The Atheism Question

This fall, during one of the gubernatorial debates between Mufi Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie, Hannemann (a Mormon) was asked what role religion would play in his administration. “I respect the right of everyone to adhere to a higher being, to respect the power of prayer and what faith can bring for us,” the former Honolulu Mayor replied. “I happen to be what I am, but by the same token I also respect your right to belong to your religion and appeal to a higher deity, whatever that situation may be.”
It seems like an inclusive answer, but read it again. In expressing his tolerance, there’s one group Hannemann doesn’t mention: atheists.
He’s certainly not alone. Though atheism has gained acceptance over the years (we’re not burning heretics at the stake, at least) it’s still widely assumed that faith is the best, perhaps only, path to a healthy life and a just society. It’s an assumption, however, that’s being challenged, and the result could be a bold new way of looking at belief—and non-belief.

Religion can be good for more than the soul, a large number of studies claim. Over the past decade, academic research on religiosity has exploded, and with it has come a raft of publications suggesting that spiritual beliefs and practices can add years to life, lower blood pressure or keep at-risk kids on the straight and narrow.
As sociologists, psychologists and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the mainstream media. Being non-religious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.
But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What’s missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of non-religious people and even the potential benefits of non-belief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the “irreligious,” conducting major surveys and comparing their findings. They’ve already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world’s healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety.
“There now seems to be a critical mass of people studying secularity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, “and I think that is a big new development.”
Philosophical reflection about non-belief has been common since Nietzsche declared the death of God more than a century ago, but scientific research on it has been rare. Though still preliminary, the new work has already begun shining new light on the lives of the non-religious. They are a difficult-to-define minority in the United States, where the vast majority identify themselves as religious in some sense. But this research is leading to a more sophisticated understanding of how people believe—and of how the lines between religion and irreligion are less certain than we realize.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that social scientists and medical researchers began to study religious belief and its effects quantitatively. For a long time, the spiritual had generally been assumed to be an inappropriate subject for empirical investigation. But a surge of academic interest in religion, together with an influx of money, changed that.
The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation, whose eponymous founder longed to see science and spirituality brought closer together, helped turn the field into an academic growth industry, sprouting research centers and conferences around the world. Last year alone, it gave away more than $70 million.
In the social sciences, Templeton joined older foundations with an interest in religion, such as the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Today, these foundations each fund ambitious sociological surveys devoted to better understanding the religious makeup of the United States. The study of religion now sits comfortably in some surprising corners of the academic and scientific establishment: while in 1992 only five American medical schools offered courses related to religion, 101 did by 2005.
But in all this enthusiasm, one group has been largely ignored. “People who truly have no religion are not very well understood,” says David Yamane of Wake Forest University, editor of the journal Sociology of Religion.
The few studies that did treat non-belief seriously offered tantalizing hints that to look only at religiosity was to miss an important part of the spectrum of human belief. One study conducted in 1985 by German psychologist Franz Buggle and his colleagues suggests that neither religion nor irreligion has a monopoly on improving people’s mental health. Among 174 people surveyed, it found that two groups enjoyed the best scores on a scale of depression: the most pious Christians and the convinced atheists. Those in the middle, the lukewarm believers, were most likely to be depressed. In 2005, a team at Newcastle University in Britain reported a similar result.
More recently, Karen Hwang, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, decided to examine atheists at risk for depression more closely. Hwang’s interviews with atheists suffering from spinal cord injuries revealed how becoming debilitated strengthened their convictions, and their convictions strengthened them. “It doesn’t matter so much what a person believes in,” she says, “but how consistent and cohesive their worldview is.”
Irreligion is an increasingly important part of the religious landscape in the United States. The American Religious Identification Survey made headlines in 2001 when it reported that the number of people with no religious affiliation had increased sharply since 1990, from 8.2 to 14.1 percent. The latest report, released last month, put the number at 15 percent. It also underscored why identifying these so-called “nones” isn’t easy. While only 1.6 percent of respondents declared themselves agnostic or atheist outright, more than 12 percent said they don’t believe in God or aren’t sure. Further, fully 27 percent don’t expect to have a religious funeral.
The growth documented by the survey has generated fresh interest in non-belief. In 2005, the survey’s directors, sociologists Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, founded an Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut, the first of its kind in this country. The institute sponsors original research and public events, and provides curriculum materials for college courses about the history and development of secularism.
In recent months, two new organizations have appeared online, Joseph Hammer’s Center for Atheist Research and Lois Lee’s Non-religion and Secularity Research Network. Hammer, a psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri, and Lee, a sociology graduate student at Cambridge University, have eagerly reached out to others who share their interests. “We’re all looking to support each other in this,” says Hammer. Their Web sites (atheistresearch.org and nsrn.co.uk) include
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bibliographies, discussion forums for scholars in the field and surveys in which visitors can take part.
One of the banner carriers for the new research is Zuckerman, the Pitzer College sociologist. His new book, Society without God, offers a revealing portrait of irreligion in Denmark and Sweden, countries where paltry levels of church attendance coincide with economic prosperity, low crime and abounding quality of life. These nations challenge the claim that piety is a prerequisite for a healthy society, but Zuckerman also takes care not to go too far in the other direction. “People think I’m arguing that secularity causes good social outcomes, and that’s not necessarily the case,” he says.
Careful study of secular life, he adds, “should be done because people are still calling it unnatural, odd. No—it’s part of the human condition, always has been, and always will be.”
Like Zuckerman, many of the scholars focusing on the non-religious are motivated by more than mere academic curiosity. Rather, they want to make non-belief a respectable option in a society where it often raises distrust.
“There is a fine line between people who study secularity and people who advocate secularity,” Zuckerman says, “but the same holds true for people who study religion.”
One of the most powerful critics of the new science of religion is Columbia University psychiatrist Richard Sloan, who surveyed hundreds of published studies on the benefits of religion and found many of them rife with methodological sloppiness. In his 2006 book, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, he argued that researchers, who were often personally religious, appeared to be seeing what they wanted to see, not what the evidence showed.
Most of those engaged in the work on secularity are agnostics or atheists; some cite the influence of “New Atheist” polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have spurred non-believers to be more strident. But the researchers say they’re eager not to replicate the errors of wishful thinking that Sloan pointed out in the work on religion.
The new institute at Trinity College, for instance, is funded largely by Switzerland’s Posen Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting secular culture and education. But Barry Kosmin, the institute’s director, insists, “We’re not an advocacy organization. What we want to do is be objective.”
Some do encounter resistance among their peers for doing this kind of work. Joseph Hammer says he is careful about whom he discusses his research with. David Wulff of Wheaton College in Norton, a veteran psychologist who wants to make his discipline more attentive to non-belief, has had difficulties as well. “My colleagues in the psychology of religion are not interested,” he says. “And that’s partly because most of them are themselves religious.”
But soon, more scholars of religion may be forced to pay attention. Wulff has been developing survey tools that will help psychologists look beyond binary oppositions like religiosity and secularity, or belief and un-belief. Phil Zuckerman’s study in Scandinavia, in fact, suggests that these distinctions aren’t as clear as one might expect. His interviews show the extent to which, even in the absence of traditional supernatural beliefs, the subjects’ religious heritage provides them with moral guideposts and cultural habits. Not believing in God doesn’t stop most Danes and Swedes from considering themselves Christians.
Religions, we are beginning to learn, can be better understood by paying attention to what irreligion looks like. Probe irreligion, and you encounter not only new insights about how it works in people’s lives, but also echoes of the very religions it defines itself against. ■

Jacob Shafer contributed to this story; article courtesy of Featurewell.com

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