Religion in the US

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:46 pm by Martin

I used to call myself agnostic when it comes to religious and supernatural beliefs. I was fairly certain that God, or any god for that matter, does not exist, but I didn’t exclude the possibility and didn’t really think much about it. After some years I’ve come to think of myself as more of an atheist, but still held some untenable supernatural beliefs. I’ve recently read some books by the so-called new atheists, among others “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation”, that have made it absolutely clear to me that I’m definitely an atheist and non-believer, not just in religious faith but also in anything supernatural or metaphysical that has no substantial evidence to back it up. Just because we don’t know something yet, doesn’t mean that any kind of god or something supernatural is an adequate explanation for it (this is the typical “gap tactic” used often by the intelligent design community here in the US as a case against evolution).

If you’ve ever been in doubt about religion, read books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer and Skeptic Magazine to quickly relinqish your doubts and realize that it is due time for humanistic ethics, non-supernatural spirituality and reason to replace religious faith.

Surprisingly, here in the US, as opposed to a lot of European countries, atheism is not widespread (only about 12% of the population) and even has negative connotations in society. A Gallup poll from 1999 quoted in “The God Delusion” exemplifies this: Americans were asked whether they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified person who was a woman (95% would), Roman Catholic (94%), Jew (92%), black (92%), Mormon (79%), homosexual (79%), or atheist (49%).

Some other scary statistics about the US population from a Gallup poll (see http://www.pollingreport.com/religion.htm; I just chose the first time range, but other time ranges have a similar distribution):

  • 86% believe in God.
  • 81% believe in Heaven.
  • 75% believe in angels.
  • 70% believe in the devil.
  • 69% believe in hell.

Some other random numbers from the before-mentioned page and a Gallup poll mentioned in Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation”:

  • On average almost 33% believe that the Bible is the actual word of God!
  • Only 12% believe in the evolution of life on earth without divine intervention (probably the same 12% that are atheists in the US).
  • 31% believe that evolution has been guided by God.
  • 53% are practically creationists and believe the earth is not older than six thousand years. Incidentally, the Sumerians invented glue, saws, knives, axes, and many other things before that…on a non-existent earth, I presume?
  • 44% are convinced that Jesus will return to judge us within the next fifty years!

I find it incredible that such a large proportion of the American public cannot “believe” in widely accepted and well-established scientific facts, such as evolution. Instead, people prefer to delude themselves with creationism, intelligent design, and belief in the fairytales of the Bible (which is probably the most incoherent book ever written). This was also made evident by the recent propaganda movie trying to defend intelligent design with the goal of getting it into classrooms “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. Fortunately, the movie’s claims have been relentlessly debunked by the Expelled Exposed website created by the National Center for Science Education.

Another thing that really scares me here in the US, though, is the widespread use of the word “God” in speeches by politicians. Listen to any George Bush speech and you will hear him utter the word “God” a few times, especially at the end of most speeches when he says “May God bless America”. Back home this is unthinkable and I don’t even remember any serious politician, let alone our chanselor or president, use the word “God”. Of course, it is a known fact that you could not be elected as US president if you were an atheist. This in itself is an atrocity, considering that the intellectual elite of the country consists mostly of atheists, and you’d kind of think some of them would be good candidates to lead the world’s largest super power.

Consider this thought experiment: In any politician’s speech, replace the word God with the word Zeus, so that “May God bless America” becomes “May Zeus bless America”. What would you think of a president or other high-ranking politician uttering these words? Would you be surprised, enraged, appalled, insulted? I sure would be. Just as we have no evidence whatsoever to believe in Zeus, we have no evidence to believe in the Judeo-Christian God of Abraham (or Allah, Shiva, Thor, Baal, Ra, Neptune, Poseidon, …). Yet through religious indoctrination of defenseless children by their parents, Yahweh has not yet gone the way of Zeus in our modern discourse and many of the world’s current religions enjoy undeserved respect. Honest criticism of religious faith is more often than not a taboo and frowned upon instead of being a moral and intellectual necessity, especially considering how many of our armed conflicts today are still based on religious belief in incoherent, so-called “holy” books written thousands of years ago.

