Pew Poll: 25 Percent of 18-29 Year Olds Identify as Atheist / Agnostic / No Religion

American Atheists points to this Pew Poll that surveyed both old and young people in order to measure the similarities and differences in their lives. AA focuses on the stated difference between the two on the importance of religion in their lives,

Religion is a far bigger part of the lives of older adults than younger adults. Two-thirds of adults ages 65 and older say religion is very important to them, compared with just over half of those ages 30 to 49 and just 44% of those ages 18 to 29. Moreover, among adults ages 65 and above, a third (34%) say religion has grown more important to them over the course of their lives, while just 4% say it has become less important and the majority (60%) say it has stayed the same. Among those who are over 65 and report having an illness or feeling sad, the share who say that religion has become more important to them rises to 43%.

American Atheist responded to this with,

“Translation: 56% of the younger generation thinks religion is not very important. That’s more than half, folks!”

I wanted to dig into the numbers to see if that excerpt was overstating the degree of irreligion among the young, and so downloaded the full report (1mb PDF) If anything, however, the situation is even better/worse (depending on your point of view) than that excerpt lets on — significant percentages of young people classified themselves as atheists/agnostics/no religion,

Age Group % Atheists / Agnostics/ No Religion
18-29 25%
30-49 18%
50-64 13%
65+ 7%

For the 18-29 year old group, more people identified themselves as atheist/agnostic/no religion than identified themselves as Catholic. This is, of course, entirely consistent with other surveys of religious belief that have shown dramatic increases in unbelief/lack of religious affiliation over the past couple decades, but is still kind of amazing to actually see accelerate.

Pope: Condoms Make AIDS Crisis Worse

The Pope is taking a lot of heat for his idiotic comments that condoms actually make the problem of AIDS in Africa worse. An AFP report noted,

Pope Benedict XVI sparked global condemnation with his comments as he began his first visit to Africa as pontiff on Tuesday

Benedict said on the plane taking him to Cameroon that AIDS “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

Reuters had a report on Vatican efforts to defend the Pope’s comments. The basic claim seems to be that even if condoms decrease the risk of spreading AIDS by some percentage, that they increase the risk by encouraging more sexually risky behavior to begin with.

Yes, the Roman Catholic Church is essentially claiming that without the availability of condoms, people would not be engaging in risky sexual behaviors. This seems a lot like the idiotic argument used against the HPV vaccine. Yeah, before there were effective ways of preventing certain sexually transmitted diseases, nobody ever engaged in risky behaviors.

Apparently, if you aren’t risking death every time you have sex, the terrorists have won!

CFI on Baylor Study of Religiosity in America

The Center for Inquiry has a press release announcing a new report criticizing the methodology of Baylor University’s ongoing look at levels of religiosity in America, recently published in book form as What Americans Really Believe.

The CFI report, available as a PDF download here, makes a fairly persuasive case that the Baylor reports are cherry picking data to exaggerate the extent of religious belief in the United States and diminish the growing level of skepticism about the existence of God (though that does not necessarily, unfortunately, lead to atheism per se).

Baylor outsources it polling to Gallup, which has long been asking Americans about their religious beliefs, the core of the CFI argument is that there is a lot of Gallup data that directly contradicts the Baylor claims. Essentially, the report alleges that Baylor is classifying a lot of people who do not believe in God or are agnostics as religious. In the process, a lot of fascinating data about religious belief and skepticism is prevented including this amazing chart based on Gallup polls,

2001 2004 2007
Believe in God 89.70 89.91 86.29
Not Sure About God 6.83 5 7.56
Don’t Believe In God 2.69 4.25 5.84
Don’t Know 0.7 0
Adding the last three together for total atheists and agnostics 9.52 9.95 13.4

As Greg Paul, author of the CFI report argues,

Just last year, more than 13 percent of Americans told Gallup they had significant doubts about the existence of God. This is the highest level of religious skepticism recorded by the organization over six decades. Nor does any recent Gallup survey match the extremely low levels of disbelief in God reported from the 1940s into the 60s. Gallup’s data shows clearly that popular atheism has not held stable over time. On the contrary, unbelief in God was far less prevalent in the mid-twentieth century than it is today. This forces the question: How could the Baylor team be unaware of a large body of findings made by the organization that is its partner in the current survey project?

The entire report  can be downloaded here (PDF) and is well worth reading in its entirety.

A Better Way to Apologize for Holocaust Denial

This Reuters story describing a Catholic group apologizing for some Holocaust denial remarks is a bit odd,

The leader of a traditionalist Catholic movement apologized to Pope Benedict on Tuesday for remarks denying the Holocaust made by one of his members whom the pope recently rehabilitated.

Bishop Bernard Fellay also said that he had disciplined the bishop who made the statement, British-born Richard Williamson, and ordered him not to speak out again on any political or historical issues.

Williamson’s remarks on the Holocaust, most recently on Swedish TV last week, provoked widespread criticism by Jews who said he had wiped out nearly half a century of dialogue with Catholics.

Now maybe I’m missing something here, but shouldn’t Fellay be apologizing to — oh, I don’t know, maybe the Jews and other racial minorities who were the main victims of the Holocaust?

