Bryan Caplan  

What Life Experience Taught Me About Religion

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It's very unpleasant to be an irreligious kid in a religious family. Every week - if not more often - you have to remain silent in the presence of dogmatic nonsense. You can't even get things off your chest during the Q&A session - most religions don't have them, and most religious people don't appreciate them. If you challenge your family members, your chances of getting a straight answer - or even a civil one - are pretty low.

At least that's how things were for me when I was a teen-age atheist. My response, from age 15-19 or so, was to wage a one-man intellectual war on religion. I didn't just object to religious claims that happened to come my way. I was on search-and-destroy mode, vainly trying to argue every crucifix-wearer onto the path of reason.

I haven't changed my mind about the folly of religion. But I have learned a happy lesson since my teen-age days: At least in modern America, it's easy for an adult to live a secular life. Yes, most people are nominally Christian, but their proselytizing era has been over for at least a century. I can't remember the last time a religious person even broached the topic of religion with me, much less attempted to give me an unwanted sermon.

But this is just my personal experience, you say? Well, look at mainstream television or movies or music. They're the masses' primary form of entertainment, and their religious content is near-zero. Of course, religious t.v. shows do exist, but only in easily-avoided cultural ghettoes like the Christian Broadcasting Network. Early Christians tried to be the light of the world; modern Christians preach to the choir.

Here are two examples that nicely illustrate my point. If you drive past a nearby Catholic Church, its big roadside banner reads: "Inactive Catholics, re-discover your faith." Talk about a soft-sell: "If you already agree with us, but don't attend church, we'd love to see you here."

Another example: If you wander the streets of NYC and look like me, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish teens will eventually approach you and ask: "Are you Jewish?" If you say no, they wave good-bye. If you want more details, here's a true story about my encounter with the aforementioned ultra-Orthodox Jewish teens:

Teen: Sir, are you Jewish?

Me: I'm ethnically Jewish.

Teen: Ethically Jewish? Everyone is ethically Jewish.

Me: No, I said I'm ethnically Jewish.

Teen: Why do you say that?

Me: Because my father is Jewish.

Teen: [shakes my hand] Have a nice day.

(If you are completely baffled by this anecdote, remember that Jewish religious identity is matrilineal).

My point is simple: Life as a teen-age atheist led me to grossly exaggerate the lifetime burden religion was going to impose on me. At least in the modern U.S., once you leave home and build your own life, religion will probably leave you alone if you leave it alone. In fact, even if you want to crusade against religion, you're going to have to make an effort to find people who don't just run away to talk amongst themselves.

P.S. If you say "What about the pro-life movement?" or "What about intelligent design?," I'm going to say "availability bias." In fact, I'm tempted to give the same response if you say "Islamic terrorism," though I admit that's a tougher case.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
Dave writes:

I'm in love with the quip that "[e]veryone is ethically Jewish."

Jason Malloy writes:

Teenagers love the feeling of being oppressed. Unfortunately much of adult politics stems from the love of feeling oppressed too.

Even as a teenager I was under no illusions about the "lifetime burden" of atheism: atheists are disproportionately rich and educated, have higher intelligence, and are overrepresented among elites.

Jason Malloy writes:

Teenagers love the feeling of being oppressed.

And I suppose this relates to the 'only happy when it rains' conundrum.

Luke G. writes:

I’ve reached much the same conclusion from the opposite side (I am religious). It’s the proselytizers who are strange in our culture, not the religious or non-religious per se. Those who try to browbeat someone else into following their (a/)religious mindset are the ones perceived as odd or boorish precisely because of their zeal, not (necessarily) because of their beliefs.

On further musing, perhaps a generally multi-cultural mindset could only develop from such a society that eschews zealotry?

razib writes:

i've heard several people with jewish fathers recount the same story when encounter lubavitchers (i assume that was who they were).

Jesper writes:

Bryan, you might not encounter much overt religious propaganda in the US, and one can certainly live a comfortable life as gay or whatever in US cities, but religious morality, speech and thought patterns infest your country much more than most others. If you don't see it, perhaps you cannot detach yourself enough from you culture?

