Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy?

I stumbled across this study that’s been floating around the atheosphere (my new word for the atheist blogosphere), and since I think some people are getting it a bit wrong, I want to comment on it.

It’s a study on atheism worldwide, comparing countries with high and low degrees of atheism and seeing  well, how those countries are doing. It’s by Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D. titled Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns. (Sorry for the link to the cache; the original link was broken.)

Here’s the article’s summary, the bit that’s been going around:

“In sum, countries marked by high rates of organic atheism [“organic” means “not forced by a dictatorial government” – GC] are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by non-existent rates of organic atheism are among the most destitute. Nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism tend to have among the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates, and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world. The only indicator of societal health mentioned above in which religious countries fared better than irreligious countries was suicide.”

An extremely interesting bit of data. Fascinating. Informative. Useful.

But since atheists and naturalists and skeptics are always yakking on about how correlation doesn’t prove causation, I feel that we need to be extremely careful here — and not jump to the conclusion that atheism makes people happy.

There’s a flip side of this study that I’ve also seen, and it’s very relevant to this question: In the U.S., the conservatively religious “red” states have higher rates of crime, divorce, etc. than the more liberal, less strictly religious “blue” states. Some atheists have used this data (which I can’t find a link for now, sorry) to bolster their arguments that religion doesn’t actually make people moral  and that in fact, it does the opposite.

But I think this is bass-ackwards. I think it’s putting the cart before the horse, the effect before the cause.

I don’t think atheism causes social health and prosperity.

I think it’s the other way around.

And the author of this study agrees.

“I am in no way arguing that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills such as poverty or illiteracy. If anything, the opposite argument should be made: societal health causes widespread atheism, and societal insecurity causes widespread belief in God.” (Emphasis mine.)

If you think about it even for a second, it makes sense. If people are happy in this life, if they’re healthy, well-fed, secure; if they have work they care about; if they feel connected to their society and feel that they have a stake and a say in it — and if they have a fair expectation that their children will have the same — there isn’t anywhere near the same need for a belief in God and an afterlife.

And if people are poor and hungry and sick; if they do back-breaking labor with little or no hope of escape; if their society is corrupt and oppressive and they feel powerless to do anything about it — and if life sucks for their children as much or more as it does for them — then the need to believe in an afterlife that’s better than this one becomes a whole lot more pressing. When you look at the red state/blue state thing in this light, it becomes much more clear: Religion doesn’t increase the crime rate or the divorce rate. Poverty and despair increase both the crime/divorce rate, and the prevalence of religion.

(More on this in a later post about atheism and social justice.)

I’ve also seen studies showing that when people have better education, they’re more likely to be non-believers. And that’s extremely important. If a good education — exposure to scientific information, methods of critical thinking, diverse lifestyles and philosophies, etc. — is part of what softens the ground for atheism  well, one of the factors that makes these healthy atheist countries healthy is a high level of educational attainment. A country with an educated citizenry is more likely to be a country with an atheist citizenry.

But I digress, and I want to sum up. I’m going to quote from the study again:

“Again, to suggest that widespread belief or non-belief in God is the cause of societal health or societal pathology is not my intention. Rather, I am simply seeking to clearly establish that high degrees of non-belief in God in a given society clearly do not result in societal ruin, and high levels of belief in God do not ensure societal well-being.”

That’s the point. The point isn’t that atheism makes individuals happy and a society stable. The point is that it doesn’t do the opposite. Contrary to the belief of many religious believers, people without God’s moral guidance — or the fear of eternal burning and torture — do not run wild in the streets looting and murdering and having sex with farm animals. They live their lives; they do their jobs; they take care of one another. They do okay. Quite well, in fact.

I’m going to quote from the study one last time, since Dr. Zuckerman makes this point so clearly and succinctly:

“This is an important fact to stress because politically-active theists often equate atheism with crime, immorality, and societal disintegration. From Muslim fundamentalists in Iran to Christian fundamentalists in Indiana, the argument is loudly trumpeted that belief in God is “good for society” — an ultimate panacea — while rejection of the belief in God is bad for society. The above discussion reveals that this thesis is baldly incorrect.”

Baldy incorrect.

Thank you, Dr. Zuckerman.

Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy?

Friday Cat Blogging: Catfish with Dangling Tail

And now, a cute picture of my cat.


We don’t take that many pictures of Catfish, since mostly all she does is sleep on the heater. (She’s an elderly cat and loves the warmth even more than most cats, and the heater is always slightly warm from the pilot light.) But this pose with the dangling tail was too perfect to pass up.

And yes, we have a little mat on the heater specifically for her to sleep on. What’s your point?

