The New Atheism and a Purpose Driven Life

The Barna Group maintains some of the best data tracking the consumer and opinion market for religious Americans, especially among Evangelicals. Though not an independent survey organization like Pew, over the years, I have found that their poll data is relatively consistent with poll findings from other organizations. In fact, often Barna has the most precise measures when it comes to segmenting the born-again Christian community across its diversity of doctrinal beliefs and group affiliations.

So yesterday, when Barna released a survey on American views of poverty and their personal behaviors relative to addressing the problem, I found the data quite interesting. One particular finding stood out, see especially in bold:

A substantial majority of adults engage in multiple personal responses to poverty. The most likely responses include giving material resources (such as clothing or furniture) directly to poor people (75%); donating money to organizations that address poverty (60%); giving food directly to a poor person or family (58%); spending a "significant amount of time" praying for poor people (55%); and donating time to personally serve needy people in the community (47%). Other responses include visiting institutionalized elderly or sick people who are not family members (40%); donating money to organizations that address poverty in foreign countries (31%); serving as a tutor or friend to an underprivileged child (30%); and helping to build or restore a house for a poor family (16%).

The survey showed that most Americans have similar patterns of responsiveness to poverty, regardless of their faith. Born again Christians were somewhat more likely than non-Christians to donate money to organizations addressing global poverty and slightly more likely to give food directly to poor people, but otherwise the two groups showed few differences. The only other exception is those people who have no specific religious faith they embrace. Atheists and agnostics emerged as the segment of people least likely to do anything in response to poverty. They were less likely to engage in eight of the nine specific responses measured, and were the faith segment least likely to participate in eight of the nine responses evaluated.

This is a single poll finding, so you want to look for other consistent findings to back up the data, and I would like a bit more clarification on the Barna findings specifically. One place to turn for confirmation would be the General Social Survey, and I hope to have some other findings to report back as I plow through that data on a related project. But if this survey finding is supported by other data, what might explain a lack of responsiveness among atheists and agnostics to poverty? I lay out three possibilities below the fold.

(Note: Even throwing out the "praying" indicator, Barna measures lower scores for atheists across the other items.)

As someone with close ties to the atheist and agnostic community and who holds a non-religious worldview, I know that there is at least a shared perception within the community that we often might lack a certain level of social compassion, and as a group, are not as involved in community life as many religious traditions. But why? Here are three possible reasons:

1) The most parsimonious explanation might simply be social desirability. Meaning that religious Americans believe that they should answer in surveys that they care about the poor and take action to support the poor. Atheists, on the other hand, don't feel nearly as much normative pressure, and therefore don't fib in answering the question. The survey finding therefore is not a reflection of reality, but rather a measurement artifact.

2) Based on what we know from research on why people participate in their communities, volunteer, or donate, atheists as a group are missing a central mobilizing factor and ironically enough, that's church. I'm not talking about the belief system that comes with religion but rather the mobilizing and recruitment context that churches provide.

Attending church is America's number one volunteer activity and that context often involves much more than just attendance, rituals, and socializing. At church, people receive strong requests to get involved in their community and these requests come with a lot of social pressure. If people see others like them getting involved, they are much more likely to do so. Certainly there are humanist groups across the country that convene for meetings and even ceremonies from time to time, but as a group, atheists probably score a lot lower on the number and strength of their social ties than religious Americans and this translates into less community involvement.

Indeed, the number and influence of social ties among atheists in comparison to other social groups is a testable proposition using data from the General Social Survey, National Election Studies, and various social capital surveys. (I have published several studies with colleagues examining the church context generally as a vehicle for political recruitment, and specifically on the stem cell debate. I can send copies to those who are interested.)

3. One of the things that bothers me about the Dawkins & Hitchens campaign is that they have radicalized a "New Atheism" movement of complaints and attacks that is almost completely absent of a positive message about what it means to live life without religion.

Leaders such as the philosopher Paul Kurtz have dedicated their careers to developing a positive, non-religious worldview and articulating a set of social values, but in the Dawkins et al. campaign this constructive and important message is completely lost. Instead, what replaces this positive view is a radicalizing "us versus them mentality" that feeds polarization. Without a frame of reference connecting a common set of values that guide personal behavior and social compassion, atheists are probably less likely to engage in solving problems such as poverty.

