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Beyond
Atheism is Rising, But…

Americans who don’t believe in God are still a very small minority, but their numbers have been slowly-but-steadily increasing since the turn of the century. From Gallup’s latest poll:

About nine in 10 Americans say they believe in God, and one in 10 say they do not. However, when presented with more than a “yes or no” option, about eight in 10 say they believe and one in 10 say they aren’t sure. Belief in God, regardless of how the question is phrased to Americans, is down from levels in past decades.

Does this mean that the arc of history is bending irrevocably away from faith and toward scientific materialism? Is atheist hero Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “rationalia“—a land where decisions are made only “on the weight of the evidence,” (presumably evidence favored by liberal secularists)—just around the corner?

Not exactly. First of all, religious belief is still very powerful and widespread, and there is nothing inevitable about its decline. In fact, the proportion of people who say they believe in God actually ticked modestly upward, from 86 percent to 89 percent, since Gallup last asked the question in 2014.

Second, declining religiosity doesn’t necessarily correlate with a more “evidence-based” outlook in the sense that Tyson and co. would approve of. Even as belief in God has declined, the percentage of people reporting various supernatural experiences, including contact with a ghost, has risen sharply (such experiences are even more common among non-churchgoers). The decline of religiosity has also coincided with an increase in the number has the percentage of people reporting feelings of “spiritual peace.” Finally, it’s not a coincidence that religiously observant Christians were least likely to be seduced by Donald Trump’s “post-truth” style politics in the GOP primary.

All this is to say that there is little reason to believe that a world without God would be a more “rational” place.

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  • Kevin

    Was it GK Chesterson who wrote “When people stop believing in God it’s not that they believe in nothing but that they believe in everything?”

    That said various supernatural beliefs may be holding more or less steady, but theological knowledge and the prestige of it seem to be crashing.

    • Fred

      That is unfortunately true. At least part of the reason, I think, is that “There’s no evidence that God exists” fits on a bumper sticker and requires no real thought. It’s simplicity conceals its metaphysical assumptions, e.g., that “evidence” can only mean empirical evidence or its amplification by measurement with instrumentation and/or controlled experimentation. That assumes that one should accept only those assertions that are empirically verifiable, a notoriously self-undermining position since it is itself not empirically verifiable. Theology or, as I prefer, theistic philosophy, on the other hand is complex. Try fitting Aristotelian/Thomist metaphysics on a bumper sticker. Try explaining Plantiga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism around the water cooler. It takes time and intellectual effort to understand those arguments. The closest gnu atheists come is the ridiculous straw men attacked by Dawkins and Hitchens.

      • JR

        I will admit at having no idea at what Plantinga’s Argument is.

        • Fred

          Hi JR. I’d like to provide the link here, but I’m using my smart phone, and I’m afraid I’m not as smart as it is. However, if you go to YouTube and type “Plantinga EAAN” into the search box, you will find a clip about 14 minutes long of Plantinga himself explaining it and answering a couple of objections. Personally, I don’t think it is the strongest argument for theism, but it is interesting. It is sophisticated and rational and it definitely won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

          • JR

            Thanks. Will definitely check it out.

      • seattleoutcast

        From my experience, the only thing atheists “believe in” is positivism. Many will say they are being practical with this metaphysical assumption because… positivism. In other words, they will not believe in anything that is not measurable because nothing can exist if it is not measurable. Since nothing can exist that is not measurable, then why live a life otherwise?

        • Fred

          Of course that position is self refuting. By what measurement has the atheist arrived at it?

      • solstice

        It is a wonderful thing that no empirical evidence exists for the non-existent Middle Eastern desert deity that you worship. The existence of such a being would entail a far more nightmarish and totalitarian reality than this already objectively flawed reality.

        • Fred

          Thank you solstice for illustrating so beautifully the shallow, simplistic thoughtlessness I was talking about. I wouldn’t be surprised if our fellow commenters thought you were a sock puppet I was using to prove my point.

          • solstice

            Refuting the existence of god is indeed a simple matter. Theology is “complex”in the same way that hoaxes and Ponzi schemes are often elaborate and complex.

