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Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I recently posted a blog about an article that I came across via Real Clear Science regarding whether the human race could become extinct in the foreseeable future. Now I want to ponder another recent article from Real Clear Science regarding extinction. This time the question is whether religion is on the way to becoming extinct, courtesy of the wonders of modern science. The article was written by RCS editor Ross Pomeroy, a zoologist and biologist. OK, with those credentials, you can assume that Pomeroy knows a thing or two about extinction, and about the wonders of science. But is he right that science will inevitably become humankind’s new religion? To me, this smacks of “scientism“, which I have already expressed my reservations about.

Pomeroy claims that science will become the new “faith of humankind”. He notes the writings of Sir James George Frazer, who said that religion, science, and magic are similar conceptions, providing a framework for how the world works and guiding our actions. Frazer said that humanity moved through an Age of Magic before entering an Age of Religion. So, Pomeroy asks, “is an Age of Science finally taking hold?” At the end of his article, he concludes that

One of science’s primary aims is to seek out knowledge that will hopefully better our world and the lives of all who live on it . . . so not only does science dispel religious belief, it also serves as an effective substitute for it.

Given that Pomeroy is a scientist himself, we expect that he will provide empirical evidence to support his claim. And indeed, he does offer some interesting statistics derived from various surveys. Pomeroy’s main source of evidence that religious faith and practice are now declining in America (as has been the case for many years in most of Europe) is the 2014 General Social Survey.

This survey clearly shows a general decline across a wide variety of indicators regarding spiritual belief and religiosity in America. The declining trend in these gauges seemed to begin around 1992 and continued to drop through 2014, after holding roughly steady over the prior two decades (i.e., 1972 – 1991). These gauges include a variety of questions regarding prayer habits, beliefs about God, overall attitudes towards “spirituality” and “personal spirituality”, participation in religious services, confidence in religious institutions, etc.

Pomeroy says that it is especially noteworthy that young adults today (i.e., the Millennials) are scoring significantly lower on these religiosity and belief indicators than young adults did back in the 1980s (when I was still a young adult, at least for a while). He cites the following passage from another study based on GSS data, a 2016 article entitled “Declines in American Adults’ Religious Participation and Beliefs, 1972-2014″:

“Nearly a third of Millennials were secular not merely in religious affiliation but also in belief in God, religiosity, and religious service attendance, many more than Boomers and Generation X’ers at the same age,” the authors wrote. “Eight times more 18- to 29-year-olds never prayed in 2014 versus the early 1980s”

I did a little bit of digging myself into how the GSS results are being interpreted in regard to belief and spiritual practice in America. I was interested in whether a strong spiritual instinct was surviving despite declining interest in traditional religions and their faith practices. I checked the “Declines” article that Pomeroy cites, and here’s what the authors had to say about “spirituality” trends:

Has religiosity been replaced with spirituality? Identifying as a spiritual person increased between 1998 and 2006, but then declined between 2006 and 2014. In all, 62% identified as moderately or strongly spiritual in 1998, compared with 70% in 2006 and 65% in 2014; thus, identification as a spiritual person increased 5% between 1998 and 2014, a small increase compared to the larger declines in religious belief and practice. Thus, there is some suggestion that young people were less spiritual in 2014 versus 1998, though the decline was not statistically significant. In 2014, fewer 18- to 29-year-olds (Millennials) identified as spiritual (47%) than those 50 and above (72%). This suggests that identification as a spiritual person may continue to decline.

I interpret this to mean that “generic spirituality” (i.e. belief or faith in some sort of master theme, conscious presence, or agentic force in the universe that is not anticipated by science, but not necessarily tied to any traditional religious creed) continued to grow even as traditional religious belief and practices declined in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. However, this trend reached a high-water mark around 2006 and has been declining since then, although not precipitously. The data may also be signaling, albeit weakly, that “generic spirituality” is declining amidst those under 30.

OK, so in a nutshell . . . traditional religious faith and practices have clearly been on the decline for adults of all ages since around 1992. However, today’s Millennials are significantly less religious than their predecessor generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X) were when they were young. For a while in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it seemed as though “generic spirituality” or “personal spirituality” continued to grow, perhaps taking the place of religion for many American adults. However, after 2006, this trend too started to reverse; it may have already been on the decline for the under-30 segment, as the percentage of under-30 adults who identified themselves as “not spiritual and not religious” increased from about 13% in 2000 to about 18% in 2014.

