If you believe there is intelligent extraterrestrial life out there, have you ever stopped to wonder why?
Are atheists who believe in aliens falling for one of humanity's oldest brain biases? In a series of four studies titled 'We Are Not Alone: The Meaning Motive, Religiosity, and Belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence', psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues discovered that participants who report low religiosity demonstrate a greater belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life existing out there, elsewhere in the universe. This tendency is particularly interesting to science writer and skeptic Michael Shermer, because let's face it, he says, "religions have no more evidence for god than scientists have for extraterrestrials." These two beliefs are as detached from proof as each other, yet both fill the all too human need to be comforted by the thought of another world—whether takes the form of moral and kind sky gods, or technologically advanced aliens. Is a belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life just another expression of our religious impulse? Michael Shermer's new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.
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?
Where are the four "horsewomen" of new atheism? Well, here are two of them, secular scholars Rebecca Goldstein and Susan Jacoby.
In 2006 Wired contributing editor Gary Wolf wrote a story on emerging trends in atheism. In his skeptical piece Wolf coined “new atheism,” a term later applied to the “four horsemen”: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
These men had varying responses to the term. Harris, for one, pointed out that “atheist” never appears in the book that kicked off this movement, The End of Faith. Alas, the four horsemen are the usual go-to thinkers when considering atheism in the 21st century, which begs one important question: What about women?
In general there are more male than female atheists. One 2010 survey found that males outnumber females in confessed atheism. In the United States that equates to 6 percent of men compared to 1.2 percent of women. (The “not religious” category is closer, as it is in most nations.) In Russia the number was 6.1 to 3 percent, whereas Switzerland it was 9 to 7 percent.
Numbers become confusing with examples like this 2012 poll, which reports that while women make up 52 percent of the US population they count for only 36 percent of “atheists and agnostics.” The problem with this differentiation is that everyone is agnostic, in that no one “knows” whether a god exists. You’re either theistically or atheistically agnostic. Many choose to not think much about it. That’s qualitatively different than pronouncing your atheism.
On top of that these are self-reported polls, and there might be reasons women do not claim their atheism. In a 2015 discussion, secular scholars Susan Jacoby and Rebecca Goldstein explore the question of why more women don’t profess critical skepticism of faith. They point first to social reasons: children of women who admit their atheism are more likely to be bullied at school, for example.
Personal beliefs are one thing, but social circles tend to be tight-knit. If your circle is comprised of devout followers, expressing atheism might ostracize you from this network, which could lead to larger problems for the entire household. Jacoby believes this is a driving factor of why some women stay “in the closet” regarding atheism.
Jacoby also points to an education gap. She says there is an “enormous deficit in math and science education between women and men.” The more educated one is in the sciences, she says, the more likely you are to be skeptical regarding divinity. While medical schools are seeing roughly equivalent numbers in terms of men and women, Jacoby reminds listeners there are very few female surgeons. Her preference appears to be for the more rigorous degrees.
There are other reasons. Humans are generally more reactive than proactive, and stringent religious dictates—President Trump announcing transgender people will not be allowed to serve in the military appeals to specific Christian sensibilities, for example—turn people off of religion and its questionable metaphysics. Sociology professor Phil Zuckerman believes this is turning many young people, specifically women, away from religion, as Kyle Fitzpatrick reports:
Zuckerman believes this has to do with traditional organized religions' male-centrism: teaching women that they're second class, must remain virginal, and must stay out of leadership positions. Pair this with the amount of women in the workplace rivaling men, and the group doesn’t need to turn to a church for social or financial support that churches typically offer.
This is an important about-face for women willing to declare their unbelief. In the Los Angeles Review of Books Zuckerman writes about Elmina Drake Slenker, the mid-19th century ex-Quaker atheist who scandalized the nation when she publicly declared her atheism in 1856. She was prosecuted shortly thereafter. Zuckerman points out her actual “crime,” which led to months in prison because she refused to swear heavenly allegiance on a bible:
Writing leaflets and personal letters to various people about human sexuality, marital relations, birth control, and bestiality. She was put on trial, and it only took the jury 10 minutes to find her guilty.
How things have changed. Instead of submitting to public pressure and governmental interference women have, thankfully, fought back, especially when they’ve been personally affected by religious mandates. Ayaan Hirsi Ali still remains a contentious figure in Islam, where she’s constantly harassed by dogmatic followers, but her secular foundation, dedicated to combating the ravages of archaic religious displays of power, such as female genital mutilation and honor violence, is flourishing.
Technology has helped aid such movements. Jacoby believes many female freethinkers existed in the past, but their voices were never heard since publishing was a male game. Women who broke through often had to assume male monikers just to do so. With easy access to social media this has changed dramatically.
Jacoby believes the next step in inviting more women into the fold requires educating people that morals are not dependent on religion. She expresses disdain for those who feel that moral decisions depend on religion or what she finds to be an innocuous term, spirituality.
The statement “I’m spiritual but not religious” makes me want to throw up. What this sentence means is I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, but I am a good person. And this word spiritual comes to stand for being a good person, just as people were talking about religion as a transcendent experience, as if it’s different from what people experience when they listen to great music.
She admits women appear to be more religious than men thanks to biology and a penchant for spirituality. During their talk Goldstein points to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on purity as one possible motivation for religion: women tend to associate more with the concept of being “pure” in part due to its long history of patriarchic power structures. Both women agree that a link between spirituality and sexuality also align more women than men with religion.
And both women agree that intellectual equality and freedom will even the gender playing field regarding atheism. Jacoby states that comforting people in the face of tragedy—she cites Newtown as an example—is possible without an allegiance to a metaphysical figure or a prophet. Reason, she says, is more likely to foster relationships based on equality and sharing, as the pretensions of right and wrong promoted by religious ideology dissolve. What you are left with is our human nature, fallible and beautiful, imperfect though empathetic, no deity required.
Derek's 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.
What does Robert Sapolsky—an "utter, complete, atheist"—think about the persistence of magical thinking in our modern world?
Of all the strange things that humans have come up with, almost none is stranger—nor more pervasive across separate cultures—than religion. Why this meta-magical thinking evolved is easy to understand in hindsight: Robert Sapolsky calls it a "wonderful mechanism" that our ancestors used to cope with forces of nature, tragedies, and good luck that they couldn't explain. And even in the presence of explanations today, it continues to be useful for the majority of humans, to the point that asking "Why do so many people still believe?" is not the most interesting question in the vicinity. Sapolsky would rather ask: "What’s up with the five percent of atheists who don’t?" The only thing crazier than religion might be atheism, he suggests. There's a solid catalog of literature that shows the health benefits of religiosity. It's nature's antidepressant for what is often a brutal and awful world, and offers a protective quality that atheists forfeit—which explains why incidences of depression are much higher in that group. To Sapolsky, what's more curious than the bizarre need to believe, is the choice not to.