Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nuns and "Nones"

For once I gave a poster at O’Shag more than a passing glance, and I was rewarded for it. The poster led me to make time for a lecture at Washington Hall; a lecture that I am very glad I attended.

The lecture was given by co-authors David Campbell, a professor here at ND, and Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard. Both were compelling and insightful as they discussed religion in America and how it has affected and been affected by our society and our politics. Their lecture, and their book, was based on a very thorough, comprehensive, and impressive survey.
The highlights for me were learning just how tolerant of other religions Americans are, how American religiosity has changed over time, and the noticeable effects of the religious right.

It turns out that American religious groups are very tolerant of others, and this is true consistently from Atheists to the most devoutly religious. It is also consistently high among different faith groups; Mormons are very tolerant and Evangelical Protestants are less so, but still quite tolerant.

As for change over time, the data revealed the huge drop in American religion that occurred early in the 1960’s, the backlash that increased the ranks of the Evangelical Protestants, and the current trend of youthful movement away from religion. The current trend intrigued me most because it is happening now and involves my generation. The data indicates and the professors have concluded that since the 1990’s the “religious right” has coupled conservative politics with religion, which has driven young Americans away from organized religion. The non-religious, a group the professors refer to as “nones” because they answer none when asked for their religious affiliation, have steadily increased in number as religious groups have declined in number. The reason young adults have led this movement away from religion is that they oppose politically conservative social values and see those values as inextricably linked to religion. They found the biggest issue of concern for these young people was tolerance of homosexuality.

The religious right not only contributed to the youth movement described above, but also contributed to the more general “God gap.” The “God gap” refers to the increasing division in American politics between the religious right and the secular left. The professors showed data that revealed how Republicans and Democrats were equally religious prior to the rise of the religious right.

The thing that I was most worried by was the lack of respect for Mormons, Buddhists, and especially Muslims among America’s other religious groups (the statistics were based on opinions from outside each group, i.e. what do Christians, Buddhists, Jews, etc. think of Muslims).

Fortunately, Professor Campbell had a hopeful response to this problem. He presented two archetypal examples known as “Aunt Susie” and “My Pal Al,” these represented individuals in everyone’s life who affected their religious tolerance. “Aunt Susie” represents an incredibly beneficent relative who converts to another religion or is of another religion, who then leads one to reject the idea that people outside one’s faith are doomed. “My Pal Al” represents a good friend of another religion who inspires tolerance for other religions. The really intriguing thing is that “Al” tends to inspire tolerance for all religions, rather than just his particular religion. He explained that exposure to “Aunt Susie” and “My Pal Al,” as well as geographical expansion, will help the religious groups that are currently disliked to assimilate into the American populace and gain more complete acceptance. He noted that Jewish and Catholic Americans were once in a similar position to that of Muslims and other groups today, and are now two of the most respected religious groups (based on survey data).

For info about the book and the lecturers check out:


Henry James Vasquez said...

I wish my departure from organized religion was as simple as my political stance on homosexuality...

But then I'd be ignoring so many other wonderful deal-breakers like: disbelief in evolution, appeal to dogmatic authority, molestation scandals, abstinence only, pointless neoclassical behavioral values, self-hatred, superstition, fairy-talism, lack of exclusivity in so many crucial virtues, resistance to change, sectarianism, and oh, yes, obvious gestures of misogyny.

This list could go on forever. It's almost too easy to find reasons that it becomes a pointless exercise altogether.

If only all that brain power could be channeled toward something different, like, saving the planet. I don't know.

Bill said...

The religion you departed from (Catholicism) has no beef with evolution. And if you looked hard enough, I'm sure you could find a religion that doesn't have any of those deal-breakers.

In response to your endless list, I have my short list of reasons for my deconversion

1) The lack of evidence for a god

Henry James Vasquez said...

There's a reason I omitted that point.

1) Obvious.
2) Doesn't appeal to the common ground, incontrovertible issues that people on the fence about that issue can come to agree with.

Anonymous said...

Henry: If you think about it, these complaints are in most cases human problems rather than specifically Catholic problems. Even non-religious people can be sectarian in a sense or believe in superstition.

Bill: I think the evidence for God is very strong. The case for God is certainly stronger than the case for no God.
Here's one example:

I think it's become increasingly difficult to believe in atheistic materialism and science and still be coherent.


Bill said...

Why do I need to make a case for no God? Atheism to me means a lack of a belief in God, not a belief in a lack of God. The burden of proof shouldn't be on me.

Henry James Vasquez said...

