This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 1st, 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 14 now other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at the big questions through the lens of science, the scientific outlook. We focused mostly on three research areas first pseudo science and paranormal. Second, alternative and complementary medicine. Third, on the intersection of religion and science in our society, secularism and nonbelief. We look at these research areas by drawing on if I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize-Winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guests, a couple points. One, if you’re in the Chicago land area, join us tomorrow, December 2nd at the kickoff of CFI is expansion into Chicago. Paul Kurtz will be giving an address and a number of us will be there. I’d love to see you there. It’s free for subscribers to our magazines and listeners to point of inquiry. There’s a reception after the talk, and I think you’ll have a lot of fun. Hope to see you there. Number two, I’d like to welcome our new campus groups that have affiliated with us or have begun working with us since last week’s show. There’s a new group, Atheistic Gnostics and Free Thinkers Students Association at Mississippi State University. A new Skeptic Society, a University of Guelph University of Guelph in Ontario, also has a new campus Free Thinkers Group, its CFA at Wealth. And a new group at San Diego State University, in addition to a new group at Aquinas College in Kentwood, Michigan. These five new groups since last week’s show are groups that work with us to advance science and reason at their schools. If you want to work with us to start a group at your school, go to Campus Inquirer, dawg. Doing so gets your free educational and promotional materials in the mail and you can get involved doing free Freethought at your school. One more announcement, Thomas reminds me that if you are skilled when it comes to Web development and web design, go to center for inquiry dot net and look at a couple new job listings, openings here at the Center for Inquiry as we expand our Web Development and Digital Media Outreach Department. You’ll work with Thomas Donnelly, who produces point of inquiry and does many of our other digital media services to expand our presence online through Web sites and add new digital projects. If you fit the bill, we’d love to have you apply. The position includes competitive salary and benefits and opportunities for travel and working with like minded freethinker skeptics and humanists all over the country. And now we’ll finally get to our guests this week, the eminent social scientist Barry Cosmin.
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I’m pleased to be joined in the studio by the eminent social scientists, the sociologist Barry Cosmin, who’s made big waves in recent years with his groundbreaking studies on religion in America. He was the senior researcher in the American Religious Identification Survey, the ARRIS survey sponsored by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. It’s the study that showed that the number of the unchurched in America has almost doubled in the 10 years preceding that study. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Barry Cosmin.
Well, thank you, T.J. I’m very glad to be here. And great to be part of this very interesting and unique show.
Let’s begin by defining the terms religion and secularism. Religion is that bugaboo. What do they say? It’s it’s difficult to define it as it is to nail jello to a tree. It’s all things to all people, in a sense. Let’s begin with secularism, though. Is secularism just the opposite of religion?
Well, I don’t think it isn’t negation of religion. I think it’s I mean, I go back to the Latin term secularism. And in the ancient world, it had something to do with the mundane, with it, with the time or the particular era, I guess, is the correct Latin translation. And I think that’s that’s what it’s about. It’s about this worldly here and now attitude, which is not a negation of religion, but it is looking at the world differently to the extent that it’s not about transcendence, it’s not about salvation in the world to come. And it’s not really about where we came from. It’s dealing with the world as we know it and see it and operate in it today. So I think secularism to me and I’m a social scientist and therefore I see the world really. And, you know, people, people, human beings is a social animals. And how are they navigating the world around them? How are they how they operating in in an interdependent world? And I think secularism is about interdependence. It’s about how we relate to others and how we learn from others. I guess, you know, it’s sort of in a philosophical terms, I guess we’re talking about, you know, the navigational tools, the tools that we use. And so in terms of this kind of interdependence, I think we’re talking about secularism is is how we learn from others.
But in religion, don’t you learn from others? Don’t you get some tools to navigate the world?
Well, most religions are about about revelation. So you’re not really learning from others. You’re learning from an other. And and there’s an authority structure there, basically. I mean, I think the secularists is mediating through their own human judgment and not relying on an external authority. And I think that’s the difference.