Long before the Dawkins movement, sociologists began to identify an increase in the number of Americans who report "no religion" in surveys. What this growing segment of Americans needs is not a set of leaders who offer complaints and attacks but leaders who set an agenda focused on community life and social responsibility. We need leaders who encourage atheists to work together with religious Americans to solve poverty and the many other collective problems we face in society.


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I'm coming to this conversation nearly four years after the fact.

After looking at the groups The Barna Group uses for its polls, I have no doubt whatsoever that their data - and hence their results - are highly biased.

They poll mostly ministers and people involved in churches: how would these people know anything about atheists or how we contribute to charities?

By Rich Hugunine (not verified) on 24 Apr 2011 #permalink

Most of the religious 'charity' aimed at poverty actually maintains poverty. (Casting spells on them is neutral, I suppose, although it certainly isn't helpful.)

How many religious people will back programs for the poor that include sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions, health education, job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight, and so on?

I live in Alhambra, a suburb in Los Angeles County (where Phil Spector's Pyrenees Castle is) and we have a weekly farmers market where we can get better fruits and vegetables (and bread) than the supermarkets sell, and for much lower prices. (The farmers make out by unloading their surplus while eliminating the middlemen.)

The poor in Compton or East LA have very few, and very small, markets. A weekly farmers market would vastly improve their eating while saving them money, but no such markets will be allowed by the political forces in control.

All the programs for the poor seem to be designed to keep the poor poor, make them poorer, keep their children poor, and increase their general level of misery.

I think there's a lot of truth to your second point. My wife and I aren't religious, but we donate a considerable amount of time and money to The Salvation Army, simply because it's a very efficient way of helping others.

By Graeme Williams (not verified) on 26 Jun 2007 #permalink

As a person who was raised deep in fundamentalist circles, I would add two possible reasons for the descrepancy.

1) I would like to know if there was any control for the nature of organizational giving. For example, there are religious organizations that advertise themselves as addressing third-world poverty, but whose most basic purpose is to convert third world peoples. Religious people who give to these organizations are well aware of the subtext, though they don't necessarily admit it to themselves.

2) Most conservative churches put a lot of time and energy into indoctrinating people to give financially, because most of that giving ends up in the church coffers. Obviously they don't come out and say that most of the giving should be done in the collection basket--since that would make the motive obvious. Consequently you have people being indoctrinated to make donations--often with the promise that God will pay them back, multiple times, financially for any "sacrifice" they make. Again, this could lead to more giving in other places as well--and also give people good reason to kid themselves, and therefore the poll, on exactly how much they gave.

Which are you claiming, that the "New Atheism Movement" might

explain a lack of responsiveness among atheists and agnostics to poverty

? Or are you saying that the New Atheism movement possibly bolsters the perception that we might lack a certain level of social compassion? It seems you claim both, but the second is so qualified as to be nearly content-free.

In either case, it seems strange and somewhat disingenuous to use one non-quantitative summary, provided by one religion-promoting group, of its own survey, to make a point against..Richard Dawkins? This is a far-reaching triangulation. And I do not consider the point to be relevant: it's not his job to be a role model, or provide a philosophy of life that makes people happy, although he has written often about some secular sources of meaning in his own life.
I do acknowledge what you mean about the us-vs-them mentality; it seems every article on the RDF website is immediately vetted and judged whether it's one of ours or one of theirs, and the rest of the comments pile on praise or scorn accordingly. But one must never judge a "movement" or a blog by its most obnoxious posters.

Both. It bolsters the perception but also radicalizes a following around "us vs. them" complaints and attacks instead of thinking meaningfully about what it means to live life without religion.

I'm also not saying that everything churches do is normatively great when it comes to promoting community involvement. Robert Putnam has made the argument, and I find support for it in several of my published studies, that the Evangelical movement has been very good at creating "bonding social capital," meaning that most of the social interaction is among like-minded others, and any wider community involvement is focused on conversion.

What I am suggesting is that much like many of the more liberal protestant traditions, atheists need organizations and leaders who promote "bridging social capital," a set of values and exhortations to participate that encourages working with a diversity of groups across society to solve collective problems.

What I am suggesting is that much like many of the more liberal protestant traditions, atheists need organizations and leaders who promote "bridging social capital," a set of values and exhortations to participate that encourages working with a diversity of groups across society to solve collective problems.

