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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.