**Those declaring themselves godless provide a fascinating study for sociologists.
UNBELIEVERS from across the world met in Melbourne at the weekend for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. They were undoubtedly in a jubilant mood, and they have every right to be. Atheism, as you’ve probably noticed, is in vogue.
From the 2004 publication of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith onwards, impassioned polemics against religious belief have rarely been out of the bestseller lists. The God Delusion (2006) by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins - who spoke yesterday - sold more than 2 million copies in its first two years.
But book sales alone weren’t responsible for the atmosphere of celebration - even, perhaps, self-congratulation. For many, high spirits would have come from the thought that, simply by being there, participants were demonstrating their affiliation with a group that is more intelligent, better educated and more open to ‘‘the evidence’’ than the general population - not to mention those whom Dawkins calls ‘‘dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads’’, otherwise known as ‘‘religious believers’’.
Of course, styling oneself as most intelligent, informed or rational-minded is a political manoeuvre as old as politics itself. It is the most straightforward way of proving that one is in the right.
Everyone does it - Catholics, Marxists, Keynesian economists, Bob Dylan fans - as a way of justifying their views to others and to themselves. Yet non-believers have made it their speciality: hence their preferred labels ‘‘rationalist’’ and ‘‘freethinker’’ and, more recently, ‘‘reasonist’’ and ‘‘bright’’.
And until recently, in fact, they seemed to have unusually good grounds for doing so. Various sociological and psychological studies have shown a correlation between atheism and higher education levels in particular, with a handful of studies correlating it with intelligence levels more explicitly. One Australian example is the 1983 study of the NSW Humanist Society, which recorded a significantly higher level of education among its members when compared with the general population.
What is more, from the 18th century until well into the 20th, the level to which a society had secularised seemed to correlate with industrial, technological and other scientific advancement.
That is, rational scientific knowledge looked, incontrovertibly, to have a central role in the decline of religion.
In recent years, the picture has begun to look rather less clear. For a start, the connection between technological-scientific advancement and secularisation has become increasingly muddied.
The resilience of religion in the US over a century of enormous technological and scientific innovation was one of the first indicators, but this combination is now seen in other countries, such as India and South Korea. Furthermore, in recent years, those correlations between education and atheism levels have become less and less significant.
In some instances, the relationship has even reversed. Among young men in thoroughly secularised Britain, for example, those claiming ‘‘no religion’’ are slightly less likely to have a degree-level education than those who would self-describe with a religious label.
But does this mean that atheism is any more or less likely to be true, or that God is any more or less likely to a be a paranoid delusion? By no means.
Counting up how many intelligent or educated people subscribe to a particular view is a lazy way of avoiding engaging with the ideas themselves. And yet so much of the so-called ‘‘God debate’’ - a great opportunity for serious philosophical reflection - is wasted on scrapping over whether, and what, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton or (insert cliched genius here) believed.
The social sciences can make no comment on the existence or otherwise of God or any other supernatural phenomena. All they can do is demonstrate how humans perceive and relate themselves to such (real, imagined, or socially constructed) phenomena. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t eminently interesting or worthwhile.
Irrespective of its truth or falsity, contemporary unbelief is a fascinating social phenomenon - or phenomena, we would be better to say, in recognition of the variety of ideas and experiences of unbelievers.
While undoubtedly important, it is not merely ideas that drew about 2500 people to Melbourne for the weekend’s godless jamboree. For many, the event was perhaps their first experience of being in an auditorium full of people who think as they do.
You can, as Dawkins contends, ‘‘be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled’’. Of course you can - but the fact that he felt it needed saying just goes to show that this isn’t always the impression that unbelievers get from their families, friends, or society at large.
A 2006 study in the US, for example, revealed atheists to be the nation’s most distrusted minority - well ahead of, say, Muslims, homosexuals and recent immigrants.
The recent ‘‘rise of atheism’’, which was the convention’s subtitle, poses a great many questions for social scientists such as ourselves. Chief among them, perhaps, is: why now? Atheism is not exactly a new idea, and it’s as plausible - or implausible - now as it was 10, 50 or 100 years ago.
So, while a couple of thousand assorted unbelievers crowded around South Wharf, basking in the approval of their new-found and like-minded friends, we few sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists will continue our work trying to make sense of it all. And we will not need to turn to the philosophical question of who is right or wrong to do it.