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Leaving Las Vegas … Rich

Report from the Front Lines at TAM and Freedom Fest

By “rich” I mean intellectually, of course, because as all skeptics know, the laws of probability are precisely employed by all Las Vegas casinos to insure that if you play long enough the money in your pocket will end up in their coffers. It is not for nothing that it is called Lost Wages.

Actually, there are two ways to win at gambling. You can do it the way I did after the final session at TAM Sunday: play for a brief period of time and quit when you are ahead. I started with $200 at a $5 minimum Blackjack table. For around 20 minutes I bounced around between $150 and $250 in chips artfully stacked in front of me as I pretended to be a big spender. The inevitable losing streak then kicked in and I was suddenly down below $50, then clawed my way back up to $228 when it was time to go, saving myself from the over-confidence bias that would have, in time, left me with nothing but green cloth beneath my empty palms. (The other way to win at gambling in Las Vegas? Be the owner of a casino.)

Wednesday afternoon the Skeptics Society photographer Dave Patton and I made the drive to Vegas after our annual bike ride to Mt. Wilson and subsequent Subway sandwich stop to assuage the guilt to come from eating and drinking too much in Sin City. Wednesday night I dined with Mark Skousen and guests at the world-famous Circo restaurant at Bellagio’s, a joint so pricey that the prices are not even printed on the menu. I got to sit next to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, who just completed his book entitled Conscious Capitalism (due out 12-12-12), in which he wants to rewrite the economic narrative of conservatives who have too long embraced the “greed is good” and “the virtue of selfishness” messages of conservatives and libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. As he told me (I’m paraphrasing from memory, slightly cloudy from imbibing some very fine red wine), “Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators don’t go into business just to make money. They go into business because they want to change the world, follow their passions, create something new. The money is nice but it isn’t the most important thing.” Conscious capitalism puts people and community and jobs and quality products and service first, money second. Mackey believes what he preaches, carefully selecting from the Circo menu a vegetarian dinner with only the healthiest ingredients, and he tries to do that in his grocery stores. Yes, eating super healthy can cost more, and in some cases some skepticism is appropriate as to whether or not those more expensive foods really make you healthier or not. (I went Vegan once—it started just after breakfast one day and ended at dinner that night.)

John Mackey is an interesting contrast with Steve Jobs, a comparison I made at a Friday panel discussion at Freedom Fest on the late Apple CEO. I noted my concern that the popularity of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is an example of a selection bias in publishing: no one writes biographies of all the failed Silicon valley entrepreneurs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. People scour through the personalities and developmental histories of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs in search of the (pick your number) X habits of highly effective leaders (and such). It’s all malarkey. Yes, optimism can be a good trait to have in order to overcome the normal obstacles that one encounters in building an organization or company, but pessimism might make one more realistic when it comes to risk taking, changing directions before it is too late instead of stubbornly pressing on when there is no hope of success. Yes, perhaps being tough minded makes for strong leaders who get more out of their employees by intimidating them or staring at them without blinking (Jobs’s tactic), but tender-minded leaders can also motivate employees through empathy and caring about their welfare. Open-mindedness is good because you are more likely to see the value of new ideas, but if you are too open-minded your brains might fall out and you’ll believe every wacky (and wrong) idea that comes your way. And so forth. You get the idea. There are lots of ways to be successful. Steve Jobs and John Mackey have (near as I can tell) radically different personalities, and yet both were and are successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.

I also sat on a panel with Charles Murray about his new book, Coming Apart, about the state of white America from 1960 to 2010. Murray argues that a cognitive elite has arisen as a result of the fact that our economy is now so dependent on science, technology, and information that requires cognitive skills learned in college and graduate school, and these needed skills under employment have led to a distinct two-culture system of those who live in Fishtown (blue collar) and Belmont (white collar). It’s a good book chockablock full of sociological data, so I focused my attention on his claim that the decline of religiosity and increase in secularism has contributed to the culture divide and the loss of values (so he claims). I disputed that premise that America is losing its religion, given that the polls consistently show that 90% to 95% of Americans believe in God, although I did acknowledge the fact that the fastest growing religious group in America is the “nones”—those who tick the box for “none” when asked by pollsters for their religion.