Friday Cat Blogging: Catfish with Dangling Tail

Not Just Another Right-Wing Hypocrite Sex Scandal: The Blowfish Blog

My new piece is up on the Blowfish Blog, a take on the latest right-wing hypocrite sex scandal called Not Just Another Right-Wing Hypocrite Sex Scandal. As you may have guessed from the title, I have a somewhat different take on the Larry Craig bathroom-cruising case than I do on the eighty zillion other Republican/ Christian Right sex scandals we’ve been inundated with. Here’s the teaser:

But this time, it isn’t sitting right with me. The gleeful Schadenfreude, the “holy shit, not again!” eye-rolling, the cackling over cosmic/ karmic/ poetic justice being served… it isn’t sitting right with me this time.

It isn’t sitting right with me because of the extremely dubious legal nature of Senator Craig’s arrest. And it isn’t sitting right with me because of the even more dubious ethical nature of police sting operations on cruising in public bathrooms.

To find out more about why I think this scandal is different, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Not Just Another Right-Wing Hypocrite Sex Scandal: The Blowfish Blog

Carnivals: Skeptic’s Circle and Carnival of Liberals

Skeptic’s Circle #68 is up at Aardvarchaeology. This is the first time I’ve had a piece in the Skeptic’s Circle — they were kind enough to include my piece A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside — so I’m all a-twitter with girlish glee. Haven’t had a chance yet to read the entire carnival, but of the ones I’ve looked at so far, my faves (other than mine, of course) are Medical study concluding for dummies at Med Journal Watch, on how NOT to analyze data (especially when it comes to race), and How God really “works” at Evangelical Realism, an analysis of an anti-atheist joke that completely turns it on its head.

And the Carnival of Liberals #46 is up at Truth In Politics — sans any pieces by me this time, but it’s still a good roundup of liberal blogging. Have fun, y’all!

Carnivals: Skeptic’s Circle and Carnival of Liberals

View from the Fourteenth Floor

I’m working on several different blog pieces now, none of which is finished yet. So tonight you get a dirty story from the archives. Note: This is a very nasty story, and family members and others who don’t want to read my porn or know too much about my fantasies may want to stop now. FYI, while I usually illustrate my blog posts with lots of pictures, I’m not going to do that here, since I want you to be able to picture the characters and the scenario on your own. Enjoy!

Continue reading “View from the Fourteenth Floor”

View from the Fourteenth Floor

“Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering

This one came completely out of left field. I’m still taken aback by it.

For the last fifty years of her life, Mother Teresa had lost her faith. In private letters to friends and confessors (as documented in a new book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”), she acknowledged repeatedly that she no longer felt the presence of God in her life. At all. Ever. Not in prayer, not in the Eucharist — never. She was tormented by God’s absence, described her empty spiritual life as one of “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture,” and once described her pretense at faith as “hypocrisy.”

For the last fifty years of her life.

Before I really get into this, I have to say a few words about Mother Teresa. If you have an image of her as the pinnacle of human goodness, the compassionate and charitable woman who selflessly devoted her life to others and founded hospitals and hospices for the desperately poor… I’m going to have to burst your bubble. Mother Teresa was a problematic figure at best, and many of her so-called charitable works were profoundly screwed-up. Despite the enormous amounts of money she collected, her hospitals and hospices offered grotesquely inadequate medical care, revoltingly unsanitary and even abusive conditions, and — pay attention to this part, it becomes important later — little or nothing in the way of pain relief, allowing the sick to suffer and the dying to die in terrible pain. They were essentially warehouses for people to convert to Catholicism and die, and the conversion part was far more central to their mission than either healing or the relief of suffering.

(There are other problems with Ms. Teresa, including making nice with dictators such as Duvalier; taking donations from savings and loan racketeer Charles Keating and not returning it to the people from whom it had been defrauded; her rabid opposition to abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace today”; her non-consensual baptisms of non-Christians on their deathbeds; founding convents and conversion missions with donations intended for the hospitals and hospices (that also becomes important later); and more. Furthermore, when she herself was ill, she spurned her own clinics, and sought out the best and most expensive Western hospitals available. For corroboration and more details, read “The Missionary Position” by Christopher Hitchens, Aroup Chatterjee’s “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict,” and her Wikipedia bio, which includes several references to her critics.)

But for now, I’m going to focus on the hospitals and hospices.

I’m going to focus on the lack of pain medication offered in those hospitals and hospices.

And I’m going to come back to her loss of faith.

Continue reading ““Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering”

“Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering

Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions

Is the mere act of questioning religion an attack on it?

