Atheism, proselytism and other isms

Aliette de Bodard @ 09-09-2010

There’s an interesting article by Alom Shaha over on the Guardian’s blog, on why he’s no longer an “angry atheist”. The gist of it is basically that the “preaching” atheists (those who claim loudly that to believe in God is the act of morons) can be as annoying as religious fanatics.
It’s an interesting comparison, and one which reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago over on Gareth’s blog with Cecile Cristofari. Cecile pointed out an article by Tatiana Chernyshova, which explained that

Only a fraction [of people], however, is actually able to explain what e=mc² stand for; and even fewer can understand the theory and explain precisely why it makes sense. The rest of us simply accept scientific facts in the same way as uneducated people in the 19th century accepted the idea that God existed: because competent authorities have said so, but this knowledge still relies on faith, not proof, in spite of the fact that science is supposed to be about proof, not faith.

To me, there’s a fair amount of similarities between atheism, science and religion: they’re all beliefs. Religious faith is the most obvious one; but faith in science (the idea that science can explain and/or control everything) is also one. So is atheism. Some of those beliefs seem more substantiated than others: science seems to work so far at explaining the world around us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect or even that it’s a good explanation. After all, the medieval Christian mythos also worked pretty well to explain the world ten centuries ago–until it became clear that particular worldview wasn’t equal to the task. At some point, all of those require a leap of faith: that science is an accurate representation of reality, that there is a God and that he spoke through the mouth of prophets or of the Messiah, that there is not and will never be a God.

But as beliefs? They’re not equal. Being a loud atheist is OK; being a loud religious person is… well, generally an embarrassment in most First World nations. Believing in science is reasonable and sensible (in spite of the fact that most people have no idea at all how most of it works or what assumptions it rests on, as Chernyshova points out); believing in God is much less so. As a scientist and a believer, I find it fascinating how some beliefs can end up more valued and/or socially acceptable than others, sometimes to the point of being accepted as gospel truths.

(also, I’m very much fascinated by the idea that faith in science has replaced faith in God, which is worryingly plausible, and possibly explains why I always end up in such acrimonious arguments about the fallibility of science)

PS: I welcome notes and comments on the subject, but could you please try to keep to basic rules of politeness. I have seen the Guardian’s comment thread, and I’m not over-enthusiastic to replicate it here…

Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives and works in France. When not wrestling with Artificial Intelligence problems (aka teaching computers how to analyse what they see), she writes speculative fiction. She is the author of the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld from Angry Robot, and has had short fiction published in Asimov’s, Interzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction.


Are religious skeptics bound for demographic doom?

Edward Willett @ 05-03-2009

fertility goddess In science fiction, there has long been an assumption (not present in all stories, but certainly present in many) that in the future religion will have been consigned to the dustbin of history; that it simply cannot continue to withstand the onslaught of scientific evidence against the existence of a deity.

Demographically, however, it is the believers who have the edge, at least in the U.S. Drawing on data from the General Social Survey, “widely regarded as the single best source of data on societal trends,” blogger The Audacious Epigone notes that believers out-breed non-believers (Via FuturePundit):

From GSS data, I looked at the reported ideal family size* and the actual number of children had, by theistic confidence, among those who had essentially completed their total fertility (age 40-100):


Theistic confidence Desired Actual
Don’t believe 2.26 2.23
No way to find out 2.25 1.95
Some higher power 2.18 1.98
Believe sometimes 2.37 2.34
Believe with doubts 2.34 2.31
Know God exists 2.58 2.64

He also finds among younger people, between the ages of 18-30, the number of children desired is also higher among those who “Know God exists” than any of the other categories, and says:

It is not that secular people cannot keep up with religious folks. They simply do not want to. In the numbers game, though, the results are what matter. The question regarding Steve Sailer’s suggestion that the future may belong to groups who are able to procreate the most is whether or not secularizing social trends are able to overcompensate for greater fertility among the religious.

Does the future, then, belong to believers, or will secular society suck the religion out of their children’s souls before they themselves grow old enough to breed? And how would/should this demographic data impact the fictional futures of SF writers?

(Image: Goddess of Fertility, Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara, Turkey, via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]religion,atheism,demographics,population[/tags]


How do the (secular) geeks celebrate the birth of Our Teacher?

Tom James @ 22-12-2008

Let’s find out how they celebrate His birth courtesy of Short Sharp Science:

In a twist on the traditional Christmas carol service, British comedian Robin Ince has come up with a show called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, which he describes as “a rational celebration of Christmas”.

On Friday night, I went along to see how his atheistic vision – starring luminaries such as Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais – measured up.

In the meantime enjoy the Dawk talking with mentalist Derren Brown.

[via Short Sharp Science and Boing Boing][image from Waka Jawaka on flickr]


Evangelicals more rational than non-evangelicals?

Edward Willett @ 22-09-2008

ghost If we could just get rid of religion, we could march forward into a glorious future where everyone would think rationally and believe only what can be scientifically proven, right?

Wrong. At least, that’s what’s suggested by “What Americans Really Believe,” a study by Baylor University. In what seems to be a case of “you’ve got to believe in something or you’ll believe in anything,” the study shows that (in the words of Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, writing in the Wall Street Journal):

…traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

Other studies have shown the same thing: according to a 1980 study published in Skeptical Inquirer, irreligious college students were by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely. Two years ago, another study published in Skeptical Inquirer showed that:

while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.

Perhaps this is evidence for the “God gene,” something within the human genome that tends us toward belief in things we haven’t seen (or seen evidence for) ourselves. Perhaps it’s a by-product of our ability to imagine things that aren’t real–and thus a by-product of our ability to create fantasy and science fiction tales.

And perhaps it’s an indication devout atheists need to dig a little deeper into why people believe what they believe, because by aiming at the same oft-ridiculed Christian evangelicals, they’re missing a much bigger–and more gullible–target.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]religion, atheism, paranormal, pseudoscience[/tags]