Phil Zuckerman – The Sociology of Irreligion

September 17, 2012

How many atheists are there in the world? Where do they live? What kind of people are they, and how do they get that way?

Are they happy? Are they prosperous? Do they drag their societies down into a cesspool of immortality—as is often alleged—or, is it precisely the opposite?

All of these questions are amenable to scientific study. With, like, data. It’s just that people didn’t much bother—until now.

One pioneer in the sociological study of atheists is Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College. He’s the author of Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, and Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion. And we’re excited to have him on this week to reveal what we actually know about secularity—on a global scale.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 17th, 2012. 

Welcome to a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney one of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. 

And at the grassroots. How many atheists are there in the world? Where do they live? What kind of people are they? And how do they get that way? Are they happy? Are they prosperous? Do they drag their societies down into a cesspool of immorality as is often alleged? Or is it precisely the opposite? All of these questions are amenable to scientific study with like data. It’s just that people didn’t much bother. Until now. One pioneer in the sociological study of atheists is Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College. He’s the author of Society Without God. What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell US About Contentment and Faith. No More Why People Reject Religion. And we’re very glad this week to have them on the show to reveal what we actually know about secularity on a global scale. 

Phil Zuckerman welcomed the point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

I’m thrilled to have you. I think you’re the first sociologist of religion we’ve actually had. I might be wrong about that. But it is about time. About, you know, just sociologist of religion or sociologist of your religion, which incidentally, you say there are not many of those. What’s up with that? 

That’s correct. I think for, you know, over 100 years, all the social sciences were very interested in religion. Anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, everybody was studying every aspect and every facet of religiosity, religious life, religious ritual, congregations, you name it. And a few years ago, I realized the NF couple other people around the country and a few others around the world also realized that there are millions of people who are nonreligious, who are affirmatively secular. They might be religiously indifferent, they might be convinced atheists. There’s a whole gamut from the you know, from the indifferent to the active. But there’s a lot of people living their lives without religion. And what I found was most conversations about atheists and or secularity tended to be in the false philosophy realm, you know, arguments about the existence of God, etc, etc. But I was interested in just doing some social science, just actually, you know, how do secular people live? How do they raise their kids? What do they do for rituals and traditions? What do they do for community? How are they different from religious people psychologically, neurologically, personality wise? And this wasn’t just me. People all over the country, psychologists, anthropologists, people like Frank Pasquale, Luke Galen, Barry, Cosmin, and a whole slew of people in Europe to lowest least is full of on, etc.. I guess about five or six years ago, we all started realizing there was a big hole here that no one was actually studying secular life and secular people. So yeah, I would say I began as a sociologist of religion and I still am a sociologist of religion. But now I’m also sociologist of secularity. 

I like to use that term. And and so I interview a lot of secular people. I study secular culture. It’s sad and it’s I find it fascinating. 

Well, let’s start with the basics, since we’re going to put data on this phenomenon. You are actually the first person I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know why this is to simply give a number range for the number of atheists released nonbelievers in the whole world. How many is it? 

It conservatively, you know, it’s hard. You have to differentiate between non-religious people and actual atheists or agnostics. And those numbers are different. But my guesstimate, which I think is actually quite conservative, is I would say it is somewhere between 500 million and 750 million people the world over who could safely be considered nonbelievers. Some version of atheists, some version of agnostic versus secular nonbeliever. And I say that’s a undercount because, you know, there’s millions, tens of hundreds of millions people who, if asked in a survey, what is your religion, they will say aren’t Jewish or, you know, Lutheran or whatever, but they’re not believers. So there’s a lot of people who are, you know, belong to religion or identify religiously just because it’s part of their culture, their family background, their heritage, but they’re actually nonbelievers themselves. So I actually think there’s even more than the 500 to 750 million worldwide. But, yeah, it was an interesting story. I had been asked to write a chapter on, you know, how many atheists there are in the world by country. And I this is, I don’t know, six, seven years ago. And I just assumed that information would be readily available and that I would be doing more of an analysis, more of a context, but that the numbers would be there. Turns out they weren’t. So I actually there were four individual countries. So I basically spent six months going through survey after survey after survey for individual countries and then trying to amass it all and tally it all. 