Why do "atheists" need this any more than, say, Armenians, or anvil-makers, or airline attendants, or any other random social group? Atheism is about defending rationality, it isn't about a way of life, or social cohesion, or solving societal issues. Its purpose is not to replace all the functions of religion. There are plenty of compassionate, energetic atheists who work for social change to solve collective problems, just as there are plenty of Armenians and anvil-makers and airline attendants who do so. But being atheist entails no more of a burden of social responsibility than being in those other groups. Society needs the kind of organizations and leaders you suggest, and there are many of these that don't have an overtly religious flavour or agenda (e.g., the ACLU, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Ducks Unlimited, etc.), but I don't see why you single out atheists for a special responsibility in this regard. As a group, their shared interest is fairly narrow, and has nothing necessarily to do with social change.

Did the authors control for age and income when comparing charitable activity? My understanding is that non-believers tend to be young, male, and single, which could easily confound the results.

Definitely a possibility, something I plan to look at when I dig into the GSS data down the road.

A good chunk of the world may be somewhat progressive in religious matters but there is still much of this globe that is living in the 10th century. Maybe confronting Christian creationists in our own backyard is good practice for the inevitable confrontation with that 10th C. part of the world. We don't have to deal with interpersonal relationships on a day-to-day basis in an ugly, confrontational manner, but if we have an opportunity as communicators we can be straightforward about encouraging critical thinking. I see the Dawkins, et al, "movement" as facilitating this. Let's not be complacent about the dumbing-down of the world. I'm reminded daily of my religious (science-poor) upbringing. This does involve social change. Oh, and as for the Sally Ann, they are literal biblical fundies for the most part. Spend your $ elsewhere, please.

By baryogenesis (not verified) on 26 Jun 2007 #permalink

You might define atheism as defending rationality, but much of the New Atheism rhetoric focuses on acceptance of their social identity. Atheists as a group in society, just like Catholics or Lutherans, should be respected and tolerated.

If that's going to happen, if atheists see themselves as a cohesive minority in society that lacks acceptance, then the complaints and attacks need to end, and we need to start doing constructive and meaningful things that set forth a positive image and set of values in the media and to our fellow community numbers.

The radicalized movement of attacks and complaints that the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign has spawned is not helping.

Someone not me wrote:

if atheists see themselves as a cohesive minority in society that lacks acceptance, then the complaints and attacks need to end

If gays see themselves as a cohesive minority in society that lacks acceptance, then the complaints and attacks need to end.

If blacks see themselves as a cohesive minority in society that lacks acceptance, then the complaints and attacks need to end.

If women see themselves as a cohesive minority in society that lacks acceptance, then the complaints and attacks need to end.

It doesn't look so good when stated that way, does it?

Actually Tulse, with all of those groups, they have focused on a positive message about their community and their common values. They've worked to improve their portrayals in the entertainment media while promoting leaders who bridge divides within local communities.

The problem as I see it with the New Atheism movement is that it offers little more than complaints and attacks, using misleading "us vs. them" reasoning, and radicalizing a portion of atheists to engage in similar self-defeating tactics.


Your point is well taken with respect to churches as a social organizer. I think the sociology literature would support the contention that individuals give more/behave better in group settings under the influence of peer pressure. It goes without saying that agnostics/atheists lack such organization - there's no Sunday morning trips to the Church Without God where attendees are exhorted to give, give, give by Cardinal Dawkins (or Bishop Hitchens).
And although much of the collection is siphoned off to self-perpetuate the church and to fund patently ineffective programs (abstinence education), it would be incorrect to suggest that none of the cash is used for good. Some is.
So, I'm voting for Dennett to be Pope of the Church Without God - he's just got that pope-y look, you know.

By sandman in TN (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Matthew wrote:

Actually Tulse, with all of those groups, they have focused on a positive message about their community and their common values.

Actually Matthew, that is a profoundly ahistorical view of those movements, and I am extremely surprised that an informed academic like yourself would espouse it. Perhaps you don't remember the often violent fights for civil rights in the US, including race riots (or more recently, the aftermath of the Rodney King beating). Perhaps you don't remember Stonewall. Perhaps you don't remember Andrea Dworkin, and bra-burning.

Basic civil rights are never won simply by being, well, "civil".

But to return to my original point, I'm not sure that atheists have any "common values" apart from their lack of belief in God. There are libertarian atheists and socialist atheists, atheists who are politically active and atheists who are not, atheists who collect model trains and atheists who fly airplanes and atheists who just bum around on a beach. You seem to feel that atheists should be re-creating the social aspects of religion, building a secular equivalent, but I don't see any logical reason why. (And if that's what you want, there are plenty of folks in the "secular humanist" movement who have tried to do just that.)