With this in mind and considering that the United States were created as a secular nation, the recent statements of the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, are a bit shocking to me, not only because they are historically incorrect.


  1. Doris said,

    June 10, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Well, I kind of feel the need to state some arguments on this issue myself. First of all I want to mention that I fully agree that religion or whatsoever shouldn’t be messed up with politics. I regard it as very dangerous to interconnect political ambitions with the religious believing of people. How many wars have been started over religious differences, it’s horrible. But despite these facts I want to rectify something. Religion shouldn’t be put on a level with believing. There are people who claim to be a member of this or that religious group, but in their heart they don’t really believe. They attend messes and do ceremonies, but they don’t feel the presence of God in their life. On the other hand there are people who don’t fit into any religious group, but their life is lit by the holy ghost (excuse my use of Christian vocabulary at this point, I don’t mean this exclusively, but this way it’s easier for me to make an example). Far more I want to say that the existence (or non-existence) of God surly lies beyond all human measures. One can neither prove that He exists nor that He doesn’t. One can simply believe it or not. And in my opinion everyone deserves the right to choose for himself. For me believing in God enriches my life. I don’t want to get the feeling that I should apologize for that nor I would force someone to be a believer. I am no missionary and really don’t want to be one. I just want to clarify that surly there can be done many damage with religion, but religion – as I stated earlier – can’t be equated with God himself. I am a Christian, but do I therefore believe in everything the church tells? No! In fact I think that lots of those who claim to be “real” Christians in reality are pure egomaniacs. Really the whole Vatican and of course those radical Christians in the United States really should read the New Testament more carefully. If they would do so, they would realize that Jesus told us to love everybody and not to change those who don’t do the things like we think they should be done. Jesus never forced anyone to do what he wished to be done. Jesus wasn’t stubborn or conservatively fixated on certain rituals or rules. In fact He was the one who broke all the previously effective rules if necessary. He can therefore be seen as progressive and liberal. He told us that we are loved no matter what. Unfortunately lots of people don’t seem to realize that. I think it’s scandalous that the some Christians (and here especially those fanatics in the USA) claim that you must to this or that to be a good Christian and therefore to be worth being loved by God. What nonsense!
    After all we shouldn’t forget that religions themselves are institutions and therefore act in a certain way politically. They set up rules and now claim that they are the only “right” way. I truly doubt that! Bless those who are inspired to look beyond that barrier and find out what God really is: unconditional love. Call it God, call it Yahweh, call it Allah or simply call it humanity (I at least fancy that this is the expression an atheist could live with, or not?), I don’t mind as long as the result is that you act with yourself and all other living things and the environment in a lovingly and respectful way.
    I want to point out that if all people would be atheist the world wouldn’t be better at all just on that account, because everybody would only care for himself. Jesus is the one who said we should love the others as much as we love ourselves. If I wouldn’t care for what Jesus said, why should I care for the others, if it’s damn easy and much more comfortable to just care about myself, my benefits and my pleasure. Surely those who use force in the name of God do neither care for others although they pretend to and maybe one can say that this way it’s even more terrible. Ultimately, what I want to say is that when it comes to the bottom line it doesn’t matter if one is religious or not, but it matters how he acts – lovingly or selfishly (even if masked as well-meaning).
    Finally I want to address just one more thing: the bible. I agree that taking the words from the bible literally is pretty idiotic. To deny facts like the evolution likewise is very stupid. But, and now comes quasi my counter argument, the bible never was meant to be taken literally. It is written in metaphors, and as those it should be taken. Sadly enough that most people don’t understand that, lots of them hold tight to writings that don’t mean what they seem to mean. And, let’s be honest, even if people are able to interpret the metaphoric character of the bible, they often believe their interpretation is the only right one. What shall I say, most people are ignorant. But, and that I want to emphasize, this is clearly not what Jesus wanted. He always preached tolerance!