And yeah, and that was that article in the Cambridge Companion to eight and where I really tried to show, you know, which countries have the highest rates of ageism and secularity, which had the lowest and how many there are. Globally, you know, total. 

Well, it’s it’s quite a large number. It’s a significant slice of the global pie. And I guess it wouldn’t have been nearly so big. I’m getting this also from you. But I think it’s for everyone would assume this 100 years ago. So, I mean, you might say as secular secularism has been a big triumph. But on the other hand, people are consoli talking today about the rise of the resurgence of fundamentalism. So how do you reconcile those two? 

I actually think both trends are taking place. So. So couple of things here. 

So first of all, no doubt that there are more secular people in the world today than ever before. More secular people here in the United States. I mean, secularity, the lack of religiosity is in all actuality about the third largest orientation in the world for after Christianity and after Islam comes your religion or non religion. Fourth would be Hinduism. So we are a huge chunk of the planet and we’re growing chunk of America as well. However, what I think is happening is a bit of a split. So in certain parts of the world where life is horrific and there’s no work and there’s a lot of. Poverty and chaos and crime. People tend to become more fundamentalistic in the United States, in the States, in America that have the highest poverty rates, highest crime rates, the worst schools, the lack of opportunity, you find greater religious Christian fundamentalism there as well, the Bible Belt, Mississippi, places like Louisiana. What I think we’re seeing is more sort of people are moving to different camps. 

The middle that kind of comfortable liberal Christian liberal believer is either starting to just kind of drop out of religiosity, not becoming a hard gravies, but they’re just starting to on a disaffiliate on affiliate. Not really. 

And then others are becoming more fundamentalist. So I think you’re seeing both. I think we’re seeing a bifurcation. 

And one of the points that naturally arises here, and I’ve seen this in your writing, the fundamentalists have more kids. So they out reproduce the non fundamentalists or the nonbelievers unless the nonbelievers somehow convert more fundamentalists. Is that the basic dynamic? Is that one we should be scared of? 

It is the basic demographic fact, and it’s a fun fact because. Well, I should say fine. I don’t know. It just it’s interesting because so it’s there’s there’s like a continual mass of scale. So the less religious you are, the less likely you are to have kids. Moderate religious people are likely to have more kids than that. And enough more fundamentals have the most kids. So it’s not even just the difference between, you know, secular people have fewer kids and religious people. It’s actually linked to how religious people are or how secular they are. So the more staunchly secular have the fewest kids are a lot more likely, most likely to have none. And the most fundamentalists have most kids. And we see this effecting societies all the time. The most the example I’m most familiar with Israel where Israel was founded. Actually, a lot of people don’t know this, but by secular Jews who were Social Democrats, they didn’t have as many kids. But the Orthodox who were only five percent, maybe 10 percent, you know, 50 years ago. They’re having 13, 14 kids. The secular Israelis are having, you know, two kids maybe. And so we’re just seeing demographically that Israel is going to is being is going to be overtaken. You know, 50 years by by the earth, ultra orthodox. And in Israel, just an exact illustration of what we see in many societies, in many countries. And we see it here in United States. But what’s interesting is even with that demographic fact of birth rates, more and more people are opting out where high rates of apostasy, people rejecting their religion are so strong that we’re still seeing a rise of people claiming no religion in the last 25 years here in America, which means more and more people born with religion are opting out than people born without religion or opting in. In fact, the research shows that people wait, raised without religion, are very much resistant to becoming religious later in life. A few always do, but but not so much. So more people are leaving religion today than are entering it in the United States, for sure. And other parts of the world. 

Well, that describes me born without it, never gained its ends. So let’s talk about these people who are actually converting, because I know you’ve just done a book on this and and the let our listeners know and remind them. 

Phil Zuckerman’s book is Faith No More Why People Reject Religion. It’s available through our Web site Point of Inquiry, Dawg. So let’s get into this. What causes a conversion away from religion? I mean, do people read Richard Dawkins or what happened? 