So Gbarr, instead of being contrarian, tell me why people should partake in organized religion. What's your pitch?

Anonymous said...

Not this again. I can't believe we're going to pretend this is a debate. Ugh

Anonymous said...

Bill: If there were no evidence for it whatsoever, then I would agree that there would be no point in arguing against it. E.g. There's no evidence that there was a president named Edward Scissorhands, so there's no point in even debating the issue. But, given that there are strong arguments in favor, your burden is at least to explain why they are unpersuasive.

Henry: I think that's a very broad topic and so is not very conducive to blog debates. But I shall briefly explain. There are good arguments that the Catholic worldview (and in many cases Protestant or Jewish) is more consistent with modern science than atheism (at least atheism of a materialistic variety). These arguments include the one using Godel's Theorem and one using quantum mechanics. I think the article I linked to explains these thoroughly, but if not, I might be able to find better explanations. There's also the basic argument that we have an orderly universe that operates according to laws, which seems to point toward a Lawgiver of some sort. The atheist has no explanation. There's also a good argument from ethics, which C.S. Lewis makes rather strongly in "Mere Christianity."

I know the above statements are pretty "hand-wavy", but I don't have time to write out rigorous arguments in favor of these philosophical propositions.

Now, once one accepts that it is reasonable to believe in God, probably more reasonable than not believing in God, I think we can start talking about organized religion. If anything this is likely a more complicated topic than the evidence for God. I'm not going to defend religion as such, since much of it is clearly hogwash. But I do think my own religion, Catholicism, gives very intelligent and wise answers to many of the most basic questions we face. Why are we here? What is a good life? How should I view myself and others? I think the answers it gives are richer than the ones I see anywhere else. I also think that the narrative it tells makes sense and the claims the Church makes about herself, when taken as a whole, though extraordinary, are actually quite reasonable. And then, from there, it only makes sense to practice Catholicism in a communal/organized fashion.

If you want a more abstract argument, I might say that man is social animal and so he has a need for community. The religious quest is less fruitful and less hopeful and less loving when done alone. We eat and research and celebrate in organized and communal ways (in many cases). The idea of a non-organized or non-communal religion, just strikes me as odd and has a tendency towards egoism.

There's a lot more to be said obviously.


Gordon Stanton said...

gbarr, well said.

I'm not a strong believer in Catholicism, but I find it hard to believe there's not a God, and I find the teachings of Jesus to be maybe the very first progressive movement in all of history, and thus most certainly the best way to understand God and how I should live my life in a tangible way.

no one can deny that the organizational structure of Catholicism has had it's issues, but the fundamentals are still good.

Democracy and government have become every bit as corrupt and screwed up as the catholic church, but we don't argue in behalf of anarchy. similarly, despite the fact that the organized structure of the Catholic church has shown flaws does not mean we should turn to atheism as an answer.

Tim Ryan said...

Considering the actual "progressive" teachings of Jesus are straight out of Buddhism, I'm not sure if we can make so bold a claim as to say Jesus was the first progressive...

Ryan said...

Why do you find it appropriate to call Catholicism or any organized religion the default? It seems that we keep operating off the assumption that atheism is another religion, and not just the blank slate that it actually is.

Anonymous said...

Ryan: I don't think I said anything about Catholicism or another organized religion being a "default." In fact, I'm not entirely sure what you're asking.

If you mean, what should our starting assumption be, I'm not really sure. But it's interesting to note that atheism seems to be something people grow into in their teens or twenties. Small children don't seem drawn to it and don't find it hard to believe in God. So, maybe humans aren't blank slates. Maybe we are prone from a very early age to think in a certain way. (You can claim young children are brainwashed, but as I say, this "brainwashing" seems to come quite naturally. It seems consistent with how they experience the world.)

Gordon: I'm reluctant to apply political labels to Jesus, but it's noteworthy that political liberalism was invented in the Christian world and basically unheard of elsewhere until it was exported. And you can see many of its tenets have Christian or pseudo-Christian elements. I'm mostly talking about liberalism in a traditional, broad sense: rule of law, natural rights, limited government, etc.


Bill said...

Small children "believe" anything you tell them to believe. They don't get a chance to "naturally come" to religion. Kids with Christian parents tend to be Christians, kids with atheists parents tend to be atheists, the kids in the polygamist ranch in Texas believed in polygamy and kids that are raised by wolves eat raw meat, have poor hygiene, and probably never consider the possibility of a higher power.

A fun experiment is to try not telling your kids about any religion or gods and see what they can come up with on their own.

