Is atheism on the rise, or is religion? At times we hear polls claiming both, but new research shows it's not that simple.
You've likely seen conflicting headlines like this: “Atheism on the rise." “Religion experiencing an increase." “Millennials Less Likely to Be Religious." “Churches Finding New Ways to Reach Young Audiences." And so on. The question remains: Are we becoming more or less religious?
In a 2017 article published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, NYU Sociology professor Michael Hout discusses the phenomenon of liminalism. Limen is Latin for “threshold." Being liminal means you're on the fence about religion. You either have one or you don't, and that might change depending on when or how you're asked.
This sounds wishy-washy, in the way that some atheists believe agnostics need to decide (as do some faithful). But as Hout points out, this phenomenon partly explains why polls seem skewed year after year. And no small percentage of Americans are liminal:
About 20 percent of Americans were liminal in recent years, 10 percent were consistently nonreligious, and 70 percent were consistently religious.
As Hout points out, an answer often resides in how you phrase the question. The religious will be consistent, as will atheists. But when “something else" is offered things become less clear. If you aren't affiliated with Judaism or Protestantism, yet you don't want to check off “no religion," into the liminal category you go, which might be odd if you're pagan or Taoist.
One of the most popular responses I've come across is that someone believes in God, the afterlife, or heaven and hell, but does not have faith in organized religion. Likewise, the “spiritual not religious" category fulfills the role of religious yearning without fitting into the folds of any particular religion.
And, of course, humans change. I think of my mother in this circumstance, who was raised Catholic but didn't pay much attention to her religion until her own mother passed. Suddenly she began attending church again and making sure I believe in God (I don't) during our phone conversations. This trend lasted for a few years after my grandmother's passing but has tapered off recently. Nonetheless, mortality is a powerful indicator of religiosity for people who otherwise don't think much at all about it.
Our views generally become more conservative as we age, for a number of reasons: we move into like-minded enclaves when leaving city life; our trust in institutions falter the longer we live and the more experiences we have; our relationship with money changes as economic divides grow; our body starts to slow and break down, making us sense mortality in ways we previously did not. Aging is change in many regards, so it makes sense that a.) conservatism and religion are often linked and b.) religion is more associated with baby boomers than millennials.
Then there's the function of religious institutions. In his 2016 book, Sweat Equity, Bloomberg's New York bureau chief, Jason Kelly, writes that yoga and Crossfit studios are filling the role churches and synagogues once did. They provide room for a shared experience between individuals with similar goals. Likewise, the explosion of ayahuasca tourism in South America offers an opportunity for having spiritual experiences without the dogma of American religious rituals. These spaces provide for profound moments without prior religious beliefs, which could account for the uptick in numbers of those leaving religion behind.
And while liminalism does cause strange curvatures in studies, it does appear that fewer humans have faith in religion. Hout's article covers 2006 to 2014, and there is one trend he's confident expressing: people are becoming less religious. Or at least they're claiming as such. In 2006 he discovered that 14 percent of Americans preferred no religion. Fast forward to 2014 and that number rose to 21 percent. Each two-year interval showed an increase.
Hout believes the liminal population accounts for “the rapid decline of religious identification in the United States." Yet he does not feel that is a promise of eventual atheism. In fact, he says the data points in the opposite direction:
"As they stand on the threshold between religious and nonreligious, nothing in the logic of their position or the evidence at hand foreordains that they will eventually step in the direction of being nonreligious. Two key observations point the other direction, toward a religious identity. Liminals are more likely to name a religion than not. A minority of persons raised with no religion displayed a consistent nonreligious identity as adults; a third of them were liminal, and a quarter of them were consistently religious."
Religion is fluid, dependent upon culture and context. A 2017 Pew survey shows that splits in Protestantism, which has divided the church for centuries, is no longer as important as before. Muslim births are projected to outnumber Christian births by 2035, while the “nones" are not procreating nearly as much. Neuroscience and the social sciences are explaining many human behaviors once attributed to religion, though with climate change and economic inequality affecting the psyche of a planet, religious and nationalistic tribalism is also on the rise.
Hout's data is a snapshot of our current moment. A fifth of humans appear religiously dynamic. How that changes in the coming years is anybody's guess, but we can be certain that it won't be disassociated from external conditions. And right now it's pretty clear that we're better off working together than continuing to believe apart. We'll have to see what direction the curves shift next.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
In 1936, a school girl named Phyllis wrote a letter to Albert Einstein to ask whether a person could believe in both science and religion. He was quick to reply.