So I did interview one woman, a skeptic, who said Richard Dawkins as being pretty decisive. Yeah. For that, I wanted to know that question. It seemed like the trend was more and more people disaffiliating, warmer people opting out. So so the bulk of people being people who were raised with some kind of religion and in fact were religious as children or as even as young adults who then opted out. And the best way I thought to do that was just start asking as many apostates as I could. Tell me your story. And I interviewed about 90 people and I sat down with them in depth. People from all over the United States, mix of men and women, different ethnicities, different socioeconomic backgrounds. And I just said, you know, tell me a story. And and what I found was, unfortunately, I wish there had been one answer, you know, that I could say, aha, I’ve discovered the riddle. That wasn’t the case. The vast majority of people had multiple sources to their to their loss of faith offer some it was just, hey, it just stopped making sense. That was often the case. You know, people talked about just the inconsistencies, the aulet, illogical aspects of it. 

But for most people who actually wasn’t about, you know, things not making sense scientifically or rationally, people had stories that I heard over and over again that often involves pain and loss, untimely death of a parent to cancer and prayers going on unanswered, which then, of course, leads to questioning. 

People talked about education as a factor, going to college, taking religious faith classes, taking philosophy classes as triggering their skeptical minds. People talked about the influence of friends, family and lovers of getting a boyfriend who said, I don’t believe that stuff. And then. Starting conversations, people talked about struggling with sex there. Their fundamentalist religion told them, don’t have sex. They could couldn’t help themselves and made them feel guilty and wretched and fearful. And at some point, as they mature, they just thought, you know, that’s a bunch of nonsense and I’m going to live my life unfettered. A lot of people talked about their own morality as being stronger than their religious faith. In other words, they saw a lot of immorality. But in a really just world view, you know, there’s a loving God. How can there be so much pain and suffering? And they didn’t like the idea of being moral just because of rewards and punishments, that they had a more internal moral compass, which was based on empathy and reason and care for others. And they they actually found that their morality prompted them to reject religion. But I could go on and on. But the point was, you know, I found so many different stories. I did some of the big patterns, though, I would say is it tended to be a longer process. So it wasn’t just boom, read Richard Dawkins and now I realize it’s all crap. Actually, it took three or five years on average for people. It was a slow loss. Often people didn’t want it to happen. So it was something they struggled with. And yet in the end, they just couldn’t they just couldn’t believe what they couldn’t believe. And also, I found that a lot of people in other research has shown this. Was there a straw? Was a strong correlation with people being intellectual, being bright. Being a voracious reader of early questioners. So I actually do believe there are some psychological predispositions. After interviewing so many people and hearing so many stories and also seeing some of the research out there by Altmire and Hunsberger, another it’s another isn’t Luke Ayllon and whatnot, I actually do think there are some predispositions, psychological predispositions that lead people to be more skeptical, perhaps more individualistic, more autonomous, not not prone to herd mentality, not interested in falling leaders. And then something happens in a life sort of secularizing triggering event that then allows them to to start to shed their faith. 

Well, I think the research supports that we actually had on a previous show a couple months ago. We had Wiltja Vaisse and he had done is just done a study in science showing that your cognitive style predicts your religiosity and basically people who were doing better and worse on this cognitive reflexion tests, which basically just tripped you up and you give wrong answers if you’re not thinking carefully, you know, and people with a more intellectual style of thinking tend to be tripped up less. That actually correlated with religiosity, saying those kinds of that cause. 

I did that in the book I’m working on. So for sure. Yeah, I would. 

But what are the other so-called. I mean, I think there are some clear, if you’ll allow this risk factors for for for lack of religiosity. I mean, you said one. Okay. Higher education is one you mentioned in the book. Liberal political outlook and also male gender. And I think that one is maybe the hardest to explain. 

So what’s up with that one? 

OK. Yeah. I thank you for reminding me of all this. Absolutely. Liberal political progressive perspective is correlated with secularity. Not always. You’ve always got your Ayn Rand’s here. But generally we see that the gender correlation is universal. 