    • LarryD

      More than one Marxist has proclaimed that their religion is Marxism. Many Socialists and many Environmentalists act in all ways that their belief system is religious, whether or not any deity is featured. Tyson is very naive.

      And then there are the immigrants, mostly Roman Catholics and Muslims.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Atheists demand that believers prove the existence of God, but that isn’t how Science works. Science is a process of elimination. A Hypothesis is formed that explains the data, and then experiments are done in an attempt to disprove the Hypothesis. It is always easier to disprove something, than to prove something true. Because “you don’t know the things that you don’t know” as Rumsfeld would say.

    So it isn’t up to the believers to prove God exists, it’s up to the Atheists to disprove the Hypothesis that “God Created the Universe”. At least that seems to be what God wanted when he gave mankind brains, Truthdar and BSDetectors, and the Scientific Method. And while you’re interpreting Gods will, from what God has written in the very fabric of the Universe, in God’s own hand (Wouldn’t words written in religious texts, by primitive people millennia ago, be hearsay/heresy when God’s own hand is all around us?). Try to figure out what God wants with billions of self-aware, self-programming, and self-motivated people. I think it has something to do with Adam Smith’s invisible hand, time will tell.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Modern religion has little to do with what can be proved or disproved about creation. Disregarding Eastern ideas not particularly prevalent or troublesome in America, people are following Jesus, following Muhammad, rejecting both and sticking with Judaism, or rejecting all of them and following the words of nobody. Yes, yes, there are some followers of nature religions and a few varieties of Satanists, but they are largely irrelevant. The BIG question in the world today is not whether God created this or that or in what manner or time frame. The BIG question is whether actual followers of Jesus are declining and actual followers of Muhammad are rising in number.

      • seattleoutcast

        The secularists are working very hard to disprove and mock biblical creation (note the Darwin fish–whatever that is supposed to mean.) Intelligent Design is a reaction to secular overreach in metaphysics/theology.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Most people today know (or should know) that the likelihood of space aliens visiting earth in the past or the future is virtually non-existent because of the distances. Most people today know (or should know) that the likelihood of the Genesis stories being literally true on the young-earth timeline implied by Biblical genealogies is similarly near zero.
          Thankfully, Christianity does not depend on whether the literal detail of Genesis can be proven or disproven. Christianity DOES depend on who we pray to, who we trust, who we thank, what we hope for and whether we can continue to put a premium on loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

          • Fred

            You are absolutely right that Christianity doesn’t stand or fall on the literal interpretation of Genesis, and I believe your characterization of Christianity is largely accurate. That said, at the end of the day Christianity does depend on Jesus being God incarnate and that, in turn, depends on God existing. Take away that foundation and the rest collapses. So I think it does behoove us Christians to defend theism in general as well as Christianity in particular and not cede the intellectual high ground to the atheists.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Atheists who concentrate on human rights and Christians who concentrate on loving others should actually be natural allies in a great deal of policy and philosophy irrespective of the derivatives.
            Likewise, people who appreciate our constitutional principle of “freedom OF religion” should be in league with those who see it as “freedom FROM (any) religion or (any particular) religion”. Oddly it hasn’t been working so well lately. I personally blame the surreptitious infiltration and politicizing of the churches to erroneously support Laissez Faire economics in the corporate age (but, hey, you knew I’d say some left-wing thing like that).

          • Fred

            You saying something left-wing? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you:) I agree that there shouldn’t be a conflict between freedom of and freedom from religion. The first amendment does have two clauses about religion, free exercise and non-establishment. The problem is how the second clause has come to be defined since the early 1960s. The founders literally meant establishment, i.e. an official Church of the United States that everyone must belong to and must pay taxes to support. They never intended it to mean complete banishment of religion from the public square. That however is how it has come to be interpreted. That is, in my view, mainly the fault of liberal secularists. But then I guess you knew I would say something right-wing like that.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I agree that the founders probably never expected 1) for their First-Amendment words to even be interpreted as applying to states (as well as to “Congress shall pass no law”, and 2) for their First-Amendment wording to spawn our modern interpretation of a complete separation of religious ideas and “state”.
            But, they were “muddling through” to even propose and pass a bill of rights that they first thought unnecessary altogether. I believe our accumulated interpretations are superior to their more limited view of what they were hurriedly writing. (I’m never stuck on worshiping the founders’ writings as all-knowing and all-wise. They were doing the best they could with their times and circumstances. I’m grateful for them, but we have amended lots of things by case law and otherwise, for good reasons discovered over time.