With that, you’ve drawn a distinction between hard and soft secularism, what I’ve called civil secularism versus comprehensive secularism. The difference between, say, maybe an atheist who is actively working to diminish the role of religion in public life and a religious person who favors civil secularism, the separation of church and state.
Let’s take the issue of the separation of church and state. Well, let’s be frank about it. That is way in which we learn to live together in a heterogeneous, pluralist society. Once we accept and this is I guess is, you know, the Mohnish religions, the or the authoritarian theocratic religions, assume anybody who doesn’t agree with them is both mad and bad. Now, as far as I’m concerned, it’s an inversion of that is that once I accept that my neighbor, who’s a Mormon or a Buddhist or a Seventh Day Adventist is Mozer Lawn, and it seems to be, you know, sort of drives a car without breaking the speed limit, seems law abiding, normal in terms of their lifestyle. And a good citizen and a good neighbor. And I you know, I accept that they’re neither man nor bad. I’m basically a Securus because I’m accepting that there’s differentiation in the world. And in fact, this diversity is not a really a threat to me. The point about the Mohnish and I would say the extreme theocracy, and I guess that would apply to Kim Il-Sung and his descendants and North Korea, is that they have a monopoly on certainty and truth. And if you don’t do what they say and behave in that in certain ways, you either have to be punished or you have an arrogance. And, you know, in their theocratic terms, if they haven’t got the police force at the moment. Eventually the police big piece of loose in the sky will get you. And so that’s. So where you’re going so I think, you know, I will make that those kinds of distinctions there.
It sounds like you’re saying secularism, this broad definition of secularism is more easy going. And that’s a soft secular.
OK, soft second soft secularism. Now that that deals with what I would call him is social structural secularism. It’s an it’s a navigation tool. It’s an operational device for us to basically operate in society and live in some kind of interdependence and minimize conflict, which is probably a good thing in the world, knowing what human beings do when they when they get into conflict. And then you have the hard secularism, which is about less about social structural, but does move from the social structure into trying to impose on human consciousness certain modes of thought and really says that, you know, it’s not that I don’t understand why you believe this particular piece of wood is a God, but, you know, if you do, it doesn’t really bother me. And you put it up in the garden and, you know, put flowers on it or something. I don’t know if it’s a piece of art or it’s a deity to you. That’s not really the problem. The issue then is, is the hearts that hard. Secularists would say, well, that’s kind of dangerous. And I know the people think this way, they will influence their children. They will do these things. And what we have to do is kind of eradicate irrational thought and thinking.
So you are a soft secularist, a hard say? Well, I am a sort of moderate secrets.
I’m not totally soft because, you know, in some ways I want to defend some things. So I’m not. The problem with ultimate of soft secularism is you you may move over into a kind of relativism, postmodernism, relativism, which I think is dangerous to some of the things which I’m interested in because I am interested in it, as you can see with the common good, but also interest in the concept of progress, which I think is out there. So I do think that in terms of judgment, there are some things that are better than others. Now, does that mean that that, you know, it depends how you operate, how hard your your your judgment should be before you become into a hard secularist who says certain things are unacceptable. And I guess, you know, we all know that if you think about it, the social realm, we decide that certain practices with children are unacceptable. You know, the exploitation of things. So we we do bring in a judgment calls in this way. And what I think the hard secrecy tends to do is go off in a kind of monism ism, which to some extent has a higher degree of certainty than I would would advocate.
You just mentioned progress, your almost faith and progress. We’ve talked Off-Air about progress and how it is a secular value. Draw a distinction for me between secular values and religious values. Surely religious people. There are religious people who believe in progress, making the world a better place.
No, I don’t believe that. But the ultimate better places, if for many in a Judeo-Christian tradition, at least, I assume this is heaven, which is not here now. So what I’m again, a secularist is interested in being in the here and now and this era and this world. And you know, those even if it’s a matter of kind of I say you face the kind of attention deficit. If you have your eye on another place as well as this place, you’re not the same as a person who is 100 percent concerned with what’s happening at this moment, of which they would like to have control or their immediate environment. If you’re interested in something else.