Sure, there are a lot of uppity "New Atheists" out there who are making a lot of political hay about religion, but why should they be seen to be representative of all atheists, any more than Al Sharpton should be seen as representing all blacks, or Camille Paglia representing all women? Atheists are a diverse group, and the folks in that group should each do what they feel most appropriate. As for the pro-social impulses of atheists, they can certainly express those in various existing non-religious organizations and charities -- there is no need for a "National Association for the Advancement of Atheist People", or "National Organization of Atheists".

I will say it again, unlike blacks, women, and gays, atheists have never been denied basic civil rights. It's more akin to Catholics winning mainstream acceptance or Mormons for that matter.

The problem with the Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign is that it translates in the public's mind as the most readily available image of atheists, reinforcing the stereotypical image.

At this point, we probably agree to disagree. ;-)

Maybe believers donate because they believe some fantasy sky-fairy will reward them when they are dead? And maybe atheist are just rational enough to know that giving to strangers won't do any good for themselves?

Unless you suffer from religious delusions about an afterlife, charity is completely irrational. It may feel good (due to social conditioning, and maybe genetically-favored altruism), but so does religious worship for many people. A truly rational person looks out for her own advantage, not that of strangers.

By YuckyYummy (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

You should know that I am a Christian, a liberal and a scientist. I wish to contribute to a dialogue about topics like this rather than pick a fight.

If the goal of this post is a discussion of the image problem that atheists have in America, then this entry and its comments are right on. If, however, you are interested in addressing the findings of the Barna survey, there seems to me an important consideration missing.

I hope this is not because you (collective) are attached to negative stereotypes of religious - particularly Christian - people. It seems to me that just about every comment here referring to Christians is cynical. I know that this is not representative of all atheists, but if ScienceBlogs is taken as a representative section of atheists, I might wonder if the negative impressions of atheists are true! I have close interactions with one group of atheist secular humanists, and I would characterize only a very small minority of them as militant cynics. You might be on to something when you suppose that community is linked to good works.

My question related to the Barna study is: Are atheists willing to accept that Christians honestly pursue the teachings in their tradition?

If you would like to understand how Christianity can be a religion of social justice, read the Sermon on the Mount. (The summary at Wikipedia is good as long as you don't read the muddled interpretation section.) Christ's teachings advocated giving alms (as the Barna study examined), reducing war, withholding judgment, healing sick, and were against materialism.

Jesus interacted with women, lepers, the underclass, tax collectors, priests and aristocrats. Paul preached to and formed friendships with Jews, Greeks, slaves, soldiers and Roman leaders alike.

You will, of course, be able to cite contradictions to these points - mostly in the Old Testament. And surely you will find Christians that do not place the social justice commandments high on their priority list. I am just saying that there are stereotypes of atheists and stereotypes of Christians, and to shake off one, you may just have to let go of the other.

YuckyYummy wrote: "Charity is completely irrational" and "A truly rational person looks out for her own advantage, not that of strangers".

That would ignore any possibility of innate morality - Peter Singer would differ with you, I'm sure. But, I'm assuming you're being sarcastic or ironic, and I've missed the joke.

And although some believers surely donate to charity from a sense of reciprocity (i.e. I give to charity, you reserve my box seat in heaven), there are many others who sincerely want to do good - it's a base sterotype to characterize all religionists as self-serving simpletons. Many aren't.

By sandman in TN (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

sandman in TN wrote: "That would ignore any possibility of innate morality - Peter Singer would differ with you, I'm sure."

Read what I wrote: "It may feel good (due to social conditioning, and maybe genetically-favored altruism)" -- that's your "innate morality" right there: genes+conditioning make people do stuff that is considered moral. Doesn't mean it's rational.

Yep, you heard right. A lot of morality is irrational: why should I care how other people feel? Not killing or stealing, sure, that's needed for pragmatic reasons to have a functioning society. But why on earth should I make a sacrifice so some lazy bum can have dinner, or to pay for other people's kids? There's nothing rational about doing that; people just think of it as moral because they haven't yet fully thrown off their Xian conditioning, and because our genes make it feel good (but they also make drugs and ritual feel good, so that's no argument in favor of doing it).

By YuckyYummy (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

How does the survey account for atheists who chose a profession which provides service to others like, say, investigating cures for disease, thereby passing up many more $$ in the pocket year after year? and what were the relative percentages of Christians and atheists in biomedical science again? just askin'...

