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Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Duane McClearn

July 2020

 

This essay is a continuation of a look at the Big Survey of atheists, in particular the 4,000 or so from the U.S. Many of the respondents wrote of their experiences of being shunned, denigrated, or otherwise mistreated when they revealed to friends or romantic partners that they were atheists.

First, let’s peek at a sample of atheists and their friends:

I came out to my friends [as an atheist] and I was actually told that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi.

–Respondent 2342, a 26-year-old, male, nurse in South Carolina

 

I had a friend and colleague who said she could no longer be a friend to me because I am an atheist. Further, my patients often assume that I am religious (like the vast majority of people in my community) and I am certain that my practice would suffer if my beliefs were shared with them.

–R 2809, a 52-year-old, male, psychologist in Alabama

 

Friends that I have had for over 20 years, when I debated them (and won) on the veracity of the bible– when I admitted to them that I was an atheist, four friends that I have shared some of the best, and worst, times of our lives, decided I was no longer worth knowing.

–R 2821, a 46-year-old, male, upper-level manager in Texas

 

I have recently lost friends whom I believed were close to me. They demanded that I respect their religious beliefs while at the same time refusing to respect my atheism.

–R 3284, a 40-year-old male, database administrator, in Texas

 

My best friend does not know I am an atheist. I will not tell her because I do not want to lose her as a friend. I witnessed her destroying a friendship with someone when she found out he was an atheist, and she told me she could never be friends with one. Her main reason is that she believes they have no morals.

–R, a 27-year-old, female, graduate student, in Wisconsin

 

A close friend of 20 years told me she can longer be friends with an atheist.

–R 3262, a 57-year-old, female, asset manager, in Michigan

Some notes of interest: We observe friendships that are (or seem) solid until the atheist’s lack of belief is revealed. This one aspect of the friendship is enough to poison it in the believer’s eyes. The atheist is willing to live with the mismatch of beliefs, but the believer is not. One respondent (R 3284) even states that his religious friends demand that he respect their beliefs while they refuse to respect his. The seriousness of the lack of belief in the eyes of the faithful (at least, many of them) is shown by the believer who states that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi (presumably, this is meant to be extremely bad). We see atheists keeping their views hidden for, quite rightly, fearing the loss of friendships. Incidentally, these few comments by respondents were just the tip of the iceberg. Of the thousands of American atheists who responded to the survey, many hundreds wrote in responses to specific open-ended questions, such as the one about friendships. One frequent pattern emerged: a reluctance to divulge to friends one’s atheism, followed by shunning and denigration when, or if, one did.

Psychological studies have shown that relationships do best when the partners have much in common, including personality characteristics, interests and attitudes about politics and, naturally, religion. So it is not surprising to find that many of the respondents indicated troubles in the realm of romance when their non-belief was raised.

In two cases, I started dating and told the man I was not christian and he eventually stopped dating me when he found a Christian. The second man was okay with me not being Christian, but when he found out I am an atheist, it changed his opinion about me negatively even though he thought just prior to that that I could be “the one.” This is when I joined an atheist group for support. I have been an atheist since high school but pretty much kept my atheism in the closet among most people due to discrimination until this year (I’m 59).

–R 2459, a 59-year-old, female, adoption social worker, in Michigan

 

I was in a relationship with a believer. She was raised Catholic, but did not attend services regularly. Her parents were fervent believers and very active in their non-denominational church. Her parents did not approve of my open atheism and while I was respectful of their beleifs, I did try my best to answer any questions that she or her parents had. Eventually, she ended the relationship because she “could not see herself in a long-term relationship with someone who didn’t at least believe in a god.” That was over a year ago,k and I have not tried to get back into dating because I live/work in an area where Christianity is taken very seriously and I don’t want to have to live through that kind of rejection again.

–R 2958, a 28-year-old, male, engineer, in Indiana

 

[I have experienced] massive marital discord and disconnect from having a spouse that is extremely devout evangelical fundamentalist.

— R 371, a 56-year-old, female, retired attorney, in Washington

 

The only really negative response that I’ve received was from my husband and his family. I am now in the process of a divorce.

–R 3228, a 35-year-old, female, college student, in Arkansas.

As with friendships, many hundreds of respondents wrote of their experiences in romantic relationships. What is presented here is a small sampling. The pattern was similar to that with friendships– strife and rejection.

Many atheists are rejected by family (as discussed in a previous blog), or friends, or romantic partners. Some are rejected by all. As you might imagine, this can carry a heavy emotional burden. For believers who imagine that atheists pass through life in a care-free, hedonistic manner (which is the view of many believers), such is really not the case. The bulk of atheists feel hassled and stigmatized for their lack of belief in God, often from the very people that they care the most about.

 

 

 

 

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An Accident of Birth

An Accident of Birth

Duane McClearn

June, 2020

The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians are Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Saudi Arabians a generation ago were Muslims, as was the generation before that and before that. The majority of the people of India are Hindus. Their parents and grandparents were most likely Hindus. Most Brazilians are Christians (Catholics, in particular). Their parents were most likely Christians, and their parents’ parents were Christians, as well. Similarly, in the U.S. most religious people are Christians, but whatever faith Americans hold, it is likely that of their parents. Among American Christians, people tend to stick to their parents’ denomination. Catholics tend to stay Catholic generation after generation. Mormons tend to marry and raise Mormons.

