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Atheist Nation

by Michael Shermer, May 08 2012

Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.

These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”

Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.” Continue reading…

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Shermer in Seminary School

by Michael Shermer, Apr 24 2012

My weekend at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary discussing God, religion, and the afterlife

On Friday, April 13, 2012 in the chapel of the New Orleans Baptist Seminary I debated the Liberty University philosopher and theologian Gary Habermas on the question: “Is There Life After Death?” I went first. I stated that since Gary is taking the affirmative I’m suppose to defend the negative, but in fact when it comes to the afterlife, “I’m for it!” Tellingly, that line didn’t get the usual laugh it engenders in audiences, but then in seminary school the afterlife is a deadly serious subject. I began with this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself dead. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case you are still conscious and observing the scene.

I then outlined the problem we all have in thinking about life after death: we cannot envision what it is like to be dead any more than we can visualize ourselves before we were born, and yet everyone who ever lived has died so death is inevitable. This leads to either depression or humor. I prefer the latter. For example, Steven Wright: “I intend to live forever—so far, so good.” Or Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Of course, you won’t be there when it happens because to experience anything you must be conscious, and you are not conscious when you are dead. I then outlined four theories of life after death, gleaned from my recent Scientific American column based on Stephen Cave’s marvelous new book, Immortality, which I highly recommend reading. Continue reading…

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Hypatia, Agora, and Religion vs. Science

by Donald Prothero, Feb 29 2012

DVD cover

Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
—Hypatia of Alexandria

I happened to be flipping through the cable TV movie channels the other night, and managed to catch the 2009 movie Agora, about the 4th century female astronomer and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria. A Spanish production (in English) directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it received great reviews, seven Goya Awards in Spain, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and accolades at Cannes as well. It broke box office records in Spain. But it only played on four screens in the U.S. in very limited release in New York and LA, so almost no one in this country got to see it. Now, three years later, it appears on cable TV, and can be purchased on or rented on Netflix and other outlets. This seems to be a typical pattern of most thoughtful or provocative European movies that are not written for American teenage boys with lots of guns, violence, superheroes, and car crashes. If you don’t live in a major media center with lots of small independent theaters that cater to a worldly intelligent crowd that likes stimulating, challenging movies, you just have to wait for it to show up on cable or Netflix.

Although it has its flaws, it is a gem of a movie with amazing, provocative scenes and the overarching theme of religious intolerance suppressing science and free inquiry. It was filmed in Malta with minimal CG imagery, so it truly captures the milieu of the blazing Egyptian sun baking the ancient stone city of Alexandria. It portrays both the glories of the temples and monuments to a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods, and the degradation of the slums and the poor amidst great wealth. The acting by an international cast, including the luminous Rachel Weisz (as Hypatia), is excellent, and it does a far better job than most period pieces (especially the “sword and sandal” genre of films about ancient Rome) of capturing the essence of late Roman Alexandria. In that regard it evokes more recent efforts like Ridley Scott’s and Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” and the HBO series “Rome”. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that it is “an ambitious, cerebral and complex movie…Unlike most toga movies, it doesn’t rely on CGI spectacle, but real drama and ideas.” As many other reviewers noted, it is an historical epic (done on an epic scale) not about wars and conquests and romance, but about complex concepts and themes of science, religion, and intolerance.

Continue reading…

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E Pluribus Unum
for all faiths and for none

by Michael Shermer, Dec 20 2011

Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that America is fast becoming a theocracy. No fewer than three of the remaining Republican candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) have declared that they were called by God to run for the country’s highest office. Congress recently voted to renew the country’s motto of “In God We Trust” on nothing less than the coin of the realm. And this year’s Thanksgiving Forum in Iowa (co-sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage) featured most of the major Presidential candidates competing for the title of God’s quarterback.

Rick Santorum, for example, in the course of denouncing Islamic Sharia law, inadvertently endorsed the same as long as it is a Christian on the Judge’s bench: “Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.” Not content to speak in such circular generalities, Santorum targeted his faith: “As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.” God’s law? That is precisely the argument made by Islamic imams. But Santorum was only getting started. “Gay marriage is wrong. The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.” Christian values only, of course. Continue reading…

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What’s God Got to Do With It?

by Michael Shermer, Nov 15 2011

He may be invoked in the national motto, but God has nothing to do with why Americans are free and secure

This op-ed was originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Friday November 4, 2011.

The House of Representatives voted last week by a margin of 396–9 to reaffirm as the national motto the phrase “In God We Trust,” and encouraged its pronouncement on public buildings and continued printing on the coin of the realm. The motto was made official in 1956 during the height of Cold War hysteria over godless communism and—in the words of Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s and Peter Sellers’ 1964 classic antiwar film Dr. Strangelove—“Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

As risible a reason as this was for knocking out a few bricks in the wall separating state and church, it was at least understandable in the context of the times. But today, with no communist threats and belief in God or a universal spirit among Americans still holding strong at about 90%, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll, what is the point of having this motto? The answer is in the wording of the resolution voted on: “Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured.” Continue reading…

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Start a Church for Fun, Sex, and Profit

by Brian Dunning, Feb 17 2011

Recently I did a Skeptoid episode on Scientology, and followed it up with a post here on SkepticBlog to further explain my position. And this was, very much, a position piece… whereas normally with Skeptoid, I compare science to pseudoscience; but as there’s really no science behind Scientology, it was more “Brian’s personal opinion of Scientology”.