Murray holds that America’s Founding Fathers, while not especially super religious themselves, believed that religion was necessary for self-governance. That is, if moral controls are not imposed from above by government then they must be imposed from within through religion. Murray believes that the rise of secularism has led to a decline in morals. I asked him what he believes. He said, “I’m a reluctant agnostic who wishes he could believe.” I cited Gregory Pauls’ 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In fact, I sent this study to Murray before Freedom Fest so that he would have time to think about it and provide a thoughtful answer, rather than my trying to ambush him or trip him up. I made the point that I do not believe that religion causes these societal ills, and that in fact I am quite certain that each of them has a different set of causes. Sure homicides have one set of causes different from that of STDs, and the like. But, I noted, if religion is suppose to be such a powerful prophylactic against sin and other societal problems, why is it not working very well here in America, the most religious of all the Western democracies. As well, I pointed out, South American countries are 99% Catholic. All those South Americans accept Jesus as their savior, and yet crime rates are high, poverty is high, etc. By contrast, I concluded, Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. have some of the lowest rates of religiosity in the Western world and yet they have exceptionally low rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.

Murray’s response surprised me: “Michael, to resolve these issues would best be done over a late night drink and long conversation. But in general my sense about your writings on religion is that you are unnecessarily harsh and unsophisticated and non-subtle in your analysis.” He then explained that even though he’s not a believer his wife is a deeply believing Quaker who takes her religion very seriously, and this impresses him and makes him respect religion.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin felt the same way. He called himself an agnostic (in the sense that his friend Thomas Huxley meant it when he defined the word in 1869 to mean “unknowable”) and noted: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” But his wife Emma was a deeply religious woman who bemoaned the fact that if her husband did not believe then they would not spend eternity together. Thus, Darwin avoided the subject when he could. For example, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.” He then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” My sense is that Charles Murray is taking a page from the playbook of Charles Darwin in the interests of domestic tranquility and out of love and respect, admirable qualities both.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to get an answer to my question about why the über-religious America has so many societal ills, why über-Catholic South American countries are so socially ill, and why the practically non-religious northern European countries are so socially healthy. Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll post more later on TAM and Freedom Fest, including an analysis of one of the most magnificent take-downs of a pseudoscientist I’ve ever seen when I arranged to have skeptic Steve Novella debate an anti-vaxxer at Freedom Fest. I’ll also summarize my own debate at Freedom Fest with a Catholic Thomist philosopher on the question: “Is Man a Machine, Animal, or Special Creation?” I think I did about as well as Novella did against the anti-vaxxer, but libertarians are a mixed bag when it comes to religion, with some super skeptical of Big Government but have not an ounce of skepticism when it comes to Big Religion. Likewise when it comes to corporations, which they adore, unless it is Big Pharma in cahoots with Big Government conspiring to make us all sick in the name of Big Profits. (Bill Maher, an anti-vaxxer himself, is the liberal doppelgänger of these libertarians, loving Big Government unless they are in cahoots with Big Pharma, in which case they’re all evil.) Stay tuned…

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How to Learn to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek)

Or: What it was Like Teaching a Course in Skepticism 101?

Explore the Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center

On March 31, 2011, I debated Deepak Chopra at Chapman University on “The Nature of Reality” that also featured Stuart Hameroff, Leonard Mlodinow, and several other commentators, all choreographed by the Chancellor of Chapman University, mathematician Daniele Struppa. In the greenroom before the debate Dr. Struppa was reviewing my bio and noted that I am an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and made a comment that I should be an adjunct professor at Chapman as well. I said something like “sure, why not?” and when he introduced me on stage he said something about how I might also one day teach there. Daniele said I could teach anything I want as part of their Freshman Foundations Courses, so I suggested a course on Skepticism 101, or how to think like a scientist (without being a geek). I taught it the Fall semester of 2011 to 35 incoming Freshman students and it was a blast.