In every ever since we have been studying religiosity in every known study. For every country, for every measure, whether it’s, you know, Bible reading or belief in God or church attendance. So in every measure, for every race, class, gender, controlling, for education, whatever. Men tend to be tend to be more secular than women. And again, is the tendencies that are many secular women and active atheist women. And there are many fundamentalists. Rick Santorum’s out there. But on average, we find that men are more likely to be atheists and agnostics than women. On average, we find that men are more likely to be secular than women. So then the question you ask is, what’s up with that? I think we can explain that in sociologically and perhaps psychologically. Slazenger Flash neurologically. I think sociologically we can say, well, who has power and agency in society tends to be men. Men can rely on themselves more. They can they can own more land. They have more resources, more money. So they tend to be more in control of their lives. Women on average tend to be poorer, have less power, less agency, and hence are feeling less secure in their lives, which might lead them to be more religious and rely on religion and God to get them through the tough times. Second of all, who tends to take care of the kids and raise the families? That tends to fall into women’s work often. Not always, but it tends to tense. Religion is going to be much more of a resource. It’s going to provide child care, add and comfort and aid and networking. I mean, congregations are very good at helping people with kids. That’s the kind of maybe sociologically those are some possibilities. I think a third that we just have to accept when we see these kind of universal when we see these average differences in every society, in every culture and every measure, there must be something. In eight in a genetic predisposition, now, I’m not a geneticist. I’m not a neuro psychologist. I’m totally out of my field. But I’m a sociologist who can at least admit that there may be some in a predispositions that play personality differences that cause men to be more secular than women. 

But we need to caution. It’s not it’s not either or. It’s you know, we’re talking 60 percent to 40 percent on a given measure. You know, 55 percent to 45. I mean, these are differences of 10, 20, 25 percent depending on the measure. But they’re you know, they’re not. I always fear that, you know, women will hear this and be like, what? You know, I’m secular or men will hear this and think, oh, yeah, you know, men are more rational or something. It’s just not that it’s just not that true. It is a difference and it’s a significant difference. But it’s not it’s just merely an average and a correlation. 

You also talk about something that I was intrigued by. Early and late apostacy. And you can say what that is, but also what kind what kind is dominating the conversions that we’re having in the U.S.? 

Absolutely. OK. So I tried to offer a typology of that kind of different kinds of apostasies. 

So, for example, you know, someone who’s, you know, not that religious. I mean, okay, maybe they were raised with religion and so on and so forth. And then they lose it. That’s a very different process from somebody who was deeply immersed in religion. And it was everything to them. And they were home schooled and they went on missionary trips. And so I talked about kind of shallow apostasy and deep apostasy. You mentioned early and late for me that was simply noticing that for a lot of people, they tended to lose their religious life early on and by early on at between the ages of 15 and 25. But there were a small minority people who lost their faith well into their 40s and 50s. They were the distinct minority. But I saw these processes as very different for early apostasy between the age of 15 and 25. You can kind of understand the situation that’s happening. Okay, you’re raised with religion as a kid, but as soon as you achieve some independence, as soon as you go off to college, as soon as you meet people from other backgrounds, you know, as soon as you’re away from your parents and their authority and their supervision, it’s much easier to shed something that you don’t feel comfortable with people in their 40s or 50s. So very, very different dynamics at play. These people are often married to religious people. They maybe even have raised their own kids religious, but they have a crisis of faith in their 40s or 50s. And it’s a whole different ball of wax. I just got e-mail from a woman in, I want to say, Missouri. 

And it was a different state, but I don’t want to I don’t want to identify her. So it was a state like Missouri to e-mailed me saying, you know, I was raised in a fundamentalist home. 

I’m in my 60s. My father was a fundamentalist preacher. He just passed away. I lost my faith. It was very painful for me to be with him. I didn’t want him to know about my loss of faith. And now I have kids and grandkids and my kids and Christian fundamentalists. And I feel if they’ve no find out about my atheist them, they will let me see my grandkids. And she she wrote me and saying, you know, is there a support group for, you know, grandparents who are atheists who have fundamentalist kids or grandkids? And it was you know, we’ve since started an e-mail correspondence. But but that is very rare. So late. Apostasy is extremely rare. And I don’t and I don’t I don’t know how to explain it, but it does, you know, as I like to say, secularity happens. 