Pomeroy suggests that all of this is attributable to the rationality and desirability of modern science:

We are perhaps the first generation of humans to truly possess a factually accurate understanding of our world and ourselves. In the past, this knowledge was only in the hands and minds of the few, but with the advent of the Internet, evidence and information have never been so widespread and accessible . . . we no longer live in closed, insular environments where a single dogmatic worldview can dominate . . . as scientific evidence questions the tenets of religion, so too, does it provide a worldview to follow, one that’s infinitely more coherent.

Now hold on. I myself am a big, big fan of science. But really, does science present humankind with a way to live, a reason to be, a meaning and purpose for our existence? Sure, some people definitely seem to believe this, and even feel this in their hearts. But for the most part, those people are scientists and perhaps a handful of envious philosophers. What I’m going to say next is totally unscientific . . . but personally, I don’t detect much of an interest and sense of awe for science amidst the everyday people that I rub elbows with.

Let’s try some raw data on this. Has there been an increasing trend in the numbers of college students who choose to study science? A Wall Street Journal article says that

In 2014, 34% of all bachelor’s degrees were in so-called STEM fields, which cover subjects like biology, chemistry and mathematics, compared with 33% in 2004, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Excluding social science and psychology, those figures were 18% and 17%, respectively.

I found a chart on the National Center for Education Statistics website breaking down the number of bachelor degrees given between 1971 and 2011. So I lumped together the following seven categories: Biological and Biomedical Science; Computer and Information Science; Communications Technologies; Engineering; Engineering Technology; Math and Statistics; and Physical Sciences. (I’m sticking here with hard sciences, excluding social science and psychology.) What then do my figures show? As a percentage of all bachelors degrees awarded in the US, my hard-science lump represented 16.07% of all degrees in 1971. Twenty years later, in 1991, the percentage was up a tad, to 16.13%. Then another twenty years later in 2011, the percentage was 15.91%.

A later dataset does its own lumping for natural sciences, math, computer sciences and engineering, and gives the following numbers for 1971, 1991 and 2013: 16.02%, 16.00%, and 16.45%. So, perhaps 2013 was a slightly better year than 2011 for the hard sciences. However, the peak year was 1986, with 21.83%; this went down to 16% in 1991, but bumped up again to 16.82% in 1996. So, the hard science degree numbers are still struggling to get back to levels from the early 90s.

Oh, as to the “soft sciences”: here are the numbers for total social sciences plus history [which is lumped together with social sciences] plus psychology: from the earlier dataset, 23.04% in 1971, 16.79% in 1991, and 16.20% in 2011; and under the “social and behavioral sciences” category in the later database, 23.0% for 1971, 16.8% for 1991, and 15.9% for 2013. This category had gone down to 15.1% in 1981 and 13.6% in 1986.

And let’s be fair: how about the percentages for philosophy and religious study plus theology and religious vocation study? The later database doesn’t break these out, but from the earlier database: 1.41% in 1971; 1.12% in 1991; and 1.28% in 2011. How about the later category alone, i.e. religious vocation? 0.44% in 1971, 0.44% in 1991, and 0.53% in 2011. It appears that religion and spiritual interest studies are a tiny percentage, but overall are not faring all that differently than either the hard or soft sciences.

So, Dr. Pomeroy — if America is turning to science as its religion, and young people are the vanguard of this trend, then why aren’t they clamoring to become acolytes within the high temples of the new faith? And why haven’t they totally vacated the more spiritually-oriented educational paths? Sorry buddy, but I think it’s time for some alternate hypotheses about the apparent declines in religiosity and spirituality in recent years. We seem to have identified two big turning points in the General Social Survey data: 1992 (for traditional religiosity) and 2006 (for personal spiritual interest). Let’s put on our historical-sociologist hats. What big changes to American society got going around those dates?

Well, lots of things. But here are my favorite two potential trend-makers. First, technology, especially the affordable home computer and the internet. Second, growing financial concentration and economic internationalization, along with other political and economic trends which have steadily worsened the distribution of wealth and income in the US and have ended the growth in living standards for the middle class (and imposed declines for the lower class).

As to technology — I don’t think that I need to remind you that by 1991, MS-DOS was alive, Windows 3.1 was available, and IBM, Commodore, Radio Shack, Compaq and Apple were selling almost-affordable home computers. And by 1992, what we now know today as the World Wide Web was up and could be accessed by those who knew their way around a telephone modem. Was this the reason why people stopped going to church? Well not directly, of course. But over the 90’s and after 2000, computers and the internet became a bigger and bigger part of most everyone’s lives. They started playing a lot of the roles that religion play. They could teach us, answer our questions, entertain us, and allow us to stay in touch with others. Previous communications technology, i.e. the phone, radio and TV, could also do some of this; but they could not interact with us nearly as much as modern computer and internet media can.

OK, so what technology innovation would explain the 2006 bump in the road? Simple. Facebook and the smart phone. Who needs spirituality when you have a smart phone and a Facebook account, especially if you are a Millennial? Furthermore, by 2006, information and social media portals were applying “algorithms” that direct people towards others with similar points of view. That’s wonderful, except it seems to promote the increasing denial and disregard of the fact that many others hold views strikingly different from one’s own. There’s already a name for this phenomenon, i.e. the “filter bubble” problem. Young people today may get caught in their own bubbles of interest, and not develop a broader perspective on life, the universe and everything (with all due respect to Doug Adams) in a way that encourages deep philosophical ponderings.

Still, we need something more to get a firm grasp on America’s supposed turn away from religion. And as I’ve said, I feel that that something is economics, especially the end of the American Dream regarding continuous generational growth in opportunities and standards of living for the middle class (and at least a floor from which the poor would not go below). By the 1990’s, it started to become clear for more and more Americans that the dream that their children would have it better than them, and their grandchildren better still, was coming to an end for those who weren’t in the upper echelons of income and wealth. As factories closed and skilled jobs were “off-shored” or robotized, more and more families lost the jobs or small businesses they depended upon to maintain the suburban lifestyles they had become accustomed to. Oh, and as to the spirituality decline after 2006 – let’s not forget that the housing market started to collapse in 2007, leading to the Great Recession.

This has become truly disheartening for millions of people. And Donald Trump figured that out not so long ago. There is clearly a wave of growing distrust in government; but it has also become apparent that organized religion has offered little to help those who remember better times and brighter prospects for the future. Sure, the local church could help you with its food pantry and secondhand clothing store, but it had nothing to say about how to bring back the days of relative prosperity in places like Johnstown, PA, Mansfield, OH, Buffalo, NY, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and Pontiac, Michigan.

Economist Daniel Hungerman has argued that the US GDP growth and churchgoing in America are inversely correlated. In good times, more people go to church; in bad times, fewer. Despite the lack of documented surveys, there is evidence of a “decline in piety” during the Great Depression. So, it would not be unjustified to interpret today’s declines in churchgoing and faith as strongly related to the economic factors that have affected so many Americans today in so many unfavorable ways. And with cheap technology giving you seemingly equivalent opportunities for entertainment and social contact and news and wisdom, well, who needs a self-righteous church anymore? (Especially if you’re having trouble staying up with the congregation when the collection basket comes around.)

I would also question Pomeroy as to whether we 2016 Americans and especially our young Millennials are truly “the first generation of humans to truly possess a factually accurate understanding of our world and ourselves”, courtesy of the Internet. What about the television revolution of the 1950s and 60s? What about Carl Sagan and Bill Nye the Science Guy and Mr. Wizard? Wasn’t there a popular show called “Star Trek” that allowed its watchers to dream big about the possibilities that science would unfold for us?

I know that science has advanced incredibly far in the past half century, but I would argue that by 1965, science was able to give the common person a pretty good understanding of how life worked and how the cosmos was arranged. Despite all the incredible advances since then in science and their easy accessibility on-line, I would doubt if the average American today possesses a significantly more sophisticated understanding of the physics and chemistry that drive our bodies, our planet, our solar system, and our universe. Sure, scientists know a whole lot more now about black holes; but I’m not sure that people hanging out in a bar on a Friday night or sipping lattes in a Starbucks on Sunday are terribly concerned about that. Does Hawking-Bekenstein radiation make all that much difference to the NFL and its followers, or to the crowd at a Taylor Swift concert?

Pomeroy references another survey to justify the notion that people will be better off putting God behind and investing their faith in science. He cites a series of worldwide surveys analyzed by Dr. Olga Stavrova of the University of Cologne. Dr. Strvrova found that belief in scientific-technological progress in Holland was positively associated with life satisfaction, and that faith in science had a bigger effect on satisfaction than religion. Moreover, using the World Values Survey, Stavrova’s team extrapolated their findings worldwide. An article in Reason magazine reports that “correlation between a belief in scientific–technological progress and life satisfaction was positive and significant in 69 of the 72 countries.” By comparison, the relationship between religiosity and life satisfaction was positive in only 28 countries and was negative in 5 countries.

Why am I under-whelmed by this study? Well, I wonder just how much does a survey answer regarding “life satisfaction” really tell us? Is that the truest measure of what a good life requires? Is it a good proxy for long-term happiness and fulfillment? Is it interpreted the same way by a tribal member in Uganda, an island villager in Polynesia, a street merchant in Pakistan, and a truck driver in Montana? Or is it usually an answer to whether a person’s material needs and expectations are being met, as I suspect?

There may be something of a correlation versus causation problem here. Positive attitudes towards science probably reflect long-term social presumptions which supported industrialization, and thus increased living standards and “life satisfaction”. Less favorable attitudes towards technology and industrialization may correlate with more backwards conditions, as seen in many nations in Africa and the Middle East. And in those places, religiosity is often quite high. So it would not be surprising to see a weak overall relationship between religiosity and life-satisfaction, given that there are some places where religiosity and industrialization coincide (where material needs are largely met), and some places where they don’t (where there is more material suffering).

It may well be that trying to identify whether favorable attitudes towards science or religion are better contributors to “life satisfaction” is a matter of comparing apples and oranges. Personally, I see no reason why the two should not co-exist. However, it seems much more likely to me that higher or lower material living standards are the strongest driver of a “life satisfaction” reply on a world-wide survey, and that religiosity answers a different psychological need.

And one more note regarding to the seeming ineffectiveness of religion in bringing human happiness, as Pomeroy suggests. Recall the writings of social journalist Robert Wright, who has discussed the various positive social effects that religion and faith have had on society. According to Wright (who claims to be agnostic about whether God truly exists),

as ideas about God have evolved people have moved closer to something that may be the truth about ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning.

Here’s one more statistic from the General Social Survey. The proposition in question was “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind.” Percentage who agree: 1991, 7%; 2014, 13%. In other words, there is still evidence of a thirst for the transcendent, despite the clear decline in those who quench it through traditional religious beliefs about God.

In sum, I believe that Dr. Pomeroy is wrong; science is not the new God. It’s partly technology, i.e. the increasing computerization of our lives thanks to the internet, personal computers, cell phones, social media and myriad other possibilities for all of the things around us that will soon be integrated in to the “web of things“. But more importantly, it’s the economy, stupid. And ultimately, the God of the post-God era may be political. As Donald Trump is now showing us, that might not be pretty. The question for the churches and mainline religions is, given this, how can they avoid the fate that Pomeroy predicts for them, i.e. that “religion may be marginalized to a small minority bereft of influence” ?

I’m going to leave it there for now, but I hope to have more to say on that in the future. For now, though, I’ll offer a parting shot at Pomeroy. I was somewhat surprised by his triumphant embrace of “scientism” in this article, given that just a few years ago he published a very well thought-out piece entitled “Why Strict Atheism Is Unscientific” Basically, Pomeroy agreed in that article that an atheist who asserts with absolute certainty the non-existence of God takes just as much of a leap of faith as the fundamental believer does (if there are going to be any of them left!). “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – well put, Dr. Pomeroy. Radical atheists “do a disservice by campaigning against religion or touting — as pure truth — the non-existence of God, for those actions (especially the latter) are just as unscientific as a blind belief in all aspects of religion.” But now the good doctor seems to believe that science makes the question of God unnecessary and irrelevant. Obviously, I would beg to differ.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:44 am      

  1. Jim, I like this post VERY much. Throughout this entire post I kept saying to myself: “But did you think of THIS?” And sure enuf, in a few lines you had given a “response to” the exact thing I had tho’t to say. It seems then, I have little to comment on here as you have covered almost everything I would have brought up.

    The only thing I can think to comment on is that it seems to me that most of these studies of who prays or who goes to church do not really consider the various ways one might “be in church” or one might “pray” or practice a “liturgy” of some sort. For instance: At one point some time ago I had the fortunate experience of standing under a Weeping Willow tree. I happened to look up to the top of this large tree, and the tree and the way its branches were formed reminded me of a Cathedral; it was so big, so beautiful, so “church like” that I tho’t anybody, giving an ounce of tho’t to it, would experience the tree as a “church”. (I tho’t no wonder the Native Americans considered all of the earth as God.)

    Now while, that tree would not be answered on a questionnaire as “yes, I go to church now and then”, it certainly was a church-like experience; and from then on any time I saw that tree (or even any Weeping Willow tree for that matter), I tho’t of a “church” and the “honoring of a Deity”. I’d certainly think that, while it would receive a “no” for “church”; something about it all deserved a “yes” to the “church” question, but Pomeroy didn’t think in those terms.

    Same with the question, “Do I pray?” While most people answered “no”, I find myself wondering just what constitutes prayer. How many people will silently hope that someone they know is dying has a happy death? Or hear of some unfortunate thing happening anywhere in the world and think of “those poor people” and DO something to help them. For instance, they may give money to a charity to help them. I’d tend to think of that as a kind of “prayer”—responding to, not specifically a prayer, but an “ask” to help someone. And the more I see the “gofundme” requests for money to help some stranger in distress, the more I think: How does that differ from giving a dollar (or $5 or $100 sometimes; I’ve even seen $1000) to a person begging on the street? The “asking” of the “gofundme’s” is “answered” by total strangers. Prayer is an asking for a response. How much more “prayer-like” could something be. BUT this whole ask/response would receive a “no” on the questionnaire by the scientist, Pomeroy. (Continued)

    Comment by Mary S. — April 23, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

  2. (Continued from above) Then there is “liturgy”: One generally thinks of “liturgy” as some set practice in honoring a Deity. I find myself thinking that a lot of people have their “liturgical” practices but don’t call them that. For instance: A person who has a habit of regular practice of Yoga where one practices quieting his/her mind is practicing a kind of liturgy. Then there is the habit many people have of walking in the woods, stopping in wonder to notice the smallest to the largest creatures is practicing a “liturgy” of sorts. Today I saw pictures taken by a person who considers himself a photographer, and I would not disagree. But I might ADD: In daily walks thru the woods this person practices a liturgy of sorts by capturing in pictures every creature between a small snail and a massive Bald Eagle. He is filled with wonder in his daily walks. It seems to me that this wonder is never called a “liturgy” (he might even be offended thinking of it as a “liturgy”); yet as I think about it, it has characteristics of honoring a Deity and thus is a kind of “liturgy”. BUT it would NEVER be given a “yes” to a question of whether or not this person practices any form of religion, according to Pomeroy.

    Once again, I find myself wondering how many other things SHOULD receive a “yes” to a question of some religious practice, but end up getting a “no” for the simple reason it is not the “usual” thing considered religion or even spirituality.

    So in the end of this whole thing, I find myself thinking of Professor Hawking who overrates his mind when it comes to whether there is a God or not. If one doesn’t look in the right places for religious experience/practice, one won’t find it.

    I should have said earlier I am definitely NOT a Millennial; but if I, who am not a genius by any stretch of the imagination, can see these natural things as religious (and wonder how many I miss), I find myself wondering how narrow minded can these scientists be. But maybe again, it’s that they are too enamored of their own ideas, tho’ts, and brain to see anything but what they want to see. I’m not knocking science here by any stretch of the imagination; I’m just asking that people look around and see what there is to see that might have a meaning other than a scientific one and that would include scientists, be they from unnamed generations such as mine, the Baby Boomers, the Gen Xer’s, and/or the Millenniels. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 23, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

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