          • Fred

            Sorry, but with the possible exceptions of Jefferson and Franklin (and I’m not sure about them) the founders would be appalled at the way the left uses the non-establishment clause as an excuse to trample all over the free exercise clause. And any authority can be abused. As Chesterton said, original sin is the only religious doctrine that can be empirically verified. As of now, the federal government is a far greater threat to freedom of religion and everything else than are state and local governments.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Well, you have articulated once again (and well) why we are on opposite sides. The free exercise of religion is a matter for the style of worship in churches and for our applause of whatever charitable works they undertake.
            When the exercise of religion means plastering everything in public life with all kinds of symbolism at the discretion of whichever politicians happen to be in power, no, not really. When the exercise of religion seeks to determine which employees will be hired or which customers will be served in secular commerce, no, again. When our armed forces are over-encouraged by a particular CIC to push particular religious ideas on our troops, nah. When religion seeks to pass bedroom laws and bathroom laws, no again. When religion decides it will interfere in public policy on artificial birth control and/or impose its view of abortion on all women, no.
            The “exercise” of religion does not mean dominating other people from religious precepts. This is one of the most distinguishing features today between western freedom and Islam in Islamic places.
            We’re lucky to be as far along with sensible interpretation as we are.

      • Jim__L

        In the West, Muslims are increasing. Worldwide, Christians are increasing.

        It is a form of Eurocentrism to celebrate Atheism.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Are you saying that Muslims are not increasing in their own root countries?

          • Jim__L

            Yes, but not faster than Christians.

            Also, I’m pretty much expecting a Malthusian-scale nuclear war in the Middle East within my lifetime. That allows me to see the massive displacement of ancient Christian populations in a somewhat more sanguine way.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I don’t know how old you are, but I will hope it does not occur in “my” lifetime. I have a hard time believing nuclear wars are limitable to regions.

          • Jim__L

            Iran doesn’t have ICBMs, as far as I know, although the Norks have some scary stuff. And ITAR is focused pretty heavily on halting the spread of missile tech, even if we’ve been more or less incompetent about allowing fissile material technology to proliferate.

            Even so, I don’t think that the ME players have enough to play the Mutually Assured Destruction game. with the big boys If any stray nuke came our way, the bouncing rubble would be in MENA, not in CONUS. And could you imaging Putin shrinking from the chance to put most of the major petroleum suppliers in the world out of business?

            On a related note, ABM defense is a good thing. =)

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, I like ABM. With luck it will be a contributing reason to why these things never go off.

    • ljgude

      You have put your finger on that special quality that makes us human but for which we struggle to find words. Truthdar, BSDetectors. But there is an old Greek word for it – Nous. That ability to ‘get it’ that is most conspicuous when it is absent. Common sense, but much more than common sense because Nous is the capacity to integrate a whole variety of inner and outer perceptions, feelings, details and general principles and understand what is going on. And sometimes to act immediately. Like that Turkish customs man who saw it was to the greater good to shoot that jihadi at the airport even though it would probably cost him his life. It did but his Truthdar or Nous was working at a higher level than pure reason or simple calculation. He put the whole thing together in an instant and did the right thing. I also like your suggestion that we try to figure out what God wants of us directly from what is all around us. That is a dangerous idea because it can lead to all manner of insanity, but it is also the only way I know to the experience of inner truth. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:
      “Earth’s crammed with heaven,
      And every common bush afire with God,
      But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
      The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

    • Wigwam Wigwam

      Nice try.
      You attempt to quote the ‘scientific method’ and yet conveniently bend it to form entirely the wrong conclusion.
      A scientific hypothesis MUST be based on actual observation and/or as you allude, actual ‘data’. Only then can it withstand any testing.
      “God Created the Universe” could never be considered a valid hypothesis as it would be impossible to gather any observations or data to support the hypothesis. Resulting in the absurd task of trying to test nothing with nothing.
      Therefore it is unavoidable that the burden is on ‘believers’ to provide any evidence at all, whatsoever, after 2,000 years, which can then withstand the rigors of testing.
      Nothing less is, well…., nothing.
      This is the same scientific method which brought you electricity, your computer and the internet. To attempt to undermine scientific method via the internet would be ironic to say the least.