Well, it’s it suggests that those of us who care about it should be geering most of our efforts toward younger people, which are you know, I think that in many ways we are. 

Of course, we live in a country where there’s been longstanding hostility towards atheists. But recently, the data suggested became a little less so, according to Gallup. Finally, more than half the public says it would be OK to have an atheist president. Do you think that there’s any significance to that little shift? I mean, isn’t a huge shift. But, I mean, it’s a I think it’s a trend. 

I definitely think it’s a trend. I was aware of that as well. We atheists still come in last place. So even when you look at that data, you know, like I think something like, what was it, 48 percent said they wouldn’t vote for an atheist. And then I think it was only like 40 percent wouldn’t vote for a Muslim. And then fewer and fewer when asked about African-Americans, Latinos, women, Mormons, Jews, et cetera, et cetera. You know, I think we kind of three percent said they wouldn’t vote for an African-American. I think so. So even though it was it dipped to 40 percent, 48 percent or something for for people saying, you know, OK, less than half that they wouldn’t. And used to be more than half still atheists come in last place. When asked, you know, who would you least likely vote for as a president and atheist still come in my place. 

But I do think anti atheist sentiment and an anti atheist prejudice is weakening. I think we’re going to see it weaken in the decades ahead. 

And I think that’s the result, number one. There’s just more and more people identifying as non-religious. Twenty years ago, only eight percent said they were nonreligious. Now it’s up to 18 percent. That there’s huge increase. And in fact, people identifying as Christian is going down. People identifying as Catholic is going down, but people identifying as Naimi just going up, because not all non-religious people or people who say they are no religion are atheist or agnostics. But the data shows about half are. So we’re seeing a real uptick of secularity, 80 of them in office. And so I think more and as more and more of those people come out and are known to their neighbors, friends and colleagues, I just think we’re going to see a decrease of anti atheist prejudice. 

Well, would you agree it’s going to the devil, you know, so to speak, for for the religious people who become a little bit more tolerant. 

In other words, they’ve actually maybe heard of or met one. I mean, then they’ve become at least a little more trusting, even if they can’t really relate to that person. 

It’s very similar to this wonderful success of the gay and lesbian movement since the 1960s. I mean, coming out has achieved tremendous rights and acceptance. I think the fading of the Cold War in American’s consciousness. You know, during the Cold War 80s, it was so directly tied to communism. Soviet Stalin ism gulags, a lack of freedom. I mean, they you know, a Soviet Ian was a heinous social reality and it was explicitly atheist. And I think for decades, Americans heard atheist and thought of Stalin. They thought of the Soviet Union. And I think that’s fading now. And, of course, I think the success of the new atheists and their bestselling books. I think the fact that Obama comes out in his inaugural address and says we’re a nation of nonbeliever. You know, if he mentions we’re a nation of Christians and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and nonbelievers for the first time ever, an American president saying such a thing. I think all of these things are having a positive effect on on how people feel about atheists and secular folk in general. But the biggest key the biggest key, I think, will be for atheists, agnostics, the good people to come out. That’s going to make all the difference. 

I wanna remind our listeners again that Phil Zuckerman’s latest book, Faith No More, Why People Reject Religion, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry, dawg. 

It seems to me that lying beneath this analysis is almost we’re getting to the point, based on your research and analyzing other research, that we can sort of say, you know, this is what atheists are. Secular people are like. These are that these are the characteristics of highly secular people. So let’s go through some more of those. I mean, you know, into you talk about their their level of happiness, contentedness and basic morality. Yeah, yeah. 

I mean, I like to give the good and the bad. So, you know, it’s not all rosy. I think we have to really guard against the tendency to just be cheerleaders. That’s not good social science. It’s not. And it’s not. It’s just not the truth. You know that not everything is rosy when it comes to being secular. There are some downsides. And I guess I’ll start with the good things, though. 

What we seem to be finding in my research, but also a research by people all over their states and in Europe is some pretty interesting things. So, for example, when we raise our kids, we deemphasize obedience and we try to emphasize autonomy, thinking for yourself. 

