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October 16, 2012

Atheist conservatives and libertarians are not rare

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:45 pm

A generous definition of rare I would think is 10% or less (you might argue for a more stringent threshold, but let’s work with 10%). So what are the politics of atheists? I bring this up because someone named Bridget Gaudette is looking for conservative and libertarian atheists to ask them about their views (so naturally I came up), but prefaced her inquiry to me by the assertion that “conservative/Republican” and “Libertarian” individuals in the “Atheist community” are rare. I don’t think this is empirically valid, depending on how you define the atheist community (e.g., atheist activists are probably to the Left of the median atheist). But even among the types who are motivated enough to attend secularist conferences, a substantial minority are non-liberals. I know because many people approached me after I spoke about my conservatism at the Moving Secularism Forward event last spring, and expressed their libertarianism, or specific conservative heterodoxies. Many of the young male atheists who I encountered in particular tended to be libertarians. Genuine self-identified conservatives are moderately rare, to be fair.

Nevertheless, to probe this question let’s look at the GSS. The variable GOD has a category which includes those who ...

September 4, 2012

Jacobins have always been around, and always will be around

Filed under: atheism — Razib Khan @ 11:46 pm

Recently I stumbled onto to something called Atheism+, which seems to have issued out of Freethought Blogs. Here’s an assertion that caught my attention:

“What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.danielmchugh summarized how I feel perfectly:

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained?

I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

As for the next steps on how to get rid of that garbage, I’ll make another post with my ideas soon.

As others have stated Atheism+ seems to be a reemergence and rebranding of an old strand of anti-religious thought (secular ...

February 24, 2012

How common are godless liberals?

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 7:43 am


I’m going to be speaking at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando next week. They invited me because I’m a conservative atheist public intellectual, and the three other conservative atheist public intellectuals in the United States were presumably busy. In any case, going over what I’m going to talk about I was double-checking political breakdowns by atheist & agnostic proportions and ideology in the General Social Survey for after the year 2000.

I used the “GOD” variable, which asks people about their belief in God. Those who did not believe, or said there was no way to find out, I classed as “atheists & agnostics.” This means that the total percentages in the population are higher than self-reports; that’s because the word atheism in particular has a negative connotation (I recall that Julia Sweeney’s parents were tolerant of the fact that she did not believe in God, but were aghast that she was an atheist!). “POLVIEWS” what the variable which I crossed “GOD” with. It has seven responses, from very liberal to very conservative, and I just put all liberals and conservatives into one category.

The first table displays what proportion in the whole society atheist & agnostic liberals (or conservatives) are. Since the total proportion of atheists & agnostics is small, naturally these percentages are small. The two subsequent tables just display what percentage of atheists & agnostics are liberal, or what percentage of liberals are atheist & agnostic.


All cells combined = 100%
Atheist and agnostic Not atheist or agnostic
Liberal 3.7% 22.8%
Moderate 2.3% 36.0%
Conservative 1.5% 33.5%

Rows = 100%
Liberal Moderate Conservative
Atheist and agnostic 49.7% 30.6% 19.7%
Not atheist or agnostic 24.7% 39.0% 36.3%

Rows = 100%
Atheist and agnostic Not atheist or agnostic
Liberal 14.2% 85.8%
Moderate 6.1% 93.9%
Conservatve 4.3% 95.7%

When I see these results I’m always surprised by the proportions of atheists & agnostics who define themselves as conservative. It seems way too high. I think this is due to libertarians who check the conservative option.

November 14, 2011

Is sorting mysterious to Jesse Bering?

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:15 pm

In a rambling column at Slate on (ir)religious intermarriage Jesse Berring observes:

Still, I concede that the irreducible alchemy of romance makes my cold logic rather difficult to apply to individual marriages. There are more things to a person—and to a relationship, one hopes—than religious beliefs. But since atheistic bachelors and bachelorettes are very rare specimens (there are no exact statistics available, but just 1.6 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as “atheist”), deciding just how important it is to find a godless mate is indeed a real issue.

There are two small issues, and a big one. First, the 1.6 percent figure is a low one because the term “atheist” is somewhat taboo. Atheist as defined by those who don’t believe in God (as opposed to those who admit to being atheists) is closer to 5%. Second, the main issue with “atheist dating” is the sex ratio problem, though that’s more modest in younger age cohorts today than older ones.

But the broader point is that it’s totally ridiculous to assume that mating is random within the population. Jews are ~3% of the American population, but Jewish-Jewish pairings are not 0.03 × 0.03. I’m sure Bering saw that “religious nones” (of which 1/3 are de facto atheists) have a 50% probability of being with someone of the same lack of beliefs, despite being 15% of the population.

Overall I think it’s right that people should align reasonably well on big metaphysical questions for increased probability of amity. If possible. I don’t think metaphysics (or lack thereof) really matters much day to day, but it does start to matter when there’s a discordance. I just don’t get why Bering ends up writing stuff that’s plainly meant to provoke when there are serious and interesting questions which he is really addressing.

September 20, 2011

God is intuitive

Filed under: Anthroplogy,atheism,Cognitive Science,Psychology,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:15 pm

Update: An ungated version of the paper.

I used to spend a lot more time talking about cognitive science of religion on this weblog. It was an interest of mine, but I’ve come to a general resolution of what I think on this topic, and so I don’t spend much time discussing it. But in the comments below there was a lot of fast & furious accusation, often out of ignorance. I personally find that a little strange. I’ve been involved in freethought organizations in the past, and so have some acquaintance with “professional atheists.” Additionally, I’ve also been a participant and observer of the internet freethought websites since the mid-1990s (yes, I remember when alt.atheism was relevant!). In other words, I know of whom I speak (and I am not completely unsympathetic to their role in the broader ecology of ideas).