Coming from a less religious country (Sweden) I can say without a doubt that most of us regard American religiosity as both silly and dangerous at the same time.

* You seem to have no limits on violence on TV, but the slightest hint of prime-time nudity sparks a media frenzy and lawmaker activity like nothing else.
* You have all these "Intelligent Design" morons, even among lawmakers and teachers.
* You have, in many states, draconic morality laws concerning sexuality and drugs.
* You limit yourself regarding research, for instance when it comes to stem cells.
* You limit foreign aid to organizations who have nothing to do with family planning and abortions.
* Your presidents cannot get elected without doing lots of time in church. Or so it seems, anyway.
* President Bush has uttered some dubious religious remarks regarding the Iraq war. (If religion is a factor in such decisions, it's scary, particularly if it's not a restraining factor.)
* Your legislators are obviously nutty regarding the concept of "marriage".
* You rank at the bottom, along with Turkey, among "western" countries when it comes to acceptance of evolution.

... and so on. All this and more is mostly due to religion and particularly judeo-christian traditions. Secular on the surface, sure, and sometimes almost panicky secular when it comes to unimportant stuff like ceremonies and holidays in school, but there is a LOT to do in deeper cultural layers. (There is in other western countries as well, mine included, but the US really stand out.)

Agagooga writes:

The US is a big place. Many people don't report your sort of experience. Where do you live?

Scott Scheule writes:

Me, I had my hardcore atheist phase, too, but I didn't really decide on atheism until I was 19. But it was hard to keep a good lather up, as nobody really bothered me about it--Mom occasionally complains, but she's too polite and I'm too loveable besides for it to be a big issue. Religious friends have asked why I'm an atheist, and we've discussed it, but I can't recall anyone ever trying to convert me, or reclaim me.

As to the political ramifications of US religiosity, and as to what Sweden thinks, first of all, fuck Europe, and second of all, even the pressure of religion on American politics doesn't bother me terribly. For one, I don't think the atheist's case is anywhere as near as strong as the typical atheist seems to, so I'm not justified in being that irate, two, all of the new atheists are profoundly insufferable and I'm happy to see them irked, and three, none of the religious effects in politics strike me as terribly pernicious anyway.

Jesper writes:

Scott, I have no real problem with the "fuck Europe" sentiment. I like a lot of US policies and I'm NOT happy with our Nordic cradle-to-the-grave welfare system or the embarassing EU agricultural policy. However, you do have some problems to a greater degree than we do, and religiosity is one of them. I think an outsider's perspective can be useful, sometimes, to point out deficiencies, but you are free to shut it out as you did, if you feel it is impolite for outsiders to do this, or whatever your reasons are.

And, sure, you don't feel religion is a big political problem, b/c you don't see the great extent to which christian moral values shapes even atheist's thinking in your/our culture and the damage it does. But each generation after us will see this more and more clearly - I hope.

Scott Scheule writes:

Jesper, it was a joke. Most of my favorite composers come from Europe.

Yeah, I have many Christian values, but having those values, of course, I don't think they're problematic. By the same token, I could accuse you of, by not growing up in that climate, lacking the ability to see the damage that comes from not having those values.

Which puts us at an impasse, unless there's an independent way to establish who's better morally, besides our prior resort to our own moral values--which there isn't.

mjh writes:

As a former agnostic (but actually closer to atheist), and now born-again Christian, I don't know how to react to your experience, Bryan. On the one hand, I do believe that there is an eternal consequence to choices made in life. And that motivates me to care about people who are on a path apart from God. But I also know that proselytizing was ineffective in getting me off that path. I assume it would be equally ineffective for someone else. So, I'm constantly torn about how to approach this subject with my atheist/agnostic friends.