There are religious believers who seem to think so. An increasingly common refrain among religious writers and leaders is that the recent surge of atheist writing is unacceptably offensive and insulting. Intolerant, even.

I’m not going to say atheists are never rude. But much of the time, atheists get accused of offensiveness and intolerance for saying things like:

“I don’t agree with you.”

‘I don’t think you’ve made your case.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What evidence do you have to support that?”

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in a recent Free Inquiry article, the kind of critical language that’s considered shockingly offensive when it’s applied to religion isn’t even blinked at when it’s applied to, say, political discourse or restaurant reviews.

But many believers are very serious about this. Example: A recent visitor to my blog accused me of trying to force my atheism down everyone’s throat. When I challenged him to find one place — just one — on my blog where I advocated forcing atheism on anyone, he replied that I was “trying to cow others into your restrictive view” and “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God.”

Right. The act of stating my opinion in public is the same as forcing that view onto others. I don’t, in fact, claim that I know there is no God, but never mind that now. I am cowing people into my narrow view through the awesome power of my blog. Which is read by hundreds of people every day! HUNDREDS, I tell you! Flee before me, puny earthlings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! I will cow you with the force of my opinions! Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated into my materialist Godless view; for while you may have the infinite power of the Almighty God on your side… I WIELD THE BLOG!

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

That’s the modern atheist movement, all right. Trying to destroy all that is holy by, you know, arguing. By trying to convince people that religion is mistaken. By writing books, and blogging, and going on TV, and such.

Of course, this was the same guy who later tried to defend biblical atrocities by arguing that genocide and the infanticide of one’s enemies were, in some cases, morally defensible. Thus earning him our household nickname “Senor McGenocide Pants.” So it’s a little hard to take him seriously.

But Senor McGenocide Pants isn’t alone. A lot of religious believers are very angry and very upset over the fact that atheists are starting to speak out: not just expressing our own opinions and theories, but seriously criticizing theirs.

And while I don’t think they’re at all right to be morally outraged, I do think they’re right to be afraid.

I think the act of looking at religion as just another hypothesis about the way the world works — and asking it to defend itself with evidence and logic just like any other hypothesis — is a radical act. All by itself, completely apart from any of the specific arguments against religion’s accuracy and morality. The mere act of shoving religion into the marketplace of ideas, and expecting it to fight it out with all the other ideas about why things are the way they are… I think people who are deeply attached to religion have every reason to be afraid of that. I think that act has more potential to eventually dismantle religious beliefs than any of the specific arguments leveled against those beliefs.

Continue reading “Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions”

Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions

The New “Zoo” Review

This piece originally appeared on the Blowfish Blog.

The movie is about bestiality.

I want to tell you that right up front, since it takes a while for the movie to get around to it. A little more specifically, “Zoo” is a documentary about a 2005 incident in which a man died of a perforated colon after engaging in sexual activity with — read “getting fucked in the ass by” — a horse. And it’s about the small group of people — other zoophiles, or “zoos” — who shared these sexual activities and interests as a community: talking about it on the Internet, engaging in it at small gatherings, and sometimes photographing or filming it.

Continue reading “The New “Zoo” Review”

The New “Zoo” Review

Friday Cat Blogging: Violet on the Suitcase

And now, two cute pictures of our cat.



This is Violet, on Ingrid’s suitcase. I’d like to think that she’s doesn’t like Ingrid traveling so much and is trying to tell her not to leave. But really, I think she just likes sitting on the suitcase.

Which, I would like to point out, is not that much larger than Violet. We have some large cats.

Friday Cat Blogging: Violet on the Suitcase

Only Losers Dine At Le Cirque: The Stigma on Sex Work Customers: The Blowfish Blog

A recent letter to the Savage Love sex advice column reminded me of a rant I’ve been wanting to make for a while; ever since I put together Paying For It, really. It has to do with the stigma on sex work customers, and the idea that “having to pay for it” makes you a pathetic loser. Oddly enough, even in the sex-positive community that embraces and celebrates sex workers, this scornful attitude towards sex work customers often persists.

So I’ve ranted about it over at the Blowfish Blog, in a piece called Only Losers Dine At Le Cirque: The Stigma on Sex Work Customers. Here’s the teaser:

Does paying a restaurant to feed you a meal make you a loser? Whether you eat out every night or only do it as an occasional treat; whether you’re looking for a special meal you can’t get elsewhere or simply want the convenience of getting dinner without any hassle… does it make you a loser? A pathetic nobody who can only get fed if he pays someone to do it?

For more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Only Losers Dine At Le Cirque: The Stigma on Sex Work Customers: The Blowfish Blog