But the bigger issue is a cognitive model of how religiosity emerges. Luckily for me a paper came out which speaks to many of the points which I alluded to, Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God:

Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. If this is true, the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one’s more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection. Three studies support this hypothesis, linking intuitive cognitive style to belief in God. Study 1 showed that individual differences in cognitive style predict belief in God. Participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT; Frederick, 2005), which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. Participants who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God. This effect was not mediated by education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables. Study 2 showed that the correlation between CRT scores and belief in God also holds when cognitive ability (IQ) and aspects of personality were controlled. Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time. Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God.

Recall that in many social domains where neurotypicals rely on innate, intuitive, and “fast” cognition, high functioning autistic individuals must reflect and reason. I don’t have access to the original paper, but there’s a nice piece in Harvard Gazette on the research. Here’s the last sentence: ““How people think about tricky math problems is reflected in their thinking — and ultimately their convictions — about the metaphysical order of the universe,” Shenhav said.”

September 19, 2011

What atheism and autism may have in common

Filed under: atheism,Autism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:02 pm

My post below on atheism and autism caused some confusion. I want to quickly clear up some issues in regards to the model which I had in mind implicitly. In short I’m convinced by the work of cognitive scientists of religion (see Religion Explained and In Gods We Trust) that belief in gods and spirits is intuitively plausible to most people. It does not follow from this that when you have an intuitive belief that that belief is unshakable. This explains the variation in levels of atheism across societies as well as shifts of views across one’s lifetime. But, it also explains why in pre-modern societies acceptance of supernatural entities is the null or default position, if not necessarily universal.

But what’s the basis for the idea that belief in gods is intuitive? To reduce a lot of results down to a few sentences, humans live in a universe of other actors, agents, which we preoccupy over greatly. Additionally, we can conceive of agents which aren’t present before us. In other words, the plausibility of supernatural narratives derives from our orientation toward populating the universe with social beings and agency. There’s a lot of evolutionary psychological models for why this phenotype is adaptive, but that’s not relevant to us here. The point is that religious beliefs and systems use these intuitions and impulses as atoms with which they can build up more complex cultural ideas.

This is why autistic individuals are of particular interest. They either lack, or are highly deficient in, a great deal of naive social intelligence. If the root source of religiosity is a minimum level of social awareness of other agents, then one might suppose that autistic people may have difficulty finding supernatural agents, gods, plausible. Above I stated that I personally found the work of cognitive scientists of religion about the root causes of this phenomenon plausible. The reason I stated it in this way is that I’m one of the minority of human beings who has never found supernatural agents or spirits plausible. I had to read in a book why other people found gods so compelling as a concept. Reflectively I understood the gist, and I was indoctrinated in their existence as a small child, but these entities were never “real” to me. I suspect that this is due to a more global deficit in modeling other agents.

This is why the empirical results on the correlation between atheism and high functioning autism are important. High functioning autistic individuals are a “boundary condition” of normal human psychological function, and if conventional religiosity is strongly dependent on normal human psychology you would expect it to be generally lacking among high functioning autistic individuals. When I say conventional religiosity, I’m leaving an opening for unconventional religiosity. There are stories of autistic children when told of the concept of the afterlife who formulate a plan to kill themselves, because they accept at face value the promise of a utopian afterlife. This is not the normal human reaction, and it goes to the complexity of cognition, where multiple inconsistent views can be hold together simultaneously. But, I do think that a subset of religious fundamentalists are in fact the inversions of the atheists who find religion implausible on the face of it. To be plain about it, the beliefs of most religious systems imply a lot of crazy things if you work out the logic. But most people don’t behave in a crazy manner.

Also, as I noted below the psychological profile of atheism is going to vary by society, because the proportions of atheists varies. In a culture where religion is strongly normative, such as Palestine, atheism will be espoused by a particular personality profile willing to go against a very strong grain. In contrast, in a nation like Estonia there will be little difference between atheists and theists.

Finally, some people were angry that I seemed to suggest that atheists were antisocial weirdos. Well, there is some data to back that up. This doesn’t mean that more atheist societies are worse than more theist societies (e.g., Estonia vs. Romania). But when it comes to individual differences this seems robust in many societies, though probably not all. I’m curious if people who are aghast at my generalization have a lot of experience in person with atheist organizations? (I do)

September 18, 2011

Atheism as mental deviance

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 8:00 pm

Tyler Cowen points me to a PDF, Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism, which has some fascinating results on the religiosity (or lack thereof) of people with high functioning autism. I’ve seen speculation about the peculiar psychological profile of atheists before in the cognitive science literature, and there’s a fair amount of social psychological data on the different personality profile of atheists (e.g., more disagreeable). But there hasn’t been a lot of systematic investigation of the possibility that autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist because they lack a fully fleshed “theory of mind,” which would make supernatural agents, gods, more plausible.

You can read the whole paper yourself, but these two figures are the most important bits:

These two figures illustrate two results:

1) Among two equivalent demographic samples differentiated by autism diagnosis state, the high functioning autistics are much more likely to be atheists.

2) Among a sample of autistics and neurotypicals those who are atheists have the highest “autism quotient.”

I doubt this is going to surprise too many people. Additionally, we need to be careful about generalizing here. I think it seems likely that a huge proportion of high functioning autistics are atheists, but, that doesn’t mean that a huge proportion of atheists are high functioning autistics (though a larger proportion than the general population). Social context probably matters as well. In a nation like Estonia being an atheist is a lot less deviant and nonconformist than in the United States. Estonian high functioning autistics might still be atheist, but a much smaller proportion of atheists in Estonia are going to be high functioning autistics.

Finally, there’s another group which I think exhibits many of the same tendencies as atheists in the United States: libertarians.

Note: I am a libertarian-leaning atheist, in case anyone cares.

September 5, 2011

Being an atheist with a “Muslim name”

Filed under: atheism,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:26 am

I was sent off to purchase some cheap white wine yesterday to further the production of a very tasty tuna pasta. So I quickly ran over to the neighborhood mini-mart. Actually, this was my first visitation to the mini-mart. The woman behind the counter was brown. Going by the numbers she was probably an Indian immigrant. Indians predominate in the American brown community, and most of the people who work in these sorts of jobs seem to have accents, and so are immigrants. I profiled her before I even interacted with her.

