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New light on religion in the USA

The picture many of us have of the USA as largely dominated by religion is based on the fact that most U.S. adults, unlike those in Western Europe, describe themselves as belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination. Others say they have no formal religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, but exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. All these conventional descriptive categories are potentially misleading and conceal a lot of discrepant beliefs, so that reading the results of surveys of religious attitudes often leaves one with the impression that much that is important is being left out.

In this new survey by the Pew Research Center the whole question is treated in a refreshingly different way that makes it enjoyable to read as well as providing many new insights. Although this is a serious research project it is presented in an accessible and indeed almost light-hearted style, as exemplified by tbe names of the categories it uses to describe the respondents to the survey. There are seven groups 'based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives'. The names, in descending order of belief and devoutness, are Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular.

These somewhat unconventional categories are more informative than those used by most researchers. For example, they go a good way towards classifying the large number of people who now reject formal religion (often called 'nones' in other surveys) while still identifying themselves as 'spiritual'. Here the term is not left undefined and vague, as it often is, but is characterised in terms of belief in specific 'New Age' ideas such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and the inherence of spiritual energy in trees, crystals, or other physical objects.

Nevertheless the conventional religious groupings are not ignored totally; a section at the end of the overview looks at how the different religious traditions (Jews, Catholics and so on) are distributed amont the seven categories used here.

The seven-fold scheme allows for finer distinctions than is often the case. For example, the Solidly Secular and the Religion Resisters are quite similar in their rejection of formal religion and contain similar numbers of agnostics (one-fifth). But 'Religion Resisters are more likely than the Solidly Secular to describe their religion as "nothing in particular" (45% vs. 23%), while the Solidly Secular are more likely than Religion Resisters to describe themselves as atheists (31% vs. 6%)'. Incidentally, the Solidly Secular group is the only one to be made up mostly of men (two-thirds).

Although the research is now complete you can still answer the questionnaire on line and discover your own category. I thought the questions were generally well chosen and clear; there were just a few places where I felt that any answer I gave might be misleading, but I didn't disagree with the category assignment I received.

All in all, I think this review is probably the most informative and interesting, as well as the most readable without sacrifice of scientific rigour, that I've encountered in this area. Its only limitation is that it is confined to religion in the USA. I wish a survey of similar quality could be carried out in Britain.



Book review: On Faith and Science, by Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse

See 570 other reviews

The relation between religion and science has a long history and it has gone through various phases, some amicable, some not. At present, thanks partly to a loosely knit group of writers who have been called the new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet. A.C. Grayling and others—relations are bad. But there are some non-believers who want to find common ground with religion, and Ruse has long been one of these; not that you would know it from this book, for both he and his co-author Larson are reticent about their own religious views.* No doubt this is due to a wish to appear even-handed, but I think it leads to a certain softening of focus throughout.

Both authors are distinguished academics. Larson is a historian; Ruse is primarily a philosopher of science who also has an interest in history, particularly that of the theory of evolution (see links to my reviews of books under his name in the list of authors). They write alternate chapters, although there is some flexibility, with some chapters containing contributions from both, and it isn't always easy to be sure who is writing at a given moment.

There are chapters looking at cosmology; physics; brain, mind, and soul; geology; evolution in general; and human evolution. The approach in these is historical; they look at how knowledge has evolved over time and how this has interacted with religion—mainly Christianity, but there is some reference to Judaism and Islam and a little to Hinduism and Buddhism. For each topic we get an outline of some of the religious issues that growth in our knowledge has given rise to. It is all done well enough, but there will be few surprises for anyone who is reasonably familiar with the subjects covered.

The last three chapters (7, 8 and 9) are a little different, in that they cover matters that are topical (and controversial) today: sex and gender, eugenics, and living on earth (which looks at global warming and other threats to our survival). In their closing paragraph the authors use the common ground they think exists between two very different people, Pope Francis and E.O. Wilson, to draw a moral for the relationship that ought to obtain between science and religion as it relates to our survival.

