Based on her work as a non-religious healthcare chaplain, Madeleine Parkes discusses the role and purpose of spirituality in healthcare.
Law and religion frequently interact, sometimes as a matter of challenging religion’s reach into public spaces, sometimes as a matter of reentrenching majority religion. But what about nonreligion and the law? In this piece, Lori G. Beaman argues that subtle shifts in legal approaches can be revealing of the often mysterious contents of nonreligion. Specifically, she asks: what could a nonreligious approach to assisted dying law look like?
There are two challenges that are preoccupying me in my research on nonreligion: first, how to think about nonreligion without being pulled into the “like religion but…” vortex and second, how to study this emerging reality.[i]
The challenge of thinking about nonreligion without the “like religion” simile is a function of being immersed in a society that has been shaped by majoritarian religion. In many ways we do not know what a world looks like in which nonreligion is a significant worldview, or in which nonreligion is practiced. To find out, Peter Beyer and I have been working on a conceptual framework that draws on the notion of dark matter in physics as an analogy.[ii] My own approach has been to think about sites of cooperation and conflict as prisms through which to see how people live the “dark matter” of nonreligion.[iii]
One such site is in law. There have been legal challenges to such things as prayer in municipal council meetings and crucifixes on the walls of public institutions such as classrooms, houses of parliament and hospitals. But while these are interesting case studies, it is the more subtle shifts in legal approaches that are more revealing of the contents of nonreligion, which, as Linda Woodhead notes, is placeholder language for that which we cannot yet name.[iv] This is especially so on the issue of assisted death. [v]
The most recent Supreme Court of Canada decision makes a significant shift from a religious approach to a predominantly nonreligious one. The Carter case, involving two people who wished to receive assisted dying services in Canada, challenged the Criminal Code provision which made it an offence to aid and abet a person in committing suicide and which prohibited a person from consenting to death. The Court found those provisions unconstitutional and its discussion represents a major shift in tone from its last major decision (Rodriguez) in 1993. There, the Court had “emphasized that human life should not be depreciated by allowing life to be taken, a collectivist claim based on the construct ‘sanctity of life.’”[vi] The judgement was riddled with religious, specifically Christian, conceptualizations of life and death including the value of suffering and the badness of choosing to die.[vii] In Carter, the Court emphasizes respect and autonomy, stating that “an individual’s choice about the end of her life is entitled to respect.”[viii] The Carter judgement, in my view, makes a significant move toward capturing what a nonreligious approach might look like: “We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live’, rather than a ‘right to life’.”[ix] The Court draws on science, particularly medical science, to understand the process of dying and the possibilities for assistance and intervention. It maintains the “sanctity of life” and the “right to life”, but reshapes those in ways that support assisted dying.
The Supreme Court of Canada permits interveners to make submissions when it is hearing a case of public importance. In Carter there were 26 interveners, 12 of them religious. One of those was in favour of the idea of establishing an assisted dying regime. The rest were opposed. They used language like “suicide” and used the word “death” rather than “dying”, while nonreligious interveners used terms such as “end-of-life decisions”; “assisted dying”; “medically assisted dying”; “self-chosen death”. Nonreligious interveners framed their understanding of dying as including the possibility of a “good death”, which respected the wishes of the individual and preserved dignity. The point here is that the facta reveal distinctly different approaches that illuminate what we might describe as a nonreligious approach to this issue, or, the dark matter of nonreligion, to return to that metaphor.
[i] Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Wallis, Simeon. 2014. “Ticking ‘no religion’: A case study amongst ‘young nones’.” DISKUS 16(2): 70–87.
[ii] Beaman, Lori G. 2017. “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion.” Sociology of Religion 78(1): 9-32.
[iii] Beaman, Living Well Together, 9-32.
[iv] Woodhead, Linda. 2016. “The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority.” Journal of the British Academy 4: 245-261
[v] See Chambers, Stuart. 2011. “Of Stewardship, Suffering and the ‘Slippery Slope’: A Vattimian Analysis of the Sanctity of Life Ethos in Canada (1972–2005)” PhD diss. University of Ottawa, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-4817.
[vi] Ibid., 233.
[vii] Ibid., 233.
[viii] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5,  1 S.C.R. 331 (hereinafter Carter) at para. 63.
[ix] Ibid., at para. 63.
