Are Atheists Lonely?

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote this interesting column about the persistence of religion. Here is an apt summary:

While science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious, the cold, hard facts are just so cold and hard. Yes, the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Yes, there is a plethora of Biblical contradictions. Yes, there is mounting evidence from neuroscientists that suggests that God may be a product of the mind. Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?

That sums things up rather well. (I especially like the implication that evolution is something that ought to give pause to religious believers.)

The motivation for Blow’s column is a recent survey from Pew. Blow writes:

“Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.”

So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends.

Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.

(It should be noted that about a quarter of the unaffiliated identified as atheist or agnostic, and the rest said that they had no particular religion.)

So what was the reason for this flight of the unchurched to churches?

Did God appear in a bush? Did the grass look greener on the other side of the cross? Or was it a response to the social pressure of being nonreligious in a very Christian country?

None of those reasons topped the list. Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.

Being affiliated with a religious group is not the same as being religious. When I am asked about my religious affiliation I always identify myself as Jewish, but I am as hardcore an atheist as you are likely to meet.

I think Blow is right, though, that for many people religion has far more to do with social activity than it does with getting right with God. Having lived in Central Kansas for several years I can tell you that in many parts of the country if you are not actively involved in a religious organization you are going to have very little social life at all. The local culture is so drenched with Christianity that you really feel you are being left out of something by not participating. I have no doubt that on Sundays the churches contain many who are just going through the motions.

People doing whatever they need to do to get through the day is fine with me. It’s a pity, though, that so many don’t seem able to have their spiritual needs met without also trying to have the government address the perceived spiritual needs of their unchurched neighbors.

For myself, I have never found anything remotely inspiring in the world’s religious traditions. I have attended Saturday morning services at a variety of synagogues. They were uniformly horrible. You don’t fully understand boredom until you have had the experience. The handful of church services I’ve attended have not been any improvement. But if other people enjoy them, then, hey, different strokes and all that.

Blow closes with:

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves.

Dale McGowan, the co-author and editor of the book “Parenting Beyond Belief” told me that he believes that most of these people “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.”

Churches, mosques and synagogues nurture and celebrate this. Being regularly surrounded by a community that shares your convictions and reinforces them through literature, art and ritual is incredibly powerful, and yes, spiritual.

The nonreligious could learn a few things from religion.

The problem is that religion is inspiration on the cheap. It provides transcendence only by inventing things from whole cloth, or from dubious claims to be in possession of a divine revelation, or from demanding unswerving fealty to religious authorities who have done nothing to earn the respect accorded to them. Many people find such things inspriing. I do not.

There is far more inspiration to be found in science and reason then there is from religious dogmas. The Origin of Species has far more of the transcendent than the Bible. Darwin’s work is inspiring not just for the bright light it shines on fundamental questions of our existence, but also for the fact that creatures now exist capable of sifting the evidence and unravelling their history. What can the Bible offer to compare?

The flash of insight that comes from solving a difficult math problem, or from coming to understand a difficult proof devised by someone else, that’s what gets me thinking about transcendance and inspiration. The sheer ingenuity that gets brought to bear by mathematicians and scientists in the pursuit of their work is a far greater thing than the outdated fictions of religious clerics.

Where’s the inspiration in the idea of an all-powerful God who will condemn us to Hell just for thinking the wrong thoughts? Or in the idea that we are such worthless sinners that God was forced to accede to the the torture and death of His son as payment for our crimes? That’s what people find inspring? Count me out.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    May 5, 2009

    What can the Bible offer to compare?

    Cattle. Lots of cattle. Oh, and interesting arithmetic lessons like the dodecimal division of a concubine.

  2. #2 Casz
    May 5, 2009

    You make going to church in Kansas sound like hockey in the small towns I’ve lived in. If you don’t like hockey or have kids in hockey you have no social life. Not much to choose from between the two;)

  3. #3 Matthew Foster
    May 5, 2009

    Amen preacher.

    Well, amen to some of it. Social pressure (and fear of hell) is what I’ve witnessed and experienced as the primary reason for church attendance. Unfortunately there’s not much of a social network in my area (suburbs and rural Houston, TX) for rationlists. If you want friends, you have to either be a fundamentalist or be a Sunday ritualist. Anything else is social suicide.

  4. #5 El Guerrero del Interfaz
    May 6, 2009

    I understand the social dimension of religion. Like I do of the social dimension of, for instance, soccer. What I don’t understand is why do I _have_to_ be involved in church or soccer in order to have a social life. I live in a theoretically a very catholic and soccer aficionado country, Spain, and have a very lively social life despite the fact that I neither like soccer nor religion.