I'm sympathetic to the authors' wish to avoid facile condemnation of religion in the name of science, but I enjoyed reading this book less than I expected to. The tone is quite colloquial, almost to a fault, yet at the same time bland and a little flat. And at times the authors' evident desire to avoid giving offence becomes somewhat irritating. For example, they quote from Fritjhof Capra's 1975 book The Tao of Physics and remark that 'he remained an outlier among modern physicists', which seems a considerable under-statement; I wanted to know what they thought of it themselves. They are also fairly non-commital in their references to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, about which Ruse has been scathingly critical elsewhere.

The book concludes with an eclectic annotated bibliography which is quite useful, although I was sorry to see no mention of Taner Edis's books, especially his The Ghost in the Universe, which to my mind is one of the best books on theism by a sceptic who nevertheless takes religion seriously. He has also written well on science and Islam, something touched on only briefly in the present book.

*Ruse has recently publicly identified himself as an atheist, although he prefers the term 'sceptic'. See Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.

29-07-2018
%T On Faith and Science
%A Larson, Edward J.
%A Ruse, Michael
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978-0-300-216717-3
%P 298pp
%K religion
%O hardcover

Book review: The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, by Richard Elliott Friedman

In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations. [Read more]

Book review: The Meaning of Belief, by Tim Crane

In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed. [Read more]

Dr Giles Fraser's Latin tag

Giles Fraser's 'Thought for the Day' has figured here before. Today he mentioned the demise of the old one-pound coin and its inclusion of the motto 'fid. def.', which he said was an abbreviation of 'fides defensor'. It isn't: it should be the genitive form, 'fidei defensor'. Quoting Latin and getting it wrong is a regular trap for speakers on 'Thought for the Day' - see this entry.

Rabbi Lord Sacks and the dinosaurs

In today's Thought for the Day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he described as 'the greatest mass extinction in history'. Of course, he meant prehistory – some dinosaurs did survive the event for a time but none of them wrote a historical account of what happened – but leaving that aside, it wasn't the biggest extinction event we know of. The end-Permian extinction, about 251 million years ago, was much bigger, wiping out over 90 per cent of the species then alive, compared to about 75 per cent for the dinosaurs.

His talk was triggered by a TV programme this week which described recent research suggesting that it was the site of the impact that made the event so deadly. It released vast quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere. and this in turn led to large-scale loss of plant life and starvation of any dinosaurs who survived the immediate fireball. If the bolide had landed in the deep ocean or on dry land the catastrophe would have been less devastating. So 30 seconds' difference in the timing of the arrival might have allowed the dinosaurs to recover.

Sachs doesn't regard this as chance but as evidence for divine providence. It was God's plan to allow the mammals to take over and, ultimately, humans to emerge. "COME IN, DINOSAURS, YOUR TIME'S UP!" For me, this argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the man who shoots at a barn door and then draws a target round the shots to prove what a good marksman he is. I find it easier to believe that the timing of the event was due to chance.

I don't think there was anything inevitable in the evolution of humans or, probably, in the evolution of complex life, let alone intelligent life. Life is probably widespread in the universe but most of it will be bacterial. (See The Vital Question, by Nick Lane.)
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The future of religious belief

Quite a few of the books about religion that I've reviewed over the years in my book review pages have suggested that religion is set to decline in importance in the 21st century. I've always doubted this myself and a major review, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050 by the Pew Foundation, finds that the non-religious proportion of the world's population will decrease in relative terms over this period, although it may increase a little in absolute numbers as a result of the increase in world population as a whole. Both Islam and Christianity will increase, although Muslims will come to outnumber Christians.

This is a demographic effect. Religious belief is declining in Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan, and is low in China. But all these countries have ageing populations and low birth rates, whereas both Christianity and Islam, but especially Islam, are prospering in countries with young fertile mothers who have large families. This analysis refers to the numbers of children being born into the various faiths; it can't tell us what proportion of these individuals will reject their birth religion later.

It's well worth having a look at the Pew site if this is a question that interests you. They also had a good review of the question In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?. In short, "Overall, U.S. adults with college degrees are less religious than others, but this pattern does not hold among Christians."

Book review: Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion) from 1986 to 2000 and Primus (presiding bishop) from 1992 to 2000. He resigned in 2000 in somewhat acrimonious circumstances and in this autobiographical book he tells the story of his life up to the point of his resignation.