It’s not as if people are generally questioning their own religion, working through it, comparing it to other religions, then concluding that their own is obviously the true one (or True One). Very few religious people, it would seem, pause for reflection about religions other than their own. It may be that few pause to reflect, or have knowledge, even on their own. In the U.S., for example, biblical illiteracy is remarkably high, especially considering how many politicians and other public figures declare that this is a Christian nation. In his book, Religious Literacy, author Stephen Prothero refers to  a study that found, among other things, that only half of American adults could not name even one of the four Gospels of the New Testament and most couldn’t name the first book of the Bible. And it isn’t as if atheists are dragging the averages down. In fact, atheists tend to score as well as, if not higher, than most Christian denominations on measures of Bible knowledge.

Several years ago I was teaching a college course about global issues. One day I asked students to take out a sheet of paper and explain: Why  aren’t you a Hindu? I already knew that none of them was a Hindu, and that all were raised either Christian or Jewish in the U.S. They asked for guidance. What, exactly, were the beliefs of Hinduism? What were the practices of Hindus? It didn’t really matter for the purposes of their assignment, I responded. You know that it is the majority religion of India, and you have the sense that it is different from Christianity and Judaism in its beliefs and practices. So write away. They struggled a bit more. They tried to get me to divulge more about Hinduism. I wouldn’t.

Perhaps I was being too obtuse. What I was trying to get at was that it didn’t really matter what religion I asked them to write about; it could have been Zoroastrianism or Jainism or Kemetism (the religion of the ancient Egyptians).  It didn’t matter if they knew what the beliefs were or had examined them carefully, and weighed their merits. The reason that they weren’t Hindus was almost certainly that they weren’t raised as Hindus, and the reason that they weren’t raised as Hindus was most likely because they didn’t have Hindu parents and were not born in India. So to the Christians in my class, I asked: how many of you have seriously studied other religions before settling on Christianity. The answer: none. The reason that they were Christians is that that is how they were brought up–their parents were Christians, their neighborhoods were Christian, their towns (to a greater or lesser extent) were Christian, their churches were Christian (obviously), and so on.

So I asked the obvious question. If you had been raised in Saudi Arabia by Muslim parents, do you think that you would now be a Muslim? The answer: Well, yes, almost certainly. And if you had been raised in a Hindu village in India by Hindu parents, would you now be a Hindu? Yes, of course, they replied.

I would venture to guess that most people of faith don’t come to embrace a religion based on considering the various religions on offer around the globe. Rather, they accept without question what they are told by parents and the others around them starting at a young age. This means that for the majority of the world’s religious people, their faith is really just based on an accident of birth, much as if you are likely to be a Denver Broncos fan if you are born and raised in Colorado and a Seattle Seahawks fan if you are born and raised in Washington state (that is, if you care about football).

If there is a single True Faith, and billions of people seem to believe that there is, and if you are rewarded by a celestial being or beings for adhering to it and punished for not adhering to it, then I have to conclude that it is one of the big lucky life lottery draws for the people who happen to be born in the right place to the right parents.

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A Survey of Atheists

 

A Survey of Atheists; Atheists Stigmatized 

Duane McClearn

July, 2020

    Some several years ago, Tom Arcaro, of the Department of Sociology, and I, of the Department of Psychology, put together a survey to be answered by self-identified atheists. Approximately 8,ooo people answered from around the world; about half of those were from the US. I will refer to this survey from now on as the Big Survey. 
     The purpose of the survey was to gauge the views of atheists on issues of religion and their place in society. For respondents in the US, that meant to a large extent asking how it felt to be a non-believer in a largely religious society.
     I will concentrate on one survey item here. The item asked:

  Do you feel any social stigma related to your atheism?

The response possibilities, and the percentage of respondents answering each, were as follows:

1. I feel no social stigma related to being an atheist. (13.6%)
2. I feel a slight social stigma related to being an atheist. (33.2%)
3. I feel a moderate social stigma related to being an atheist. (31.7%)
4. I feel a strong social stigma related to being an atheist. (21.5%)

Respondents were invited to make follow-up statements about ways in which they felt that they had been stigmatized because of their atheism.  Many of the statements made by the respondents were telling and poignant. In this essay I include only statements made about problems that arose with family relationships..  

       Many of my family members have excluded me from contact as they are uncomfortable that I do not believe in their (or any) deity.

     –Respondent 1279, a 38-year-old, male, adjustor, in Wisconsin

 

     I’m already generally stigmatized among my family because I’m an atheist and no longer hide that fact in my private life. I have been cornered and confronted by multiple family members telling me I’m smarter than that, or that I’m going to hell, or that I’ll grow out of it.

