Sunday, August 09, 2009


The God Balloon

Free Inquiry magazine has published (pdf available here) a report on a new survey of 6,000 self-identified atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonreligious Americans. This is the summary from the article:

To summarize, relative to the religious or churched segment of the population, the nonreligious are distinguished both demographically (more likely to be male, highly educated, never married or cohabiting) and by their personality (more open to new experience and intellectually oriented, less agreeable [defined as: "a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others"]). Although overall life satisfaction and social contact in our nonreligious sample was equivalent to the religious comparison group, the latter perceived a higher level of social support, possibly provided by their religious organizations. Among our large survey of the nonreligious, there was a range of philosophical beliefs: respondents included self-labeled atheists, agnostics, humanists, and spirituals. The label "atheist" appears to be becoming more common among younger individuals, suggesting that fewer nonreligious young people are choosing more tentative labels relative to older cohorts. Finally, in contrast to many general population studies that lump together those who are confident in their nonbelief with those who may be weakly religious, the present study allows the ability to distinguish degrees of nonbelief, yielding interesting results. Confident nonbelievers such as atheists were more emotionally well-adjusted relative to tentative nonbelievers; the latter, though, appear to place a greater emphasis on being agreeable to, and trusting of, others. The present study indicates that the common assumption of greater religiosity relating to greater happiness and satisfaction is overly simplistic. Many of the nonreligious, particularly those involved with an increasingly visible movement or community characterized by stronger varieties of nonbelief, are actually as welladjusted and satisfied as the highly religious, with those uncertain of their beliefs showing more distress.

More research remains to be done, for example regarding the factors that differentiate individuals who are raised in a religious context who remain religious versus those who become nonreligious. Those with high openness to experience and lower agreeableness may not be satisfied with "tradition" and may seek out experiences that further reinforce irreligious tendencies. A less agreeable, more individualistic style may lead one to assert confidently a disbelief in socially required spiritual platitudes, with a resulting trade-off between greater emphasis on personal integrity but lower social acceptance. Many nonreligious individuals with such personality traits likely select life experiences throughout their educational and social development that result in further skepticism and increased certainty of nonbelief. These various pathways to irreligion will become increasingly relevant as the nonreligious continue to grow as a proportion of the population.

A very superficial reading of the results suggests that:

~ Social support networks are important to life satisfaction and, therefore, the recent increase in the self-identified nonreligious may be due more to the development of such networks through the efforts of "New Atheists" than because of any shift in actual beliefs, as the already nonreligious shift away from nominal membership in religious groups;

~ The perceived "noisiness" and "militancy" of the "New Atheists" is in comparison only to the more "agreeable" attitudes of previous generations of the nonreligious who, in turn, may have felt pressure to be "agreeable" because of their isolation; and

~ Personality traits (such as high openness to experience and lower agreeableness) that may not be as malleable as the "New Atheists" hope, may have more to do with rejection of religion than the sort of social norms that atheists are presently attacking. In turn, this could disguise movement from traditional religion to various religion substitutes, such as "spiritualism" and New Age beliefs, as an acceptance of atheism.

It would seem clear that the network building of the "New Atheists" is increasing the visibility of the nonreligious and, in that regard, is increasing their social influence and individual satisfaction, both notable achievements. It's less obvious that they are doing anything more than giving the balloon a good hard squeeze.

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