What was eventually effective for me was finding a group of people who were willing to have a Q&A about religion in general, and Christianity in specific. No question was out of bounds. No criticism was dismissed, or trivially answered. One of this group suggested that I run an experiment: act like God was real. Really act like it. And then ask him to show himself to me. Thinking it couldn't possibly hurt I did this. And some time later (a few weeks or so) He did.

Now, in exactly the same way that I can't prove to you that I woke up at 3:30 this morning and looked at the clock before going back to sleep, I also can't prove to you that this experience was real. And I'm well aware that it may just be a trick of my psychology. But so might everything else I believe really exists.

I wanted to be an atheist. I really did. But the reality is that most of the time I act like there's a moral code. I really do think that there's a right and wrong independent of my opinion of it. And I really do think that I have screwed up keeping that moral code. Couple that with periodic experiences with what seems like a personal God, and I really couldn't remain agnostic. I had to admit that I believed in God. I wanted to be an atheist. I just couldn't and feel honest about it.

In many ways, I still want to be atheist. I agree with your assessment that it's easy to be secular in our society. From my perspective it sure looks easier to be an atheist than to believe what I believe.

Please don't misinterpret this: I'm not asking anyone to believe what I believe. If I've crossed the line in this discussion, my apologies. Feel free to delete the comment.

Renato Drumond writes:

Jesper, a few comments(I'm not American too, I'm Brazilian):

"You seem to have no limits on violence on TV, but the slightest hint of prime-time nudity sparks a media frenzy and lawmaker activity like nothing else."

On the other hand, the pornographic industry is growing year by year, with great sucess.

"* You have, in many states, draconic morality laws concerning sexuality and drugs."

I don't think religion influences drugs legislation so much. It's more possible to link religious habits with drugs avoidance, but here we should conclude just the opposite: that religion in America isn't effective enough to prevent drug use.

About sex laws, maybe we can observe a more clear link, but even here we have a lot of restrictions that could be defended on secular basis(think about ex-governor Spitzer and his crusade against prostitution, or the FLDS case).

"* You rank at the bottom, along with Turkey, among "western" countries when it comes to acceptance of evolution."

I don't know if it matters so much to pratical questions. I think, for example, that economic illiteracy is much more dangerous.

Independent George writes:

RE Creationism: I'm less bothered by the lack of support for evolution than I am of the ignorance by people who ostensibly support it. I'm very much a Darwinist, but I can't help but conclude that most people don't believe in evolution out of scientific knowledge, but simply because they've chosen a different set of priests to believe.

Jesper writes:

Scott, about who's better morally, sure, not an objective issue at all. There are metrics, but perhaps none that we can agree upon. I have a sort of evolutionary yardstick in the long term - the moral that win is the best. In the shorter term, I'm utilitarian, but since it's so hard to calculate what will turn out best, I generally go with libertarianism as an almost perfect rule of thumb. :-)

In all these senses, I believe, the desert religions will prove to have played out their role in human development. They might have constituted improvements at certain times in history, but are now, on average, hindrances.

Renato, I agree on some of the points you are making. And it may well be that economic illiteracy is worse than evolutionary, but both have things in common, for example that many people seem to have a hard time yielding to, or even finding, scientific mainstream when they don't know much themselves. Anyway, US bio-medical policies ARE very important, and, unfortunately, not very good due to religious influences. You might want to read the excellent article The Stupidity of Dignity by Steven Pinker.

Lord writes:

I get them knocking on my door once a month or so, but then, I'm home to answer.

Scott Scheule writes:


Well, I can't argue with that, at least wielding anything more powerful than a "Well, that's just your opinion, man."

James A. Donald writes:

If you want to say the same thing about Islamism, tell it to Theo van Gogh

As far as I can tell, a typical atheist becomes an atheist in middle school (formerly known as junior high school). In other words, they are rejecting a middle-school understanding of religion. It's as though they were rejecting modern physics on the grounds that not everything is relative or Darwin's explanation of evolution on the grounds that the fittest don't always survive.

