Friday, August 12, 2011
Can't Find a God? Don't Worry, You're Just Fine
Non-believers are really nice people. In fact, studies are finding that secularists are often better educated, more tolerant and more knowledgeable about God than supposed true believers. This, according to Spiegel Online.
"Churches in the US are losing up to 1 million members every year. In Europe, secularization has advanced even further. The number of non-religious people, those who do not believe in God or any higher power, has reached approximately 40 percent in France and about 27 percent in Germany.
... So what do these increasing numbers of non-believers believe in, if not God? Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California's Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don't believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.
...Boston University's Catherine Caldwell-Harris is researching the differences between the secular and religious minds. "Humans have two cognitive styles," the psychologist says. "One type finds deeper meaning in everything; even bad weather can be framed as fate. The other type is neurologically predisposed to be skeptical, and they don't put much weight in beliefs and agency detection."
Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs.
"There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."
Only a small portion of secularists are as radical as the "strong atheists" championed by British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. The majority are more likely to be indifferent to religion or mildly agnostic, according to Kosmin's analysis. There are also secular humanists, free thinkers and many other factions. "One problem of atheism research is that we simply can't agree on a unified terminology," notes [religious market researcher Barry] Kosmin. "Every researcher thinks he is Linnaeus and invents his own labels."
Somehow I don't think many of my fellow secularists will find any of this particularly surprising. We grasp that religion, as prescribed by church hierarchies, often promotes intolerance and practices that seem astonishingly unethical to secularists. If there is a God it must be driving her crazy to realize that many of the really nice people aren't filling the pews.