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Monday, January 16, 2012

What Does a Secular Society Look Like?

Casey Luskin wonders What Would the World Look Like if the New Atheists Won the Day?. He's just read Penn Jillette's new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, and he's "discovered" by selective quote mining that Penn would persecute Christians if the atheists ever gained power in America.

This leads Casey to speculate on what the secular world would look like if people abandoned their religion. He imagines that it won't be a nice place.
Back to the Secular Decade. If there's one thing to admire about Penn Jillette, it's that he's transparent about what he really thinks. If only more "new atheists" were so transparent, then the public might get a more realistic picture of what Faircloth's "Secular Decade" would really look like.
If Casey had been paying attention, he wouldn't have to look very far. Many European countries are well on their way to being truly secular societies. In the Netherlands, for example, only 34% of the population believes in God [Demographics of atheism]. If the New Atheists were to succeed in America then most people would abandon religion and life would go on pretty much as usual except that the society would become more rational, more understanding, and more tolerant. Creationism would become a joke, gays could marry, and women would have the right to choose. That's what's happened in the Netherlands and many other civilized countries.

Photo Credit: Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board


  1. The future may not look so bright.
    In this article:
    Tomas Rees describes studies which argues, that secularisation of Europe will stop, and then may even decline.

    I personally hope, that religion will be only minor part of our culture in the future, but I don't think that it will completely disappear.

  2. some UK stats here. From the British Humanist Society, so one can read whatever reporting bias one wishes. Still, 65% of respondents to the question "Are you religious?" said "no". One could point to the tiny number of self-identifyng atheists, but I think the stats point to a secular majority. (An indication of Brit perverseness noted in the fact that more people identify their faith as "Jedi knight" than "Jewish". Some people can't take anything seriously!).

    Which conforms very roughly to my own perception. I live in a small village with an active congregation, but most don't bother. I have committed Christian friends (I know, sounds like "I have black friends"), but for the most part, I would characterise the UK mood towards religion as apathetic. And, as a society, we seem to do OK by it. On most crime-related stats, Casey would be safer here in godless Britain than good-old-God-save-America ((c) Joni Mitchell).

  3. One thing I have noticed time and time again is that in the most secular societies, offer good support systems (Universal Childcare, Healthcare, Employment Benefits, etc...) which as a by product end up removing the over all need for religion. I have even come to suspect that it is the social ills of society which can be a major drive of religiosity within society.

    The USA may be an outlier when it comes to country affluence, but when you did deeper into the numbers you see that a lot of what drives religion there is the inequities within the system itself.

  4. Even though 'only' 34% of the Dutch population says they believe in God, this most likely refers to those people who believe in God in a religious terms. There are many Dutch people who don't believe in a religious God, but they do believe that some higher power must exist. In my personal experience this is the largest group in the Netherlands, as reflected table 1, data-column 2 in the wiki-link you provided. In the third data-column (belief neither in spirit, God, nor life force), I am not sure if the researchers includes both agnostics and atheists or just atheists. It would have been informative if the researchers of Eurobarometer Poll 2005 (PDF in wiki-link of table 1) gave nation comparison figures for question D44.

    There are some interesting answers in the PDF. For instance God-believers trust experts' opinion on decisions science and technology less (62%) than non-believers (71%) (page 268). The difference between protecting the dignity of unborn human beings doesn't differ that much between God-believers (strongly agree: 59%) and non-believers (strongly agree:43%) (page 297). Overall, there is remarkably little difference in answers between God-believers, believers and non-believers (page: 238-336). My biggest problem with this study is that they take about 1000 surveys per country, which gives a nice country-by-country comparison, but they lump these results together to give a cross-European opinions. The influence of smaller countries will therefore be greatly exaggerated.

    An additional marker for the relative fraction of a society that refers to themselves as atheist, might to ask if they believe that each individual has a 'soul'?

  5. Actually Luskin didn't ask what a "secular society" looks like. He asked what would happen if the New Atheists established the "Secular decade," which is what Sean Faircloth of the Richard Dawkins Foundation has promised to do.

    The "Secular Decade" is a bit scary, because the quotes that Luskin cites from new atheists are not tolerant. For example, he provides this quote from Penn Jillette:

    "The respect for faith, the celebration of faith, is dangerous. It's faith itself that's wrong. I deny terrorists the moral right to have faith in a god that will reward them for killing people with airplanes. That means I have to deny Christians the moral right to a faith that Jesus Christ died for their sins. That means I have to deny the warm, fuzzy faith that there's some positive conscious energy guiding the universe. That means I have to get pissed off when Luke Skywalker trusts "the force." ... F*** faith." (Penn Jillette, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, p. 229 (Simon & Schuster, 2011).)

  6. @Allan Miller this brings up the thought that is it the people that make a secular country or the laws? the USA have the wonderful advantage of church state separation while we (in the UK) have less fundamentalists and evangelicals. but we have faith schools, where creationism is taught in islamic schools, run by the church to indoctrinate children (read this for a scare: and we have bishops in the house of lords.

    it depends what you want from your society, in comparing the US to the UK. do you want to live amongst a mostly liberal community or do you want your government to be totally separate from religion. neither is good enough for me, but you have to say that as annoying as it may be live in a country where religion is everywhere, the law is on your side.

    1. EssexAtheist,

      People or laws? People, mostly. No-one thinks any the worse of you for abstaining from religion here. The lack of social pressure to conform, or the presence in the people of a nonconformist streak, go a long way towards secularising by common consent.