Jesper writes:

Scott, yes, it's just my opinions. And perhaps my opinions are misguided, and some middle east nomads 2000 years ago happened to stumble on a morality that doesn't need improvements. Or perhaps no set of values are better than any other - so jihadist, FLDS, mainstream secular American, nazi, marxism and whatever, should be treated equally and impartially.

But I don't think so. Some cultures and values ARE better than others. The pope, the other day, proclaimed automatic excommunication for women priests and for bishops who appoint them, for instance. And the pope, in that, clearly represented an antiquated and flawed morality. We have simply come to know better than that, and we should have the courage to acknowledge and even celebrate that.

Nihilism can be useful as a mental technique to rid oneself of old mental luggage and preconceptions, to allow us to build new morality. But used as a tool for avoiding moral stands, it may just be cowardice, or indifference to suffering?

reason writes:

Joseph Herztlinger,
but they have plenty of chance to change their mind. And what exactly are you saying? That religion is so complex and sophisticated that you need to go to university to understand it? In that case why is religiosity negatively correlated with educational acchievement?

caveat bettor writes:

As a an active church member, I can confirm that religious people are often dogmatic (and wrong).

Yet how does one approach reality beyond the empirical? Is faith merely relevant beyond what we cannot measure?

Absence of evidence is certainly not evidence of Absence.

Scott Scheule writes:

And here I thought I was politely wrapping up the conversation.


The only point you made in your previous response was that the desert religions had played out their usefulness. I didn't agree. Indeed, I'm agnostic on that issue.

I did not mean to imply that Judeo-Christian morality doesn't need improvements--but that's a different issue than scrapping the entire edifice.

Nor did I mean to endorse some sort of moral relativism.

Flip writes:

Interestingly with regard to Jewish matrilineal descent, the DNA evidence is that Ashkenazi Jews can trace their ancestry through the patrilineal line to ancient Israel but not through the matrilineal one, so what was considered Jewish descent must have been different at one point.

Ethnic Austrian writes:
* You seem to have no limits on violence on TV, but the slightest hint of prime-time nudity sparks a media frenzy and lawmaker activity like nothing else.
So what about Sweden banning allegedly sexist ads and prostitution?
* You limit yourself regarding research, for instance when it comes to stem cells.
There is a complete ban on research in Austria. But that has more to do with a general notion that we shouldn't mess with nature and of course our Nazi past.
* You limit foreign aid to organizations who have nothing to do with family planning and abortions.
Abortion is illegal in Poland and Ireland.

I don't know where I'm going with this post. Europe is heterogeneous. Irrational ideas can be supported by all kinds of ideologies, not just religion.

8 writes:

If the best system is the one that survives, religion is looking pretty good—atheists have low fertility.

I agree with Mr. Hertzlinger, it seems that atheists become that way in middle school (and high school) and that they reject a middle school version of religion (many beliefs are hardened in the teenage/college years). I myself fell in that category, being atheist during the latter half of my teenage years and beyond. Eventually I found that my atheism was mostly a rejection of Christian miracles, angels, etc., but when I examined my atheism I found it was just as implausible.

One of my issues was that Sunday school was not intellectual at all, and I personally prefer Reason to Faith. When I went back on my own to read Christian teachings I found an almost completely different religion, certainly one with far more Reason than I expected.

Bruce A. McAllister writes:

As a late-comer (recovering RC) to the ranks of atheism, and therefore , at first, looking for arenas in which to join sides, I became a little frustrated when most people regarded my interest as - well - boring. I got looks like, why didn't you leave that in college bull sessions? Conclusion: There are a limited number of us who regard the question of God vel non as important. There may be an enormous number of practical issues that are decided one way or the other, depending on your belief or lack of it, but, as a matter for theoretical discussion, forget it. Ah, well, in another world.

Delia writes:

If you feel an ongoing need for religious persecution for any reason, just find a blog whose sentiments disagree with your own, go online and start an argument. You'll be rewarded with persecution that will follow you until you sign off and go away.

Pete writes:

Would that your experience held true for LGBTQ people. My experience is quite different I'm afraid.

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