I quickly found myself a $3 bottle of wine, and raced up to the counter. Pasta was boiling. Ingredients were cooling. Because of my preternaturally young face I set my identification on the counter. Below is what transpired….

[brown-skinned female clerk, age 50 or so, scrutinizes the I.D., and looks me over. She smiles]

Clerk: So you guys are done with roza? [roza = fasting for Ramadan]

Me: [thought: what kind of Muslim starts to buy alcohol again after Ramandan?] Uh, I’m not Muslim.

Clerk: [confused expression, smiles nervously] But your name is Khan. I thought you were Muslim.

Me: Yeah, I’m an atheist.

Clerk: [confused expression]

Me: I don’t believe in that stuff. I don’t fast. But I think my parents’ said that fasting was over….

Clerk: [even more confused expression] Your parents? So they are Muslim? But you aren’t?

Me: [Walking out of the store] My parents are Muslim, but I’m not. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe that stuff.

I have no idea what the clerk’s religion was, or their attitude toward Islam. She was just being friendly, and naturally profiled me. Most brown-skinned males with the surname Khan are Muslim. Most well-educated Americans of all races assume I’m Muslim without knowing anything about me. Naturally, they also assume I’m a Pakistani Muslim. This is entirely warranted by the numbers. The problem is when I introduce new information into the equation.

That new information being that I’m of that small minority of people with brown skin and a conventionally Muslim surname who does not identify with Islam at all. Not only that, but I also don’t identify with any other barbaric superstition, such as Christianity or Hinduism, or vacuous spirituality in general. When I introduce this information into the equation some cosmopolitan white atheist Americans bluster and get confused. I suppose scientific materialism for me but not for thee? It’s even more funny when secular whites want commiserate with me about Islamophobia (when I express skepticism about Islam sometimes I get the weird accusation of false consciousness and inability to resist the brainwashing of Western thinking). But in general American sensitivities are such that the conversation moves to other topics quickly.

Not so always with Muslims and/or South Asians. In the former class a lot of the uncomfortable discussion or tension emerges from the plain fact that they’re naturally offended that I dismiss their primitive superstitions. The more civilized Westernized individuals naturally move the conversation to more productive domains, while the more barbaric individuals can become irritable, or even verbally belligerent (though to be fair, the last is very rare). The class of South Asians is more interesting. In particular those South Asians who are not Muslim. These individuals operate in a world where confessional and communal identities are relatively fixed, and incredibly important. Even those individuals within this culture who are liberal in their attitudes, and “secular,” give a nod to the realities of their barbaric culture, where men, women, and children, live or die depending on whichever idol they bow down to, Krishna, Allah, or Christ.

Even transplanted to the United States, or even born in the United States, individuals with this orientation have difficulty understanding those of us who defect, deny, and repudiate, this barbaric cartel of organized superstitions. From the expression on the clerk’s face it was as if I was a black man who asserted that I was white, and denied that I was black. The analogy might seem very amusing, but it’s informative. In places like Brazil, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States there are indeed black men (i.e., those of mixed race) who assert that they are white, and deny that they are black! From a Brazilian perspective there are those of mixed race who perversely assert that they are black (e.g., Barack Hussein Obama).

Sometimes these confusions are serious. But most of the time I find them amusing. I hope you do too.

June 7, 2011

More curiosity about atheists?

Filed under: atheism,Religion,science — Razib Khan @ 12:08 am

Josh Rosenau has a post up discussing the impact of “New Atheism” on public perceptions of atheists. He mentions offhand that “New Atheism” as a movement really only crystallized in the mid-2000s, which made me wonder: what does Google Trends tell us about interest in atheism?

Unfortunately there wasn’t any information on “New Atheism.” The search query didn’t have enough volume, alas. But “atheist” did. So I compared “atheist,” “Christian,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” and “Muslim.” I limited the data set to the United States.

You can’t really tell what’s going because the volume for “Christian” is very high. So let’s remove that.

The interest in Muslims is obviously news dependent. So removing them:

You can now discern that there has been a rise in the search for the term “atheist.” Finally, let’s compare atheist to “humanist” and “agnostic”:

This agrees with my intuition. Though the word atheist isn’t exactly novel, it has long had an air of disrepute (in past centuries the term “atheist” didn’t ...

May 22, 2011

Camping’s Wager

Filed under: atheism,Pascal's Wager,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:29 pm

I’ve had to deal with vulgar* expositions of

February 4, 2011

On religion and brownitude

Filed under: atheism,Culture,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:48 pm

Recently, a self-described traditionalist Catholic correspondent observed that my discussion of religion was “respectful.” I did find it a little interesting, insofar as personally I’m not sure that I really “respect” religion as such. Rather, I take it seriously as a cultural phenomenon, and take it on its own terms as an intellectual one (I really don’t take it seriously intellectually. I think theology has as much substance as astrology). When I’ve got my analytic “cap” on I don’t see the point in letting my personal feelings get in the way, at least consciously.

But here at Brown Pundits I’ve taken a more acerbic tone, and that’s because of the audience. Religion is at the heart of South Asian culture, whether you’re religious or not, and it certainly is a primary reason for my alienation from it. I myself have never been religious, so it isn’t as if I have a harrowing personal story of de-conversion. Rather, the phenomenon is almost totally unintelligible to me on a deep emotional level, and I generally just tolerate the fact that South Asians tend to take this stuff seriously. Imagine if all brown people wore pizzas on their heads, and also periodically murdered each other because one group wore meat lovers and the other preferred plain cheese. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. Here at Brown Pundits I’m more aggressive and less diplomatic about my opinions because I want to make sure that South Asians who take religion as normative don’t always assume that everyone has the same stars in their skies. This is especially true in the Diaspora, where South Asians move into cultural domains where others set the terms of the debate.

