Understanding secular people

Nations that are collectively included in the term, ‘the West’ are increasingly secular. Western Europe, New Zealand, Canada are dominated by secular people and the US is increasingly so. In this part of the world, the narrative is that religion is on the decline and enlightened secular people are on the rise.

Zoom out, of course, to a global level and that’s simply not true. Yet secular people remain convinced that it is they who are on the right side of history. Currently the majority of Christian apologetics in the West remains centred on trying to expose the cracks in the secular worldview just as Rebecca McLaughlin does here.

When our friends hear the claims of Jesus, they wonder why we’d believe such fantastical things when there is a perfectly rational, coherent view of the world available to us. But if we look at the secular ground on which we supposedly all stand, we’ll realize it’s more like pack ice floating away from land.

And there are cracks in the ice.

There is certainly still value in this approach at the personal conversational level but a more interesting approach may be found among current efforts to truly understand what it is agnostics and atheists do believe instead of focusing in on why they don’t believe.

Many, many secular people have never really thought hard about why they think the way that they do. They, like generations of religious people before them, have just assumed that this is the way that the world is. Their parents confirm it, their teachers confirm it and the media they are exposed to confirm it, so therefore it must be true.

This line of thinking is getting early confirmation from the work of evolutionary and cultural psychologist at the University of Kentucky, Will Gervais. As this article states

Gervais’s work to date suggests that cognitive factors play a minor role compared to the cultural availability of (and individual dissatisfaction with) specific religious ideas, symbols, and practices.

This approach is subtly different from the one that McLaughlin takes. Instead of trying to use Christianity or religion as the foil against atheism or agnosticism instead let them try to explain how they came to those conclusions in the first place without reference to religion at all. I suspect they will find that an incredible challenge.

Sociologist Lois Lee says,

If we only had terms like theism and religion to describe all the different denominations, national cultures, everything you wanted to say about religion, we’d be misled.

Given that there are around 1 billion atheists* worldwide she’s probably got a point.

North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge is also exploring what these non-believers believe and found that non-believers are even more likely to be susceptible to ‘magical thinking’ and accepting of extraterrestrials or other supernatural forces.

I find it very interesting that atheists are far more convinced of life on other planets than most believers and would argue that they are being rational or mathematical for thinking so. The basic premise being that the odds are dramatically in favour of there being life on other planets because the galaxy and the universe is so mind-bogglingly large. That of course is entirely possible but also entirely utterly, completely and totally unproven.

As I said here,

Having rejected the idea that what is ‘out there’ is our creator, we’ve gone in search of our galactic neighbour only to increasingly realise that we have none. There is no escape and nowhere to escape to. It seems to me that instead of seeking the answer to the question ‘who are we?’ and the related ‘why are we here?’ from the one place where we know life exists (here), we instead search for answers in the one place that has so far yielded absolutely nothing.

In other words I suspect that for the vast majority of people they are just as inclined as religious people to believe but because they are just as culturally conditioned as they argue religious people are, they don’t see their own convictions as beliefs at all.

Perhaps the most interesting observation of all was this from Routledge:

Routledge says that perhaps the most exciting thing to come from this particular project was a new psychological measure, the “need for meaning.”

“Some people are clearly oriented to thinking about meaning all the time,” Routledge says. “Other people just honestly don’t care for the most part. What we found was that individual differences in need for meaning was a very strong predictor of religiosity and related beliefs and practices.” Compared to the other predictors, Routledge says that need for meaning was the most reliable predictor of the level of a person’s beliefs in the supernatural.

I think this perhaps defines our secular age as well as anything. Some people (new atheists, Christians, environmentalists, etc…) care about meaning all the time. But the vast secular majority ‘just honestly don’t care’.

The most effective approach then is not to spend vast energy and effort explaining why Christianity is reasonable and the excellent reasons for accepting the historicity of the resurrection but instead figuring out what they do care about and how the Gospel makes more sense of those things**.

*As the vast majority of atheists live in China and China is undergoing seismic shifts in religious affiliation, this number could drop dramatically enough to offset the rise of the ‘nones’ elsewhere.

** I think it is this that leaders like Timothy Keller do so well.

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