Good news, bad news

From a National Post article from last Monday, first the good news:

Teens who said they definitely believed in God, or a higher power, went from 54% to 37%, from 1984 to 2008, while the number of atheists rose from 6% to 16%. The number of teens that remained uncertain about God stayed at 31%.

In an earlier study, from 1985 to 2005, the number of adults who said they definitely believe in God went from 61% to 49%, while the number whose belief was uncertain rose from 23% to 32%. Over that period the proportion of adult atheists remained steady at around 6% to 7%.

Then the bad (as in poorly reported and horribly biased) news:

The number of teenage atheists is rising at a much faster rate than their parents, setting up a potential trend that could lead to a vacuum in the teaching of values and pose a serious threat to the ability of organized religion to regain momentum after years of declining attendance. [Emphasis added]

The article focuses on a survey by Reginald Bibby from the University of Lethbridge, a sociology prof who likes to use surveys to try to prove that atheists are less moral than the religious.

For example, he’ll ask respondants to rate the importance of various (generally Christian) values, such as “generosity,” “kindness,” and “forgiveness.”  He then found that the Christians tended to rate these higher, ergo he figures they must be more moral.

Unless of course, people are hypocrites and don’t act what they preach, or think critically about each supposed value (from Dan Gardner, 17 Oct. 2007)

One of the many problems with Bibby’s thesis is that his poll asks about qualities that religions typically present as dogmas. Kindness is good. Period. No discussion. It just is. Same for forgiveness and all the others.

So it’s no surprise that believers would simply say, yes, these are very important. That’s what their dogma says. But an atheist is less likely to approach morality dogmatically. She might feel, for example, that kindness is good but she can imagine circumstances in which it’s not appropriate. To reflect that, she may rate it “important” instead of “very important.” That wouldn’t mean she’s a less moral person. It would mean she’s more thoughtful.

Worse, Bibby simply assumes a link between what people casually say, what they feel, and how they behave — an assumption belied by heaps of academic research, not to mention plain old common sense. Televangelists would get boffo scores in Bibby’s poll. Does that mean they are models of moral behaviour? Anyone who believes that is invited to send a contribution to the Church of Latter Day Skeptics at the e-mail address below.

To get around this limitation, we have to look at how people actually behave. As it turns out, the lowest levels of religious belief and weekly church attendance in the world — possibly the lowest in history — are found in Northern European countries. These societies are not lacking in basic moral qualities. In fact, they may be the most tolerant, peaceful, compassionate, orderly societies that have ever existed.

If that’s the fate of countries that say goodbye to God, it will be a good day when we see the back of that old fraud.

So welcome young skeptics, atheists, and non-believers, you have a lot of work to do to fight the established biases inherent in our society.

(h/t Friendly Atheist)

6 thoughts on “Good news, bad news

  1. Unfortunately, the real biases in our society are fueled more by amoral individualist consumer capitalism, rather than the bogeyman of religion. I personally think that people have very little sense of clear moral values–but that has nothing to do with the fact that they choose not to follow a particular religious denomination. Our economic system values little but rational production and efficiency, so of course people have no idea of proper relations between individuals because they have been commodified.

    I find it highly unfortunate that many atheists on the left spend so much time bashing religion, attacking the judgment and character of believers (after all, moderates enable the crazies don’t they) rather than understanding that it’s not what you believe–it’s what you do. And there are many Christians, Muslims and Jews that are resisting the powers that be in much more tangible terms than many left activists.

    I’m a member of the NDP, just to make that clear.

  2. case study.. visit some shelters, animal rescues, rallies and protests and find out how many atheists show up to help. The only place I personally have met atheists is at the casino, strip clubs, dead end jobs, and night clubs… and now on this blog (which so far is great BTW) :) I dont need to look to EU… I can see the trend right in front of me. From my discussions and reading dawkins book ‘the god dillusion’ Athiests are just typically not that deep… though they sure believe they are :)

    Not saying atheists are evil, lazy, self centered or anything…. but it is a little bit of human arrogance to say I KNOW there is no god… I think this speaks volumes for the whole movement.

    After all god is only a 3 letter word written in english… its definition can be different for everybody. If your looking for a bearded man who lives in the clouds, spoke to a talking snake, and judges you when you die… well yeah thats probably quite foolish. If your looking for a name for our collective unconscious, or the ‘end result’ of a culmination of our own decisions… than the word ‘god’ works quite well… is Taoism it might be called ‘The Way’. Oddly enough even most of the religious teachings dont seems so crazy when you remove the fairy tale nonsense and human stupidity that has been injected over the years.

    1. I’d agree there’s a lot of similarities and things that do make sense in most religions, but that self-righteousness of saying “I know the Truth” is what leads people to do the most evil. We can define “god” however we want, but we can also define “fuckwit” to mean anything, changing the definition doesn’t raise the level of our discussion now does it?

      How many people at shelters, animal rescues etc. do you question their religious beliefs? I know the Society of Edmonton Atheists organizes blood drives routinely and brings out a dozen people (for a group with a membership floating under 50 still).

    2. Sounds like your very scientific study of who’s an atheist and who’s not is a really damning indictment of non-belief! Maybe if you continue to explore this “internet” thing, you will come across more non-believers who are in fact deep thinkers and won’t typically be found at strip clubs.

      Funny how you’ve written off the supposed “movement” because “it is a little bit of human arrogance to say I KNOW there is no god”. If you’re familiar at all with the definition of “atheist”, you would know that the word means someone who does not believe in a god or gods. It does not mean someone who has knowledge of the non-existence of anything whatsoever. In fact, the only group commonly proclaiming knowledge either way is believers who have had some kind of compelling personal experience and who KNOW there IS one. And if you have actually read “The God Delusion”, you would have come across Dawkins’ belief scale, and would have read about the fact that not even Richard Dawkins himself is a Level 7 strong atheist who is “100% sure there is no God.” In fact, very few people are.

      I would argue that it is more than a little bit of human arrogance to contemplate the universe and to conclude that there is a loving God who created everything for our benefit, gave us eternal souls, and is so concerned with what we think of him that he decides whether to eternally reward or punish us based on whether we accept him or not. That’s true arrogance, in my book. But perhaps that doesn’t fit your definition of the three-letter word “god.” But see, that’s what atheists are concerned with: the fact that most people who use the word have something like my concept in mind, not a wishy-washy amorphous Taoist concept like yours. (“Collective unconscious”? Give me a break, hippy!) Good for you, you’ve successfully discarded all of God’s traditional and harder-to-defend traits so that nothing is left but a poorly defined, uncontroversial, and in practice nearly meaningless nice idea. And if I still reject that, I guess I should just go out and spend all the money I make from my dead-end job at the strip club, huh?

  3. I’m with you. We definitely must do more to eliminate these biases. It’s nice to see the numbers shifting, but we need to keep on working.

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