As an example, at the Sepia Mutiny weblog people have still expressed incomprehension as to why evangelical Protestants would wish to convert Hindus away from their birth religion, an act which they perceive to be of cultural aggression. This attitude is understandable for South Asians, but it indicates a lack of engagement with the mores and presuppositions of their new milieu. The U.S.A. is a world where people habitually experiment with new toppings on their pizzas, and marketing is a big part of that.

January 9, 2011

Being brown = being pious

Filed under: atheism,Culture,Religion — Razib Khan @ 8:33 pm

A friend was skimming Lonely Planet Bengali Phrasebook, and brought this to my attention:

Bengalis may feel uncomfortable if you do not profess a religion. To avoid any embarrassment, it may be a good idea to claim a religion.

I joked that this was the equivalent of telling a traveler to an exotic land to make sure that one has an “animal totem” one adheres to, in case they inquire. One of the biggest annoyances with being brown, and having a “Muslim” name, is that some brown people don’t really grok that someone can be not just secular, or not very religious, or even irreligious, but areligious. I am one such person, supernatural concepts have always seemed rather strange and incomprehensible to me, and I have no communal identification with Islam.

I suspect that if I had had supernatural beliefs and a deep attachment in Islam as a child those memories would serve to make me more sympathetic to Muslims. Muslims and people raised as Muslims who are more innately superstitious invariably make the error in assuming that I have an intuitive understanding of the primitive supernatural mindset. Any normal human would, and those experiences would surely make Islam more sympathetic. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson is a confirmed atheist, but admits that his Southern Baptist upbringing has inculcated in him emotional responses to the style of religious delivery common among evangelical Protestants. An atheist who did not have such a religious upbringing simply would not relate in the same manner, and have less of a “hook” for communal identification.

In any case, I think the pretense toward piety does vary a bit among South Asians. The long time Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Communist Jyoti Basu, was after all a confirmed atheist. It is among the primitive and superstitious common folk which one might encounter that the very idea of atheism and areligiosity seems strange. Among these wretched of the earth the Indian rationalists witness.

I believe that on some level the Marxists are correct, and that the best cure for the squalid levels of superstition normative in South Asia is economic development. This does not mean that religion or communalism will disappear. And in fact development and modernity might intensify communal conflict in the short run. But only affluence can dim the appeal of magic in the long run. When people have no hope, they invariably turn to the gods. It is our nature.

January 6, 2011

How America is a little like Pakistan

Recently a “hot story” in the barbaric nation that is Pakistan is that a politician did not know how to recite a prayer properly. An important back story here is that Muslims generally pray in Arabic, but most Muslims are not Arabic language speakers (and in any case, colloquial Arabic is very different from “Classical Arabic” which is derived from the language of the Koran). So deviation from appropriate pronunciation is a major problem for Muslims as a practical matter. And, since the words one recites in ritual prayer are derived from the Koran they are the literal Word of God as transmitted to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Proper delivery is of the essence (and for your information, I can still bust out sura Fatiha, thank you very much).

But the major point illustrated by the incident is the importance of public piety in Pakistan. The father of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was so Westernized that he had to have mullahs prep him on how to recite lines of the Koran during speeches. He was himself from a heretical Muslim sect (heretical in the eyes of the Sunni majority at least), the Ismailis, and married a woman of Zoroastrian background. Like much of the Pakistani elite today and upper class men of the British Empire during that period Jinnah had a soft spot for various liquors. Pakistan has come a long way from those days, re-branding itself as an extremist nation par excellence. The “moderates” may be the majority, but they are not moved to place themselves between the extremists and their victims.

And this brings me to the USA. How is it like Pakistan? We’ve also have come a long way since the Founding in terms of the respectable “orthodoxy” which we demand of our politicians. A new Pew survey on religion in Congress puts this into stark relief:

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

Barack Hussein Obama, a man who believes in evolution more than angels, has to constantly tout his Christian faith. This, during a period of American history witnessing massive increases in secularity. What a change this is! Of the early American presidents the first six were arguably not orthodox Christians, as defined by an acceptance of the Nicene Creed. Andrew Jackson, the first conventional Christian president, refused to set aside a day of prayer, in deference to the strict church-state separation advocated by the Democratic party of the era, and derived from Thomas Jefferson’s position. As for Jefferson himself, he was a man who expressed profound personal skepticism of the religious truth claims of his era, going so far as to bowdlerize the Bible, removing most of the supernatural incidents. He was also associated with the equivalent of New Atheists during the late Enlightenment. Radical anti-clericalists such as Thomas Paine, who he invited to the United States in 1802 during his presidency. Can you imagine an American president admitting friendship with Richard Dawkins today?

But that’s the surface. Like Andrew Sullivan I assume that many non-believers in politics are “in the closet.” But how many? The Pew survey correctly notes that around 16% of Americans are not affiliated with any religion. So if Congress was representative, you’d have 16% unaffiliated. But Congress isn’t representative. I found educational data from the 111th Congress, and calculated like so:

- 64% have graduate degrees

- 30% have undergraduate degrees

- 1% have some college

- 5% are high school graduates

Using the GSS you can see how belief in God and religion affiliation tracks education. Below are the proportions for the total sample and for liberals in the 2000s:

Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 2.5 2 3 4
Agnostic 3 4 3 7 9
None 15 15 13 15 18
Less Than HS HS Some college College Grad
Atheist 2 5 4 6 7
Agnostic 7 5 6 17 12
None 16 23 26 32 30

Weighting Congress by education, I get the following values:

Predicated All
Atheist 4
Agnostic 8
None 17
Predicated Liberals
Atheist 7
Agnostic 13
None 30

This is almost certainly an underestimate.  Most of the people with graduate educations in Congress have finished a professional degree. They’re lawyers. The “graduate” category in the GSS is a catchall, and is likely not as elite. Additionally, a more fine-grained analysis would take into account the university which individuals graduated from. Elite universities tend to have very secular student bodies. You can also drill-down to a more a fine-grained scale. Over 30% of Jews in the GSS with graduate educations are atheists or agnostics. I am willing to believe that most of the Jews in Congress are not deep believers in HaShem.