We emphasize, you know, you must think like us and we try to emphasize, you know, think for yourself, which may hurt our numbers. 

Right. You wouldn’t think, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. 

It doesn’t seem to be the case. Studies show that, you know, religious people tend to want their kids to just know about their religion. Thank you. If you will say, hey, learn about all religions, go and find out for yourself, your answers to these questions. When it comes to morality, I think secular people have a much more healthy and mature understanding of empathy and the golden rule. I mean, religious morality is based on a system of someone’s always watching you, rewards and punishments, fear do’s and don’ts. And I think secular morality and secular is much more about, you know, not causing harm to others, treating people the way we would want to be treated. It’s a much more basic morality. It’s a much more mature morality according to the work of people like Kollberg. And it’s just Lawrence Kollberg, you know, with a study sort of the stages that humans go through in their development of morality as children and teenagers and adults. And he found that at the at the at the earliest levels. Morality is about, well, I’ll get in trouble if I do this, you know, so it must be bad. And as we as we mature, we develop much more abstract, universal concepts of good and bad. Based on, you know, other people’s feelings, the good of the whole how we want the world to be, et cetera, et cetera. We’re also much more less progressive when it comes to environmental protection, women’s rights, gay rights. There are studies. We tend to be less ethnocentric, less racist, less nationalistic, less militaristic. And it’s very interesting. We tend intellectuality, as we very talked about, that to be correlated with secularity. What are some of the other good things? Well. 

Well, I heard one of your socks. And if I remember, the really good thing that you said was more better and safer sex. 

So absolutely. Thank you. How could I forget? Absolutely. 

The studies show that not only are we more likely to use, of course, condoms and and then then religious people, but we tend to feel less guilty about sex. We tend to have more sex. 

And secular women tend to receive oral sex much more than their religious peers, which is always a good thing. 

I need an applause button. 

There’s so many factors when we look at what countries, for example, have the highest proportion of secular people. I explored this in my book, Society Without God. We find that those countries have the lowest crime rates, the best health care systems, elder care systems, child care systems. Not that those things are being caused by secularity. But there is a very strong and consistent correlation to the world over. Gregory, as Paul has done work on this showing and we see it in the states, the United States, too. So if you look at. The countries with the largest secular populations and compare them to the countries with the most religious populations. The secular nations perform better experience, better peace, prosperity that at lower homicide rates, etc. And we see the same. If we look at states, the United States, you take the least really just states or those with the most. It is agnostics and secular people. And you compare them to the states with the most religious. And again, the secular states have the are safer, better, lower SCD rates, lower homicide rates, higher educated populations, lower obesity rates, etc., etc. there. But again, it’s not all it’s not all wonderful. There are some areas where second people don’t do as well. For example, charitable giving and and charitable involvement, altruistic activism. Religious people outperform us. And that’s just a fact. And that’s the reality. 

Now, wait, let me stop on that one, because I was gonna ask you that and you went there anyway. And I so I Googled and read. And I gotta admit, I didn’t read a lot. But I know there’s studies on this and some in the Second Amendment was saying, well done. That’s because they’re giving to churches. 

Does that override her in any way, even when you control for that, even when you look at giving to secular organizations? 

You know, homeless shelter, even when you even when you take out the giving to the church or the church fundraiser, it does look like religious Americans give more of their time and their money to charitable causes than secular Americans. And I think that has to do with part of being in a congregation and empire, being given a community. It seems to people we are social animals and being part of a group, a morally minded group, or at least the group that sees itself as morally minded does seem to spur more charitable donations of time and money. Now that that gets to the next point, we are a bit more individualistic. There is a there’s a strong correlation between being more likely to think that the people are less likely to like to be part of a herd. We don’t like to be part of a group as much. We don’t like to follow leaders as much. We like to think for ourselves, make our own choices in life. We’re not we’re not into tradition as much. We’re not into ritual as much. So we are again, these are just averages. That doesn’t mean every secular person’s like this. It doesn’t mean all religious people are not like this. But on average, I think there are strong. We have a lot of data showing the personality tendencies of secular people tend towards more individualistic, more autonomous, more reluctant to join groups or follow leaders. And those are very good qualities. But they don’t always lend themselves to having lots of friends. 