      The reasons for differences between countries are of course many and varied - I'm certainly not making too simplistic a comparison between Britain-as-a-whole and America-as-a-whole. If nothing else, America is a terrifically heterogeneous place wrt the influence of religion, so generalisations are likely to be off-beam (generally!). Still, if religious people fear "secularisation", because (as has been stated to me) this will lead to some kind of moral or social decline ... well, IMO they need not fear.

      But I take the point of "Anonymous" above yours that Luskin was more directly addressing the militancy of Jillette, than the 'ills of atheism' per se.

      As regards separation of church and state ... I'm not sure that what that amounts to in practical terms. No morning assembly, no RI, religious oaths in court "unconstitutional", a defence against ID in school on religious grounds. But I don't mind that we don't have such a formal separation. I'm not sure what we'd do with it. But I guess if you live in a religion-dominated country, the dissenter would welcome constitutional protection.

  7. Well, how "scary" Jillette's quote is depends on what you think the implications are of his claim that he wants to deny religious people their "moral right to faith." I don't actually know what it means either, but I don't think he intends to coerce religious people out of their religion by outlawing it or resorting to violence or intimidation. I base this on knowing Jillette's politics: he's a staunch libertarian, so it's a very safe bet he has no intention of using government to bludgeon religious people. I'm guessing what he means by denying the moral right to faith is that he won't be silent and non-critical about it. But I would agree his quote is ambiguous and could mean something else entirely.

  8. Doesn't sound scary to me. He's just protesting the concept of faith, i.e. to believe something without evidence, sometimes in direct contrast to the evidence. Faith is a useless concept.

    I guess if you're wollowing around in iron-age superstitions and myths that outright require faith(because there's no evidence for it), then you'd think the above is an invitation to witch burning. Wait a minute, who was it that burned "witches" again?

  9. Anonymous said:

    "The "Secular Decade" is a bit scary, because the quotes that Luskin cites from new atheists are not tolerant."

    I don't see what's "scary" or "not tolerant" about what Jillette said. What's scary are people who believe in, worship, and promote monstrous imaginary gods.

    And what the hell is a "new" atheist?

  10. What Jillette is pointing out is that "faith" is not a safe guide to action. If your faith guides you to good works (and often it does), someone else's can guide them to bomb abortion clinics or take down skyscrapers. Unlike science, faith has no fact-checking mechanism.

    Note that he uses "I" throughout. He is talking about the logical implications of his own atheism, not what he wants society to enforce.

  11. " If the New Atheists were to succeed in America then most people would abandon religion and life would go on pretty much as usual except that the society would become more rational, more understanding, and more tolerant."

    More rational, more understanding and more tolerant? Yeah right. Dream on. I've met atheists from Europe who are not tolerant at all. One even wished that Hitler should have eradicated all the gypsies.

    Atheist is a religion in a way. The belief that there's no God. To be more religiously tolerant, just leave the believers of all faiths alone.

    Humans nature will stay all the same.

    1. And I know many christian who are very tolerant.
      Do you really expect every atheist to be some kind of saint?
      Wake up!

      And when you wake up, look at the statistics.
      The less religious country, the lower crime rate, the better education etc.

      And I (and many other atheists) don't belive that there is no God. We don't know that. We don't claim any absolute knowledge. It's just ridiculous idea for us to belve in. Like unicorns and faeries.

    2. "Atheist is a religion in a way. The belief that there's no God."

      Atheism is not a religion, nor it is a "belief". It's a lack of belief. Not believing in Bigfoot isn't "a religion". Not believing in UFOs isn't "a religion". Not believing there was a sound basis for invading Iraq isn't "a religion". Not being convinced of the validity of any positive claim because you are not persuaded by the evidence for it (or, more typically, the lack of any) is not "a religion", or each of us would have millions of "religions" for the things we're convinced are real. For atheists, gods are one of them. So no, it is not a religion. It's a position on a single positive claim: that a god or gods exist; with that position being, "I am not convinced they are real."

      You're also putting a spin on it that's not true in all cases; certainly not in mine. It may seem like splitting hairs, but "I don't believe there is a god" is NOT actually the same statement as "I believe there is no god". There is a difference in emphasis. Where god are concerned, I have no belief. I have the default position: I am unconvinced. But I do not assert that there are no gods; how could I? I don't know everything, I'm not everywhere, so it's possible they could conceivably exist. But no one has convinced me that they do. If they have where you're concerned, then you do have a belief. I'm not, so I don't, one way or the other.

    3. "I don't believe god exists," and "I believe that god doesn't exist" are two very different things, though they may appear to be the same. The burden of proof lies with the person making the claim that something exists. Would you ask someone who says unicorns don't exist to provide evidence, or would you ask that of the person claiming that unicorns do exist?

  12. They may not have much religion over there, but do they have cajun cuisine, country music, tractor pulls, cowboy hats, dolly parton, or tebow? Cultural diversity, let a thousand flowers bloom. If you really wanna pick on a country, don't forget australia (ken ham, rupert murdoch).

  13. Fpr me secular society is not bad,but seems to be different from other cities.It's just religion could be different.There's nothing to worry about.

  14. Considering the growing population of Muslims in Eastern European countries and their apparent dedication to their faith in all phases of their life, secularism simply will not flourish. The demographics would never permit it and the numbers will be on their side.