What one could really do is create some sort of regression model with demographic inputs which would predict the odds of someone being an atheist or irreligious. The data from Congress is there to input after we’ve see how the independent variables predict the outcome in the general population.

Of course, I agree that it is insane for a politician to come out as an atheist. There is simply no win in this; many people would be turned off, at the gain of few voters. Around half of Americans admit to simply not being willing to vote for an atheist as president.

November 19, 2010

Asian Buddhists are not atheists

Filed under: atheism,Buddhism,Data Analysis,Religion,Statistics — Razib Khan @ 3:10 pm

In response to my two posts below on atheism statistics, people in the comments and around the web (e.g., Facebook) have pointed out that Buddhism is necessarily/can be atheistic, and that Buddhism, is not/not necessarily a religion, and therefore that explains the statistics. Some of these people are lazy/stupid judging by the way the argument is delivered, but they are clearly grounded in a reality which is expressed in books and documentaries which introduce people to Buddhism. There is a small issue which confounds this analysis of the atheism statistics: most East Asians do not identify as Buddhist. This is mostly because most citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not identify with Buddhism. That being said, Buddhism is clearly the dominant organized religion historically in many East Asian nations (though that has not been true in South Korea for the past generation). I reject the equivalence between the role of Catholicism in much of Europe and that of Buddhism in East Asia (the Church was a much more powerful, prestigious, and influential institution than the Buddhist sangha with only a few exceptional periods), but it can be argued that these are Buddhist cultures, just as they are Confucian societies.

But there’s a bigger issue with this objection: most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists. This is also the case for American Buddhists. Some people have objected that theism in a Buddhist context is not equivalent to theism in a Hindu, and especially Abrahamic sense. There is no creator god obviously. That is fine, but I think it is important to point out that no matter the theological details of their beliefs, most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people of Chinese origin who tell me that they’re Buddhist, they believe in god, when I tell them I’m an atheist (usually in response to the question about whether I am Muslim).

The previous question as to whether someone was a “Religious person,” “Not a religious person,” or a “Convinced atheist,” can be broken down by religion. I did so. Below are the data for Buddhists alone. I also provided the sample size for Buddhists. The overall N’s were on the order of 1,000-2,000. So you can see that only a small minority (5% actually) of Chinese in the People’s Republic identify as Buddhists. The other values are obviously percentages.

Country N Religious Not A Religious Person A Convinced Atheist
Japan 319 37 60 3
S Korea 298 37 61 3
China 70 91 9 0
Taiwan 224 50 41 8
Vietnam 226 62 15 23
Hong Kong 160 100 0 0
Thailand 1484 34 66 0
Malaysia 240 78 20 2

November 18, 2010

Sex differences in global atheism, part N

Filed under: atheism,Culture,Data Analysis,Religion,Sex Difference,WVS — Razib Khan @ 2:55 pm

Whenever I blog religion and atheism I brace for a bunch of uninformed comments. Everyone has an opinion, but few seem genuinely interested in digging for data, or reading about the history of religion, and the empirical realities of the phenomenon. If you are an exception to this trend, you’re awesome, and more power to you. Seeing the responses around the blogosphere to some of my posts it is immediately obvious that people don’t make recourse to the GSS, WVS, or The Religious Landscape Survey, let alone read books like In Gods We Trust or The Reformation. I could go on, but there are so many data sources, and proportionally so little interest in relation to the broader enthusiasm for opining on the topic.

As an aside, in my previous post I alluded to the fact that atheism is not a white thing. I didn’t lay it out explicitly, but far too much of commentary on power dynamics and human affairs is locked into the age of white supremacy. There are Chinese mining towns all over Africa, and we’re still fixated on the legacies of the mustachioed men of yore. Some new thought is needful.

In any case, whenever I post on atheism or religion the data comes calling to me, and begs me to revisit it. Questions, questions. I’m always curious if I can find something new, a twist, a novel inference. So I decided to look for patterns in the WVS wave 5 in regards to the well known phenomenon of male excess in the area of atheism. The data are country-by-country. Below are some plots. The asked was if one was a religious person, and I’m looking at those who asserted they were “convinced atheists.”

The first plots aren’t super interesting. What you’re seeing is that absolute differences in percentage of atheists by sex increase as the percentage of atheists increase. The variance of the latter explains 75% of the variance in the former. Rather, it is better to look at the ratio of males to females. That’s in the third plot. Comparing that to the percent of atheists in the fourth plot you see an interesting trend: the maximum ratio seems to be at low, but not trivial, levels of atheism. As atheism becomes more common in society the sex ratio abates, though it does not disappear. The last plot has a log-scale to show the pattern more clearly. Note that I had to remove some nations from the ratio list because there were basically no atheists, period.