     –R 1213, a 27-year-old, male educator, in Pennsylvania

 

       The religious in my extended family are no longer welcoming at all.  I’m shunned by them at reunions.  My mother has nearly zero interest in my children despite daily interaction with her religious grandchildren.

     –R 1255, a 34-year-old, male, computer programmer, in Ohio

 

     I come out of fundamentalist Christianity, so my family views my atheism as meaning that I have turned my life over to the Devil. My presence is viewed as dangerous to them.

     — R 1937, a 25-year-old, female, graduate student, in Oregon

 

       My family disowned me after finding out that I am an atheist.  My life is better for it, I just wish it would’ve happened sooner.

     –R 2349, a 39-year-old, IT technician, in Texas

 

       Well, I “came out” as an atheist when I was 14.  My entire father’s side of the family disowned me.  Other than that, I live and work in a university environment where such things are irrelevant.

     –R 2411, a 26-year-old, male, biologist, in Texas

 

       My Mother asked me not to be a member of her family anymore.

     –R 3572, a 34-year-old, 911 dispatcher, in Kentucky

 

    My parents disowned me. I was homeless for a few months.

     –R 723, a 25-year-old, female, intermittently employed, in South Dakota

 

     I was perpetually harassed for months and eventually disowned by more than half of my family when I was found to be an atheist.

— R 3148, a 21-year-old, female, engineering student, in Indiana

 

     I’m no longer allowed to babysit my young cousins because I might “corrupt” them.

— R 3385, a 26-year-old, male, accountant, in Michigan

 

     About a year ago,  I spoke with a good friend about this survey. She is a practicing Catholic. She was surprised and skeptical that there is actually any stigma associated with being an atheist. I assured her that there was. The few respondents highlighted here show how seriously their atheism can be (and is) taken by family members. Being “disowned” or turned out of the house is no small thing. Many are made to feel unwelcome in other ways. The few examples put forth here are a small percentage of the number that indicated problems with their families due to their beliefs (or, rather, lack of beliefs). On a positive note, many respondents, such as R2349 above, are happy that they “came out” as atheists.

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Slavery and the Bible

   Slavery and the Bible

   Duane McClearn

May, 2020

   Virtually all Americans would agree, I hope, that slavery is morally abhorrent. To own other people as property, to have the right to treat them in any way that one desires even to the point of killing them, strikes the normal person as cruel and barbaric. We hear of stories of modern slavery, for sex or labor, and are repulsed.

Of course, this nation has had its own long history of slavery. From its early days, slavery was a divisive issue. Behind the arguments for and against slavery were appeals to morality. And many of the appeals to morality were supported,in turn, by reference to the Bible.

A modern Christian, or non-Christian, for that matter, might imagine that the Bible would speak clearly about the morality of slavery. Many Christians view the Bible as the foundation of all morality so, ipso facto, they assume, it must speak out forcefully against a practice so repugnant as slavery. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the abolitionists (mostly Northerners) must have stood on pretty firm ground by using the Bible as a weapon against slavery, while the proponents of slavery, mostly Southerners, must have had a pretty hard time of it. Actually, such was not the case.

In 1784 the Virginia Assembly took up the debate on slavery; thousands signed a pro-slavery petition stating that slavery was ordained by God. A saddended Bishop Asbury in 1798 wrote” “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” The Richmond Enquirer declared in 1820, ” … whoever believes that the written word of God is [truth] itself, must consequently believe in the absolute rectitude of slave-holding.” Popular evangelist George Whitfield appealed to planters by denying the sinfulness of slavery and supporting the spread of slavery in the Lower South.

In 1831 as Virginia debated slavery, John Thompson Brown of Petersburg asked, “In what code of ethics is it written that slavery is so odious?” Jesus “came into the world to reprove sin. Yet he rebuked not slavery.” Alexander Stephens, who eventually became vice-president of the Confederacy, declared that the morality of slavery was founded “upon a basis as firm as the Bible,’ and would be sustained “until Christianity be overthrown.”  Charles Clark, Mississippi’s governor during the Civil War, stated that the South would not” abandon its cherished and Christian institution of domestic slavery.”

A standard Southern argument came to be that God not only allowed , but commanded the Israelites to hold slaves. Reverend Mr. Crowder of Virginia declared in 1840, “in its moral aspect, slavery was not countenanced, permitted, and regulated by the Bible, but it was positively insituted by God Himself.”–He had, in so many words, enjoined it.” And if slavery was moral for the Israelites, the thinking went, it must be moral for all times. As a candidate for the Texas legislature, Ashbel Smith stated, “That which is once right in the eyes of God is always right.”

Abolitionists, mostly in the North, for antislavery voices in the South were silenced over the years, found it difficult to find passages in the Bible to support their antislavery stance. Usually they bolstered their arguments with references to Enlightenment ideals and the Declaration of Independence. But in terms of appealing to the Bible for moral guidance, renowned historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese write, “Proslavery men had much the better of the historical argument. Israelites did hold slaves as well as indentured servants.” And “the historical scholarship of the early nineteenth century had said as much, and by the 1850s [leading thinkers] confidently declared scriptural argument settled in favor of the South.”