Thomas Robey, I'm willing to accept that many Christians do, but the people that atheists here and most New Atheists are really talking about when they talk about Christians are fundamentalists, and the record is completely against them on this matter. They sometimes give lip service to social justice, but usually just ignore it and focus on the few things that matter to them.

The reason that we conflate fundamentalists with all Christians is that all too often regular Christians don't oppose the fundies, and let them represent themselves as the only true religious people, or they actually support them.

Anyways, you're probably a concern troll, but just in case you're not, I thought I would reply.

By smratmark715 (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

The Tulse/Nisbet exchange raises a question.

How many religious types will be excited by a viable US presidential candidate who is obviously atheist?

How does this compare to the number of non-women excited by the potential for the first woman president?

to the number of non-blacks excited by the potential for the first black president?

even to the number of non-gays excited by an eventual potential for the first gay president?

Nisbet, the atheist in this country is denied the 'basic civil right' of political representation, this is more obvious for the highest office but true at lower levels as well.

there is a good argument that those who are or have been prevented from obtaining abortion, death with dignity, marriage to a loved one, etc because of theologically-based interference in secular public policy have been denied 'basic civil rights' too...

oh, and smratmark715 , why don't you take a browse through robey's blog before deciding he's a "troll", eh?


If it is really true that, "the people that atheists here and most New Atheists are really talking about when they talk about Christians are fundamentalists," then I can see why you say the things you say. I agree with most of those things. My question is, why don't you just say fundamentalist Christians when you make such far-reaching claims.

You also comment that, "all too often regular Christians don't oppose the fundies, and let them represent themselves as the only true religious people, or they actually support them." What do you think I am doing by posting on this entry, writing my own blog or even reading these blogs at all? Furthermore, many mainstream Christians in America take a position that Fundamentalists have a right to say what they do, AND that atheists have a right to say what they do. There are still voices in the middle, but they are hardly as interesting. The media will not pick them up, even if that person is famous (Jimmy Carter, Francis Collins) Nor is it as easy for these sincere individuals to be attacked.

I have been characterized as ogreish before, but that was only on the rugby pitch. With regards to the trolling, don't you think I would use a pseudonym such as yours if I were a troll?

Where's the headquarters of this Dawkins/Hitchens PR campaign I keep hearing about? I'd like to order some buttons.

Watch out for distortion in the Barna Group data. I used it in this post on my blog and a reader found this distortion in the data:

Is this who we really are, socially disengaged loners? Or is that just what it takes to stand up to the social pressures imposed by religious communities? Will it change as our numbers grow? Maybe the impression this survey wants to leave us with isn't correct? A commentator reminded me that the Barna Group, whose goal is "to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States" toward fundamentalist Christianity, were comparing atheists/agnostics/no-faiths with "active faith" Christians. The key word here is "active." "Active faith" was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey. There were 20 million no-faith adults and 58 million active-faith Christians and that leaves a big gap full of "non-active" Christians. That means that there's a strong selection bias working here, those who go to church are more engaged in the community than are others who call themselves Christian.

If a survey were to compare atheists who are actively engaged in with groups like "American Atheists" to all those who call themself Christian they might have gotten similar but opposite results. This might represent an element of dishonesty in the design and analysis of their survey.

I took a quick look at the GSS. Using the 2004 data, I just looked at the scores for two groups from the variable GODCHNGE (which basically asks whether you believe in God or not, though to get non-believers and believers, you have to combine two scores each), and GIVCHRTY, which asks how often they give to charity. There is a difference between non-believes and believers, with believers giving more on average. Unfortunately, this isn't a very good comparison, because in the 2004 survey there were 15 non-believers and 600 believers. Percentage-wise, that sounds about right (2.5% outright non-believers), but comparing samples of such divergent sizes is a baaaad idea.

Also, there are other measures of charitable giving in the GSS, but I was just taking a quick look, so I didn't look at them.

Matthew -

I agree with what you say about Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. There is a small, yet growing, push to articulate the positive aspects of the science-based world-view of naturalism. While it doesn't call itself Secular Humanism, it definitely encompasses it.

Tom Clark at The Center for Naturalism has recently published a slim volume that compiles his various expositions on the implications and consequences of a naturalistic world-view which is a viable alternative to the traditional faith-based world-view. The book is called Encountering Naturalism