Here are the raw data tables:

Total Male Female
Country Atheist Religious Not Religious Atheist Religious Not Religious Atheist Percent difference Ratio
Romania 0.6% 90.5% 8.4% 1.1% 95.9% 4.0% 0.1% 1.0% 11.00
Guatemala 0.8% 68.5% 30.0% 1.5% 75.7% 24.1% 0.2% 1.3% 7.50
Poland 1.4% 92.5% 4.9% 2.6% 96.4% 3.2% 0.4% 2.2% 6.50
Ethiopia 0.4% 78.9% 20.6% 0.6% 83.4% 16.5% 0.1% 0.5% 6.00
Chile 3.2% 56.2% 38.1% 5.6% 72.4% 26.5% 1.1% 4.5% 5.09
United States 3.6% 65.1% 28.9% 6.0% 78.6% 20.1% 1.2% 4.8% 5.00
Indonesia 0.3% 82.5% 17.1% 0.4% 86.9% 13.0% 0.1% 0.3% 4.00
Trinidad 0.5% 81.3% 18.0% 0.7% 86.9% 12.9% 0.2% 0.5% 3.50
Italy 2.7% 82.8% 13.0% 4.1% 93.1% 5.7% 1.2% 2.9% 3.42
Spain 7.4% 36.6% 51.8% 11.6% 53.9% 42.5% 3.6% 8.0% 3.22
Peru 1.4% 77.4% 20.4% 2.2% 86.4% 12.9% 0.7% 1.5% 3.14
Ukraine 3.0% 71.5% 23.7% 4.8% 88.0% 10.4% 1.6% 3.2% 3.00
Uruguay 7.6% 45.0% 43.2% 11.8% 65.4% 30.3% 4.3% 7.5% 2.74
Turkey 0.5% 79.6% 19.6% 0.8% 85.5% 14.2% 0.3% 0.5% 2.67
Colombia 0.5% 75.5% 23.7% 0.8% 84.4% 15.3% 0.3% 0.5% 2.67
Cyprus 2.1% 49.7% 47.1% 3.1% 71.7% 27.0% 1.3% 1.8% 2.38
Argentina 2.3% 72.5% 24.2% 3.2% 88.8% 9.8% 1.4% 1.8% 2.29
South Africa 1.2% 73.1% 25.2% 1.6% 89.4% 9.9% 0.7% 0.9% 2.29
Bulgaria 5.3% 57.1% 35.5% 7.5% 69.4% 27.3% 3.3% 4.2% 2.27
Finland 3.1% 51.3% 44.4% 4.3% 68.3% 29.8% 1.9% 2.4% 2.26
Japan 13.7% 21.6% 59.2% 19.3% 26.4% 64.6% 9.0% 10.3% 2.14
Malaysia 2.3% 87.4% 9.4% 3.2% 90.7% 7.8% 1.5% 1.7% 2.13
Serbia 4.0% 83.3% 11.4% 5.3% 87.7% 9.8% 2.6% 2.7% 2.04
Russia 4.4% 61.6% 32.3% 6.1% 83.2% 13.8% 3.0% 3.1% 2.03
Iran 0.1% 80.7% 19.1% 0.2% 86.6% 13.3% 0.1% 0.1% 2.00
Norway 6.8% 30.5% 60.5% 9.0% 52.3% 43.1% 4.6% 4.4% 1.96
Netherlands 7.5% 50.8% 39.2% 9.9% 62.9% 32.0% 5.1% 4.8% 1.94
Slovenia 9.8% 66.2% 20.5% 13.3% 77.8% 15.2% 7.0% 6.3% 1.90
Canada 6.6% 60.8% 30.5% 8.7% 72.1% 23.3% 4.6% 4.1% 1.89
Moldova 1.0% 75.8% 23.0% 1.3% 91.4% 7.8% 0.7% 0.6% 1.86
Hong Kong 5.4% 19.8% 73.2% 7.0% 34.1% 62.1% 3.8% 3.2% 1.84
France 17.1% 42.0% 35.6% 22.3% 51.5% 36.3% 12.3% 10.0% 1.81
Andorra 14.2% 40.1% 42.0% 18.0% 56.9% 32.9% 10.1% 7.9% 1.78
Sweden 17.2% 26.4% 52.0% 21.6% 40.6% 46.6% 12.8% 8.8% 1.69
South Korea 28.6% 23.0% 41.4% 35.6% 37.1% 41.3% 21.7% 13.9% 1.64
New Zealand 7.0% 43.3% 48.2% 8.5% 55.1% 39.7% 5.2% 3.3% 1.63
Germany 19.2% 36.7% 39.5% 23.7% 48.6% 36.5% 14.9% 8.8% 1.59
Iraq 2.7% 54.3% 42.5% 3.2% 55.1% 42.8% 2.1% 1.1% 1.52
Burkina Faso 1.6% 90.8% 7.3% 1.9% 92.2% 6.6% 1.3% 0.6% 1.46
Mexico 2.9% 70.6% 26.0% 3.4% 80.0% 17.6% 2.4% 1.0% 1.42
Viet Nam 23.6% 32.2% 40.7% 27.1% 46.6% 33.6% 19.8% 7.3% 1.37
Taiwan 16.8% 40.1% 40.5% 19.4% 40.4% 45.4% 14.2% 5.2% 1.37
China 17.9% 20.7% 58.7% 20.7% 22.8% 61.7% 15.6% 5.1% 1.33
Switzerland 7.9% 59.8% 31.2% 9.0% 69.0% 24.0% 7.0% 2.0% 1.29
Great Britain 10.4% 42.4% 46.0% 11.6% 54.5% 36.3% 9.3% 2.3% 1.25
Australia 9.9% 46.8% 42.8% 10.4% 56.2% 34.4% 9.5% 0.9% 1.09
Mali 0.4% 97.5% 2.1% 0.4% 97.8% 1.8% 0.4% 0.0% 1.00
India 2.5% 74.4% 23.2% 2.4% 82.7% 14.6% 2.7% -0.3% 0.89
Brazil 1.2% 84.7% 14.2% 1.1% 91.1% 7.6% 1.3% -0.2% 0.85
Thailand 0.2% 35.4% 64.5% 0.1% 35.5% 64.3% 0.3% -0.2% 0.33
Rwanda 0.1% 93.5% 6.5% 0.0% 94.9% 5.0% 0.1% -0.1% 0.00
Egypt 0.0% 90.1% 9.9% 0.0% 95.1% 4.9% 0.0% 0.0% #DIV/0!
Morocco 0.0% 91.3% 8.7% 0.0% 92.3% 7.7% 0.0% 0.0% #DIV/0!
Jordan 0.1% 88.7% 11.1% 0.2% 95.6% 4.4% 0.0% 0.2% #DIV/0!
Georgia 0.3% 94.3% 5.1% 0.6% 98.6% 1.4% 0.0% 0.6% #DIV/0!
Ghana 0.5% 91.3% 7.7% 1.0% 91.8% 8.2% 0.0% 1.0% #DIV/0!
Zambia 0.5% 88.0% 11.0% 1.0% 91.1% 8.9% 0.0% 1.0% #DIV/0!