[x] Reference re Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5,  1 S.C.R. 331 (Factum of the Intervener, Canadian Unitarian Council, at para. 4)
Lori G. Beaman, Ph.D. is Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change and Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is Principal Investigator of the Religion and Diversity Project, a 37-member international research team whose focus is religion and diversity (religionanddiversity.ca). Publications include: Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017) ; “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” in S. Sikka, B. Puri, and L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge India, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).
Lori G. Beaman, PhD. est la Chaire de recherche du Canada en diversité religieuse et changement social et Professeure titulaire au Département d’études anciennes et de sciences des religions. Elle est la chercheure principale du Projet religion et diversité, une équipe de recherche internationale rassemblant 37 membres, dont la recherche porte sur la religion et la diversité (religionanddiversity.ca). Ses publications incluent : Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017); “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” dans S. Sikka, B. Puri, et L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge Inde, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).
New research reports that 53% of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”. In this media response blog, Josh Bullock comments on his research on the Sunday Assembly London in this post-Christian transition.
A recent Washington Times editorial proclaimed “God Returns to Eastern Europe”. In this media response blog, Atko Remmel addresses the problems with survey questions, the conflation of terminology and how we measure religion to analyse if God really has returned to Eastern Europe.
Referring to a Pew Research Center study “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe”, a recent Washington Times editorial rejoices about the resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe, titling the text “God returns to Eastern Europe”. The message is simple: godless Commies failed and religion is back, prospering again much as it did a hundred years ago. At first glance, the data presented in the article seems to support this understanding: 86% of Russians ascribe to some variant of religious belief and 44% of Russians claim to be “quite religious”. Moreover, the percentage of atheists has dropped by half from 26 to 13% in last three years. While it is definitely true that religion in post-Soviet society is in a much better position than during the project of “forced secularization” (Froese 2004), the author(s) of the editorial may have got some things wrong and missed some important points. First of all, although the editorial claims to rely on Pew study, some of the data seem to originate from Levada Center’s (Russian counterpart of the Pew Research Center) recent survey on religiosity in Russia (report in Russian), mediated to Anglophone readers by Breitbart News – during which some things have been clearly lost in translation. For instance, looking at the original Levada report, 44% of “quite religious” Russians turn out to be “somewhat religious” and only 9% describe themselves as “very religious”. In sum, only about half of the population considers themselves more or less “religious”. Regarding the diminishing percentage of atheists, Levada data actually indicate a noticeable change (which instantly arises suspicion) among those, who said they are “totally irreligious”.
Recent studies have shown that atheism and other forms of nonreligion have very different meanings and forms, depending on time, place and cultural context. The fact that “totally irreligious” is interpreted as “atheists” already in Levada report (see this post for problems about measuring and differentiating nonreligion) tells us more about the local conception of atheism than philosophical positions of these respondents. Deriving from my studies among Estonian nonbelievers (Remmel 2017), it is quite possible that also for many Russian respondents “totally irreligious” demarcates their difference from institutional Christianity or lack of interest towards it. Thus, instead of diminishing number of atheists, this change may indicate something completely different. For instance – as a speculation – it may point to the change in the concept of “religiosity” towards more non-institutional forms, therefore more people may be willing to pronounce themselves as “somewhat religious”.
Second, religious identity (86%) taken in surveys is only one – and some scholars argue, the weakest – facet of the whole religious package and the other data should be considered as well. Although there are many conceptions of religion, a common practice among (quantitative) sociologists of religion today is to distinguish between three “big B-s”: belonging, belief and behavior; mainly because they are (at least to some extent) measurable. From the point of religious practices, Russians’ alleged religiosity looks quite different: according to Levada report, only 2% of respondents fully follow dietary restrictions during Great Lent while 73% make no changes at all into their diet and, according to Pew survey, median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across Eastern Europe say they go to church on a weekly basis. On top of it, only 15% of Russians regard religion as very important in their lives. Levada survey points to social pressure to define oneself as an Orthodox. One could not help but notice a similarity with the situation in Soviet Union when there was a social pressure to identify with atheism, yet this identity often said next to nothing about person’s actual beliefs or attitudes – just like Orthodox identity, in many cases, does not today. For instance, according to Pew study, religious identity was seen as a matter of personal faith only by one-third of Russian Orthodox, most of the rest regarded that as a matter of national culture or family tradition. Thus, regardless of the dominant ideology or regime, the majority of respondents are just conformists – and we can talk about the shift in social acceptability of religion and religiosity rather than the “return of God”.
