Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?

From Der Spiegel:

By Hilmar Schmundt

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


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

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”.

Barry Kosmin is a different kind of market researcher. His data focuses on consumers targeted by companies like 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 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

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16 Replies to “Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?”

  1. Listing of Buddhists around the world with the inclusion of the above-mentioned people (percentage of the total population who are Buddhist is shown in parentheses):
    China, liberal estimate (80.00%) 1,070,893,447
    China, conservative estimate (50.00%) 669,308,405
    Japan (96.00%) 122,022,837
    Thailand (95.00%) 62,626,649
    India (3.25%) 37,913,134
    Sri Lanka (70.00%) 14,933,050
    Burma (90.00%) 43,323,967
    Cambodia (95.00%) 13,769,578
    Laos (75.00%) 5,126,207
    Other Asian countries (16.00%) 213,492,875
    Total Buddhists in Asia, liberal estimate 1,584,101,744
    Total Buddhists in Asia, conservative estimate 1,182,516,701
    USA (2.00%) 6,135,071
    Canada and N. Amer. islands (1.10%) 368,447
    Total Buddhists in N. America 6,503,518
    Germany (1.10%) 905,657
    France (1.20%) 773,215
    United Kingdom (1.20%) 733,395
    Other European countries (0.15%) 785,700
    Total Buddhists in Europe 3,197,966
    Total Buddhists in Latin America and S. America (0.15%) 868,929
    Total Buddhists in Australia and Oceania (1.80%) 618,752
    Total Buddhists in Africa (0.02%) 194,550
    Total Buddhists in the world, liberal estimate 1,595,485,458
    (about 1.6 billion)
    Total Buddhists in the world, conservative estimate 1,193,900,41

  2. Francis W. Porretto I totally agree with you.

    This person that wrote this is a troll in all since of the term it doesn’t belong on this site in my opinion.

  3. This is BS from BU. What Ms Hyphen is calling “morality” is actually “political correctness”. Neville Chamberlain was a pacifist back when National Socialism was the apotheosis of pseudointellectual fashion among the chattering classes of that day. Ernst Roehm was a proper Socialist and a gay boy at that. Those Socialists, the Nationals and the Internationals, were proper atheists too, just like Ms Hyphen, and oh-so-fashionable too. How many death penalty opponents have ever protested the murder of law-abiding citizens at the hands of their darling thugs?

  4. This sounds like the typical atheist propaganda, they look only at the Churches that are teaching Christianity Lite and not at those who teach the Bible, that is why they always say the Churches are losing members.

  5. “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”

    I’m sorry, but I seriously doubt this. I know a few atheist organizations who rant against Christianity, but don’t say a word about Islam.

  6. I wonder what type of ‘researcher’ hails the former Communist hellhole of East Germany as a trendsetter? Did the EUSSR fund this research. With luck we may see the entire Communist Edifice aka EU/S collapse.

  7. “atheists know more about the God they don’t believe in than the believers themselves. ” He means percentage wise atheists are more versed in what the bible actually says, because they have actually read it. Many Christians have not and do not read the bible. Can you explain that one to me?

  8. Many atheist have not read the bible either. Just because a few are well versed in it does not give the numbers that you need to back this statement up. Many many Christians are indeed well versed in the bible up to having several degrees in theological studies. No atheist is ever so well versed as the leading bible scholars. However, an arrogance is there among atheists who look at the average church goer who may not be too educated and say he is the standard of education. He is nowhere near the standard of deep theological education.I have answered this question from a sociological perspective looking at the different strata of education among Christians. Can you really say that percentage wise atheists are more versed in the bible when you consider the sheer numbers in bible colleges across the world? No.

  9. Most Atheist I have met claim to know the Bible but in reality all they know is what was in the text and cliff notes in a comparative religion course they have taken. Since they look down on believers they think they are safe making this claim because to them any believer is too dumb to read.

    Michael I don’t know about what is happening in British Churches but in the Protestant ones in the US you have Bible School before the worship service and you study the Bible and what is said and meant.

  10. Richard you are right. I may add that atheists have their own kind of prejudice. They automatically assume anyone who believes in God is stupid. It is their way of stopping debate. A bit like the lefties calling people racist and stopping the debate. But of course they have no monopoly on being smart. They say Why argue with someone who is stupid. But hey I want to debate. Call me what you want and lets get down to it.

  11. History has shown that if religion is taken from the streets it will go underground.-The French revolution being a prime example- . In general atheists, albeit opposite to the religious fundamentalists are very similiar in that: their views of mankind are hopelessly limited. The mind and the heart which we call the soul, has a tendency to yearn for the truth or the divine. Perhaps God/s -a divine notion- is beyond all religion, which is manmade.

    Religion must not given the light of day in the political arena, otherwise it has a strong tendency to debase mankind as well as the God/s. The purpose of politics is: to serve the interests of mankind not the God/s. As such; secularism thus far, is superior in that it offers the best protection to all religions.

  12. Very well put, and I am glad that others are seeing the French Revolution as the birth place of the modern leftist dogma and attitudes, if you read truthful histories you will discover that during the terror the French tried to do all that the left wants.

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