Most atheists are not white & other non-fairy tales

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 2:46 am


Over at Comment is Free Belief (where I am an occasional contributor) there is an interesting post up, The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists. Actually, I disagree with the thrust of the post pretty strongly. But here’s the important section:

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, James Randi … if you’re a regular Cif belief reader, you’ll already have spotted the pattern – these are the names of arguably the most prominent, outspoken atheists and “sceptics” in the world. There’s something else you should notice – they are all white men. The atheist and sceptic movements are dominated by white men and I think this is a problem.

I was involved in an atheist organization in my younger years. The president was a Eurasian woman, and I was the vice president. The treasurer had a Muslim Arab father, so I suppose we didn’t fit this profile. But I think the generalization holds. But I don’t think it’s a problem really for the Richard Dawkins of the world. In fact, there isn’t even that big of a deficit when it comes to non-whites if you look at it from a world wide perspective. The World Values Survey asks people if they fall into the categories “Religious Person”, “Not a Religious Person”, or “Convinced Atheist.” Below are some bar plots from the 5th and 4th waves, take in the mid-2000s and around 2000 respectively.

As you can see the most secular nations in the world are those of East Asia, in particular what are often termed “Confucian societies.” It is likely therefore that the majority of the world’s atheists are actually East Asian. So why no East Asian atheist movement? Because historically East Asian nations have not placed an exclusive institutional religious identity at the center of their elite political culture. This was one of the reasons that many 18th century Enlightenment philosophers exhibited a fair amount of Sinophilia.

Though I accept the arguments of scholars that Confucius would be defined as a theist today, the earliest teachings attributed to him tend to be strongly biased away from metaphysical speculation and toward a worldly consequentialism. The third great Confucian, after Mencius and Confucius himself, Xunzi, seems to have been a more explicitly materialist. Xunzi strikes me in some ways as the Thomas Hobbes of the classical Chinese sages.

In any case, the cultural and institutional Confucianism which was the dominant elite ideology in East Asia for nearly 2,000 years was not atheistic and secularist as such. Even Xunzi defended the necessity of rites and reverence for a well ordered society. The Chinese state subsidized and encouraged particular sects, and discouraged others. The key point is that religious movements were always subordinate to the elite culture, which itself tended to look more and more suspiciously upon manifestations of religious enthusiasm. With all due respect to Daoism the most prominent organized religion in East Asia has been Buddhism, and the suppression of the power of the Buddhist sangha in 9th century China, 14th century Korea, 16th Japan, and early modern Vietnam, all attest to the reality that when organized religion becomes, well, too organized, in Confucian societies it is brought to heel. In other words the process of the decoupling of church and state which arguably began in Protestant Europe with the secularization of church lands during the Reformation and came to fruition over the next few centuries has long been a feature of East Asian civilization in smaller less catastrophic doses. All the Emperors of China were their own Henry VIII, defenders and destroyers of the faith.*

With these facts under our belt, it is easier to understand that atheist propagandists from d’Holbach to Dawkins are products of a particular historical experience. The transformation of Christendom to the West, the counter-reaction on the part of organized Christianity, and the eruption of “New Atheism” in its own turn as a response to the rise of a muscular Christianity in a post-Christian age. Even those in the West who espouse multiculturalism and consider themselves identified with racial minority subcultures have a very difficult time conceptualizing any dynamic where the West is not the center or standard. Generally all conflicts and dynamics are assumed to be a combination of the West vs. something else.

ukreligionTo the left is data from the UK census on religion and ethnicity. Notice that the plural majority of Chinese in Britain have “No Religion.” Blacks differ whether they are of direct African origin, or from the Diaspora in the West Indies. It is among South Asians you see a strong definite identification with religion. This pattern is repeated internationally. What you’re seeing are deep rooted cultural patterns, a tendency to fuse religious and ethnic-national identities, in particular among South Asians. I will grant that there are differences of kind here. While it is common knowledge that Jawaharlal Nehru, the founder of modern India, was an agnostic, the personal lack of deep religious piety of the founder of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is obfuscated by many modern Pakistanis (the fact even that he was from an Ismaili Shia background is also hidden).

All the Hemant Mehtas and Alorn Shahas will not change the structural parameters which make atheism, and irreligious attitudes in general, taboo, discouraged, or rare, among South Asians. India, unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh, has long had prominent irreligious politicians and movements, from the atheism of the Communist parties and the Dravidian movement, to individual politicians such as George Fernandes. And yet Indians remain a religious people by and large, with strong communal orientations.

I am not a role model!
I am not a role model!

In the near future British Asians (South Asians) seem likely to be insulating themselves from the broader dynamics in Western society toward secularization. They intermarry with other groups at very low rates, despite being less than 5% of the British population, and fragmented even amongst themselves. When aggressive secularists like Dawkins attack Islam in the same manner in which they attack Christianity, they’re accused of Islamophobia. In the USA mainstream liberals like Josh Marshall look skeptically upon the ‘odd confluence’ between Christian religious fundamentalists and New Atheists in their attitudes toward Islam. And it isn’t just Islam. In late 2004 a group of Sikhs in Britain rioted because of a blasphemous play. Here’s what went down:

With its depiction of rape and murder within a Sikh temple, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s drama was bound to upset critics who felt that its title Behzti – Dishonour – encapsulated the slur it cast on their faith. But few anticipated that a small-scale production by a young playwright could spark the violent confrontation that this weekend resulted in thousands of pounds worth of damage and clashes with riot police at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

This is not an atypical expression of “communal” outrage which occasionally flairs up in South Asia. Though in this case the outrage was directed against a heterodox member of the community.

