Atheism and Diversity: How Big is the Non-Religious Rainbow?

The growth of non-religion will create a significant source of polarization.  Many Americans are leaving religion behind (as I discussed previously). This will exacerbate social conflict, as we sort ourselves into religious and non-religious camps.  

Consider, for example, polling data that shows that atheists are more likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine than evangelical Christians.  90% of atheists say they will get vaccinated, while only 54% of white evangelicals will do so.

This makes sense: atheists tend to trust science and medicine, while evangelicals do not. A similar result has been found with regard to climate change: atheists tend to be more engaged and alarmed about climate change than Christians who read the Bible literally.

But let’s be careful about overgeneralizing.  Atheism can be as fragmented as the rest of society. Religion also contains a multitude. 

And yet, the tendency to oversimplify is common. Theists sometimes simplistically dismiss atheism as the work of the devil.  Atheists also dismiss theism in simplistic terms.  But when it comes to religion and non-religion, complexity is the rule.  Oversimplification obscures much that is important and interesting. It also prevents us from finding common ground.

Consider a recent skirmish among atheists.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, posted a tweet appearing to disparage transgender people.  Some atheists were appalled.  The American Humanist Association publicly disavowed Dawkins and retroactively withdrew a “Humanist of the Year” award they gave him in 1996.  Other prominent atheists leapt to Dawkins’ defense including Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker.  This provoked further backlash among atheists, with some accusing contemporary atheism of being a bastion of white male privilege. 

This reminds us that atheism is not a monolith.  Like everyone else, atheists have intersectional identities.  Atheists can be Black or white, straight or gay, trans or cis, rich or poor.  The same is true, of course, for religious people.  Some religions embrace LGBTQ people.  Others do not.  Some religions embrace science, medicine, and Covid-19 vaccines.  Others do not.

Generalizations about religion and non-religion are only vague approximations.  Consider, for example, how atheism is colored by the religion that it rejects.  It makes sense to ask whether a nonbeliever is a Christian atheist, a Muslim atheist, a Sikh atheist, a Jewish atheist, and so on.  Some atheists want to avoid this complexity and state that they do not believe in any God or gods at all.  But the binary logic of God or no God oversimplifies. It also helps to know which God and which tradition.

One could reject Christian or Muslim dogma, for example, while remaining culturally attached to Christianity or Islam.  A culturally Christian atheist could enjoy the hymns and rituals of Christian holidays while also turning to the Bible for spiritual insight.  Or an atheist with Muslim roots could fast during Ramadan.  Things become even more complicated when religious identity is connected to ethnic identity—as in Judaism or in the diverse indigenous religions of the world.

Scholars have also pointed out that self-identification as an atheist depends on social privilege.  Member of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to publicly identify as atheist.  This is not simply a matter of what people believe.  It is also connected to the social need to be more (or less) closely identify with a religious tradition. White men may find it easier to affirm atheism than Black women or members of native American tribes. 

These issues are intriguing and they will likely become more complicated and intense as non-religion grows.  As more people leave religion behind, the diversity of the non-religious will grow. 

Celebrating diversity among nonbelievers may in turn lead more people to leave religion behind, especially those who self-identify in nontraditional ways.  One worry about this possibility, however, is that it may leave religious congregations more homogeneous than they already are, further increasing polarization. 

Perhaps there will be some convergence among the non-religious.  The fact that 90% of atheists plan to get vaccinated points in that direction.  But despite convergence around science, increasing diversity will pose a challenge for the broad community of non-belief. 

We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented experiment in secularization.  Let’s keep our minds and hearts open. Let’s try to resist increased polarization and avoid oversimplifying the complex rainbow of human experience.

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.

Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.