Yet I’m not arguing here that Russia or Eastern Europe, in general, is very secularized. Rather, I think that due to the history of large-scale “forced secularization,” the religious situation in Eastern Europe is something we have no prior experience with. Therefore our understanding of the whole situation is inevitably limited. Still, I’m quite convinced that interpreting the situation only in dichotomous terms of secularization vs resurgence of (institutional) religion or atheism vs institutional religiosity is too narrow and leaves out the most of the diversity that actually exists. One of the possible ways for better understanding is a focus on “non-religion”, i.e. on the phenomena that are defined by their difference from what is perceived as “religion”. As seen from the data presented above, not everything that seems religious actually is. It seems to be quite common that in quantitative surveys “religious” questions get “cultural” answers that are then interpreted “religiously” again. Therefore, I think, it’s yet too soon to tell in what terms the situation should be interpreted because we’re just learning to ask the right questions. In that regard, Pew study has done a good job.
The image ‘God is dead’ was taken by Atko in Tartu Estonia.
Froese, Paul. “Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 1 (2004): 35–50. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00216.x.
Remmel, Atko. “Religion, Interrupted? Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia.” In Religious Indifference. New Perspectives From Studies on Secularization and Nonreligion, edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, 123–42. Springer, 2017.
Atko Remmel is a researcher of cultural studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia), Institute of Cultural Studies. The topic of his PhD thesis (2011) was the development and activity of the institutions involved in antireligious policy and propaganda in Soviet Era Estonia. His research focuses on the history and sociology of nonreligion and atheism, especially in the association with ‘forced secularization’.
Nearly one-quarter of Canadian and one-fifth of American adults say they have no religion in recent US and Canadian General Social Surveys, with even larger figures present among North American teens and young adults. As scholars explore this growing phenomenon on either side of the 49th parallel,[i] little has been done to compare religious nones in Canada and the United States. Joel Thiessen from Ambrose University and I are teaming up to tackle this topic over the next couple of years in the form of a book project. Specifically, we want to use our existing quantitative and qualitative data to address how religious nones in Canadian and US regions compare in terms of their population size and demographics, in how they became religious nones, in their spiritual and secular practices, in their socio-political attitudes and behavior, as well as how they feel and act towards more religious individuals. As we complete our data analyses and our book chapters begin to take shape, we plan to share some of our key findings, along with the trials and tribulations of the book writing process, with you the readers of this NSRN blog.
Today’s entry is the first in what we hope will be four such contributions to this blog. As a first phase in the project, Joel and I are currently preparing a book proposal over the course of this spring and summer 2017. Joel is currently in the process of brushing up on the existing literature in the field, with many new works on non-religion and secularity having been released over the last couple of years,[ii] and many more on the way from a new generation of scholars in the fields of sociology of religion and religious studies. Meanwhile, at my end I have begun putting some numbers together on non-religion in North America, based on secondary analyses I am conducting with the Canadian and American General Social Surveys from 1971 (US)/1985 (CND) to 2014, as well as some other existing survey datasets. With statistical data, the goal is not only to conduct analyses in order to obtain findings on population trends and relationships between key variables, but also to present these findings in a way non-expert readers can understand (and will find somewhat interesting).
Data visuals are an important tool to help us with this presentation, and of the data visuals I have been working on so far for Chapter 1 (one of our sample chapters), the following map (Figure 1) of the percentages of religious nones in North American regions is my favorite. I am not a specialist in map creation, so I called on some of my colleagues in demography to help me out. Here at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, we have a Geospatial Centre where researchers can bring their findings (in this case, the percentage of religious nones by North American region) and get help in using software to build a map for their results.
Figure 1: Percentage of Religious Nones in North America, by Region, 2010-2014 averages
Sources: 2010-2014 CND GSSs; 2010-2014 USA GSSs; 2011 CND NHS (for Northern Canada). 2010-2014 averages, weighted to be representative of general populations.
Figure 1 is still a work in progress, but the map does help us visualize the higher percentages of religious nones in certain key North American regions (darker shades of blue), notably Northern Canada and the Pacific Northwest. This regionalism in the prevalence of non-religion has been shown and commented on in previous studies for the US and Canada separately.[iii] Figure 1 indicates that this regionalism is still present today when we look at averages across the 5-year 2010-2014 period, and that it crosses national borders: for the most part, higher rates of non-religion are found in more western regions in both the USA and Canada. The pioneering history of the West where specific churches never gained as strong a foothold and dominance compared with the East as well as a cultural context influenced notably by large waves of Chinese and Japanese immigration are considered contributing factors to this western irreligious experience in North America.[iv]
These findings are the first among many more that Joel and I hope to share with the readers of the NSRN blog over the next couple of years as our book develops. Until next time!