If you’re thinking about heaven and hell a lot, then you’re necessarily denying this life.
That’s what I don’t think. You’re not paying as much attention as the person thinks this is there. I mean, it’s it’s like trying to play tennis and basketball the same time. You might not do well in either. And so I think it’s it’s a matter of time budgeting and, you know, focusing your attention on something. I don’t deny that that people who have religious fear or theistic beliefs or anything like that are interested in this one. Of course they are. But they see this world as a preparation for something else. And what I am what I’m suggesting is that if you if you don’t have that that kind of tell theological or or more long term motivate nation, you may may do certain things differently. Mm hmm.
So tell me about the studies of religion that you’ve been part of. Tell me about the ARRIS study.
Well, the our study is actually a replication of something we did in 1990 when I was at the City University in New York’s graduate center. And that was at that time. And the difference in titles was just peculiar. It is of no importance. That was called the National Survey of Religious Identification. And it was it covered more people. We did 115 thousand interviews with people who were representing households in 1990. And we did just over 50000 in 2001 with SARS. And the purpose of this was, was to fill a gap in social science knowledge and what we might call social statistics in the United States for the very reason that we’re talking about that, the issue of church state separation. The United States government, obviously, in terms of convention and the Constitution, it is assumed that it’s not going to ask you your religion, except if you go into the military, I guess, is the only place where they’re actually going to ask you for your dog tags and the child tags section.
But there doesn’t seem to be us. And, you know, in the public sector, I guess some you know, if there are such things with public hospitals, you know, they can ask you for exactly the same purposes, you know, for chaplaincy purposes. But otherwise, the constitutional provision of no no religious tests for public office or anything else operates then so that the Bureau of the Census have never felt obliged to ask people their religion. And so that’s a major lacuna in terms of knowing something about the way society operates and about in characteristics of individuals.
So you’re saying knowing people’s religion can tell you a lot about societal beliefs?
Yeah, I mean, using religion for religion and no religion, you know. Right. No, I don’t think so. I it’s just something that that is always been out there. I mean, people’s social attitudes to anything from the death penalty to abortion to all the issues that we that are before us in in in the public square and how marriage and attitudes towards. You name it, where religion has come in. What is interesting to know is how Americans identify. And the only sources of of knowledge on this came from the very source, shall we say, from the from the inside, you know, the religious organizations themselves reporting on their membership or their claims of adherents which are often inflated, not only inflated, but often inaccurate. As we said earlier, religion covers to be, quite to put it bluntly, a multitude of sins. And so they if they have, they have you know, it covers people who have inclusive and exclusive attitudes. And we have some groups that over inflate their claims because they want to be more important or they they want to get the you know, they want to be more successful. But there are groups that that are exclusive and believe that there are you set height hurdles for entry and therefore many more Americans think their members than the actual organization and religious group themselves. Except I give you one. One is from our studies as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many more people claim to be Jehovah’s Witness than actually the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim because they have a number of they have a kind of know entry prentis a system of some kind. Well, you know, you can’t just become a member straight off. Say you’re kind of and there are organizations like that and how people deal with children. LPT, how some social groups deal with women, you know, they’re different. What we’re talking about here from, you know, sort of strictly objective point of view is different entry, membership criteria. And so it is useful to have a standardized data collection procedure which records records exactly that ask people and goes straight to the, you know, use the unit of analysis becomes the individual and not an institution and how they saw of self identify. And we are we use a very, very and the importance of this type of question. It’s an open ended question with no prompts. Many of the studies are done in United States are done on the basis of are you Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim? Ba ba ba ba ba. Or nothing. Or something like that. Now what we ask is, what is your religion, if any? I’ll leave it open. And if you turn round and say, you know, my religion is Buffalo Bills football team, then we will record that, if that’s really what you a serious answer and we will record whatever people say gives you an idea. Now, most people are not flippant in this. They take the question seriously. Well, they will answer Catholic, Methodist, Unitarian, Buddhist or something like that, which is identifiable as as a as a religious group. And some people will give very specific things. And I’m a Seventh Day Baptist Fellowship, whatever it is, you know, and this is my pastor, you know, and it gives you an indication of how seriously they take that. These are telephone interviews, as I say, done with a representative sample of the national population. And we just report that. So without any prompts and by by asking exactly the same question, exactly the same way, with the same research design on two occasions, you create what we call in social science, a time series so that you can turn out your Google comparing apples and apples. And you’re looking at the harvest in 1990, the harvest in 2001, and you note change.