Right. And that gets the happiness right. I mean, I did a piece for Salon that came a couple months back where I just said, you know, the data are clear. Conservatives are happier than liberals. And I’m going to guess this care his hoefer to the religious people, be more happy an atheist. 

And I argued it’s because they’re they’re more sure of themselves and their place in the world. And they’re also it also correlates with, you know, sort of having a fixed marriage over your whole life, too, so that we might be not so hot in that area. 

Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that. I think, secondly, people are much more comfortable with ambiguity than religious people. Secular people are much more comfortable with not knowing something with mystery than religious people. And there must be something about, you know, I have the answer. Know, religion tells me what to believe, how to live, what to do, what not to do. I know where I belong. I know my place. I know God loves me. And perhaps those things are conducive to more happiness than the ambiguity and some freedom. I would say a secularity. 

I mean, rule. Who wants that kind of happiness is then. Of course, the point that we quickly would make and say, well, I’m not sure that’s really happiness. 

It’s like Eric from said in his book, Escape from Freedom, we there’s a certain burden that comes with liberation and and it means life is not always so clear cut. And obviously, many of us choose that and find it more liberating and more honest and more truthful. But perhaps we lose a little bit of, you know, that ignorance is bliss of religiosity. However, even the happiness, though, again, when we step back and look at it internationally, the more secular nations always score higher on the happiness scales than the more religious nations. Just a correlation could be caused by other things. But that’s important to point out. 

Mm hmm. Well, let’s let’s look internationally, because I know you did a lot of research in the Scandinavian countries, which are, you know, highly secular and doing very well. You find them very happy and well-adjusted. I mean, are you at the point of saying and you made this point several times, that this is sort of an iron law of human development that Athie ism, or at least secularism accompanies prosperity and stability? 

It may not cause it, but it grows out of it. Is that really the way humanity always civilizations always work? 

I wouldn’t. I obviously I don’t trade in iron laws and sociology, but I trade in what my mentor, Benton Johnson, used to say. The best truth for now. 

So the best truth for now, given the data we have, seems to indicate that this is the pattern. Not always, but it is. And and it just goes to work of people like Pippa Norris and Ronald Englehardt really started this off with their great book, Sacred and Secular. But it’s been bolstered by subsequent research. It seems to look like this in societies. It’s not just wealth. It’s not just prosperity. It’s evenly, more evenly distributed wealth and prosperity. So when there’s a lot of people living comfortable, secure lives, where there’s a stable democracy, where people have access to health care and housing and jobs and education, where life is basically secure for most people, and that’s going to include wealth and prosperity, but also would include democracy, low crime rates. Not only, you know, not a lot of, you know, political stability is going to be part of that. Those societies tend to become more and more secular. And conversely, societies that experience economic hardships, gross inequality, high crime rates, political instability, a lack of democracy, those societies tend to be more religious. There’s always some exceptions. It’s just this correlation. But it’s a strong correlation, as you’re likely to find. But my asterisks to all that is there are always unknowns out there. There are always exceptions. And some people would argue that actually educational attainment is what accounts for these international differences from nations. Some people would argue that it’s it’s innate that, you know, just as we see these differences between men and women, maybe there are, you know, genetic predisposition, the different populations. It’s very hard to say. And there’s always strange exceptions. For example, Jews are among the most secular people in the world today. And yet they they haven’t had the most stable existence in the last hundred years. 

I’ve had a lot of personal Haitian’s and genocides. 

You find. So it’s it’s really hard to say. But that that is that’s why I place my money. That’s where I put my money. I don’t think, you know, Scandinavia is so prosperous and egalitarian because it’s secular. I would think it’s the other way around. But even there. Hard to say because the people that built the welfare state in Scandinavia were very secular and were very anticlerical and were motivated. You know, the people that a lot of the movements for democracy were spearheaded by people who were anti religion. And so it’s difficult. But, yes, that’s my long winded way of saying I do believe it’s as close to a rule of thumb as we’ve get right now in the social sciences, that prosperity, quality of life, increase, quality of life, increased, increased security tends to produce more secular populations than not. 