Map making at the University of Waterloo’s Geospatial Centre. 14th of March 2017.
[i] See notably Baker and Smith 2015; Drescher 2016; Hout and Fischer 2002; Lim, MacGregor and Putnam 2010; Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2017; Wilkins-Laflamme 2015
[ii] See notably Beaman and Tomlins 2015; Garcia and Blankholm 2016; LeDrew 2015; Lee 2015; Manning 2015; Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale 2016
[iii] See notably Baker and Smith 2009; Block 2017; Marks 2017; Veevers 1990
[iv] Block 2017; Marks 2017
Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2009. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” Social Forces 87(3): 1251-1263.
Baker, Joseph O’Brian and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: New York University Press.
Beaman, Lori and Steven Tomlins, eds. 2015. Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts. New York: Springer.
Block, Tina. 2017. The Secular Northwest: Religion and Irreligion in Everyday Postwar Life. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Drescher, Elizabeth. 2016. Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Oxford University Press.
Garcia, Alfredo and Joseph Blankholm. 2016. “The Social Context of Organized Nonbelief: County-Level Predictors of Nonbeliever Organizations in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55 (1): 70-90.
Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67: 165-90.
LeDrew, Stephen. 2015. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4): 596-618.
Manning, Christel. 2015. Losing our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children. New York: New York University Press.
Marks, Lynne. 2017. Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Thiessen, Joel and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. 2017. “Becoming a Religious None: Irreligious Socialization and Disaffiliation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Online advanced access available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jssr.12319/full
Veevers, Jean E. 1990. “Canadian Regional Differences in Religious Unaffiliation: The Catholic-Protestant Factor.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 15 (1): 77-83.
Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious ‘Nones’? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 40 (4): 477-500.
Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen and Frank L. Pasquale. 2016. The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She completed her DPhil in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford (2010-2015). Her research interests include sociology of religion, quantitative methods, social change, race, ethnicity and immigration and political sociology.
Joel Thiessen is professor of sociology and director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Canada. He specializes notably in the sociology of religion and non-religion. Dr. Thiessen obtained his MA and PhD at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Evan Stewart uses survey data in his research to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist identification. Evan finds that belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views.
To borrow a phrase from the feminist movement, the personal is political when it comes to identifying as an atheist in the United States. Classic work on nonreligious Americans in social science shows that political views are a key predictor of religious disaffiliation, but how do these ideas shape the way people express nonreligion after they disaffiliate?
Last year I published a review article laying out some of the challenges for studying atheism, particularly in the United States. We know that anti-atheist sentiment in the U.S. is persistent and durable, and that atheists do a lot of collective work to build a common sense of identity. As a result, my work argues that we have to carefully distinguish non-belief in god from atheist self-identification, since self-identification signals far more than non-belief alone. Choosing to call oneself an atheist in the United States means navigating stigma, community affinities, and relationships to authority, and it can therefore become a shortcut for a range of assumptions about matters of public concern. For example, women who are already non-believers are less likely to call themselves atheists than men, and my work with Penny Edgell and Jacqui Frost argues that this has more to do with how society polices women’s religiosity than the choice of whether or not to believe in god alone.
I used survey data to investigate the differences between non-belief and atheist self-identification, but the original analysis from the review article was not conclusive. Most surveys, even those that can measure (non)religion in detail, cannot get a large enough subsample of atheists to make strong claims. The study of nonreligion is developing into a robust field, drawing interest from across the social sciences and humanities. As it continues to grow, researchers who work in this area will continue to face questions about whether their findings are generalizable across different groups and whether they replicate in different social contexts. Luckily, new data have become publicly available that allow for a conceptual replication (more on that here). The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study has over 35,000 respondents, and so while only 3-4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as an atheist, that shakes out to over 1,000 respondents in this survey. Many more people say they don’t believe in god, about 10% of the sample.
For this analysis, I start with the group of respondents who say they do not believe in god. We are interested in the probability that a given respondent from this group will also call themselves an atheist, and, most importantly, we are interested in what other traits associate with a higher or lower probability of that atheist identification. Logistic regression can help us answer these questions, and results from two logistic regression models are presented in the table. One model looks at some basic sociodemographic factors like age, gender, race, and education. The other adds two common beliefs among American atheists: one regarding social issues (support for same-sex marriage) and one regarding scientific authority (belief in human evolution). I chose these variables to get as close as possible to the original models, to see if they produce similar results.