And some interesting areas of change that you discovered in the two studies is that the number of non-religious people had almost doubled in that 10 year.
Yeah. I’ll let you know when asked, what is your religion? If any people who say none? I have no religion or a non theistic religion doubled. Actually, they’re not. A non theistic belief system hardly changed. But the proportion of people said no religion, what we call nones in. Yes. In. Religious associate, sociology of religion circles. That was the group that showed that the biggest change statistically in terms of statistical significance.
But that doesn’t mean just atheists and agnostics, skeptics and humanists. It also includes those who might be religious but don’t identify a whole lot in our relations.
We always ask them, I mean, this this group was was the let’s go look at it the other way. Is it what’s the predictive qualities of saying that your you have no religion? We asked people if they were religious, somewhat religious, secular, somewhat secular, and obviously, as you’d expect, no religion. People came out with the largest proportion of people saying it was secular. We asked people about their membership in religious organizations. Some of the nuns had membership. But that was because the world is complicated. People don’t live on their own. My point about secularism, many people who are have no religion are married to people who are regular churchgoers. They may have had the same beliefs when they got married or one of them changed or switched, but they still love them and live with them. And so you get about 17 percent of the people with no religion say somebody in their household is a member of a congregation. It’s very you know, it’s it’s the difference between individual belief and the household. Would you want to call it pattern and helpful characteristic? So there’s that. And then we ask them, you know, do you believe that God exists? And about. Towards 50, 60 percent of them say that God exists, so they’re not totally nonbeliever, so this is a fraction of sorry, 50, 60 percent of those who said there are no religion.
Which is well down on the 90 percent generally in the public. So a good fraction of people who say no religion are, in fact, non theistic. But but that is a to me as a sociologist, an indicator of creation of secularization. You’re talking about people who say, yeah, but you’ve got to, my God, maybe very differently. I mean, you know, it could be a day is God. It could be a very personal God. So we have to follow it up with questions like, does this God you believe in? If you said you believe in a God perform miracles, does he answer prayer? He or she answer prayers and things like that. And then you get some idea of even then, what type of God? There is no reason. But I think the issue of belief in God is that what we ask them is what is your religion, if any religion is associated with religious institutions, with churches, etc.. And what do you what you’re picking up here is people who maybe leave believing God, in other words, do subscribe, but they don’t particularly aren’t terribly impressed by the salesforce and the local branches which are available to them. So you’ve got the kind of anticlerical list they put him away or theism. And that’s particular to through the type of society we have today, large numbers of people, you know, not not accepting external authority of some kind. Now, to me, that’s a kind of form of secularization because a secular means the undermining not of ultimate authority, but by the authority of religious institutions on Earth in the here and now.
And this is your broader definition of secularism. That just means not only the undermining of religious institutions, but also people focusing more on the here and now. It’s what sociologists call the secularization hypothesis. And you believe that, yes, the secularization hypothesis holds true. It’s the notion that as society gets more advanced, more scientific, the less religious, the more secular it becomes. But some thinkers say that America is the anomaly. It’s the exception to the theory of secularization hypothesis that despite its technological and scientific dependance, it’s more religious. Your research goes against that thinking.
Well, it’s not. I mean, it’s an interpretation of whether the glass is half full or half empty. In many ways, the point about a theocratic state is where you have this kind of totalitarian system that can where religion is the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and controls social life and everything revolves around religious practice and religious ideas. And, you know, I mean, we’ve seen that the Taliban, you know, kite flying is a is a wicked, you know, secular act. And women should be neither seen or heard, all those kind of things. And there’s not you know, there’s no room for Buddhist statues here either. That’s that’s a world. Now, what we’re seeing in secularization is, is where this kind of thinking is is eroded. The authority of sacred texts is questioned and people kind of are more questioning of this. They don’t accept authorities.