During the semester I hatched the idea that since the Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization specializing in science education, that we should organize all the course materials that professors and teachers around the world are already utilizing. That is, as I was developing my own course materials I remembered all the requests we had received over the years at the Skeptics Society from educators to reprint articles from Skeptic magazine or use videos of our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. There are, in fact, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of such courses that go under various names that involve skepticism, science and pseudoscience, science and the paranormal, psychology and parapsychology, the psychology of belief, the history of science, the philosophy of science, science studies, critical thinking, and the like. As I went digging through our own webpage Skeptic.com and surfed the Net for other teacher’s webpages in search of good teaching materials, we thought it might be good to invite people to submit their course syllabi, lectures, Powerpoint and Keynote presentations, videos, student projects, reading lists, and the like, which we just launched last week.

EXPLORE THE SKEPTICISM 101 RESOURCE CENTER

Thanks to the support of my good friend Tyson Jacobsen I was able to hire an outstanding graduate student, Anondah Saide, to organize the Skepticism 101 program for us, which began with her TAing the Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University. Anondah was one of my graduate students at Claremont Graduate University who conducts research into the sociology of pseudoscience and the paranormal, and she has a deep interest in education and how to teach students to think critically about the paranormal and the supernatural, so she was a perfect fit for the class and this program.

The premise of the course is that we have a serious problem: we live in the Age of Science and yet pseudoscience and the paranormal are believed by far too many people still. Yes, it is better than it was 500 years ago when nearly everyone believed nonsense, but these figures from a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, who were asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not”:

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Yikes! More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. And yet, such results match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades, including internationally. For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. A fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.

This got the attention of these Chapman students and they got right into it. We had them write an Opinion Editorial as if it were going to be submitted to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, in order to teach them how to communicate clearly and succinctly to a wider audience about a controversial idea (they could pick any idea from the course, which was quite broad in scope). They also had to do an 18-minute TED talk or participate in a 2 x 2 debate. It won’t surprise you to know that most 18-year old students are well aware of TED talks and have watched numerous videos at TED.com, including my own. The point was to teach them how to organize a short talk and say something meaningful in a brief period of time. The point of this exercise was to have a point! They did. And then some. Most were skeptical of the paranormal and the supernatural, so of course we had a few pro-atheist TED talks, but there were a couple of pro-God and pro-paranormal talks as well, just to spice things up. The most memorable talk had to be by a student who in explaining evolutionary psychology and why natural selection shaped us to prefer (that is, find attractive) symmetrical faces, clear complexions, shapely bodies (wide shoulders and a narrow waist in men, an hourglass figure in women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio), and the like, then put up a slide of Rosie O’Donnell as an illustration of pure ugliness and why no male could possibly find her attractive. Needless to say, in the requisite Q&A (every talk had one) the women in the class made mince meat of this fellow.

As well, the students were given a midterm and final exam in essay format based on the readings for the course, which included my own Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, bookended around Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic, and the book they all loved the most: Richard Wiseman’s Paranormality. In Paranormality, Wiseman provides numerous examples of how to test paranormal claims, and this led to the students final major assignment, which was a research project and YouTube video production to accompany it (or a Powerpoint presentation of their data). Check out the student projects that we have already posted in our Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center.

The point of these exercises was to get students doing things that involve skepticism, not just reading and answering test questions, as well as encourage them to have fun doing so by trying to make their presentations entertaining as well as educational.

I also tried something new (for me anyway) in grading: Anondah and I independently rated each student’s OpEd, TED talk, midterm and final answer, research project, and YouTube video or Powerpoint presentation, then compared our ratings, added them up and divided by 2. During the student talks and presentations Anondah and I sat at the back of the room as the “judges”—I joked that we were like Simon and Paula on American Idol playing good cop-bad cop. That was kinda fun.