And this is not just a case of Reuters leaving something out. This is the entire text of Fellay’s statement,

Statement of His Excellency Bernard Fellay, Superior of the Fraternity of St. Pius X

We have become aware of an interview released by Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of our Fraternity of St. Pius X, to Swedish television. In this interview, he expressed himself on historical questions, and in particular on the question of the genocide against the Jews carried out by the Nazis.

It’s clear that a Catholic bishop cannot speak with ecclesiastical authority except on questions that regard faith and morals. Our Fraternity does not claim any authority on other matters. Its mission is the propagation and restoration of authentic Catholic doctrine, expressed in the dogmas of the faith. It’s for this reason that we are known, accepted and respected in the entire world.

It’s with great sadness that we recognize the extent to which the violation of this mandate has done damage to our mission. The affirmations of Bishop Williamson do not reflect in any sense the position of our Fraternity. For this reason I have prohibited him, pending any new orders, from taking any public positions on political or historical questions.

We ask the forgiveness of the Supreme Pontiff, and of all people of good will, for the dramatic consequences of this act. Because we recognize how ill-advised these declarations were, we can only look with sadness at the way in which they have directly struck our Fraternity, discrediting its mission.

This is something we cannot accept, and we declare that we will continue to preach Catholic doctrine and to administer the sacraments of grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not a “we’re sorry we tolerate such ignorance in our midsts” apology; rather this is a “we’re sorry we embarrassed the Pope so soon after he un-excommunicated us.”

Not surprising. Fellay’s Society of St. Pius X has long been riddled with antisemitism, but, of course, that is not why it was excommunicated. That action was taken because in 1988 Fellay was ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (then head of the Society) against the wishes and permission of Pope John Paul II.

Obviously it wasn’t the anti-semitism that bothered the Church, or else they would never have rehabilitated the organization in the first place.

The Vatican’s ‘Dignitas Personae’

The Center for Inquiry issued a press release in mid-December attacking the Catholic Church’s Dignitas Personae, largely on abortion-related grounds (the Catholic Church, not surprisingly, is still against it). According to CFI,

The Center for Inquiry, a think tank headquartered in Amherst, New York that supports research on bioethical questions, deplores the Vatican’s pronouncement. The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine, according to the Center for Inquiry, and may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.

“I regret the renewed effort by the Vatican to censor—indeed prohibit—research in reproductive science,” said Paul Kurtz, chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry. “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again? The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” Kurtz says there is a need to defend freedom of scientific research and the positive good that can ensue for countless numbers of infertile couples. “The effort to curtail stem cell research is especially disturbing in the view of the possible beneficent results for improving human health,” he said.

The Vatican has focused on commonplace scientific technologies used in the United States and elsewhere, which the Church believes demean human “dignity,” and bring humans perilously close to “playing God.” The Church continues to hold steadfast to its key theological proclamation that “life begins at conception,” thereby rendering as “illicit” the use of embryos or fertilized eggs in research or otherwise, including IVF for married Catholic couples wishing to conceive.

Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (and author of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas) said that “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.

Dignitas Personae is interesting both for the technologies it deplores and the “logic” it bases those judgments upon.

For example, consider intracytoplasmic sperm injection — a procedure whereby a single sperm is injected into an egg to fertilize it. ICSI has a number of purposes, including being used in to overcome male infertility. Dignitas Personae objects to ICSI because it separates procreation from the sexual act,

Just as in general with in vitro fertilization, of which it is a variety, ICSI is intrinsically illicit:  it causes a complete separation between procreation and the conjugal act. Indeed ICSI takes place “outside the bodies of the couple through actions of third parties whose competence and technical activity determine the success of the procedure. Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children. Conception in vitro is the result of the technical action which presides over fertilization. Such fertilization is neither in fact achieved nor positively willed as the expression and fruit of a specific act of the conjugal union”.

Similarly, the objection to genetic engineering comes down to vague and poorly defined concerns,

27. The question of using genetic engineering for purposes other than medical treatment also calls for consideration. Some have imagined the possibility of using techniques of genetic engineering to introduce alterations with the presumed aim of improving and strengthening the gene pool. Some of these proposals exhibit a certain dissatisfaction or even rejection of the value of the human being as a finite creature and person. Apart from technical difficulties and the real and potential risks involved, such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society; such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human. This would be in contrast with the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings which is expressed in the principle of justice, the violation of which, in the long run, would harm peaceful coexistence among individuals. Furthermore, one wonders who would be able to establish which modifications were to be held as positive and which not, or what limits should be placed on individual requests for improvement since it would be materially impossible to fulfil the wishes of every single person. Any conceivable response to these questions would, however, derive from arbitrary and questionable criteria. All of this leads to the conclusion that the prospect of such an intervention would end sooner or later by harming the common good, by favouring the will of some over the freedom of others. Finally it must also be noted that in the attempt to create a new type of human being one can recognize an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator.

In stating the ethical negativity of these kinds of interventions which imply an unjust domination of man over man, the Church also recalls the need to return to an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature.

Leaving for the moment the absurdity of the Catholic Church being suddenly concerned about the “unjust domination of man over man”, the concern about “man trying to take the place of the Creator” is telling.

Of course human beings wouldn’t have to take that route if the Creator hadn’t done such a piss poor job of it in the first place. The Church’s position is that we should simply accept our numerous defects — such as the ridiculously short lifespan — as “God given” and simply not attempt to improve our arbitrary genetic heritage.