  • Frank Natoli

    Does this mean that the arc of history is bending irrevocably away from faith and toward scientific materialism?
    Being an atheist does not necessarily imply being a scientific materialist. In fact, the evidence is that being an atheist implies being a nihilist.
    Americans have lost faith, as have Western Europeans, entirely because of the welfare state. Like it or not, most people had faith for the promise, if not necessarily the provision, of help from the Almighty. With the welfare state and with general affluence, nobody “needs” the Almighty, so the Almighty has been erased. If you’re a Democrat, your Congressman actually will take from the other guy and give to you. The Almighty doesn’t do that.

  • FriendlyGoat

    1) We’d have a better country if Christians (and pundits, and poll takers) talked more in public about Jesus and less about “God”.
    2) “Religiously-observant Christians” are most likely to pile right onto the Trump bandwagon out of the primary and into the general. Dr. James Dobson is telling them to do exactly that with a nice bedtime story about Donald’s recent and secret conversion. The thing is, if any such thing had happened, the change in Donald would have become immediately noticeable in his talk and his attitude on any number of subjects. Not happening. The candidate is not talking Christian. Rather some (many) of the church guys are doing a political sales job for the candidate. It’s a pitiful sight to see this going on, but it’s not new.

    • Tom

      Most of the observant Christians I know are A. Conservative and B. Not voting for Trump.
      Given that your party managed to select the one person in your primary that had a prayer of making Trump look like an okay guy by comparison, I wouldn’t be talking too loudly.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I hope you indeed do know a lot of people who simply will not vote for Republicanism this time BECAUSE of Trump. That’s a form of progress, because your party’s platform would not look any different if you were being led by Huckabee, Walker, Cruz, Jindal or Santorum. A vote “not for Donald” is a vote “not for all the rest of it.

        • seattleoutcast

          If you think there is no difference between Cruz and Trump, then you were not paying serious attention to the primary. One is a constitutionalist and the other is a blow hard.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I was speaking of there being little to no difference in Republican platform planks with one candidate or with another.

          • seattleoutcast

            Yes, and I am saying that there is a difference, and you weren’t paying attention.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I understand Cruz and Trump are different—-AND that most of Republicanism is a lead weight that never changes. The evangelicals WANT it to be a true religious deal. but it isn’t and never was. It is tax cuts, deregulation of business practices, disregard of the welfare of most citizens, disregard of the environment and corporate-leaning judges. Same priorities no matter who they put on the ticket.

        • Tom

          Not voting for someone because you think he’s going to betray your principles is not the same thing as abandoning those principles. Try again.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Donald might betray your Christian principles, or whatever premium you may put on a principle like “good faith and fair dealing”, but he will never (never) betray your Republican principles. He would sign anything Ryan and McConnell would pass.
            Meanwhile, I’m not trying to psychoanalyze the conservative mind. Just thinking in terms of counting votes. I like absent right-side votes for any reason.

          • Tom

            Oh, he betrayed those a long time ago, much like your party’s nominee has done. The difference between us is that I’m not blind enough to sign on with an identitarian authoritarian because of the letter next to their name.
            But that’s your lookout, and it’s a crying shame that your children, and not you, will live with the consequences.

    • Boritz

      I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

      But let’s not talk about him. Let’s talk about me.