In sum, on the issue of slavery many Southerners were absolutely convinced that they were morally right, that their cause was sanctified by God, and that the Bible justified human bondage. It would appear that on the third point, at least, they were correct: the Bible does indeed justify slavery.

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Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Something

Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Something
Many years ago I was engaged in a conversation with a young woman on the topic of morality. She informed me after a bit that she derived her morals from the Bible. I soon came to understand that she took the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Everything was exactly true as written; there was to be no interpretation. This, incidentally, is the view of a sizable proportion of the Christians residing in the United States.

I asked her what she took the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to mean. She said it was obvious. It was never morally acceptable to take a human life. I asked if the rule was perhaps too strict and maybe meant for an earlier time in history. She said no, it was meant for back then, and now, and forever into the future, for all places on Earth, and beyond, for that matter. It was absolute. It was God’s law. It was written in plain language. There were no, absolutely no, exceptions. She was extremely adamant.

I asked, “By the way, what’s your view on capital punishment?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “Oh, I’m in favor of it.”

After I determined that she understood that capital punishment meant taking the life of a human being, I asked if that meant she was allowing an exception to the so-called absolute rule of never taking a human life. She said, “Well, the people they execute are really bad, so they deserve to be killed.”

I replied, “Perhaps so. But then that would be an exception, and you said there were no exceptions– absolutely no exceptions, ever, for any reason whatsoever.”

We went back and forth for a while, I thinking that she was being inconsistent. She got a bit flustered and said I just don’t understand. We then parted ways.

Incidentally, I had a very good friend years ago, now unfortunately deceased, who was a devout Christian. He took what he construed to be the peaceful message of Jesus to heart. He was against all violence, including all wars. He was against capital punishment. He told me he would never kill another human. This was his principled stand, based on his close study of the Bible. I presented a variety of moral dilemmas to him and in all he said he would refuse to take another human life. He would rather that he die rather than do so. Although I disagreed with him on many aspects of his stand, I gave him great credit for his moral integrity, his thoughtfulness, and his consistency. It is my impression that his view represents a minority view among Christians.

Let me know your comments and feedback. Contact me at mcclearn@elon.edu.

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Religion – A force for bad or good?

Religion PeaceOf the 8,302 atheists worldwide who responded to our survey, 46 per cent think religion is a strong force for bad in the world, 41 per cent think it is a moderate force for bad while 9 per cent think it is roughly balanced in its impact for good and for bad. Only 1 per cent of respondents think religion is a moderate force for good. That’s a pretty poor report card for the public relations efforts of the world’s religious organisations!

Despite Australia and New Zealand being two of the most secular countries in the world – countries in which the harsh effects of religious fundamentalism are less apparent than, say, the USA – Australasians are notably more harsh in their assessment of religion’s impact.

Results for Australia and New Zealand are almost identical. Fifty-one per cent of Australians and New Zealanders – a full 5 percentage points more than the worldwide result – think religion is a strong force for bad. Thirty-eight per cent rate religion as a moderate force for bad, 9 per cent think it is roughly equal in influence and, consistent with the overall result, only 1 per cent give religion any credit for being a moderate influence for good.

Forget about religion being bad – let’s talk about the survey question!

Some Australasian respondents were unhappy with the survey question. There are complaints that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective terms. One critic explains it is a ‘bad question’ because it has ‘many answers’.

Fortunately, many of those answers are supplied in the comments and most respondents seem more than capable of sorting out the difference between ‘good’ (tolerance, diversity, kindness, peace) and ‘bad’ (intolerance, divisiveness, violence). As with my first analysis of the survey data, I was struck by respondents’ determination not to make sweeping generalisations, not to vilify believers and to concede, not only that religion is not all bad but also that there are other, non-religious ideologies which may be equally toxic.

Why Religion is ‘Bad’

Why do 89 per cent of Australasian respondents believe that religion is a force for ‘bad’ in the world?

“9/11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” explains one respondent, succinctly.

Certainly, it can be argued that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon focused the world’s attention on the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked the ‘New Atheist’ movement, inspired by the post-9/11 books of Sam Harris (2004), Richard Dawkins (2006), Daniel Dennett (2006) and Christopher Hitchens (2007). But most survey respondents took a much broader view – both geographically and historically.

“Religion is at the heart of most of the suffering on this planet,” argues a 27 year old Australian male respondent.

Others cite religion as the “root cause of most evil and oppression in the world”, “a retarding force in the struggle for human rights” and the “largest justification for the most heinous acts in the world”.

Religion is “often the primary reason for opposition to science, rational inquiry, gay rights, women rights et cetera” says a fire fighter from Australia. Further, says an Australian psychologist, “The majority of genocide, war, oppression and evil has been carried out in the name of religious beliefs – and still is.”