  2. Martin said,

    June 10, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    I want to keep this short, and so I highly recommend reading Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation”. He sums up my feelings much better than I could.

    First of all, I can agree with the notion of God being simply called “humanity”, but then why do we need all the religious institutions, books, doctrines, dogmas, and why do we need to call it “God”?. For many (including me), the definition of atheism includes humanism, which by definition rejects belief without reason and the supernatural.

    Second, my post seems to only criticize Christianity because that is the predominant religion in the US, but all criticism expressed in it equally (maybe even more) applies to the Jewish faith and especially Islam, but really any other supernatural beliefs.

    While I agree that there is no harm in moderate Christianity, it is still a fact that it acts as breeding ground for fundamentalism and extremism, mostly because of believers taking the words of the Bible literally. The metaphorical interpretation of the Bible, as applied by most moderates nowadays, is not something that emerged from the Bible. It has come about through a change in ethics and morals throughout the history of mankind, not necessarily driven by religious institutions but by our understanding of the world we live in.
    Consider homosexuality, which to this day is still regarded as sin by the Roman Catholic church and Islam. However, in the Western world moral standards have changed to accept even homosexual marriages in some countries (such as California where homosexual couples can get legally married everywhere starting next week). So saying the Bible was never meant to be taken literally is historically not correct. We can be fairly certain that it was taken literally in the first century AD, for example.
    Also, our modern, metaphorical interpretation of the Bible is nothing more than cherry-picking with our current understanding of moral standards. The many contradictions in the Bible, even in the New Testament, where two verses say the logical opposite of each other, can not be unified, even with metaphors. For any metaphorical “good” interpretation of a verse that is intolerant or outright violent and cruel, I can give you a metaphorical interpretation in the other direction that every fundamentalist would love to hear.
    Why not just change the Bible to reflect our modern understanding? Make it into a humanistic instead of a religious text? Remove all the things that we consider cruel, violent, immoral, and intolerant nowadays? Unfortunately, that’s not very likely to be proposed by any of the current religious institutions. (I highly recommend the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, by the way).

    As for God’s existence, I recommend Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, which explains the atheistic argument why God most certainly does not exist, definitely not the personal God of the Bible. But then, if we only believe in a non-personal God that we cannot comprehend, who doesn’t interfere with human life or the universe, what’s the point of believing in him? He might as well just not exist. Dawkins refutes many other arguments made for God’s existence in his book. Note that even Dawkins says that he still leaves room for the existence of God. Given evidence of a god’s existence (whatever form or kind of god that may be), Dawkins’ stance can be changed, and so can mine. But that’s unlikely to happen.

    Finally, I would like to vehemently refute the argument that atheists only care for themselves and therefore the world would be a bad place if nobody believes in the supernatural anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned above, atheists are humanists and recognize that we need to exist in a necessarily caring and loving relationship with our fellow humans and the world around us. This has social, biological, and psychological benefits to each one of us individually and collectively and that’s why we do it. However, the atheistic position is that this is human nature and not something caused by religious faith. Religious faith is just our puny attempt of trying to explain this fact so we can comprehend it. However, I should point out, that with recent advances in neuroscience and social evolution we might soon be able to give a more rational explanation (and to a large degree we already can).
    As a good example why the argument of the selfish atheist is unmistakably incorrect, consider the most atheistic country in the world, Sweden with its 80% atheists. Sweden has a similar crime rate, provides just as much aid for third world countries, has an excellent social security system, low unemployment rate, etc. as any other first world country. Swedish morals don’t seem to be any different from German or American morals. So to argue that religion causes people to do good is as wrong as it is to argue that atheism does. Conversely, it is wrong to argue that people would only do bad and selfish things if everyone was atheistic (or religious, for that matter).

Leave a Comment