We had on a psychologist universe in Maryland last month. His name’s Ari Krueger Lansky and he studies close mindedness. And he pointed me to some research that seems to really support this. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s a another psychologist. And I believe her name is Michelle Gelfand at the same university. And she, with a ton of other people, basically studied what they called the tightness and the looseness of different soci different countries, which is basically how restrictive are your social norms? You know, are people allowed to kiss in the park or not allowed the kids in the park? You know, will people be very disapproving of them if they engage in that in any number of other social behaviors? Right. 

And what they found is that you could predict the tightness or looseness of of a culture social norms based upon all these factors, some of which went back 500 years, you know, itching included their level of stability, how many times they’d been at war, their level of religiosity, their level of disease, their level of threats of disaster. I mean, all the all the things that are threatening and destabilizing made the cultures, you know, intolerant of people acting out. And then everything else went in the opposite direction. 

Wow. So interesting. 

Good. What sounds like the same thing to me. It sounds like there’s close and open societies and in one encourages it’s in the open society that’s stable and everybody’s doing well and equal and that that you basically can develop Athie ism in this kind of dissent. 

I think that’s really, really interesting. Absolutely. 

Well, given all that and I mean and, you know, I’m sure there’s much, much more to be done with that sort of research. But that was actually published in Science a couple years ago. 

What are the ingredients? What is the perfect brew to make a more secular society? I mean, can you turn certain knobs in America and know how they’re going to pay off? 

That’s a good question. That’s a good question. Hard to say. If I had to if I had to guess, I would say. There’s you know, there’s a whole number of ways to increase secularity in America at the macro societal level, at the micro individual level. 

I think at the macro level, you know, as long as crap is bad, as long as, you know, people are going to turn to religion. I mean, if we have low, you know, high unemployment and increased problems because of global warming and more and more inequality and more corporate domination, I mean, as long as society is not doing so well, I don’t think secularity has much hope. I could be wrong, but I think if we are able to reduce unemployment, if we are able to increase, you know, equality in America, if we’re able to increase the quality of our schools, get more and more people health care, then I think we’ll see religion starting to wane and secularity starting to rise. So we’d have to see, you know, increased democracy, increased equality, increased education, health care, all those things. If life gets better for most Americans. I think we’ll see a decrease in religion. That would be my first guess. But I also think there’s something to be said for atheist activism. I mean, the more and more people getting involved in atheist groups in American Human Association, Freedom from Religion Foundation, in these kind of groups, there’s going to be an effect. I think that, you know, getting active, getting vocal in your school board at the in city hall, getting active and vocal is going to cause people to take security seriously and consider it as a valuable worldview, as a valuable political view. Not at all. Secular people share their same politics. But, I mean, I think secular people have been asleep in a sense, you know, letting letting religious people organize themselves. And David Noisey from the IOC, from the American Bar Association lays this case out very well in his recent book, Nonbeliever Nation. But I mean, you know, many people haven’t been sleeping. They’ve been out there on active and organizing for a long time. And it’s paid off. Politicians listen to them. Politicians are afraid to upset them. I think if more secular people were to get that organized and active, you would see this kind of would we would have a greater say in shaping the political landscape. So and then I think, you know, more and more people coming out about being atheists, showing that their moral showing that they’re good people, showing that they’re fit, you know, loving, kind, hardworking people like anybody else or even more so will have an effect. 

Well, it sounds like based on that, actually, and based on my observations of the secular world in it, you know, things from, you know, out campaigns to actually increasing their presence in Washington, a new center for inquiries working on all of this as well. 

It seems like they’re actually doing the right thing based offline. I think so. So, Phil Zuckerman, thank you for sharing an incredible wealth of data about the secular world and how things are going there. 

I mean, I think this has been just incredibly informative. So I really appreciate having you on point of inquiry. 

Thank you so much. It was really a pleasure for me. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, please visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. One of inquiries produced by Atomizing and AMR’s New York, our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalen. 

Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney