Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

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Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Global and country-level prevalence of atheism in 2020

My previous post examined trends in religious belief and irreligion (non-religious and atheism) over the last 40 years using data from the World Values Surveys (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) [1-4]. There is considerable interest in the prevalence of atheism, particularly from Americans, and a variety of quite different statistics are quoted, and have been written about in various media. In this post, I present my estimates of global prevalence of atheism for the year 2020 and discuss the various other sources of international statistics and the definitional issues. But first, here is my global map based on data from the WVS/EVS (see here for details of analysis).

And here is a closer view of the map for Eurasia. Further below in this post, I have included a more detailed country-level plot of all the religiosity categories (practicing religious, non-practicing religious, non-religious, atheist) for 2020.

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Is religious belief in decline and atheism on the rise?

Ronald Inglehart has recently published an article in Foreign Affairs called “Giving up on God: the global decline of religion” in which he uses data from the most recent wave of the World Health Surveys (WVS) to claim that between 2007 and 2019, the importance of religion has declined in most countries [1]. This is based on a single question on the importance of God in the respondent’s life on a 10-point scale. The average importance declined in 39 countries and increased in only 5.  Apart from the fact that this is based only on a single question on the importance of God, it also does not tell us how regional or global average ratings have changed. Depending on the relative populations and scale shifts in different countries, it could potentially even be consistent with a global average increase.

I’ve taken a closer look at trends in religious belief and practice using data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study [2-5] which have interviewed over 630,000 people in 110 countries in seven waves of the surveys over the period 1981 to 2020. These surveys include a direct question on whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. Of the 105 countries, 76 have data for years in range 2017-2020, and another 17 have data on or later than 2010.

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