The elaborations of religion’s sins of commission and omission are eloquently elaborated in the comments on the survey question. Religious war, religious genocide, honour killings, honour rapes, bigotry, racism, slavery are all cited to explain why religion is a force for bad in the world. There are complaints, too, about religion’s ‘anti-scientific barbarism’ and its dogmatic rejection of simple life-saving initiatives such as condoms in AIDS-ridden parts of Africa. Religion’s impact on children is another key theme – especially the indoctrination and enforced ignorance of children and the clerical abuse of children (and its concealment by church authorities). Also mentioned is religion’s massive oppression of women and minority ‘out-groups’ over thousands of years.

Is religion all bad?

Despite respondents’ almost universal belief that religion has a negative impact on the world, there is broad acknowledgement from respondents that the issue is not completely ‘black and white’. Religion is not universally demonised; there are plenty of Australasian respondents who acknowledge that religion performs some useful functions.

For example, a university professor from New Zealand concedes, “While I think the overall effect of religion is negative I see that it can be a cohesive force to give people a sense of belonging.”

Another two Kiwi respondents also give religion credit for some positive influence:

“Religion motivates some people to be more good than they would otherwise normally be.”

“Some churches have the energy in numbers to perform good deeds, irrespective of their misguided belief in the supernatural and mythical figures.”

Similarly, an Australian computational scientist acknowledges that, while religion’s net effect may be negative, it can be positive for some individuals:  “Religion is used to justify prejudice and hatred and murder, but it does provide comfort to many individuals.”

“On a personal level,” adds another Aussie, “religious belief can be good for some people. In particular, many find the sense of community comforting. Humans are an extremely social species so it makes sense that anything that fosters strong support networks is a good thing, and religion has traditionally filled that roll.” But, she goes on to explain, “That being said, when we look at the overall impact of religion, we are forced to look at the whole of these organisations. And when we look at the whole, we see religions refusing to consider evidence that refutes their doctrine or dogmas. We see criminal activities covered up purely to save the image of the organisation itself. Religion spreads misinformation, and often where it does this most is among poorer, less educated communities. And it is among these communities that religion is often at its most damaging … ”

The key question considered, and overwhelmingly answered in the negative by respondents is, “Does the good done by religion outweigh the intolerance, self-interest, ignorance, violence and killing done in its name?”

“This question is difficult,” admits an Australian business owner, “… how does one balance the good against the bad? Does a village provided with a clean safe supply of drinking water balance out the rape of children by religious authorities for instance?”

One Australian respondent, now working as a high school teacher, gives an insight from her personal experience:

“In my previous career in international development, I saw religion inspire people to help those in need and a lot of excellent charities are religious. However, it is also the root cause of the oppression of women and lack of access to contraception, advice on prevention of AIDS and abortion for victims of rape, especially in war-torn areas and some refugee camps, where religious organisations are supposed to help not make things worse.”

Others agree:

“Religion certainly contributes to charities worldwide, however they can equally have negative effects on a community and the world through discrimination, abuse, etc,” said one 16 year old respondent.

An Australian business executive adds:

“While there are some individuals who genuinely work for the disadvantaged because they feel that is what religion is about there are many, many instances of the opposite. The Catholic Church has unbelievable wealth but does not use it all for the poor, in fact, it is the world’s biggest slum landlord. Missionaries, while they might provide schools and health, also have to convert people destroying local cultures and communities as a result.”

To be fair, the odd respondent points out that religion is not the only obstacle to a civilised society:

“Not all violence of course is religious, but there is far too much to be ignored, in both Western and Eastern civilisations,” says a 28 year old lawyer from Australia.

“Corporate greed & laissez faire capitalism are one step worse [than religion],” argues an Australian scientist.

Yet another respondent ponders whether religion can be blamed entirely for its faults – perhaps religious fanaticism is the fault of “the culture and society”.

For one respondent, a philosophy post-graduate, blaming ‘religion’ is a cop out:

“…  I view religious institutions are purely human institutions which, as a result can be turned in any direction the constituent members wish. To talk of “Religion” having moral culpability is to remove responsibility from those who constitute the religion.”

Many respondents cite ‘tribalism’ as one of the negative effects of religion. But, as one Australian respondent points out, “Religion is only one form of tribalism. I regard nationalism as equally destructive.”

Others freely acknowledge that, as bad as the religious may be, “… there are equally horrible non-believers.”

“People can and do, do bad things in the name of religion, but so do many non-religious people.”

Is religion necessary?

While acknowledging that religion is not ‘all bad’, some respondents insist that the ‘good’ done by religion is not (or need not be) dependent upon religious belief.

The consensus is aptly summarised by an IT programmer from Australia:

“All good forces which stem from religious belief don’t need religious belief to come about, but many bad forces which stem from religious belief could not come about without it.”

“Religion has produced good,” concedes a female lawyer from Australia, explaining that:

“Many charities, et cetera are established and continued through religion, and possibly would not continue to exist in a non-religious world. However equally, religion has often created the problems which the charities need to meet in the first place (e.g. poverty caused by having too many children because of the ban on contraception). However, there is a great deal of evil perpetuated in the world because of religion. And none of the good things in the world rely on religion to exist, they could exist just as much without religion.”

