The Null Device

The rise of secularism today

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 Münster. 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.

There are 8 comments on "The rise of secularism today":

Posted by: Greg Wed Aug 17 12:08:13 2011

Caldwell-Harris's work is interesting because it drives at the fundamental difference between the scientific and religious world-views: whether objects and events must be the result of someone-or-other's beliefs and desires or might instead be the result of blind mechanical forces. Historically, the advance of science has been the gradual change in our explanations from the former style to the latter.

It's plausible that we are genetically predisposed to look for a sentient actor behind every event, because in our primordial environment, where people and animals mattered more than anything else, that explanation was right often enough.

It's interesting to speculate that today some people might be more predisposed to that style of explanation than others. That would suggest that the trait has a genetic basis, and that its prevalence might even be evolving. But to do the experiments you'd have to rule out the possibility that your subjects had been influenced by their upbringing and environment.

Posted by: unixdj Wed Aug 17 15:01:43 2011

"Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people." Does this imply that a significant portion of population of China is religious?

Posted by: acb Thu Aug 18 09:27:40 2011

Membership of religious categories is looser and more fine-graiend in the east than the west (one can be both Shintō and Buddhist in Japan, for example, while one can't be both a Christian and a Muslim). I imagine this might apply also to non-religious belief systems such as Marxism/Maoism, with people identifying as Communists whilst visiting ancestral shrines or observing religious rituals, or even regarding Mao Zedong as a supernatural deity. I imagine the count of "secularists" would be people who explicitly don't subscribe to any religious beliefs. Many of these would be in the educated urban elite, though, and most of China is still agrarian.

Posted by: unixdj Thu Aug 18 15:45:07 2011

It seems to me people (in the West) tend to think about Communism as a religion because Soviets and others were fighting religions during some periods. It also seems to me this is a wrong classification. One can easily be a Christian Communist or a Muslim Libertarian. In the USSR (and in the GDR, according to the article) secular world view was mainstream and certainly wasn't restricted to the elite. I don't know much about China in this respect, but the idea of deifying Mao sounds very strange to me.

Posted by: acb Thu Aug 18 23:00:06 2011

Communism isn't a religion, though Marxism-Leninism as practiced was a total belief system in the way that religions were, albeit one without supernatural elements. (Though one could argue that the "withering away of the state" is on a par with the Immaculate Conception in terms of real-world plausibility.)

As for deifying Communist leaders, the personality cults around them started verging on that (North Korea, where supernatural deeds were attributed to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, is a particularly acute case). And I have read about shrines and offerings to Mao existing in rural China. Granted, that sounds like a superstition, though religions may start from superstitions.

Posted by: unixdj Sun Aug 21 00:12:16 2011

I have first-hand experience only with the Soviet system, and that didn't seem more religious than some branches of Libertarianism (especially the cult of Ayn Rand's personality that was reported to exist in the 1970s). In particular, Lenin was regarded as a genius but attributing supernatural deeds to him was out of the question. But from what you're saying the Chinese indeed do seem weird.

Posted by: Dawkard Richkins Tue Aug 23 06:00:37 2011

Thank Darwin that secular culture is devoid of such personality cults.

Posted by: acb Tue Aug 23 09:35:39 2011

Well, it has been commented that Ayn Rand's ideology has the form of Leninism, even if the content is diametrically opposed.