Going Godless: Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?

Non-believers are often more educated, more tolerant and know more about God than the pious. A new wave of research is trying to figure out what goes on in the minds of an ever-growing group of people known as the Nones

Published on SPIEGEL online, by Hilmar Schmundt, August 11, 2011.

… But the most significant target of Kosmin’s research is the consumer group most likely to shy away from such commercial products: secularists. “The non-religious, or Nones, hold the fastest-growing world view in the market,” says Kosmin. “In the past 20 years, their numbers in the United States have doubled to 15 percent.” 

The director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in the US state of Connecticut, Kosmin is among the few researchers focused on the study of non-believers. This umbrella covers various groups including atheists, agnostics and humanists, as well as those who are simply indifferent to religion.

Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion). Despite their large numbers, little is known about this group of people. Who are they? And if not religion, what do they believe in?

“Sometimes I feel like Christopher Columbus on an expedition to an unknown continent,” says Kosmin. “For example, many believe that the US population is steadily becoming more religious — but this is an optical illusion. Many evangelicals have simply become more aggressive and more political.”

US Churches Losing Millions of Members: … //

… Germany Serves as Case Study:

Germany serves as a sort of historical case study for sociologists, thanks to the distinct differences in religious tendencies between the formerly divided east and west. In the former East Germany, or German Democratic Republic (GDR), where atheism long ago shed its association with the educated classes and became a common value, it has evolved over three generations.

Nearly 67 percent of eastern Germans have no religious affiliation, compared to just 18 percent in the West. This trend isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future, since children who grew up with non-religious parents are almost certain to remain secular. The mother’s beliefs have an especially significant impact on the children’s belief systems.

When the GDR ended its period of religious repression, no process of re-Christianization occurred. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of a church presence in the east actually sped up,” says Detlef Pollack, a professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Münster.

Ironically, the link between church and state contributed to secularization in the East, he says. Publicly funded theological professorships, military chaplaincies, and the presence of church representatives on broadcasting councils were common. As a result, public perception came to closely link authority with religion, which was seen as coming from the West.

Germany’s case also counters the assumption that economic instability encourages people to embrace religion. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The oil crisis of the 1970s, the difficult period of reunification and the recent financial crisis were all accompanied by waves of exoduses from the church. Many former Christians name Germany’s church tax — an automatic levy of 8 to 9 percent of a person’s total income tax that is managed by local government tax offices and applied to all members of the Catholic and Protestant churches — as a reason for leaving.

According to Pollack’s estimates, eastern Germany may well be a trendsetter, but some point, he predicts, at least 70 percent of people in the West will also live a secular life. Religion, though, will never disappear entirely, he says. “When supporters of the church fall into a minority, a so-called ‘diaspora effect’ often ensues, and the sense of unity between the scattered communities increases,” he says.

Two Different Thinking Styles:

Boston University’s Catherine Caldwell-Harris is researching the differences between the secular and religious minds. “Humans have two cognitive styles,” the psychologist says. “One type finds deeper meaning in everything; even bad weather can be framed as fate. The other type is neurologically predisposed to be skeptical, and they don’t put much weight in beliefs and agency detection” … (full text).

Comments are closed.