      John 5:30 more or less

      • FriendlyGoat

        I have learned that except for while literally inside church buildings, most people (including most professed Christians) are VERY reluctant to even mention the name of Jesus, much less discuss his special “work” on earth, his relevance and his meaning to people’s lives. There is ALL KINDS of “God” talk flying around in many places (including here), but not much for the enabling foundations of “Christianity” who are Jesus and The Holy Spirit. What this means is that most people (including many professed Christians) are confused and unsure of what they believe and why—-or—-they are reluctant to admit it.
        Disregarding far-eastern religions for these purposes, when we talk of “God” in this country, we need to KNOW and SAY whether we are talking about teachings from the old fathers of Judaism, the teachings of Jesus or the teachings of Mohammad. Merely confining our poll questions to a vague and miscellaneous “God” produces a meaningless poll result.

    • seattleoutcast

      Part of the reason some Christians followed Trump is because he was seen as someone who would stand up against the militant secularism of the left. We’ll see if this will actually happen if he becomes president.

      • FriendlyGoat

        If Trump becomes president, he will either waffle or outright cave on virtually every “unique” position he has ever taken during this campaign. You guys might as well be actually running Newt Gingrich. That’s what we liberals know we are running against.

        • seattleoutcast

          I don’t disagree with you. But I’m pointing out why Trump is attractive to the Christian vote.

    • Jim__L

      Whether you supported Trump in the Primaries was dependent on how often you went to church — the more you went to church, the less likely you were to support Trump.

      But you’ll never hear that from FG.

      • FriendlyGoat

        And yet, for all the church people who think the USA is a “Christian nation”, and who think the Republican Party is the correct party for church Christians to support to “keep it that way”, Trump is emerging as your nominee. It looks like a “disconnect” to me, but I am one who thought that no Christians should never have supported either Goldwater or Reagan going way back.

        • Jim__L

          Can you sanely argue that the Democrats are anything but anti-religious bigots these days?

          • FriendlyGoat

            Sure, I’m a Democrat and I “preach Jesus” (seriously, not making fun) more than almost anyone on this site—-even as the village black sheep.
            I don’t deny there are left-side people who are very irreverent and ungrateful about many things and who are too willing to spout off with mean stuff. I wish they weren’t doing so much of that—–but their unfortunate behavior does not cause me to switch political sides and support the wrong policies.

          • Jim__L

            Well, this is an interesting spot.

            I am willing to tolerate from the GOP policies on taxation that I don’t think make that much difference, for the sake of policies on religious freedom that I think make a great deal of difference.

            You are willing to tolerate policies from the Democrats on religious freedom (that you presumably think don’t make that big a difference) for the sake of tax policies that you think make a great deal of difference.

            Am I representing your position adequately here?

            I do not think that throwing Christians to the lawyers for the sake of tax policies that may or may not ever be implemented is not something that any good Christian should associate themselves with.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yep, it’s an interesting spot. I’m not sure you quite describe my position, because you and I have differences in what religious freedom might mean. For me, it’s freedom OF religion for those who want it and freedom FROM religion for those who don’t.

            If I was to describe this for Iran or Saudi Arabia, for instance, I would say the Muslim statement of faith, daily prayer, Ramadan, Hajj and charity (the five pillars of Islam) are fine. And, absolutely all other ways Islamic authority is imposed on government, courts, dress codes, special rules for women, work laws, sex laws, business laws, family laws or rules for daily life outside the mosque ARE NOT fine.

            Same for America with both Christian churches and Islam.

          • Jim__L

            Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are mutually exclusive, unless you include a generous helping of freedom of association.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Well, we do have freedom of association. You are free to associate with your congregation. You are free to be an isolated hermit if you wish. You are free to BBQ with your neighbors, or not. You are free to choose the places you go and the people you socialize with. But, we are not “free” to hold ourselves out as open for business in commerce and then refuse to sell to those people of whom we disapprove for religious-based reasons. That’s not freedom of religion. It is a requested reason to hassle the public and, with any luck in this country, it ain’t gonna fly into enforceable statutes.

            I do not believe there are any circumstances under which freedom of religion and freedom from religion are mutually exclusive.

  • delta 5297

    Perhaps so. But given how Christians in this country seem to be willing to shove their faith into other people’s faces in the most obnoxious and arrogant manner possible, that religion needs to be taken down several dozen notches. So…go atheists.

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