believe) Christianity should be in America and what it is. That is part of why I post stuff like this!

Drugmonkey said...

I'm not sure we do agree on the "blanket generalizations" point. One of the things I think you should try is to back away from a reflexive defense of how you and every Christian are unique and shouldn't be tarred with the "swaggart/falwell/roberts" brush. Instead, try to assess how *true* the generalization is. What fraction of self-described Christians believe it is harder for a rich man to get through the gates of heaven than it is for a camel to pass the eye of a needle? What fraction believe and preach Leviticus type attitudes in preference to Jesus' "love thy enemy" approach? I mean, except for the odd fig tree the guy was as consistently anti-hate as you can get. Why is mainstream Christianity all about the hating? I realize this is "heartbreaking and infuriating" for some such as yourself. but let's just suppose those are 90% of self-described Christians. Why would you 10% do even one little thing to advance *their* agenda when it is apparently counter to your own? The only conclusion I can draw is the mere fact of professing Christian belief, hypocritical and untrue as it may be, is enough to justify supporting these types to you, the 10% minority legitimate Christian. So we're back to my question, what is MOST important to you about "being Christian"?

Here's another question for you. Given Jesus' very consistent anti-Establishment, anti-power-structure, pro-downtrodden and disadvantaged approach, are you willing to consider that the thing to do that is most consistent with Jesus' ideas is to battle the established edifice of modern Christianity with every fiber of your being (whilst doing good for the downtrodden)? sounds suspiciously like some atheist positions to me....

thomas said...

Thanks for the continued comments, Drugmonkey.

You ask:

What fraction of self-described Christians believe it is harder for a rich man to get through the gates of heaven than it is for a camel to pass the eye of a needle? What fraction believe and preach Leviticus type attitudes in preference to Jesus' "love thy enemy" approach?

I do not know the answers to these very good questions. The majority of Christians I personally know would believe the first and prefer "love thy neighbor," just as the majority of Christians you know would choose the opposite. Do you know of any resources other than anecdote to this end?

Also, you ask:

What is MOST important to you about "being Christian"?

For me, it's a personal relationship with God that involves believing some pretty unbelievable things. That relationship along with the teachings associated with it frame my decisions about every aspect of my life. (Frame is not the same as define.)

Finally, I do not think that atheists can lay claim to positions of social justice and anti-establishmentarianism. See the Protestant Reformation, the Reformed Christian tradition, liberation theology and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. We all (and by we, I guess I can only speak for you and me) try to right the wrongs done in the world. Like you, I am most concerned about health and disease, and some of my talents are best focused there. I see every fiber of my being as being divided between that calling and a (still only potential) role as an apologist for science to Christians.

As far as devoting my life entirely to reforming the church, I prefer to quote Dietrich Bonhoffer:

"For a long time... I thought I could acquire faith by training to live a holy life, or something like it. I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith... By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities."

I do not expect this path to be an easy one, and I may yet abandon it. Along the way, I value insight such as yours.

golob said...

Just a brief point:

"I have had close interactions with a few groups of atheist secular humanists, and I would characterize only a very small minority of them as militant cynics."
(emphasis added)

I know you mean cynical to be a negative descriptor, but can you honestly claim that having "a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others" or being "selfishly or callously calculating" (both textbook definitions of
a cynic) are bad traits for a scientist?

Or consider the antonym of a cynic—a sentimental person—someone who has a general trust of the motives and actions of others, who goes more by general impression rather than calculated evaluation of the facts.

Provided cynical thoughts—even militantly cynical thoughts—have a rational basis, it seems grossly unfair to derisive.

thomas said...

I would reply that cynical is a neutral trait in science. Likewise, sentimentality is neither good nor bad in a scientist. To me and to your definitions, cynical refers almost exclusively to social phenomenon. Trust refers to other humans or other groups, and it is not the business of the scientist to judge personal integrity. In fact, I believe cynicism to be a disservice in a fast moving field where it could be beneficial to assimilate many others' views into a cohesive theory. Likewise, extreme cynicism undermines the entire peer-review process on which science is based.

The trait that is particularly useful in science, and perhaps you are thinking of this when you mean cynical, is skepticism. Scientists DO need to be skeptical of data - their own and others' - and conclusions.

On to the phrase "militant cynic." I use it to describe individuals who are so distrustful of other people and their views that they refuse to even consider another person's perspective. They lack empathy, that is, the ability to step in another person's shoes. Clearly, this term can apply to both atheists and evangelical Christians.

I think it is useful to be skeptical in science and that cynicism and sentimentality each have their roles. But too much of each can jeopardize both your reputation and your ability for critical thought.

Bree said...

Hi Tom,

This post happened to catch my eye as I was looking at your blog after following the link in your FOSEP email (great idea to chronicle the things you learned by the way, I’ll be interested in reading your posts). Anyway, this entry caught my eye because I happened to have just read an article in the Annals of Family Medicine titled Do Religious Physicians Disproportionately Care for the Underserved? You can also read a news article on the ScienceDaily website:

The answer to the question was no. In fact they conclude that “Physicians who are more religious do not appear to disproportionately care for the underserved” (Religion was measured by attendance at religious services and self identification with a particular religious vs. none). Spirituality on the other hand was a good predictor of working with underserved populations but they didn’t define spirituality for survey respondents so they don’t have a way to measure what that means (given that I am not religious but would probably check the spiritual box you can’t assume that Spiritual = religious).

Because I had just read this article, I went to the Barna website to read their study. They carefully included percentages for how many people fit into their various categories until they got to the non-religious responses and then simply stated: “Atheists and agnostics emerged as the segment of people least likely to do anything in response to poverty. They were less likely to engage in eight of the nine specific responses measured, and were the faith segment least likely to participate in eight of the nine responses evaluated”

What percent is least likely? Is their least likely percentage statistically significantly less than the others or just less? What are the 9 responses measured? They don’t give n for any subgroup that they report on so you are left without knowing how many of each group participated in their survey, except for Born Again Christians which made 40% of the survey respondents according to the table. For all we know they could have had 3 atheists to base their conclusions on.

So my point is just to say that I don’t find sufficient evidence in the Barna study to see how you came to the question posed in your entry:
”My question related about what the Barna study says about atheism is: Are atheists willing to accept that Christians honestly pursue their religious teachings?”

I think it is a fair question, but I don’t think you get any support from the Barna study (unless the rest of the data is on the website somewhere, I looked but I couldn’t find it if you know where it is let me know!). I would conclude from both of these studies that just like virtually everything else in the human experience, some people practice what they preach and some don’t. I don’t see how you can tie that to a particular religious belief - at least not from this - very limited - set of studies.

Anonymous said...

Hey Thomas!
Great blog and good topic! I am a Christian and on my way to medical school and actually thus far find no conflict in my spirutual beliefs and science. I think we both probably share that calling to help others which I attribute much of to my faith and spiritual growth.

Anywho, I think this is a useful topic, while I don't agree with the conclusion on God by atheists, i do respect their view. Most of the athiests i have met or spoken with however, do tend to come off as arrogant and self-absorbed, just an observation, but I am sure not all are like that. Good luck with school, thanks for the blog!