So, what separates the self-identified atheists from “atheistic” respondents? Not much, it turns out. Older non-believers are slightly, but significantly, less likely to call themselves atheists. Non-believing women are less likely to call themselves atheists as well, but it is important to note that this effect does not emerge until we control for substantive beliefs in the second model. As we have argued elsewhere, there is evidence that women are not generally “more religious” across the board, but rather express nonreligion differently in line with gendered social risk. Also, notice which measures are not statistically significant in the table of results. Belief in evolution and education are not significant predictors of atheist identification when we control for political views. In these models, the difference comes down to social and political views more than scientific literacy or support.
Non-believers who are more liberal and express stronger support for same-sex marriage are significantly more likely to call themselves atheists. Each of these measures used a scale to indicate strength of support. The liberalism measure ran from 1 (very conservative) to 5 (very liberal), and the same-sex marriage measure ran from 1 (strongly oppose) to 4 (strongly favor). To get a sense of how strong these relationships are, the graphs below show the changes in predicted probabilities of atheist self-identification at each step on these scales, while holding all other variables constant. Non-believing respondents who strongly oppose same-sex marriage have about a 15% chance of identifying as atheists, while those who strongly favor the policy have about a 35% of identifying. Similarly, each step from very conservative to very liberal on the political ideology scale associates with about a five-percentage-point increase in the probability of atheist self-identification.
There are some necessary limitations to these conclusions. The models are not perfect by any means, and their low fit statistics (the small Pseudo R-squared) suggest that other factors which weren’t measured on the Pew survey could explain more of the choice to identify as an atheist. They probably also indicate that the true effect of liberal political views is somewhat smaller than the predicted probabilities shown here. However, this conceptual replication does provide additional evidence that self-identified atheism is as much a political phenomenon as a personal belief system.
In my dissertation research, I tease out what findings like these mean for understanding the political impact of nonreligious Americans more broadly. The cultural work that goes into understanding atheism and other kinds of nonreligion has implications for everything from voting trends to public opinion on the social safety net, racial issues, and environmental policy.
Together, this work suggests that nonreligion in general, and atheism in particular, is an important case for understanding the changing role of religion in American public life.
|Probability of Atheist Identification Among Non-Believing Americans|
|Lives in the South||-0.08||(0.11)||-0.06||(0.12)|
|Education (Baseline-High school)|
|Supports Same Sex Marriage||0.38***||(0.09)|
|Believes in Evolution||0.38||(0.33)|
|* p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001
Source: 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey
Notes: Models incorporate the RLS survey weights for known population benchmarks
Evan Stewart is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he has worked as an Edelstein Fellow with the American Mosaic Project and an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow with the Center for the Study of Political Psychology. His research focuses on political culture, public opinion, and religion and secularism across a range of institutional and community contexts. His dissertation work focuses on the political impact of the growing nonreligious population in the United States, while other solo and collaborative research projects examine prejudice and tolerance, atheist identity formation, attitudes about contentious political issues, and visual sociology. Evan also serves as a graduate editor at The Society Pages.
Is the human species sacred enough to save itself from extinction?
A recent article in the Atlantic magazine presents a brief review of a spoof religion based on a fanciful deity, the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”, that caught on especially in Europe. While a spoof in some respects, the followers point out that nothing is inherently sacred and that sacredness is simply whatever a group of people choose to deem sacred.
Religion has traditionally been centered on belief in a powerful supernatural being which is turned to by believers for answers to difficult questions about the purpose of life and for support and good fortune in major endeavors, such as war. However, Christianity has been on the wane for decades in the U.S. and Europe.
Theologian John Shelby Spong has challenged Christians, in order to revive their faith, to redefine God in non-theistic terms, not as a human-like being but as an abstract concept around which to focus one’s life.
If citizens in the U.S. and Europe can’t embrace a supernatural being as a source for united, cooperative behavior, we can hope they do better than making fun of life by pretending a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” is a good guide. But perhaps they can define an abstract principle of sacred value.
My research studies in the psychological traits that underlie political behavior reveal interesting information that implies avenues for humans to consider in managing their affairs as a species.
During the past decade, I have also gathered data on human intelligence trends that is particularly sobering. Human intelligence appears to be waning at the rate of .60 I.Q. points per year. Review of the literature suggests the cause is air pollution. In as few as 50 years, the average I.Q. could drop from 100 to 70, the top of the mental retardation range. If that happens, humans won’t be intelligent enough to maintain society as we know it.