The 'Alexandria' in the title of the book refers not to Egypt but to the town in West Dumbartonshire in Scotland where Holloway grew up. In his early life he would have seemed an unlikely candidate for a bishopric. He came from a working-class family and grew up in relative poverty. His parents were not churchgoers - indeed his father disliked religion. But Richard met the local Rector who invited him to go to church, and when he did so he was instantly smitten. [More]

Thought for the Day, with Catherine Pepinster

In her Thought for the Day last week, Catherine Pepinster, Editor of The Tablet, was talking about the recent financial scandals at the Vatican. She mentioned the business of canonisation and said that there might be a case for abandoning the process of declaring people to be saints, which has led to allegations of bribery. But one reason to retain the practice, she thought, was that knowing of the lives of saintly individuals may help people when they "struggle to believe".

Surely the idea of struggling to believe is an odd one. It at once reminds me of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who boasted that she had believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Belief seems to be particularly valued in Western Christianity, where there is a centuries-old history, going back to Constantine, of the defining of doctrine and the denunciation of heresies.

Note added 25 November 2015: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has admitted that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris made him doubt the presence of God. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, said in an interview with John Humphrys that he could only "just" maintain belief in the face of human suffering.






Bishop Tom Butler and St Paul's miraculous recovery from snake bite

In his Thought for the Day (10 Sept) Bishop Tom Butler alluded to the New Testament account of St Paul's "miraculous" escape from death when bitten by a snake on the island of Malta. Unfortunately for this story, the snakes on Malta are not venomous. When I was living on Malta in the early 1950s during my National Service I caught a snake which duly bit me. Knowing it wasn't venomous I wasn't worried, so I can't claim any miraculous immunity.

In fact, even if you are bitten by a venomous snake it will not necessarily inject any venom. This has happened to me in Greece; please see A Snake in the Bath.

Anne Atkins on the Virgin Mary

Anne Atkins has often figured in these pages for her Thoughts for the Day. In her latest offering she was talking about female role models; she mentioned several, concluding with the Virgin Mary. She poured scorn on the sentimental representation of Mary we find in school Nativity plays and then went on to produce her own version of Mary that was equally remote from the facts. Mary, we were told, was "a girl of extraordinary learning ... profoundly versed in the history of her race and faith." I can't imagine how Ms Atkins arrived at this remarkable estimate of Mary's educational attainments, for which there is no evidence in the canonical literature. We know, in fact, almost nothing about the historical Mary, but we can hardly suppose that this peasant girl became a bluestocking.



Book review: Did Jesus Exist?, by Bart D. Ehrman

I've previously reviewed several books which claim that Jesus did not exist but was a mythical figure (Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price; The Jesus Puzzle, by Earl Doherty; The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).

Only one of these authors (Price) is a professional scholar in New Testament studies. The great majority of scholars don't take the 'mythicist' position seriously or discuss it in any detail. Ehrman thinks that this is a mistake, because the mythicists' claims attract attention from non-specialist readers. In this book, therefore, he considers the arguments in some detail. At least some of the mythicists do deserve to be taken seriously, he believes, although the more sensationalist representatives of the genre do not; the afore-mentioned Freke and Gandy are in that category. [More]

Book review: How Jesus Became God, by Bart D, Ehrman

Mainstream Christianity today holds that Jesus was God. To the secular mind this idea may seem not so much incredible as incomprehensible. In what sense can the omnipotent omiscient Creator of the universe be identical with a human being? And anyway, there are numerous places in the Gospels where Jesus addresses God the Father as if he were someone else. Why would he do this, if he was himself God? Was he talking to himself? Ehrman provides answers to such questions in his illuminating new book by approaching them historically rather than theologically. [More]

Fever as a cancer cure

My online article 'Miraculous' Cures? discusses various mechanisms that may explain spontaneous cures of cancer that are sometimes attributed to divine intervention. One of these is modification of the immune response by means of fever. This is an old idea that is now attracting renewed attention.

A cell biologist, Uwe Hobohm, believes it is time to revive the idea. Fever therapy was used successfully to treat cancer in the nineteenth century. Hobohm discusses the immunological basis for the treatment in New Scientist ('Hot, toxic and healing': 4 January 2014). Hobohm and his colleagues are currently testing the hypothesis in mice at two research centres in Germany. This is fascinating, although, as he says, we are a long way away from having this treatment approved for human patients.