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Atheist Nation

Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.

These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”

Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.”

Religion is a complex phenomenon and thus explanations are likely to be complex. (I find that in the social sciences Occam’s razor is rarely true—the simpler explanation is not only usually wrong, it can be terribly misleading.) Smith notes, for example, that “Belief is high in Israel which of course has a sharp conflict between Judaism and Islam, in Cyprus which is divided along religious and ethnic lines into Greek/Orthodox and Turkish/Muslim entities, and in Northern Ireland which is split between Protestant and Catholic communities and shows much higher belief levels than the rest of the United Kingdom.” In the United States there is relatively little overt religious conflict, but intense religious competition across both major religions and denominations within Christianity.”

The outlier appears to be Japan: “The one country that shows a low association between the level of atheism and strong belief is Japan. Japan ranked lowest on strong belief, but also in the lower half on atheism (a difference of 18 positions across the two rankings when the average difference in positions was only 2.7 places). Japan is distinctive among countries in having the largest number of people (32%) in the middle categories of believing sometimes and the agnostic, not knowing response. This pattern is consistent with a general Japanese response pattern of avoiding strong, extreme response options.”

Changes in God beliefs were modest from 1991 through 2008, with the percent saying they were atheists increasing in 15 of 18 countries at an average rise of 1.7%. Between 1998 and 2008 the atheist gain was bigger, with an average increase of 2.3 points in 23 of 30 countries. Predictably, again, the corresponding belief in God decreased by roughly the same amount that atheism grew. The exceptions were Israel, Russia and Slovenia where from 1991 to 2008 there was a consistent movement towards greater belief and less atheists. Israel’s religious shift was a result of an increase in orthodox Jewish and right-wing population, “and the relative decline of the more secular and leftist segment in Israeli society.”

Most interestingly, Smith computed the overall gains and loses of religious beliefs comparing those who say “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to.” With those say “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to.” “In 2008 there was a net gain in belief across the life course in 12 countries and a decline in 17 countries. The gains averaged 4.1 points and the losses -7.0 points for an overall change of -2.4 points.” The shifts also varied by age, with older people gaining in belief while younger people decreasing in belief. Smith concludes his study with this projection for the future of atheism:

“If the modest, general trend away from belief in God continues uninterrupted, it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in northwest Europe and some ex-Socialist states may spread more widely.”

In case you’re wondering, the percentage of Americans who say “I don’t believe in God” was 3% at 4th lowest in the world, and who said “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it” at 60.6%, the 5th highest in the world. Americans who agreed “I don’t believe in God and I never have” was 4.4 at 6th lowest in the world, who agreed “I believe in God now and I always have at 80.8% at 3rd highest in the world. In terms of the changes in atheism and belief in God over time, from 1991 to 2008 the U.S. showed an increase of 0.7% atheists and -0.2 from 1998–2008; in 2008, taking those who said “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to” minus “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to” nets +1.4 in the United States.

The paper is chockablock full of data figures. Here’s the press release for more information.

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Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?

Recently my friend and colleague in science and skepticism Neil deGrasse Tyson, issued a public statement via BigThink.com in which he stated that he dislikes labels because they carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label, and thus he prefers no label at all when it comes to the god question and simply calls himself an agnostic.

cover image

The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this book, I present my theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Sam Harris calls The Believing Brain “a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief.” Leonard Mlodinow calls it “a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences.”

I have already written about this many times over the decades, and my 1999 book How We Believe outlines in detail why I too hate labels. In fact, in my later book, The Mind of the Market, I explained why I also do not like the label “libertarian” because people automatically think this means believing something that I very likely do not believe (e.g., that humans are by nature purely selfish, that we have no moral obligation to help others in need, that greed is the only motive that counts in business, and that Ayn Rand was actually the Messiah), and instead I prefer to go issue by issue. Nevertheless, the label “libertarian” and “atheist” stick, and as I explained in my latest book, The Believing Brain, I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocuters who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting. Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve, such as why not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla.

Still, it is worth thinking about what the difference is between atheist and agnostic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: Theism is “belief in a deity, or deities” and “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe.” Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.” Agnosticism is “unknowing, unknown, unknowable.”

Agnosticism was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe his own beliefs:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.