Because the course deals with many serious subjects, such as religious beliefs, political positions, social attitudes, and the like, we also outlined for them our policy on controversies:

Controversy Disclaimer

This course deals with many controversial topics related to people’s deepest held beliefs about god and religion, science and technology, politics and economics, morality and ethics, and social attitudes and cultural assumptions. I hope to challenge you to think about your beliefs in all these areas, and others. My goal is to teach you how to think about your beliefs, not what to think about them. I have my own set of beliefs that I have developed over the decades, which I do not attempt to hide or suppress; indeed, as a public intellectual I am regularly called upon to present and defend my beliefs in lectures, debates, interviews, articles, reviews, and opinion editorials. But in the classroom my goal is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs. I am often asked “why should we believe you?” My answer: “You shouldn’t.” Be skeptical, even of skeptics.

Finally, I explained that the goal of the course was parallel to the goal of the overall skeptical movement (as I see it anyway):

The Goals of the Skeptical Movement

  1. Debunking. There’s a lot of bunk and someone needs to debunk it. Like the bunko squads of police departments busting scammers and con artists, skeptics bust myths.
  2. Understanding. It’s not enough to debunk the things that people believe. We also want to understand why they believe. Through understanding comes enlightenment.
  3. Enlightenment. The power of positive skepticism linked to reason, rationality, logic, empiricism, and science offers us a world wondrous and awe-inspiring enough.

If you want to teach your own course in Skepticism 101, or are already teaching such a course, I encourage you to go to our webpage and have a look and take what you need. All materials are free.

If you would like to support the Skepticism 101 project, please make a tax-deductible donation. We are happy to accept anything you can afford, but might I suggest a $100 donation or even an automatically recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10?

In appreciation to all those who have already help support the Skepticism 101 project.

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Aunt Millie’s Mind

The death of the brain means subjective experiences
are neurochemistry
magazine cover

“WHERE IS THE EXPERIENCE OF RED IN YOUR BRAIN?” The question was put to me by Deepak Chopra at his Sages and Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., on March 3. A posse of presenters argued that the lack of a complete theory by neuroscientists regarding how neural activity translates into conscious experiences (such as “redness”) means that a physicalist approach is inadequate or wrong. “The idea that subjective experience is a result of electrochemical activity remains a hypothesis,” Chop ra elaborated in an e-mail. “It is as much of a speculation as the idea that consciousness is fundamental and that it causes brain activity and creates the properties and objects of the material world.” “Where is Aunt Millie’s mind when her brain dies of Alzheimer’s?” I countered to Chopra. “Aunt Millie was an impermanent pattern of behavior of the universe and returned to the potential she emerged from,” Chopra rejoined. “In the philosophic framework of Eastern traditions, ego identity is an illusion and the goal of enlightenment is to transcend to a more universal non local, nonmaterial identity.” (continue reading…)

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The Unknown Unknowns

This review of Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein (Oxford University Press, May 2012, ISBN 13: 97801-998-28074) was originally published in Nature, 484, 446–447 (26 April 2012) as “Philosophy: What we don’t know.”

At a press conference on February 12, 2002, the United State Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld employed epistemology to the explain U.S. foreign entanglements and their unintended consequences: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Ignorance: How it Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein (book cover)

It is this latter category especially that is the focus of Stuart Firestein’s sparkling and innovative look at ignorance, and how it propels the scientific process forward. Firestein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where he teaches a wildly popular course on ignorance, inviting scientists in as guest speakers to tell students not what they know but what they don’t know, and even what they don’t know that they don’t know. (Would you rather earn an A or an F in a class called “Ignorance”?, he muses.) This is a slim volume about a fat topic, but Firestein captures the essence of the problem by contrasting the public’s understanding of science as a step-wise systematic algorithm of grinding through experiments that churn out data sets to be analyzed statistically and published in peer-reviewed journals after a process of observation, hypothesis, manipulation, further observation, and new hypothesis testing, with the Princeton University mathematician Andrew Wiles’ description of science as “groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is discovered, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, ‘Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,’ and then it’s off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline” (p. 2), in reference to the old proverb: “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.”

