Do evangelicals feel threatened by secularists?

i-f223b50d86c3f5bf30f502c73012090e-evangelicalvoting.pngA paper by Notre Dame's David Campbell (PDF link) finds that evangelicals are more likely to vote for a Republican when they live in a community with more people who do not identify with any religion. Building on a tradition of research in race relations which tests whether integrated communities foster greater social acceptance or stronger separation between groups. Studies in Southern communities in the 1960s had found that white voters were more likely to vote for racially conservative candidates as the fraction of African Americans in the community increased. Whether that trend generalizes beyond the South, and whether other factors could explain it, remains subject to debate.

Pointing out that American evangelicalism "is defined by conflict and threat," he tested whether geographic proximity might enhance evangelical's group identification and sense of conflict, and whether secularists (voters who don't identify with any religion) might feel the same way. The figure reproduced here shows that evangelicals are indeed more likely to vote for a Republican when they live near more secularists, while secularists experience no such effect.

The way the study identifies "secularists" complicates the interpretation of the results. Differences between communities may make it easier for people with loose religious affiliations (and who would be less likely to vote Republican) to avoid attending church. In other communities, social pressure may keep those secular leaners in church, keeping them from being identified as secularists in this study. That pattern would account for some if not all of the trend they describe. The only way to resolve this issue would be if there were a clear way to identify such secularists and if standard demographic questions included a question about those topics.

Assuming Dr. Campbell's interpretation of the data is correct, it also helps guide us in thinking about how to approach arguments about culture wars. If contact with "secularists" really does rapidly drive evangelicals deeper into the arms of conservative policy and politics, it is a powerful argument for putting evangelical (or at least religious) biologists out front in discussing evolution.

Assuming that some of the effect is real, and not a statistical artifact, it has interesting implications. At the American Prospect, Paul Waldman discusses some of the implications for the recent book binge by "new Atheists." While these results suggest that secularists did not respond like a cohesive group or tribe in 1996 or 2000, Waldman wonders if those books reveal a new tribe of secularists forming:

the question now is whether non-believers will, in large numbers, begin to define themselves as a tribe of their own. In order to do so, they'll have to feel at least some measure of antagonism toward those on the outside. That's what makes a tribe a tribe, after all. (What would Red Sox fandom be without the Yankees, or punk rock without the conformist corporate tools?) But one key question for secular people is who, exactly, the Other is. Is it anyone who is religious? Those who want to convert you to their beliefs? Those who want their beliefs to be enshrined in government policy?

Dawkins, Harris and PZ Myers all seem to favor the first option. Groups like Americans United for Separation for Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance and the ACLU tend to focus on the latter groups, to substantial political effect.


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Evangelicals are of a mind-set that precludes objectivity, in political, theological, and almost any othr kind of thought.

This doesn't mean they are bad people. It just means that a dialogue will be short-changed, so why should one engage in any?

All the evangelicals who impinged on my upbringing were and are the sweetest persons I've known, but hoping to have a colloquy with them seemed (and seems) futile; not that they are intrinsically wrong. It's just that they can't imagine they might be.


I think, as Josh implies above and as he noted in a post not too long ago, that grounds for dialogue between evangelicals and fundamentalists on the one hand and "scientists" (speaking very broadly here) on the other do exist. That dialogue would consist of things like having, say, evolutionary biologists with strong religious convictions to speak with evangelicals. But part of that discussion must also include what (I think) is at the core of evangelical concerns regarding secularism wherever they encounter it: how to think through its implications for ethics and morality, life's purpose, and human responsibilities to/for life on this planet. Just because most evangelical rhetoric these days doesn't raise those questions directly doesn't mean that those questions don't exist.

To ignore these concerns by arguing for not not engaging them, as you suggest above, is to say that such questions are of no value for anyone to discuss, which I would certainly hope is not the case. To propose such a thing makes the evangelicals' case for them that secularists are, metaphorically-speaking, soulless. Even Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, acknowledges these are issues. "The question is the answer," Thomas Merton once said; the point in engaging evangelicals in discussions of those questions is not to win souls to Darwin but to get both groups to think about the nature of evidence and scientific method, and the non-empirical implications of empirical evidence.

Rich Reynolds writes: ...not that they are intrinsically wrong. It's just that they can't imagine they might be.

It might not be correct to say that they can't imagine being wrong. Instead, they may believe that being faithful means that they shouldn't publicly admit to the possibility of being wrong. I'm sure that evangelicals have their moments of doubt, but they don't publicly air their doubts; instead they privately pray to be delivered from them.

John and Daryl (and Josh, of course:

Dialogue is always preferable to mere rants, with one side not listening to the other.

But my contact with evangelicals (God bless 'em all) has not been bad, just futile.

To discuss secularist matters (whether evolution or anything else) means that one has to muster an argument that engages those (evangelicals) who are not inclined to be convinced of alternatives to their preferences or beliefs.

Evangelicals (and I mean "evangelicals") are entrenched in their belief system(s), totally.

To admit doubt, Daryl, or to engage in a true, honest back-and-forth (John) is tantamount to committing a sin. (I kid you not.)

Some of the best times of my youth were at Baptist Bible School (with its ice cream and craft-making).

But to pose a question about anything other than the idea that Jesus saves us all just by believing in Him was frowned upon.

And these weren't hicks from the hills, but sophisticated Baptists who just didn't want to embark on an academic free-for-all -- that would have been not just bad taste but the work of the devil.


Rich, I think what you are pointing out is what makes dialog hard. Whether it makes it impossible is a much trickier claim. There are certain things that evangelicals do not doubt (or at least admit to doubting, there's an interesting argument to be made that they have much less faith in some senses than moderate religious people). That means that issues have to be broached in ways that don't force them into a position of defending things that they refuse to doubt. It isn't easy. Some are very committed, and won't change. Others can be convinced.

In a political campaign, you don't try to convince hard-core Republicans to vote for Democrats, you try to swing Independents, and to reduce the level of support from the hard-core Republicans. If they stay home and don't work to bring undecided voters to their side, it's easier for you to bring out your supporters and to convert new ones.

In most years, the best predictor of future voting patterns is how someone voted the previous year. Political alliances, like religious ideology, tends to be very stable. Elections like 2006 or 1994 represent a moment where people start to see things in a genuinely new light. Those moments are rare, but they do happen. The question of how to produce those moments, and how to capitalize on them, is tricky.

Yes, Josh, if we can save just one evangelical, it will all be worth while. And I agree.

But one shouldn't go into the fray hoping for wholesale success.

Are we meant to proselytize from our side also? Maybe.

Sometimes those from the secular side are more "christian" than those from the other.


I tend not to be too worried about "salvation." Changing people's minds is not about removing someone from a state of sin.