I was born an atheist. My family spent over a decade trying to convince me otherwise, and when I became old enough to think for myself I stopped pretending to be something I'm not. I would guess that you were born an atheist as well, until someone else (probably your parents or some other authority figure in your young life) convinced you that Catholicism was the way to go. Perhaps the message of Catholicism really resonated well with you so it stuck, but I have a hard time believing that if you were never exposed to Catholicism at all in your life, or to Christianity in general, that you would be able to arrive to the same conclusions that you do now simply through your own personal preferences and logical deduction.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting point about children raised in atheist families. Maybe I should back off that "small children" point, since my own experience may not be broad enough to make a good generalization.

Here's another way of looking at it: The vast majority of people in the world believe in a god (or gods) of some sort. This is not just true in places with a state religion, such as Iran. It is also true in places where there is a relatively "free market" in religion, such as the US. And if you go back a few generations, or to just about any time in recorded human history, I think you find this pattern.

What accounts for this widespread belief? The atheist might call it a widespread delusion. But it does seem quite hard to understand. How many other examples are there of things that have been believed from the beginning of history to now by the vast majority of the population? And believed so intensely at that?

Here's a thought experiment: You live in the age before cameras and 90% of people you know claim to have seen at least one shooting star. What's the appropriate response? Do we assume that they are all delusional? It's logically possible, but extraordinarily unlikely.

This may not be the best way to argue for God, but if we are going to have a starting point, why NOT have it be that the billions who believe in a god are likely not delusional?

We can try for a psychological explanation, but then we are in danger of saying that people are never trustworthy in what they believe (or claim to believe). If you had a trial and 5 billion came and bore witness that they had experienced something and 1 billion said they didn't, would dismiss the 5 billion?

Think about what you believe and why. Is it always due to airtight logical argumentation? I can say emphatically no (as is true for everyone on earth who is not a lunatic). Religious belief in large part is the result of our lived experience. Maybe you just haven't had the right experiences yet. Be patient. Be persistent and ask for such experiences.


Tim Ryan said...

"How many other examples are there of things that have been believed from the beginning of history to now by the vast majority of the population? And believed so intensely at that?"

A flat, young Earth that exists in the center of the universe. This was also wrong.

Anonymous said...

Most people do not believe in a flat earth. I don't think the vast majority still believe in a young Earth or geocentric universe.

Also, when they did/do believe in a young earth or geocentric universe, it was a rather abstract belief. They didn't really have experience of it. But many do claim to have experience with the divine. It's easy to see how some people could misunderstand something very remote or very abstract. But they tend to have fairly good knowledge of their own lives. E.g. the fact that I ate dinner last night is something I know in a more rigorous way than, say, the distance between the earth and sun.


Tim Ryan said...

Why I shouldn't comment right after I wake up: I didn't read the "to now" part of your question. Also, I came dangerously close to my personal rule of "no debating religion over the internet."

Bill said...

^^^^Argumentum ad populum? No thanks.

The majority of the world also believes in ghosts and witches, with a large minority also believing in UFOs and astrology. I agree that my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are largely the result of my lived experience. I've never experienced anything supernatural in my life, so I'll assume none of those things exist until I encounter any evidence to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

It's not really an argumentum ad populum.

There are two facets.

1) Since most people (including many smart and wise people) believe it, I think it's a reasonable starting point. This doesn't mean the majority is always right. But I think it makes it at least as good a candidate for "default" as atheism would be. This is a response to what Ryan said earlier, when he claimed atheism should be the starting point.

2) The other point is not an argumentum ad populum, but maybe is an argumentum ad experientiam populi (maybe incorrect Latin on my part). If most people (or even just several people) claim to have experienced God or to have related with God in some way, and those people are not otherwise insane, I take that to be fairly strong evidence. Experience is more powerful in some sense than abstract belief. People believe erroneous things all the time, but I think they can trust their experiences with some reasonably high level of confidence. If they can't, we basically need to throw almost all knowledge out the window other than mathematics.

Another analogy: A bunch of people claim to have seen a movie. They describe it differently: some say it was funny, others found it thrilling, others found it a bit sad, but they do describe certain aspects of it in a similar way. And a bunch of other people have never seen the movie. Do we assume the movie doesn't exist until we actually watch it?

Not experiencing something is not evidence of anything. Other people experiencing something is fairly strong evidence that it exists. You believe things you read in books all the time. Why are accounts of religious experience so epistemologically worthless?


Anonymous said...

I have a feeling Richard Dawkins would take a giant shit on everything that was just said.

Anonymous said...

OK, keep on chasing that feeling I guess.