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)