    We don’t go to church or soccer matches but we go to music concerts and festivals, biker meetings, races, theater, LAN parties, SF & role-playing events and conventions, etc. And, yes, religious “romerías” too, as being religious is not a requisite to enjoy this kind of things. I think that people who need religion to have a fulfilling social life really do have a problem. A big problem for which religion is not really a solution. Maybe it *is* the real problem…

  5. #6 Glenn Davey
    May 6, 2009

    El Guerrero del Interfaz: It is a uniquely American problem, the lack of social opportunity due to being non-religious. The country is speckled with thousands of tiny rural areas, all fundamentally unchanged, community-wise, for half a century and drenched in religion. If you’re not a member of the local church, then you probably won’t be invited to too many lunches, or other activities that most of the town involve themselves with.

    It’s hard to understand for those of us who are not Americans ourselves, or even those young Americans who have lived in major cities their whole lives, to quite grasp the cliquey nature of small-town church communities.

    We have places KIND of like that here in Australia, in the hot, humid, “Deep North” of Queensland. This country is quite apathetic towards religion, by world standards, but religiosity is at its highest in those rural farming communities. Most folks go to church and the town’s social network revolves around that.

    There’s something to be said for religions unifying power. History has shown that it doesn’t really matter whether a belief system has ANY factual foundation or not, people will congregate over just about anything.

    Baaa-aa-aa-a…..

  6. Matthew Foster writes:
    Social pressure (and fear of hell) is what I’ve witnessed and experienced as the primary reason for church attendance. Unfortunately there’s not much of a social network in my area (suburbs and rural Houston, TX) for rationlists. If you want friends, you have to either be a fundamentalist or be a Sunday ritualist. Anything else is social suicide.

    I sympathize with you. I was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin from 1992 until 2002 and (even though they say that Austin is the oasis of Texas) I found it intolerable. I couldn’t stand the peer pressure of belonging somewhere if you were to be accepted by the society as a non-weirdo. It didn’t matter whether you were Southern Baptist or Christian Orthodox, as long as you showed you were a person of faith. I had colleagues who used to write their religious affiliation and religion-inspired activities on their CV, as part of their extracurricular activities. They clearly showed to the administration that they were part of the in-crowd.

    Having said that, I must say that there are oases of free-thinkers in Texas too. For example, the atheist experience is both amusing and interesting. Also, I found that there are many people in the university who do think like you and me, but are afraid to say so. Trying to find out who they are provides a relief. Keep in touch with them, rather than the church-goer fellow in your neighborhood.

  7. #8 Lofcaudio
    May 6, 2009

    Jason,

    Your commentary can simply be summed up with: I DON’T GET IT! In fact, when you strip away the typical weak clichés (one of which Blow should be commended for pointing out) and your veiled arguments from incredulity, you really have nothing to say.

    The fact is, there is something of value in religion which many people have experienced (i.e. a relationship with God). Am I brainwashed, deluded or under some hallucination for believing this to be true? My rational reasoning combined with my own experiences leads me to believe that God does exist and that such a God is as described in the Bible.

    However, I don’t fit into any of your stated clichés as I don’t “invent things out of whole cloth” or “demand unswerving fealty to religious authorities”. Neither do I try “to have the government address the perceived spiritual needs of [my] unchurched neighbors.”

    You act as if it is only Christians who do these things. The history of humanity shows that all peoples in all cultures have engaged in similar behavior, regardless of whether religion is part of the equation or not. For you to suggest that these activities are unique to religion is grossly myopic.

    As for evolution giving pause to religious believers, I wholeheartedly agree that it should give pause and challenge people who arrogantly claim that their interpretation of an ancient text is the only possible interpretation.

  8. #9 Amar
    May 6, 2009

    I haven’t read Blow’s op-ed yet, (I have added to my list though) but this is something that I think about quite often. In my conversations with the religious, this aspect of community building and secular “good works” that churches take part in seems to me (one of those hard core “evil” atheists”) to be their only trump card. Granted, there are many secular avenues for community building and volunteering, but the non-religious community gets very little credit for them. I have often thought about starting some kind of secular community building and good works “church” that accomplishes many of the good things that churches do, only without any of the crazy religious crap.

  9. #10 Kevin (NYC)
    May 6, 2009

    I like to tell people I am a pagan. That I worship the Sun and the Moon and the Planets.

    If they seem reasonable I fess up that I am a “materialist” and only believe in actual real things but that the Sun and Moon ARE real things.

