The Null Device


There's an interesting piece in Der Spiegel about the rise of secularism and the psychological differences between religious and secular people. According to the article, non-religious people (atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious) make up about 15% of the world's population, placing them third behind Christians and Muslims in number. Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise, with the often discussed religious revivals, in Europe, the US and elsewhere, being, more often than not, illusory. (In the US, a country associated with almost mediaeval levels of religiosity in public life, churches are losing up to 1 million members a year.)turned out to be and also an increasing number of people who identify as religious on surveys admitting that they don't actually believe in a deity.

According to Boston University psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris, the differences between the religious and secular minds may emerge from different thinking styles, with religious people being more likely to attribute sentient agency than secular people:

Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. "There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."
The rise of secularism has led to more study of what secularists do actually believe. And, it seems, there are a few outlooks they tend to share:
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California's Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don't believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.
The article also looks at the case of religiosity in Germany, where the East was ruled by an officially atheistic totalitarian dictatorship while the West retained strong links to Christianity. After reunification, the East remained considerably poorer than the West. Perhaps surprisingly, these conditions did not result in a new religious revival spreading through the East, but rather the opposite:
When the GDR ended its period of religious repression, no process of re-Christianization occurred. "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of a church presence in the east actually sped up," says Detlef Pollack, a professor in the sociology of religion at the University of M√ľnster. Ironically, the link between church and state contributed to secularization in the East, he says. Publicly funded theological professorships, military chaplaincies, and the presence of church representatives on broadcasting councils were common. As a result, public perception came to closely link authority with religion, which was seen as coming from the West.
As rapidly as secularism is rising, though, we might not see a powerful secular lobby any time soon. For one, secularists remain mistrusted in many places (in the US, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey, atheists are the most disliked group, behind Muslims and homosexuals). And secondly, given the broad differences in a movement by definition not bound by any dogma, the emergence of any sort of consensus is unlikely:
Then he tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration. "But they couldn't even agree on a motto," he says. "It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch." In the end, the march was called off.

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