This view is expanded upon by a 30 year old, unemployed Australian respondent:

 “Human creativity in the form of say architecture or music does not require religion as a source, the people that create such art are talented regardless of their religion and could therefore have achieved their masterpieces anyway; the only thing religion provided that might otherwise have been difficult to obtain was funding. Other things such as community, charity, et cetera, are demonstrably provided by other organisations or pursuits independent of religion. Thus the positive aspects unique to religion are minimal, while I think the negatives such as war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ outweigh these by far.”

“While religion does give a lot of people hope, there are plenty of secular reasons for people to have hope for the future, and the air of intolerance that many religions create far outweighs any good they have done,” argues a 20 year old tertiary student from Australia.

The point is neatly summarised by another Australian student, “The good caused by religion would occur without it. The bad, in many instances, would not.”

Indeed, the consensus seems to be that:

“Actions which are actually beneficial to society are good whether or not done from religious motivation. But there are many harmful actions which are only done from religious motivation, and have no secular basis; so the net effect of religion on behaviour is significantly harmful.”

Religion’s historical record

In weighing up the net impact of religion on the world, many Australasian respondents consider its history.

As one respondent wryly observes, “Looking at history, religion has a lot of explaining to do…”

“Religion can be used to motivate people to perform both good and bad acts. Religion has been the root of wars and suffering, but it has influenced very important cultural developments (for example, the development of the courts of equity in England based on Christian morals as opposed to common law). It has been used both to oppress and to free the oppressed. Overall, it is a human tool, and has been used for both good and bad accordingly, ” says a 19 year old Australian student.

A similar historical perspective is offered by a retired public servant in his 60s:

“In the past religion offered a moral framework for life necessary in what were often barbarous times. In an evolved society where people are educated to understand the need to behave in certain ways, for the common good, and where the rule of law and a functioning democracy exist, it is less necessary and can impose or support values that are out of date, for example, strictures denying the rights of women and homosexuals.”

An engineering manufacturer from New Zealand also argues that religion once served an important purpose but is now redundant:

 “In tribal times, religion or superstition, would serve to bond groups and increase the survival rate of that group, so it may be that religion is an evolutionary selected trait and in that sense it is a generally positive influence. However, most religions have failed to match the evolution of human morality. Therefore, where it may have had, in the deep past, a weak or strong positive influence on the group survival, in this age, its net negative influence on actions and morality has a strong negative impact: sowing division, anti- scientific attitudes, prejudice and distrust of others in such measure as to outweigh the small positives such as charity work or solace of those in need.”

A retired university lecturer in biological and environmental sciences sums up the argument, noting that, “In the course of human history, perhaps religion was something humans ‘had to have’ in order to structure societies, but the civilised world has surely moved on.”

Religion and Power

Many respondents draw a strong connection between religion and political power, arguing that religion is a “strong force for bad” because it is “a method for subduing the population by those in power.”

“Religion would be a neutral force but for the fact that people in power direct its use for their own ends,” notes one respondent.

And, where there is power there is also corruption. As an Australian pharmacist observes:

 “Although some examples of religion led altruism exist, religion has always been tied to power and therefore attracted the corruptible in the exercise of that power.”

In religion, says a female respondent from Australia, “I see more of a quest for control and power than genuine attempts to help fellow human beings/animals/the planet/society …”

A semi-retired academic researcher agrees:

 “To me, religion (and here I mean organised religion, whether large- or small-scale) is simply about power. It’s just an elaboration on shamans / priests couching what they want to say as ‘this is what the gods say’.”

“It’s a tool of control that uses fear and division,” says another.

“Specifically, religion exerts pressure on politics, making the world a worse place for everyone in it. Think ‘gay rights’,” an Australian education assistant complains.

An Australian retiree with a post-graduate degree agrees, “[Religion] actually stops things from being legalized that the majority of people in society want legalized (eg. voluntary euthanasia).”

Others note that the continuing religious influence on political leaders burdens the country with unwarranted economic costs. For example, an Australian sommelier notes that:

“Apart from historical evils (crusades et al) and distant evils (the non-proliferation of condoms in Africa, with the resultant proliferation of AIDS) and secret evils (the rape and torture of children by figures of authority) we have obvious, ‘hidden in plain sight’ evils, including but not limited to retarding societal discourse on a range of topics, the witch-hunting that goes on in political-scientific circles, and the vast sums of money that disappear from our economies due to religious tax exemption, resulting in a crucial reduction in the average standard of living where a slight difference would have most impact – at the poverty line.”

“The ‘Advancement of Religion’ should not be a worthy pursuit,” says a defence worker from Australia, referring to the basis upon which religions are assigned charitable/tax exempt status, regardless of whether or not their efforts are truly directed towards genuine charity.

Other respondents observe that, in power struggles, religion has always tended to support the status quo.

“Religion’s positive contribution is related to creating communities, outreach to the elderly, alms for the poor, shelter for the homeless and orphans,” says an artist and gallery owner from Australia. “The negative influence in the world is that it also tends to side with the kings and the powerful as it views supporting the marginalized and the poor as tantamount to socialism/communism. Churches have always opposed social reform, repeal of abortion laws, access to contraception for all, perpetuating genderism, et cetera.”

