Why are some people religious? Putting aside arguments over whether the claims of particular religions have factual validity or not (up-front declaration: I’m an atheist), the existence of wildly varying degrees of religious sensibility in every society studied is quite perplexing for psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Some colleagues and I have just had a paper published (PDF here) which attempts to provide a piece of this puzzle, focusing on the relationship between religious beliefs and general intelligence, or IQ.
As I sat in Old St. Paul’s Church on Saturday night, listening to an excellent performance of Fauré’s Requiem by the St. Andrew Camerata (it’s not just comedy at the Fringe, you know), some thoughts sprang into my mind. The first thought was, sadly, ‘I really don’t like it when they replace the soprano solo in the famous Pie Jesu movement with a boy soprano. Sure he’s cute, but can he emotionally inflect the music? Thought not’. But this isn’t a music review. Somewhat naturally given the setting, my thoughts wandered to matters of religion, and the current arguments which have rent our atheist movement asunder about how we, as skeptical secular humanists, should approach religious people.
What are these arguments? One of the major ones going on in the blogosphere at the moment was sparked by the new book titled Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection, which amongst other things chastises atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. These ‘New Atheists’, assert Mooney and Kirshenbaum, are turning the public off science with their strident, in-your-face criticisms of religious belief. Their tactics, claim M&K, are not working, and are having a detrimental effect on the public understanding of science. I’ve often discussed this sort of issue with members of the Humanist Society at my university, some of whom are of the opinion that being forthright about atheistic views can be a bad idea. But, as Prof. Jerry Coyne deftly points out in his review of Unscientific America, there’s really very little evidence for this view. How do we know that being nice and ‘accomodationist’¹ to religious people will change their opinions or make them more skeptical? Well, we don’t. It’s just an opinion, regularly trotted out with no backing whatsoever.