Going Godless: Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?

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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".

Boston University Psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris has studied the difference between religious and secular minds. Zoom
JASON GROW/DER SPIEGEL

Boston University Psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris has studied the difference between religious and secular minds.

Barry Kosmin is a different kind of market researcher. His data focuses on consumers targeted by companies like Lifechurch.tv or World Overcomers Christian Church TM. The sociologist analyzes church-affiliated commercial entities, from souvenir shops to television channels and worship services.

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

This heightened public profile may be contributing to the shrinking numbers of religious believers. Churches in the US are losing up to 1 million members every year. In Europe, secularization has advanced even further. The number of non-religious people, those who do not believe in God or any higher power, has reached approximately 40 percent in France and about 27 percent in Germany.

Until now, researchers examining religious populations have mostly come from faith-based backgrounds. The Vatican was a pioneer when it established the Secretariat for Non-Believers in order to "detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God" in 1965.

But the numbers of secularists are growing. By now, non-believers have even infiltrated the churches: In a survey conducted by the Protestant Church in Germany, 3 percent of Protestants admitted that they did not believe in God. Church leaders may seek comfort in the idea that skepticism towards God is limited to Western Christian thought. China, South Korea and Japan, however, are commonly counted as being amongst the most secular countries.

Now secular researchers like Kosmin want to determine just how the religious and secularist minds differ -- and their initial findings are a surprise. While secularism was typically limited to the realm of educated, affluent and male-dominated urban societies, atheism is now spreading across much broader spectrums of society.

Opposition to the Death Penalty, War and Discrimination

So what do these increasing numbers of non-believers believe in, if not God? Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California's Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.

The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don't believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.

But their knowledge doesn't seem to do them much good, since secularists rank among the least-liked groups of people in the US, falling behind even Muslims and homosexuals. In the states of South Carolina and Arkansas, those who deny the existence of a supreme being are not even permitted to hold public office.

The secularists' problem is that, unlike the religious believers, they do not have a strong organization backing them. There is no such thing as a "typical" non-believer and every society has its own version of secularism.

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 at 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."

Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. "There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."

Only a small portion of secularists are as radical as the "strong atheists" championed by British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. The majority are more likely to be indifferent to religion or mildly agnostic, according to Kosmin's analysis. There are also secular humanists, free thinkers and many other factions. "One problem of atheism research is that we simply can't agree on a unified terminology," notes Kosmin. "Every researcher thinks he is Linnaeus and invents his own labels."

Then he tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration. "But they couldn't even agree on a motto," he says. "It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch." In the end, the march was called off.

Translated from the German by Alison Kilian

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Graphic: Percentage of non-religious persons in eastern and western Germany. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Percentage of non-religious persons in eastern and western Germany.


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