Religion and the Individual

Of particular concern for some, is the negative effect of religion on individuals – particularly children.

“Religious leaders see nothing wrong with indoctrination, says a retired manager from Australia citing the “Jesuit idea of, ‘Give me the child until the age of seven…”

“People don’t seem to get as passionate about anything as they do about religion, and will kill for it,” a physiotherapy student observes. “Religion teaches people to have unquestioning obedience which makes abuse a lot easier. Religion also teaches people not to think critically and to accept things without evidence which makes them gullible. Disagreements over religion cause so much harm on individual and global levels.”

“The main problem with all religions is that they delude people into believing things without verifiable evidence,” explains a retired Australian biology lecturer. “As a result, religion has caused much intolerance and violence throughout history.”

“Religion poisons people’s minds and enslaves them,” says another respondent.

“In my experience,” observes a retired teacher from New Zealand, “good people can become bad and unkind under the influence of religion.”

An aircraft mechanic from Australia agrees, noting that, “religion seems to bring out the worst in people”.

“… [religion] utterly destroys people’s clear thinking abilities; that is a massive bad,” says one respondent.

“Divine authority overrides peoples’ own sensible moral decisions,” complains an Australian artist. “Terrible actions (such as ethnic genocides) are justified as ‘God’s will’, overriding any and all sense of conscience,” adds a 21 year old student from New Zealand.

“Religious belief is one of the few influences that can cause people to behave in excess of what would be their normal moral limits,” says a retired teacher and education bureaucrat, echoing the Nobel laureate, Steve Weinberg’s oft-quoted maxim: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

Divisiveness

Another recurring theme in the respondents’ answers was the divisiveness of religion:

“Religion is by its very nature divisive …” says a 29 year old nightclub manager from Australia.

“Nothing divides humanity more,” agrees an Australian human resources manager.

A music store manager goes on to explain: “The basic stance of religion is the assumption that the believer has sole access to ‘the truth’ which means that any other belief – or lack of belief – is wrong. This inevitably leads to conflict, violence, and persecution.”

Religion “… creates a huge ‘us and them’ atmosphere that leads to hate and xenophobia,” says a New Zealand scientist. “It’s a dividing force, encouraging prejudice against those of other faiths and creating more in group vs out group dynamics,” adds a 29 year old Australian respondent.

The argument here is summarised by the manager of an Australian family business:

“Religion by its very nature creates divisions, some more extreme than others. Allowing true secularism is the only way to respect all people, even when it comes to ‘mild’ religions.”

What is the net impact of religion on the world?

A succinct summary of the responses to the survey question addressing the impact of religion  is provided by a ‘starving writer’ from Australia:

“Getting rid of religion would not solve all of the world’s problems, but at least we could attempt to tackle them without reference to things and beings that do not exist.”

Respondents, generally, acknowledge that, “There are good religious people, even folk who do good things because they are religious, but religion as both organisations and modes of thought are immensely destructive.”

As a 36 year old stay-at-home mother from Australia argues:

“Illusion is not the answer to doing good in the world – we need to know as much as we can about the true nature of reality in order to make rational choices about good and bad. Female and male genital mutilation is unnecessary and causes lifelong pain. Beheadings, burnings, et cetera are barbaric and cause much harm. We need to be humane in our response to crime or cultural transgressions. Women need more freedoms in the world generally and not to be seen as possessions of men. Religious views prevent these progressions taking place.”

The final word goes to a mature-age, female university student from New Zealand:

“… at times religion is a major source of evil and at other times it can be harmless or even encourage good deeds … but it seems that religion generally tends to do more harm than good.”

It seems that the vast majority of the world’s atheists (at least according to our survey) agree.

Chrys Stevenson

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Update

Sorry for no new posts of late, but the team is gathering and we hope to make more posts soon.

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How do you view the net impact of religion on the world?

That author and activist Christopher Hitchens left a massive legacy cannot be questioned. Perhaps one of his finest moments was in 2010 when he debated Tony Blair in Toronto on the question “Is Religion A Force For Good In The World?”  Inspired by that debate and in order to be able to more thoroughly describe the atheist population, I added this item to the survey.  For this question (as well as many others in the survey) I allowed a space for respondents to provide narrative support for their answer.   2,873 individuals took advantage of this opportunity, and some of their responses are below.

From this wide array of self-identified atheists I found that there are some very strong views about the impact of religion.  As you can see the vast majority of the respondents viewed religion to be, overall, a “force for bad” in the world.

How do you view the net impact of religion on the world?