Well, we’ve seen the atheists agnostic. No, generally. I mean, you know, I mean, what would the secularization process.
Let’s take the most obvious, most long term, most probably still the most powerful religious group in the world today, which is the Roman Catholic Church. Well, we know that that the at least among American Catholics, the number of of of. And I’ll be fair minded in this and try to be if anybody can still believe that listening to me. I’ll trade, you know, sort of. There are two ways of looking at this. Large numbers of American Catholics reject. So some some Catholic attitudes on procreation and and sexuality. There’s no doubt about that. They don’t you know, they say the pope has no no place in their bedrooms. And undoubtedly, that is their great grandparents wouldn’t have said that. So that’s a form of secularization. Now, the Catholic Church also believes also says that life is seamless. So you’ve got cannot Cardinal Bert and Bennett in in in Chicago saying, you know, if you if you’re against abortion and you’re pro-life, then you are against capital punishment. Well, large numbers of Catholics also believe in the death penalty. So they’re also challenging the church on on another piece of authority, which some many people probably listening would would say there’s a kind of liberal, you know, the idea an ideal. So we when someone says, you know, I believe in the death penalty, irrespective what the pope thinks and I believe in contraception, I respect the pope. That is secularization. All right. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. If it’s challenging the external authority now, the fact that that that large numbers of people with those attitudes were still to go and take communion is another thing. So people, if you if you’re in the business of measuring secularization in a country by asking how many people believe in God and what is church attendance like. All right. And you’re going to find you’re going to get it if you’re going to get a different answer to some of these now. You know, we live in a complex, complicated world. I tried to show that people do things. Some people, just like they have a partner who who has a different belief system to them out of social or familial duty. They may go to church two or three times a year or more with that person. So social support or drive them there because they you know, they they need help because they’ve got a broken ankle or something. And it’s all reasons for turning up in certain places. It doesn’t mean to say it’s a validation of the belief system and the ideology of where you sit. You know, some people will listen to this radio program because, you know, they’re anti science on. You might listen, sir, to a religious broadcaster because you’re interested in what they say. It doesn’t mean to say you’re validating or valorizing that particular religious broadcaster. So we must always assume that that, you know, attendance assumes loyalty or that attention means belief.
Yeah, right. Okay. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Barry Cosmin book, Religion in a Free Market, Religious and Non-religious Americans through our website point of inquiry dot org. Barry, there’s been a rise of the religious right. Sociologists of every stripe admit this. They track this. There’s been in recent decades an explosive growth even more recently than decades ago. But at the same time, your research has shown that there’s been this rise in the non-religious, the secular, the atheist, the humanist, the unchurched more broadly. How can both of these groups be growing at the same time? Does it mean just that the middle of the bell curve is shrinking? That the liberal religious people are thinning out? What’s what’s going on?
Well, it’s even more complicated than that. Obviously, you can’t have two social trends at the same time affecting different people. And you might even say that one is whichever side you take. That one is it kind of laws of physics. One is an equal and opposite reaction to the other, that the rise of of of of a of a kind of enthusiastic and assertive secularism creates a religious right. And the rise of a politically conscious, assertive religious right creates a kind of a secularist reaction to that. But other things are happening. Obviously, what I as a social scientist, I’m talking about a time serious. So the people I interviewed who are 18 years old in in 1990 are going to be, you know, 29 years old in 2001. So they may have switched and changed. And also, there’s a whole bunch of new 18 year olds come in. So the population has grown in that time. And there’s also the immigrants immigration into the country. So in a expanding society like the United States, you have to look at two two things, which is proportions, which is percentages. And then you have to look at the real numbers, you know, so even even if you can, you might have fallen as a percentage of the population, you might have grown and you might have grown in real numbers. So, yeah. So it depends, again, with with statistics.