Of course, no one is agnostic behaviorally. When we act in the world, we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally. To this extent, I assume that there is no God and I live my life accordingly, which makes me an atheist. In other words, agnosticism is an intellectual position, a statement about the existence or nonexistence of the deity and our ability to know it with certainty, whereas atheism is a behavioral position, a statement about what assumptions we make about the world in which we behave.

When most people employ the word “atheist,” they are thinking of strong atheism that asserts that God does not exist, which is not a tenable position (you cannot prove a negative). Weak atheism simply withholds belief in God for lack of evidence, which we all practice for nearly all the gods ever believed in history. As well, people tend to equate atheism with certain political, economic, and social ideologies, such as communism, socialism, extreme liberalism, moral relativism, and the like. Since I am a fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, and most definitely not a moral relativist, this association does not fit me. The word “atheist” is fine, but since I publish a magazine called Skeptic and write a monthly column for Scientific American called “Skeptic,” I prefer that as my label. A skeptic simply does not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented to reject the null hypothesis (that a knowledge claim is not true until proven otherwise). I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed.

The burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason. So we return again to the nature of belief and the origin of belief in God. In The Believing Brain I present extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa.

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Reason Rally Rocks

Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.

READ MY SPEECH AT SKEPTIC.COM

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E Pluribus Unum for all faiths and for none

Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that America is fast becoming a theocracy. No fewer than three of the remaining Republican candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) have declared that they were called by God to run for the country’s highest office. Congress recently voted to renew the country’s motto of “In God We Trust” on nothing less than the coin of the realm. And this year’s Thanksgiving Forum in Iowa (co-sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage) featured most of the major Presidential candidates competing for the title of God’s quarterback.

Rick Santorum, for example, in the course of denouncing Islamic Sharia law, inadvertently endorsed the same as long as it is a Christian on the Judge’s bench: “Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.” Not content to speak in such circular generalities, Santorum targeted his faith: “As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.” God’s law? That is precisely the argument made by Islamic imams. But Santorum was only getting started. “Gay marriage is wrong. The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.” Christian values only, of course.

The historically challenged Michele Bachmann minced no words when she declared: “I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.” A Bachmann administration would apparently consult the Old Testament for moral guidance because, she pronounced with her usual hubris born of historical ignorance, “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law.” Really? Where in our laws does it prohibit belief in gods other than Yahweh, ban the manufacturing of graven images, forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain, bar us from working on the Sabbath, require us to honor our parents, and interdict the coveting of our neighbor’s house, wife, slave, servant, ox, and ass? Even the notoriously difficult to follow 7th commandment is not illegal, much to the relief of candidate Gingrich.

Surely the pluralism of America’s religious diversity is what makes us great. Not so, said Rick Perry: “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.” But don’t politicians owe allegiance to the Constitution? Alas, pace Perry, no. “Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the President of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.” You mean the values and virtues of the atheist Thomas Paine and the Deist Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom rejected Jesus, the resurrection, and all miracles as nonsense on stilts, and yet who nonetheless insisted on building an impregnable wall protecting religion from the encroachment of state abuse?

Finally, the erudite Newt Gingrich was more specific in his plan to bring about a Christian nation through legal means, starting by redacting the 14th Amendment: “I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a Constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.” If the 14th Amendment can be averted on a technicality, what about the others?

If you are a Christian, of course, this is the mother’s milk of nursing privilege. Power to the (Christian) people. It’s the oldest trope in history—religious tribalism—and it’s being played out in the land of liberty. So it is prudent for us to educe that other national motto found on the Seal of the United States first proffered by the founding patriarchs John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782: E Pluribus Unum—Out of many, one.

How many make up our one? There are 300 million Americans. Gallup, Pew, and other pollsters consistently find that about 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. That’s 30 million Americans. That’s not all. A 2008 study by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) revealed that between 1990 and 2008 the fastest growing religious group in America were the “Nones,” or people who responded “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, or Secular” in the survey. Remarkably, this group gained more new members (19,838,000) than either Catholics (11,195,000) or Protestants (10,980,000), and totals 15 percent, or 45 million Americans.

Read that number again candidates! If you are elected President of these United States are you really going to dismiss and openly refuse to represent 45 million people living under the same Constitution as you? And that’s just the Nones. Tens of millions more Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Jains, Taoists, Wiccans, New Agers, and other law-abiding loyal Americans—many serving in the armed services protecting our liberty—are non-Christians who hold the same dreams and aspirations for what this country has to offer as do Christians. In fact, at most Christians comprise 60–76 percent of all Americans, which means that somewhere between 72 million and 120 million U.S. citizens are non-Christians no less deserving of representation in this democracy.