Religion is, overall, a strong force for good in the world.
0.31% (26)
Religion is, overall, a moderate force for good in the world.
1.41% (117)
Religion is a roughly equal force in the world with respect to good and bad.
10.86% (902)
Religion is, overall, a moderate force for bad in the world.
41.42% (3,439)
Religion is, overall, a strong force for bad in the world.
45.99% (3,818)
Total 8,302

Here are some of the narrative responses:

  • Nothing has been completed with religion that could not have been completed without it. Religion has been the cause of millions of deaths worldwide, and continues to be a source of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, racism, homicide, and inequality.
  • Religious War, Religious Genocide, Honour killings, Honour rapes, bigotry, racism, slavery, anti-scientific barbarism, dogmatic rejection of simple life-saving things such as: Condoms in AIDS-ridden parts of Africa, indoctrination and enforced ignorance of Children, Rape of children (both passivly allowed and actively covered up), and massive oppression of women and minority “out-groups” generally over thousands of years.
  • Depends on the religion. Some are considerably more harmful than others. It’s almost impossible to put Quakers and Islamic fundamentalists in the same equation.
  • Religion has done some good things, but I believe the suffering caused by religion has been indescribably huge. Judging people and punishing them for “wrong doing” e.g. (and these are just words to give a snapshot of what I mean) attitudes to women, hunting “witches”, persecution of people who belong to a religion other than own – for power, for god, for cruelty, attitudes to LGBTQ people, rape and abuse of children in care. Religion has been responsible for so many wars and suffering.
  • This is one of my core beliefs. In my reading of world history, there can be no other conclusion. More innocent people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason.

That the respondents of the survey had a negative view of religion is quite obvious, but though there is much about the survey data the research team has not yet explored, one result, germane to the above, is quite interesting:

Which statement below best describes your perspective relative to organized religion versus individual believers?

Answer Choices Responses
I have a “live and let live” attitude with respect to both organized religion and individual believers.
3.63% (238)
I have negative feelings towards organized religion, but a “live and let live” attitude towards believers.
 72.58% (4,765)
I have a “live and let live” attitude toward organized religion but negative feelings towards believers. 1.23% (81)
I have negative feelings for both organized religion and individual believers.
22.56% (1,481)
Total Total   6,565
As you can see, though very much against religion the respondents have a very strong “live and let live” attitude toward believers.
What is the take home from all of this?  Perhaps it is that as the atheist/freethought movement moves forward in the coming months and years there should be some effort into examining what tactics might be inclusive of those who have some beliefs in higher powers but who also feel as if organized religion is not a positive choice.  It may be that some of the “nones” are these people.

 

Your thoughts?
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A first look at some of the statistical data.

What is your view of the comparative psychological health of believers in God and atheists?

Here is a first look at some of the statistical data from the survey.  Below I have broken down the responses to the question probing what atheists think of the psychological health of believers versus non-believers broken down by male, female and those that identified as transgender:

 

What is your view of the comparative psychological health of believers in God and atheists?

Female Male Transgender Response
Totals
Generally, believers are substantially more psychologically healthy than atheists. 0.2%
(5)
0.3%
(15)
0.0%
(0)
0.3%
(20)
Generally, believers are somewhat more psychologically healthy than atheists. 3.5%
(71)
4.7%
(201)
4.9%
(2)
4.3%
(274)
Generally, believers and atheists are equally psychologically healthy. 42.3%
(862)
38.3%
(1,643)
56.1%
(23)
39.7%
(2,528)
Generally, believers are somewhat less psychologically healthy than atheists. 39.0%
(795)
40.8%
(1,750)
29.3%
(12)
40.1%
(2,557)
Generally, believers are substantially less psychologically healthy than atheists. 15.0%
(305)
16.0%
(685)
9.8%
(4)
15.6%
(994)
Please use this space to elaborate on your answer. 743 replies 1,519 replies 22 replies 2,284

As you can see from the above, the majority of non-believers –55.7%– feel that believers are less psychologically healthy than non-believers.

 

Here are just a few interesting comments that illustrate the depth of thought people have put into their responses:

  • I’ve heard the same type of excuses made for abusive partners and “god” so many times it’s scary. Adherence to religious dogma is an abusive relationship. Your husband beats you because he’s afraid you’re cheating on him? He’s insecure and just wants to be sure you love him. You have cancer? God is testing your faith (he wants to be sure you love him). A massive power imbalance is not exactly a great predictor of a healthy relationship, is it? And what could be a bigger power imbalance than ANY HUMAN, and an omnipotent being? Here’s an interesting little article on the subject. http://atheism.about.com/od/whatisgod/p/AbuserAbusive.htm Or just Google “god religion abusive relationship”
  • The research tells us that those who put their lives into (whoever’s) hands will be psychologically helahtier. Life is much less stressful when you don’t have to make deciusions for yourself, and all your friends are in complete agreement with you!
  • To “believe”, which is to say, to have faith, is in this discussion meaning to accept a Theistic set of claims, without reasonable evidence that the claims are factual, and allow this acceptance to inform important decisions in life, including important moral choices. This is, to me, a sign of severe pshychological deficiency, and reflect an inability to deal with reality in a healthy way without the crutch of belief in the supernatural & dogmas.
  • I don’t consider believing in an invisible being without rigorously tested and validated evidence to be psychologically healthy.

And, for comic relief,

  • I would’ve chosen the last answer, but there are some atheists who believe in stupid shit, too.

 

 

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