Where Do Atheists Come From?
03 March 2010
by Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant
Editorial: Time to accept that atheism, not God, is odd.
HERE's a fact to flatter the unbelievers among you: the bright young things at the University of Oxford are among the most godless groups ever studied in the UK. Of 728 students surveyed in 2007, 48.9 per cent claimed not to believe in any god, with 49.6 per cent claiming no religious affiliation. And while a very small number of Britons typically label themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic" (most surveys put it at about 5 per cent), an astonishing 57.3 per cent of the Oxford sample did.
This may come as no surprise. After all, atheism is the natural stance of the educated and the informed, is it not? It is only to be expected that Oxford students should be wise to what their own professor Richard Dawkins calls "self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery" - and others call "faith". The old Enlightenment caricature, it seems, is true after all: where Reason reigns, God retires.
Of course, things are never quite that simple. Within the sample, for instance, the postgraduates (that is, the even-better educated) were notably more religious than the undergraduates, in terms of both belief in God and self-description. Although the greater number of non-Europeans in the postgraduate population is almost certainly a significant factor here, evidence from elsewhere backs the idea that there is no straightforward relationship between atheism and education.
Let's look at some results from the World Values Survey, an international attempt to assess the global state of socio-cultural, moral, religious and political values. The 2005 results show that while there is a clear positive correlation between education and lack of belief in God, the effect is slightly weaker, not stronger, among those with a university education (14.8 per cent were non-believers) compared with those whose highest attainment was secondary level (17.2 per cent).
What is more, the survey shows a far stronger correlation between education and certain "irrational" beliefs: for example, only 29.6 per cent of those without even an elementary education believe in telepathy, compared with 51.8 per cent of people with degree-level education.
Closer to home, an analysis of the 2008 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey by David Voas of the University of Manchester reveals that the historical correlation between being educated and being "non-religious" has not only weakened but reversed. Looking at white British people, for example, the findings show that only around 25 per cent of men aged between 25 and 34 claiming "no religion" have degrees, compared with around 40 per cent of those describing themselves as religious. For women in the same age group, the difference is less marked but the trend is the same. The picture is more complicated across different ethnic groups, although the overall trend remains the same.
It appears that Enlightenment assumptions about the decline of religion as the population becomes more educated will no longer do - at least, not without considerable qualification. Why is it that, despite the long history of the study of religion, the picture seems to be getting more and not less confused about what it means to believe in God? We, and the scholars who gathered in December last year for a conference at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, think we may have the answer. The problems stem from a long-term, collective blind spot in research: atheism itself.
This oversight might seem remarkable (or remarkably obtuse on the part of the social scientists) but it is one with deep historical roots. Many of social science's 19th-century founders, including Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Auguste Comte and Max Weber, were unbelievers, or "religiously unmusical", as Weber memorably put it. For them, religion was the great explicandum: how, they wondered, could so many people believe in something so absurd? What they failed to recognise was that their own, taken-for-granted, "lack" of belief might itself be amenable to inquiry.
Ironically, sociologists, psychologists, economists and, particularly, cognitive anthropologists have become so skilled at explaining why humans seem to have such a widespread bias towards theistic beliefs that a new question readily presents itself: if religion comes so naturally to us, why are so many people, especially in western Europe, apparently resistant to it? In the UK, for example, a sizeable 43 per cent said they had "no religion" in the 2008 BSA survey.
Moreover, social scientists themselves consistently rank as the most atheistic of all academics: see a recent study by Neil Gross at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and Solon Simmons of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia (Sociology of Religion, in press).
What we need now is a scientific study not of the theistic, but the atheistic mind. We need to discover why some people do not "get" the supernatural agency many cognitive scientists argue comes automatically to our brains. Is this capacity non-existent in the non-religious, or is it rerouted, undermined or overwritten - and under what conditions?
Psychologically, we need to know how the self functions without theistic belief, and how our emotional resources might be altered by its absence. Anthropologically, we need to understand how people without religion make sense of their lives, how they find meaning, and how non-theistic systems of thought are embedded in, and shape, the different cultures in which they are present. Sociologically, we need to know how these alternative meaning-making systems are shared between societies, how they unite or divide us, and whether non-religious groups contain pro-social elements commonly associated with religion itself.
For all these reasons and more - not to mention the sheer thrill of entering uncharted waters - we set up the international and interdisciplinary Non-religion and Secularity Research Network in late 2008. The Wolfson meeting was the NSRN's inaugural conference, only the second event on this topic ever to be held in Europe. (The first was convened by the Vatican in 1969: make of that what you will.)
The conference presented the first fruits of research in this area - and discussed how much still needs to be done. One of the first tasks is to develop a common academic vocabulary. In this article, for instance, we have danced between "atheistic", "non-theistic", "non-religious", "unbelieving" and "godless" as if they were synonyms. They're not.
Interesting findings have, however, begun to emerge; some providing insight into the relationship between education and atheism. Voas, also a keynote speaker at the Wolfson conference, says one reason why a greater number of religious people are degree-holders may be that "better educated people have typically reflected on religion and have the self-confidence to come down decisively, on one side or the other". The issue is not which idea - atheism or theism - is more stupid than the other, but that education helps us either to work out or simply to communicate our beliefs, no matter what they are.
He also notes the observation by another keynote presenter, Colin Campbell of the University of York, whose 1971 book Toward a Sociology of Irreligion had until very recently been a lone voice in the wilderness. Campbell argues that though the educated are often the first to articulate a new cultural perspective, if that perspective becomes popular, it will spread across the population. As a result, the education levels associated with that perspective naturally average out. So it is that the relationship between intelligence or education and cultural shifts may not be as significant as they first appear.
Everybody stands to benefit from wider and more systematic research of the atheistic or non-religious. The believers may take heart from the fact that the most comprehensive studies no longer suggest the unreligious are cleverer or more lettered than them. But the non-believers might also comfort themselves that they are no longer outside the mainstream. They have become a "normal" and significant part of many societies. And researchers ignore them at their peril.