    I took my son to see the Unitarians because my ex started taking him to the “Immanuel Union Church.” its a sort of “nice” “fundie” church.

    “God relishes in the fragrance caused by the voluntary sacrifice of His Son, prompted by love for unlovable sinners” – the pastor.

    Wierd stuff. So anyway get yeeself to a Unitarian Universalist church. They already have the infrastructure and they take all comers. There is no required belief in anything.

  10. #11 Rieux
    May 7, 2009

    So anyway get yeeself to a Unitarian Universalist church. They already have the infrastructure and they take all comers. There is no required belief in anything.

    Or, better, don’t. The Unitarian Universalist Association has been running off atheists by the hundreds for the past fifteen years. Though there are still congregations in which atheists are tolerated, the clergy is rife with nasty bigotry against nonbelievers. The most powerful voices in the Association, including the President, have made a cottage industry out of insulting and demeaning atheists for our impiety.

    UUism is fast becoming a decidedly inhospitable place for nonbelievers. Better to find yourself a local atheist group, unless you’re entirely hard-up where you live. The UUA simply does not like or respect you; if you want to swallow buckets of anti-atheist hatred, why not just go to a fundy church?

    Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first—this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.

    - John Buehrens (UUA President 1993-2001), in A Chosen Faith, the Association’s best-selling “classic Introduction to Unitarian Universalism”

    For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.

    – UU minster, Norwell, Massachusetts

    - Rieux, atheist who spent several years in a UU church, alas

  11. #12 Anton Mates
    May 7, 2009

    There are a lot of strange things about Blow’s argument, such as it is.

    Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned.

    If by “most” you mean “about half,” and if you forget that about 90% of those “unaffiliated” children were still raised as generic believers. (Only 10% or so of the unaffiliated kids were, by their own later account, raised atheist/agnostic.)

    By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.

    Which suggests that Blow’s “nonreligious friends” are right–most people are religious because they’re raised to be. If people raised in a religion are significantly more likely to stay religious than nonreligious people are convert, and if most people in the US are raised in a religion, then this would seem to follow.

    Did God appear in a bush? Did the grass look greener on the other side of the cross? Or was it a response to the social pressure of being nonreligious in a very Christian country?

    None of those reasons topped the list. Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.

    I’m rather confused as to the contrast Blow is drawing here. What’s the difference between a convert poetically seeing “God appear in a bush” and feeling unmet spiritual needs? Particularly when over half the converts said they felt “called by God” to their current religion?

    And why is the desire to find a welcoming community with enjoyable services not a response to the social pressure of being nonreligious?

    As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

    To the degree that this collection of words means anything, it’s not particularly supported by this study. As Blow notes–and then seems to forget about for the rest of the piece–only a quarter of the unaffiliated actually identify as atheist or agnostic. This study doesn’t tell us anything about how many of those folks eventually convert to a religion, or why, so it makes a poor strategy manual for the “nonreligious movement.”

    Moreover, even if we do take the behavior of the unaffiliated to be representative of nonreligious people in particular, the study repeatedly emphasizes that this is the fastest-growing group in the American religious landscape! An increasingly large number of people seem to be getting all the companionship, affirmation and fellowship they need outside the church.

  12. #13 Heraclides
    May 7, 2009

    This reminds me of Larkins’ Church Going, although it comes to slightly different conclusions that perhaps suited it’s time and place (1950s England) and Larkins’ thoughts.

  13. #14 Kevin (NYC)
    May 7, 2009

    “Am I brainwashed, deluded or under some hallucination for believing this to be true?”

    Yes.

  14. #15 Kevin (NYC)
    May 7, 2009

    “- Rieux, atheist who spent several years in a UU church, alas”

    well THAT’s interesting… I only went a few times and didn’t get to the whole “what do you believe” conversation. They do seem to be xtian-god centric. but the pastor lady avoided talking about “god” even around easter…

  15. #16 Dave M
    May 7, 2009

    rieux, above, quotes UUer John Buehrens as saying:

    “As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything.”

    As it happens, that’s not even the right misattribution. The proper misattribution is to Chesterton. For speculation about the proper attribution, see here.

  16. #17 Caliban
    May 10, 2009

    I’m with Jason. I was raised going to Church every sunday. I went probably thousands of times in my life and cannot recall a single interesting moment from it.

    What I do remember is tedium and boredom and looking around at a lot of people who seemed just as bored as me to be there. I was there because i was forced to be, I couldn’t figure out why anyone who choose to be there. A 70′s episode of Dr Who had more “transcendence” in it for me than anything ever offered by religion.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.