So, it is critically important that we seek ways to inform and inspire citizens everywhere to unite in constructive, cooperative action to “clean up our act” as nations, governments and as a species. Perhaps the United States and Europe can lead this effort, as they have been world leaders in many ways.
Let me share a few highlights of my political psychology research and then offer a suggestion about how we might inspire citizens to proceed. The details are in research reports on my website. They are also available in “lay” language in my book, Party Time, How you can create common good democracy right now.
Human political attitudes differentiate liberals from conservatives on dozens of dimensions, from attitudes toward foreigners to gender attitudes, music preferences, civilian gun use, economics, preferred types of government and political leaders, and even types of religion. These differences are reflected in correlation coefficients. However, if you compare the mean scores of self-identified strong liberals with strong conservatives, these groups are rather close together on all of these same dimensions, and their mean group scores fall on the liberal side of issues, e.g. a peaceful foreign policy, preference for share economics, affordable housing and health care for all, and preference for government that serves citizens as members of the cooperative community overall rather than as members of competing special interest groups. 20% or fewer endorse the current U.S. form of democracy, special interest group democracy.
Related data from biology and genetics reveals that our political attitudes are grounded in our genes. Our genes guide us to choose current cultural ideas that support a preference for “conservative” ideas, “liberal” ideas or somewhere between. About 1/6 are programed to be conservative, 1/6 liberal and 2/3 in between. Our political beliefs and attitudes fall into two clusters, defined by factor analysis (a statistical procedure). These correlate with what we term “conservative” and “liberal” worldviews. The conservative worldview tends to attract authoritarian, militaristic-minded, disease phobic and xenophobic leaders. They and their followers can be valuable to communities in times of threat. The liberal worldview tends to attract kind, compassionate, peace-promoting leaders who trust foreigners. They and their followers can be valuable to communities in times of low threat, promoting trade in raw materials, finished goods, technologies and in genetic material that will help protect the in-group from disease pathogens in neighboring groups against which the in-group does not yet have immunity.
Religious beliefs are part of this picture, taking two forms, Fundamentalism and Kindly Religious Beliefs. About 6% endorse the former and 90% the latter. These forms are operationally defined by the questionnaire items that make them up. See the above references, which include a manual (Publication # 38) of scores of such questionnaire measures. These questionnaires are made of statements such as “There is only one true God”, and “Anyone who disagrees with this first belief is wrong” (Fundamentalism), and “We should do unto others as we want them to treat us”, and “It is inappropriate to be violent toward other human beings” (Kindly Religious Beliefs). Fundamentalism is associated with conservative political attitudes; Kindly Religious Beliefs with liberal attitudes.
Liberals more than conservatives tend to endorse the idea of a “meta-religion”, a concept I thought up for research purposes. A meta-religion could appeal to persons of all religions with the intention of promoting cooperation across humans everywhere on earth. Participating groups would dedicate periodic religious services to emphasizing cooperation and understanding across all religions. They’d send representatives to periodic conventions for the same purpose.
Given this introduction, I suggest a meta-religion whose ultimate guiding principle is not a supernatural being but, as Spong urges, an abstract principle. Taking a page from the Flying Spaghetti Monster faith, the ultimate sacred principle chosen for this faith could be that the human species is sacred, served by serving the common good, much as the Christian Disciple Paul urged (I Corinthians, 12- 7).
To this end, nations would promote termination of all environmental pollutants, controlling population growth, reversing global warming to protect low-lying communities from extinction via rising sea levels, disease epidemic control, etc.
A psychology professor heads up the program at the U. of Oregon for managing undocumented students and faculty. The problems are very complicated and hard to resolve. If we created a new category, “citizen of the world”, into which all persons fall, then it might be easier to solve the problems of citizens who are displaced on every continent secondary to flooding, wars, poverty, starvation, etc. At least such persons could all be recognized by their kinder fellow human beings as having “inalienable” worth as citizens of the world, if not of the nation in which they find themselves at the moment. The new meta-religion could lead this effort.
We can’t expect people to give up traditional forms of religion, so this new meta-religion should be packaged as a supplement to other traditional religions. To help assure buy-in it should be designed with contributions from all interested parties in all nations and from all traditional religions and even from non-religious and governmental groups. The United Nations might lead this effort. Our survival as a species may hang in the balance.
Bill McConochie is a psychologist in private clinical practice who does research in political psychology. He has a non-profit corporation for the latter and a website: Politicalpsychologyresearch.com where his research papers appear. He’d also written a book of his findings for the lay audience, Party Time! How you can create common good democracy right now.