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Guest Thinkers

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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