What did history's greatest minds believe in? It is a question that many of us have asked. It is a question that has undoubtedly been tossed around when somebody comes out as an atheist. While the beliefs of most celebrities are irrelevant, the religious and philosophical ideas of those famed for their intellect is a more interesting topic.
Albert Einstein's religious beliefs are chief among these inquiries. Many people know he was raised as a Jew, and some people remain convinced of his dedication to the God of Abraham. Atheists like to include him as being one their own—being able to say that one of the greatest geniuses in world history was on your side is a nice endorsement, so it is understandable why all sides want to claim him.
But what did he believe?
In January of 1936, a school girl named Phyllis wrote to Einstein to ask whether you could believe in science and religion. He was quick to reply.
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: 'Do scientists pray?' in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.
We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.
He replied a few days later:
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
In his reply to Phyllis, Einstein hints at his pantheism; the idea that “God is everything". Several times he expressed this view explicitly, telling the Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, “I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." He went further in telling an interviewer that he was, “fascinated by Spinoza's Pantheism." This pantheism would form the basis of his worldview, and even influence his ideas in physics.
Ok, but what is pantheism exactly?
Pantheism can be defined as a few similar ideas. In the simplest form, it is the belief that everything is identical to God. Holders of this view will often say that God is the universe, nature, the cosmos, or that everything is “one" with God. However, some holders of the view argue that it can also mean that the essence of the divine is in everything without everything “being part" of God.
The Pantheism of Spinoza, which Einstein was most interested in, holds that the universe is identical to God. This God is impersonal and uninterested in human affairs. Everything is made of the same fundamental substance, which is derivative of God. The laws of physics are absolute and causality leads to determinism in this cosmos. Everything which happens was the result of necessity and it was the will of God. For the individual, happiness follows from understanding the cosmos and our place in it rather than trying to pray for divine intervention.
Einstein's beliefs, though not as strong as the religious devotion of many people, were a part of his objection to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as a pantheist universe operates on causality and quantum mechanics does not. He accused the quantum theorists Niels Bohr and Max Born of believing in “A God who plays dice". Likewise, he tried to live his life in a way that reflected his lack of free will.
Albert Einstein was a pantheist who maintained certain Jewish traditions. While he noted that “From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist," he preferred to be called an Agnostic and disliked militant atheists. He considered people who anthropomorphized God to be “naive". Ethically, he was a secular humanist.
Einstein's views of God, life, and the universe are more complicated than people who want him on their side make them out to be. His devotion to science and reason drove him to the rationalistic worldview of Spinoza, and to a detachment from organized religion. His ideas are worth studying, as are the worldviews of most geniuses. Especially for the next time a meme goes around trying to claim him as a member of one religion over another.
Understanding Spinoza is key to understanding Einstein in this matter. So what did Spinoza think about the concept of God?
You have to be a little envious of those who have faith—they have a motivational force behind them that is near impossible to beat. What if there was a secular equivalent, wonders philosophy professor Sam Newlands.
If faith is what bolsters the believers, could hope be a form of secular prayer? What is the difference between faith and hope, anyway? Philosophy professor Sam Newlands explains that while the two occupy the same categorical space, they are fundamentally different philosophical mindsets. Faith is fueled by a sense of certainty about an outcome, even if that conviction outstrips the evidence. Hope on the other hand can be cognitively inconsistent and still escape scrutiny: you can think something is highly improbable and still hope for it to be true. Here, Newlands discusses the intersection of hope and faith in a religious context: is religion without faith possible? Can hope manifest religious belief?
This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Sam Newlands, head to samnewlands.com.
This week, Bill Nye tackles one of the most complicated hypotheticals of all time.
Would a world full of atheists be best? Some people dream of the day religion fades away, but for others the mere hypothetical is a form of blasphemy. Imagine, just like John Lennon asked us to: would it be heaven on Earth? Would it be complete chaos? No one can accurately answer this question, just as no one can really know whether or not there is a god—technically speaking, we're all agnostics, explains Bill Nye. What we do know is that community underpins religion, and communities are essential for humanity's progress and existence. God or no god, we need to understand that we're all in this together, urges Nye. Communities—whether they're anchored in faith, science, art, or altruism—are essential to the future of humankind. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.