It’s time for candidates and politicians to stop the God talk and start acting like true representatives of the people—all of the people. It’s time for the 45 million Nones to demand both respect and representation no less than any other American, and for presidential candidates, when asked about their religion, to reply something along these lines:

I understand why you are curious about my religious beliefs, but I am not running to represent only Americans who happen to believe what I believe about God and religion. I am running to represent Americans of all faiths, and even the tens of millions of Americans who have no religion. If elected, my allegiance is to the Constitution and my duty is to uphold the laws of this great land, which are to be applied equally and without prejudice to all Americans no matter their color or creed. I realize that some candidates and politicians pander to their religious voting block in hopes of gaining support by tapping ancient tribal prejudices, but that is not my way. I get why other candidates are tempted to appeal to those deep emotions that are stirred by religious unity against those who believe differently, but I am trying to do something different. If elected I fully intend to represent all Americans under my jurisdiction, not just those Americans whose beliefs I happen to share. I am trying to build a better America for all Americans, not some. The original motto of this country is E Pluribus Unum. It means “Out of many, one.” It means that we are stronger together than separate, united by our common belief in liberty and the freedom to believe whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. As a candidate for the highest office of this noble nation my faith is in its people—all of the people—and what we are able to do together to make the world a better place to live.

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Pat Tillman’s Atheism

The Tillman Story (DVD cover)

In the 2010 documentary film, The Tillman Story, the story of Pat Tillman and his tragic death at the hands of “friendly fire” is retold. Tillman was the NFL star who gave it all up to join the military cause in Afghanistan after being inspired by 9/11 to do something for his country. He did not do it for the glory or publicity, and gave up a lucrative football career for what he perceived to be a worthy cause. After his death the U.S. government implemented a publicity campaign to use Tillman’s death as a tool to promote the war as a cause so worthy that even a highly-paid NFL star believed it to be worth the sacrifice. What the government failed to mention is that Tillman was killed at the hands of his fellow soldiers during a “fog of war” incident in a steep and narrow slot canyon in which there was much confusion about where enemy fire was originating. It’s a very disturbing film to watch—infuriating in fact—and Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory, presents the story in excruciating detail in a compelling narrative.

Pat Tillman was an atheist. At his funeral his younger brother Richard got up to speak, visibly upset, noticeably inebriated, and with beer in hand proceeded to thank everyone for their warm sentiments, but upbraided those like Maria Shriver and Senator John McCain who made religious overtones in their sentiments, noting about his brother Pat: “He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”

Later in the film there is a radio interview presented with Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, who was the Regimental Executive Officer at Forward Operating Base Salerno on Khost, Afghanistan, under which Tillman was serving at the time of his death, and who led the military investigation into Pat’s death. I found the following exchange to be among the most disturbing things in the entire film that was missed by most reviewers, starting in reference to the grieving Tillman family who were at the time vigorously pursuing an investigation into Pat’s death and the government cover up of it:

Kauzlarich: “These people are having a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs. I don’t know how an atheist thinks, but I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough. If you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die what is there to go to? Nothing. You’re worm dirt. It’s pretty hard to get your head around that.”

Host: “So you suspect that’s probably the reason this thing [the family’s persistence in getting to the bottom of Pat’s death] is running on.”

Kauzlarich: “I think so. There’s not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system.”

So…if you’re an atheist it means that you’re not going to buy into the belief that death—even a tragic, unnecessary, and friendly-fire death—will somehow be made acceptable by the belief that all will be made right in heaven where all the good Conservative Christian soldiers will meet up once again. This is very disturbing. What this knucklehead nincompoop is saying is that if the Tillman family were good Christians they would have gone along with the patriotic platitudes of the military in assuaging everyone’s grief by pretending that it was all done in the name of god and country. But since the Tillmans are atheists it means that they actually want truth and justice now! How inconvenient. How pathetic. And this is yet another point against religious belief: it leads you to blur your focus on the here-and-now and let slip your grip on reality, and allow yourself to be manipulated by those who have neither the conscience nor the courage to stand up for what is right and true.

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