To sum up the criticism, it was overwhelmingly that I was too soft on it.

And then, interestingly, one commenter pointed out something I said in a really early Skeptoid episode, way back in 2006:

My dream is to start a church and become fabulously wealthy, with the world’s happiest customers. These customers are people who are already believers, whose minds are not about to be changed by a few skeptics. They are going to buy these services: and if they don’t buy them from me, they’re going to buy them from the psychic next door.

In other words, “Hey it’s OK to start a church and take people’s money, because otherwise they’re just going to give it to someone else.” It sounds like it’s not too different from something L. Ron Hubbard might have said. And here’s the kicker: That Skeptoid episode was about ethics.

When I read this comment, I’d completely forgotten about my old remark, and I’ll admit it was pretty eye-opening to have it pointed out. I was like, “Wow, am I really similar to L. Ron Hubbard? Is that why my Scientology episode was so soft?” Continue reading…

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Bishop Pontoppidan Versus the Tree Geese

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 08 2011
Portrait of Erich Pontoppidan

Erich Pontoppidan

Steve Novella's discussion of gullibility about fictional tree octopi reminded me of the curious case of the “Tree Geese” investigated by the Right Revered Erich Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen in Norway from 1747 to 1754.

Skeptical history (dimly) remembers Pontoppidan as a pivotal early proponent of the “Great Sea Serpent” of the North Atlantic. Although he was perhaps the person most responsible for moving sea serpents out of the realm of mythology and into what we would now call cryptozoology,1 Pontoppidan is largely eclipsed by more recent sea monster authors (Oudemans in particular). When he is remembered at all, Pontoppidan carries a reputation for credulity. His two-volume Natural History of Norway, translated from Danish to English in 1755, promoted not only the “great Sea snake, of several hundred feet long” but also the Kraken. He even argued for the existence of mermaids!

We'll come back to sea monsters at another time. Today I'd like to look at Pontoppidan himself. It's perhaps understandable if some suppose that a creationist mermaid-believer might be a lightweight. Luckily (for skeptical researchers love nothing more than seeing our assumptions turned on their heads) Pontoppidan turns out to have been much more complicated than his place in cryptozoological history suggests.

Continue reading…

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Skeptoid on Scientology

by Brian Dunning, Jan 27 2011

This week's Skeptoid episode was on Scientology, the notorious “religion” created in the 1950s by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard.

After I was finished researching and writing it, I had second thoughts, and decided for a few days that I would shelve it and not produce it, and said so on Twitter. Predictably, lots of people expressed their desire for me to reverse that decision, or that I had decided I was too afraid of Scientology suing me.

In fact, the reverse was true. I was afraid that the episode came out sounding too soft on Scientology. I did not want to be perceived as the pro-Scientology guy, and the episode turned out being less interesting than I'd hoped. But I eventually said “What the heck” and produced it anyway. Continue reading…

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The Free Exercise of Stupidity <br /> <small> Dr. Laura, the Ground Zero Mosque, and the 1st Amendment </small>

by Michael Shermer, Aug 24 2010

Recently, two of the biggest media story brouhahas were Dr. Laura’s N-word gaff and the Ground Zero mosque, both of which commentators insist are First Amendment issues. They are not. Here’s why. First, let’s review the First…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(Most people forget that there are actually five freedoms protected in the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, petition.) Continue reading…

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Was Jesus a Conservative or a Liberal?

by Michael Shermer, Aug 17 2010

The ancient art of cherry picking passages from the Bible to support this or that argument has found new life in recent decades as conservatives claim Jesus as their political ally and in the past year with the Tea Party movement invoking Christ’s conservativism. What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) has morphed into Who Would Jesus Vote For? (WWJVF?) Was Jesus a conservative? I don’t think so, but the entire enterprise of politicizing historical figures with modern labels is fraught with fallacy.

Employing modern political terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” to someone who live 2,000 years ago is an absurd game to play because those terms as they are used today do not even apply to people who lived a scant few centuries ago. The original meaning of “liberal,” for example, was what we would today call a “classical liberal,” or someone who believes in laissez faire capitalism and small government. Followers of Adam Smith were liberals, but today are called classical liberals, or conservatives, because they want to conserve the political and economic principles of classical Enlightenment thought. Those who are vehemently opposed to these conservative principles are sometimes today called progressives, who want to progress beyond—instead of conserving—classical liberalism, and their type specimen is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who originally had the support of pro-laissez faire capitalists until he launched the New Deal. One of FDR’s ideological descendents was Bill Clinton, who turned out to be one of the strongest Democratic proponents of free markets in history, which makes him, what? A conservatively classical progressive liberal? You can see how odious such label making becomes even for modern figures. Continue reading…

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