The overall point I’m making is that we need to take cultural difference seriously. Just as East Asians are relatively secular because of their particular distinctive history, so South Asian culture and society has been shaped by its religious commitments in a very deep manner. Of course this sort of reflexive and explicit confessional outlook does not have to necessarily persist. To be French was to be Catholic until the emergence of a public non-Catholic element within French society during and after the Revolution. The prominence of Buddhism in Korean culture under the Silla and Goryeo gave way to marginalization under the Joseon. But these changes did not happen through better role models, rather, they were the outcome of an uprooting of the basic cultural presuppositions of the defining elites. The sort of multiculturalism which is currently being promoted in Britain right now arguably serves as a check on these sorts of transformations. Amartya Sen has argued so. The problem lies not with atheist organizations and Richard Dawkins, but a national elite which crystallized and solidifies specific parameters which define a recognized subculture in a multicultural order. I would argue that this is a case where the American model, where there is less state guiding of cultural hybridization and coexistence, gives more leeway for individual personal self-exploration and definition.

* This is not to say that East Asia is necessarily a haven for a critical rationalist perspective, what with the prominence of Chinese medicine, geomancy, Korean shamanism, and New Religious Movements in Japan.

April 14, 2010

Scientists as “spiritual atheists”

Filed under: atheism,Culture,science — Razib Khan @ 4:01 am

Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic? Look at the Data asks Chris Mooney. He’s referring to a new book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. Here’s the Amazon description:

… In Science vs Religion, Elaine Howard Ecklund investigates this unexamined assumption in the first systematic study of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. Ecklund surveyed nearly 1700 scientists, interviewed 275 of them, and centers the book around vivid portraits of 10 representative men and women working in the physical and social sciences at top American research universities. She finds that most of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. Nearly 50 percent of them are religious. Many others are what she calls “spiritual entrepreneurs,” seeking creative ways to work with the tensions between science and faith outside the constraints of traditional religion. Her respondents run the gamut from Margaret, a chemist who teaches a Sunday-school class, to Arik, a physicist who chose not to believe in God well before he decided to become a scientist. Only a small minority are actively hostile to religion….

Some of Chris’ readers are rather agitated about this all, and he suggests that perhaps they should read the book to answer their questions. I haven’t read the book, but you can read much of it on Google Books or Amazon’s text search feature. Skimming a bit I encountered the term “spiritual atheist,” which many might find an oxymoron. Rather than present her interpretation, let me post some of the tables which have data in them.


In reply to Chris’ question posed, my own interpretation is that yes, scientists are that atheistic! The reference point is the general population. In fact, 72% of scientists hold to a non-theistic position. On the other hand, most are not militant atheists in the mould of Richard Dawkins or Peter Atkins. Interestingly, if you assume that all of those with no religion are in the non-theist category (I think this is unlikely, but probably sufficient as a first approximation) then 40% of those who claim a religious affiliation among these scientists are non-theists. Also, I believe that Sam Harris, with his interest in meditation and Eastern mysticism more generally, would probably class as a spiritual atheist, so the categories New Atheist and spiritual atheist are not necessarily exclusive.

I find table 3.1 intriguing. I suspect here scientists and the general public may be speaking somewhat about different truths, or more specifically, scientists are thinking of a narrower subset. For the general public religious truths are both descriptive and prescriptive. That is, they describe the world’s past, and its present, as a factual matter, and, they prescribe a set of actions and norms. I think most scientists are thinking in prescriptive terms here, not descriptive. In other words, the religions of the world have integrated within their belief systems basic core human morality and ethics. Fundamental moral truths. I would myself agree that there are basic truths in many religions.

Note: I’ve seen most of this data in Ecklund’s papers, so I’m not spilling treasured secrets by presenting the tables.

All tables from Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think

March 25, 2010

Atheists and the legal system

Filed under: atheism,Religion — Razib @ 12:05 am

This article at The Jury Expert serves as a nice review of literature. Here’s their summary:

Atheists are unique and individual (just like all of us) and we have to attend to the attitudes, beliefs and life experiences that all of us (even atheists) bring to the table as jurors. Conversely, jurors need to be reminded, if they know they are judging an atheist, that they are human, American, and as deserving of thoughtful consideration as we all are. Do you want atheists on your particular jury? It depends. As we mentioned earlier, you probably don’t want a militant atheist–like most militants they are likely too unpredictable and a potentially polarizing force in the deliberation room. (We have seen occasions where juries–and even focus groups–have begun their deliberations with a group prayer. Many atheists (and others) would be very uncomfortable about this, of course, and resistance might have a strong impact on the deliberative process. Of course, if you want a contentious deliberation or a hung jury you may choose to inject a militant atheist, but we aren’t getting into that for this article.)

Most important, maintain an awareness of the intense bias atheism arouses in most Americans, and remember that all bias stems from beliefs, and the trigger is not always a characteristic visible to the eye.

Yes. We are human :-)

October 31, 2008

Razib Khan: Prophecies of the extinction of religion, or its triumph, fall prey to the weaknesses of linear prediction

Filed under: atheism,Religion,World news — Razib Khan @ 1:30 am
Prophecies of the extinction of religion, or its triumph, fall prey to the weaknesses of linear prediction

Conservative commentator Mark Steyn declares that Europe will soon be dominated by Muslims. The polemicist Sam Harris observes that half of Swedes are atheists, portending a godless future. They can't both be right, but they are both making the same mistake.

While Harris' fellow travellers exult over the fact that the number of Americans affirming that they have "no religion" has doubled in less than a generation, others point out that individual fertility in the west is directly proportional to personal religiosity. American women with a religious affiliation bear nearly a third more children than those without, and this, as much as changing beliefs, will influence the religious makeup of future generations.

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