There’s a famous kind of, you know, that little book of how to lie without allies who likely would lie with statistics. And you’re not lying with statistics. You’re just interpreting statistics. And I said, you know, 50 percent. Is that mean it’s half full or half empty?
That’s that’s a that’s an approach. And it’s whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic or or you’re trying to prove something or another. But what has happened in terms of influence, if you want to call it that, social influence and political influence in the society in the last 30 years has been the erosion of what we might call liberal religion, which was associated with the mainline Protestant churches. And they’ve obviously they’ve actually declined in number and in social hedger, many of which they because, you know, these are the great churches which were powerful at the time of the revolution and in the 19th century. So there has been that kind of kind of erosion of you say the bell curve has kind of flattened a little bit.
At the same time that the overall numbers have grown, so is a complex situation where else of the non-religious come from or they are people just more open about themselves being secular or having no religion? Or is it immigration, more people being persuaded by arguments against religion? You look at the recent spate of books, anti religion.
Well, I mean, first of all, it’s difficult. I mean, people move one or two steps at a time. There aren’t very many. Not many people have kind of road of Damascus moments in their life, scales falling from our eyes becoming an atheist. Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t. People move from kind of pious to semi pious to, you know, occasional attendants and people who are kind of occasional become, you know, life-cycle event attenders and things like that. So, I mean, if we’re looking at behavior there and we have three things here, we have belief we have belonging and behavior and the trajectories for different individuals and for different groups are different, mainly because some religious groups put more emphasis on belonging than behavior and some people put more on belief than belonging. You know, those kind of things. So. It’s what we’re picking up here is obviously dynamics and change. Now, one of the things we are noticing is that there’s a lot of change going on. So what is actually happening? Well, undoubtedly, the young people, the Generations X and Y are the ones who’ve entered the adult population since the 9th, since 1990 are less religious than than than the ones who were there in 1990 and in previous generations. They’re more likely to say they have no religious identity. And that’s part of a kind of of of a kind of. Syndrome or a trend in society of people less belonging, if you want to call it that, more people autonomy, more questioning of of of traditional loyalties are people, you know, sort of. So that’s that’s one thing. One. One is young people. And of course, these young people replace people in their 80s and 90s who are gone, you know, in the early part of the 20th century, who who who had more. Well, a world of strong belonging of neighborhood, ethnic group and religion as well. So, you know, so you’ve got this sort of sort of independent turning off independents, replacing identifiers. So that’s that’s one thing. So that’s a churning of population. And then you have the issue of of of people coming into the country from other places. And again, you know. It’s compared to the early years more. Increasingly, people are coming from Latin America and Asia. And there are often people who who are coming to the United States. You know, we don’t know if it’s a push back or a pull factor, but suddenly there are people who want to leave, those who are willing to leave those societies which are more traditional than the United States. So one would assume that they’re going to be like many European immigrants at the beginning, the 20 century. A little bit more adventurous, less accepting authority. So therefore, they have higher fractions than many people imagine. Of people. So I have my religion, you know, former Catholics, former Buddhists or whatever it was, whatever it is. So that that’s. And immigrants tend to be young and they tend to be male. There’s a kind of bias towards young males. Generally anywhere in the world tend to be less religious. If you want to call it that, and certainly less less affiliated with religious groups. So that’s one. And then you have the whole issue of switching. And we have seen that. If we look at exchanges of population with people, what people were earlier in their lives and what people are now there is undoubtedly the biggest growth group has been no religion. More people have gone from religion to no religion. And the the great the ones who have lost the most or filled those ranks with no religion have been former Catholics to the extent that ours and most other surveys show that just under a quarter of the American population identifies as as Catholic. But among the switches we found 43 percent are former Catholics. So Catholicism is feeding the no religion population more than others. So that really that’s you know, that’s it’s one fact that that’s interesting that there are a number of sociological and other, you know, things that you read about in the newspapers, which may account for the.
Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Barry, Cosmin. Thank you.
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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst were executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed contributors to today’s show, including Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe.