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Atheism, Conversion, and Class

Posted: 03/23/10 05:42 PM ET

Atheists like to think of themselves as free thinkers whose take on the world is more intelligent than that of those who are religious. Often they hold up sketchy studies as proof that their skepticism of a higher power has somehow made them smarter than the paranoid idiots who believe there might be something beyond themselves. But a recent look at the demographics of religious belief might make atheists think twice before taking their superiority as gospel.

Last year, Theos, the public theology think tank in the UK, conducted a fairly exhaustive but largely overlooked survey examining attitudes towards evolution, religion, and atheism. In one way, the study was no surprise. Lifelong theists ("I have always believed in God") are disproportionately from lower socio-economic groups while lifelong atheists ("I have never believed in God") are disproportionately from higher socio-economic groups.

But then the study threw out a curveball. Converts to theism ("I believe in God now but have not always done so") are disproportionately from upper and upper-middle-class social groups while converts to atheism ("I used to believe in God but I no longer do so") are disproportionately from lower social groups. Since education strongly correlates with social standing, the study came across similar findings when education was examined.

So what's it all mean? Nick Spencer, the guy at Theos behind the study, acknowledges that atheism has historically been a minority movement of better-educated and higher-social class individuals whereas theism generally has been more associated with the lower and lower-middle class and the less well educated. But all this, he points out, seems to be changing. Indeed, if the survey holds true, new theists are coming from higher socio-economic groups and are better educated than new atheists.

I'm no religious zealot, but I do like the idea of atheists being introduced to another perspective. After all, there are plenty of smart people who also are religious. And there also are plenty of highly acclaimed scientists - Francis Collins, to name just one - who have found faith after achieving great academic success and who are outspoken defenders of the compatibility of science and religion. Yet just a few weeks ago when Professor Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics announced research showing those identified as atheists had higher IQs, atheists smugly held up the data as proof positive that people not confined by the dogmatic structure of a religion are best able to soar intellectually. Never mind that the differences in IQ were too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

In short, I think it's nearly impossible - and often even dangerous - to draw absolute conclusions from any studies that examine the demographics of religious belief. I'm also not sure what, if anything, they tell us about why most cultures have believed deity throughout all of history.

When it comes to the Theos study, Michael Zimmerman, a biology professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, says one would expect converts to be more educated than the general population. Since "lifelong atheists are better educated than lifelong theists and since the only folks who can convert to theism are lifelong atheists, you would expect them to be more over-educated," he reasons. "The same logic works in the reverse direction as well. This is simply a statistical artifact."

But Spencer argues that the atheist camp is not better educated in toto, but rather that it is a cross section of society, just as all camps are. Anyone from any group could convert to theism "and it is noteworthy that it is the better educated ones who are doing so more commonly," he says. Spencer supposes there might be a slightly greater likelihood of those converts being better educated since the camp from which they are drawn is better educated, just as there would be a slightly greater likelihood of picking out a better educated sample randomly from the lifelong atheist pool. "But I think you have to assume the content of arguments play some part in the transition from one camp to another, and that 'conversion' isn't an entirely random phenomenon," he said.

David Sloan Wilson, a biologist at Binghamton University in New York, agrees with me that it's always a bit tricky trying to interpret studies that attempt to demonstrate intelligence patterns.

But he also likes to highlight the findings of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, in which the authors showed a transition matrix for how often teens adopt different faiths from their parents. Conservative religions have the highest retention rates compared to liberal religions and nonbelievers.

He argues that the numbers affirm the pattern that Theos discovered - that the category of "nonbeliever" is more volatile than the category of "theist." "Religions - especially conservative religions - spend a lot of time persuading their members to stay within the faith," he says. "There is no comparable pressure for nonbelievers." He adds that "this difference by itself would explain the Theos results."

But Spencer counters that more likely the results reflect the last decade's increasingly vocal atheism and especially criticisms of books such as the best-selling The God Delusion by arch-sceptic professor Richard Dawkins that might be deflating at least some of atheism's intellectual credibility. "If this is happening, we might expect to see atheism becoming increasingly 'religious' in its composition if not in its size," he says.

Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood recently commented in London's Telegraph newspaper that: "I understand that in Britain recently some people paid to put atheistic slogans on buses - someone paid! That's religion! Once you're paying people to put slogans on things, well, it's either a product you're selling, a political party, or religion."

She was referring to Dawkins' launch last year of Britain's first atheist campaign during which he posted the message: "There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life" on the sides of hundreds of British buses.

Most scary for atheists is this: If atheism does succeed in breaking out of its higher-class, intellectualist confines, then it is likely to do so at the cost of becoming more like a religion than its adherents would like.


Shelley Emling is a former London-based foreign correspondent with Cox Newspapers and author of the biography of Mary Anning, "The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World," which has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan. She now lives in the New York City area.