If ever there was a time to think seriously about ignorance it is in our age of digital knowledge. Consider an Exabyte of data, or one billion gigabytes (typical thumb drives that most of us carry around consist of a couple of gigabytes storage capacity). It has been estimated that from the beginning of civilization around 5,000 years ago to the year 2003, all of humanity created a grand total of five exabytes of digital information. From 2003 through 2010 we created five exabytes of digital information every two days. By 2013 we will be producing five exabytes every ten minutes. The 2010 total of 912 exabytes is the equivalent of 18 times the amount of information contained in all the books ever written. It isn’t knowledge that we need more of; it is how to think about what we know and what we don’t know that is becoming ever more critical in science, through a process Feinstein calls “controlled neglect.” Scientists “don’t stop at the facts,” he explains, “they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out” (p. 12). It must be this way, he argues, because “the vast archives of knowledge seem impregnable, a mountain of facts that I could never hope to learn, let alone remember” (p. 14). Doctors and lawyers and engineers need many facts at their ready, as do scientists, but for the latter “the facts serve mainly to access the ignorance” because this is where the action is. “Want to be on the cutting edge? Well, it’s all, or mostly, ignorance out there. Forget the answers, work on the questions” (pp. 15–16).

To Rumsfeld’s epistemological categories Firestein would one add more: unknowable unknowns, “things that we cannot know due to some inherent and implacable limitation.” He puts history in this category, but I would not, for if we take the broader construct of history as anything that happened before the present then most of astronomy, cosmology, geology, archaeology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology are historical sciences, subject to testing hypotheses no less rigorously than their experimental scientists in the lab. And I worry slightly that an overemphasis on our ignorance about this or that claim opens the door to creationists, Holocaust deniers, climate deniers, and post-modern deconstructions who wish to challenge mainstream scientists because of religious or political agendas. Acknowledging our ignorance is good, but let’s acknowledge and celebrate what science has confidently given us in the way of well-supported theories.

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.”

That caveat aside, Ignorance includes an important discussion about scientific errors and their propagation in textbooks. I’m embarrassed to admit that I perpetrated one of these myself in my latest book, The Believing Brain, in which I repeated as gospel the “fact” that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Firestein reports that his neuroscience colleague Suzana Herculano-Houzel told him it is actually around 80 billion (after undertaking an actual neural count!), and that there are an order of magnitude fewer glial cells than the textbooks report. As well, Firestein continues, the “neural spike” every neuroscientist measures and every student learns as the fundamental unit of neural activity when the cell fires, is itself a product of the electrical apparatus employed in the lab and ignores other forms of neural activity. And if that isn’t bad enough, even the famous “tongue map” in which sweet is sensed on the tip, bitter on the back, and salt and sour on the sides that is published in countless popular and medical textbooks is wrong and the result of a mistranslation of a German physiology textbook by Professor D. P. Hanig, and that the localization differences are much more complex and subtle.

These and other errors are the result of our lack of skepticism of the knowledge we have and our lack of respect for ignorance. “Ignorance works as the engine of science because it is virtually unbounded, and that makes science much more expansive” (p. 54). Indeed it is, and as the expanding sphere of scientific knowledge comes into contact with an ever increasing surface area of the unknown (thus, the more you know the more you know how much you don’t know), we would do well to remember the mathematical principle of surface area to volume ratio: as a sphere increases the ratio of its volume to surface area increases. Thus, in this metaphor, as the sphere of scientific knowledge increases, the ratio of the volume of the known to the surface area of the unknown increases, and it is here where we can legitimately make a claim of true and objective progress.

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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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