Friday, 17 December 2010

How the 'war on drugs' increases psychosis

In a previous post I argued that Humanists should be concerned about the international prohibition of recreational drugs. I cited evidence to show that the 'war on drugs' has been lost and that much of the harm associated with drug use is due to illegality not pharmacology. I did not make the libertarian case; though humanists ought to take it seriously.

I did not and never have claimed that the use of street drugs was risk-free. I've always believed that heroin, for instance, is very harmful to most of its users. But cannabis is surely different. When I first became interested in this topic - 40 years ago - the evidence against cannabis seemed very slight - and generally contradictory. Yet I've had to accept from more recent evidence that cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of psychosis.

So I was wrong? Sort of. But the truth is more complex.

Cannabis has several active ingredients notably tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Laboratory and field studies show that it's THC that creates the risk of psychosis whilst CBD has a protective effect.

Over the years the 'hash' and 'grass' of my youth have been replaced by 'skunk'. Skunk contains a higher concentration of THC than the hash of yesteryear and, critically, much less CBD. It's therefore much more likely to provoke psychosis.

This change in composition is not some random effect of climate or fashion; it's a consequence of prohibition. Over the years street cannabis supply has switched from imports from high hills in hot countries to domestic cultivation under intensive lighting. The intensive lighting appears to drive the replacement of CBD by THC.

This would probably not have happened without prohibition and if it had happened in a regulated market then the regulator could have intervened to reverse the trend.

The current incidence of cannabis-related psychosis is therefore a consequence of prohibition. There would be some cannabis-related psychosis in a regulated legal market - cannabis is not risk-free - but if we care about health we will abandon prohibition and seek a policy that might reduce the harm from drug use.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!

I’m a Scientist get me out of here is a science dialogue event where school students talk to real scientists online for two weeks. It’s in the form of an X Factor style competition between scientists, who compete for a prize of £500.

For two weeks students read about the scientists’ work, ask them questions, and engage in live text chats with them. The students vote for the scientist they want to get the money. The scientists with the fewest votes are evicted until only one is left to be crowned the winner. The event is supported (by Wellcome Trust) by carefully developed and tested resources which develop students’ skills and deepen their understanding.

Evolution Zone
Ceri Thomas won £500
in the Evolution Zone of
I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!
Ceri Thomas says 'My favourite thing to do in science is talk to other people about ideas- good ideas, bad ideas, crazy ideas- communication is one of the best ways for scientists to discover new things and challenge their own perceptions about problems. I love learning something new every day and I love pondering the BIG questions in animal evolution: What did our earliest ancestors on earth look like? How and when did animals evolve? Did they like to drink as much tea as I do? More...

Here's my pick of some great questions!

Question!Does evolution proceed toward increasing complexity?

what are your opinoins on how the world began?

Question!Will there be any other substances that arn’t in the periodic table that are here today innit?

Question!did dragon’s ever excist or are they just a myth

Question!why do people become addicted to drugs

Question!Why do animal’s have a shorter life then us ?

Question!how big is space

Question!If extinction is a natural part of life on Earth, why should we care about protecting endangered species?

Question!If evolution is true, then why are there so many gaps in the fossil record? Shouldn’t there be more transitional

Question!do u belive in ghosts and if you do have you ever seen one

Question!According to evolution, the diversity of life is a result of chance occurrence. Doesn’t that make evolution wildly

Question!Will there ever be a cure for cancer and are scientists makiong any progress of dicovering a cure?

Question!People say that we only use 20% of our brain power, do you think it is possible that we could do extraordinary things

Question!is it posible that humans could one day invent eternal life

Question!if smoking is so bad why did they invent it

Question!What do you like about science?

Question!Hello Ceri, Is it possible that some people in the world can see ghosts?! please reply :D

Question!Do you believe in the after life and past life? if so, why?

Question!how does are brain work :)

Question!what are your opinoins on how the world began?

Question!hello i wana ask u a qustion and dat question is that is it true dat humans evolved from monkeys

Question!Why was Darwin’s idea considered dangerous?

Question!Why did the ancient peoples who immigrated from Africa develop white skin?

Question!can gravity be produced at any planet ? or can gravity be produced on any specific object?

Question!Is there a relation between worms and humans? If yes, what is it? :)

Question!Although our bodies don’t use the appendix, what do you think it was needed for before?

Question!im not very good at science would you advise me to be a scientist

Question!if you werent a scientist what would you be?

Question!why dont black holes suck in the INTIRE universe, and what would happen if they did?
View all answered questions.

What a great way to get kids interested in science!!

Prof. Colin Blakemore - Humans do not have free will

The Case For God?
BBC1 6th September 2010

With religion coming under increasing attack from atheists and sceptics, The Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, goes into the lion's den, putting his faith publicly on the line by debating with some of the sharpest critics of his faith. Howard Jacobson believes ritual demeans religion, Alain de Botton doubts that any one faith has the truth, Professor Colin Blakemore thinks science makes religion redundant, and Professor Lisa Jardine questions why God allows evil and suffering in this world.

Here Sacks interviews Colin Blakemore:-

Sacks 'Colin Blakemore says rationalist explanations made by science make faith obsolete.'

Sacks 'Once science has explained something does science 'explain it away'?'

  • Blakemore 'their are explanations & accounts that are verifiable, testable of how things happen
  • Sacks 'the beauty of Beethovens cannot be explained away by science explaining the music centre in the brain'
  • Blakemore 'wait and see what science is capable of delivering; their are many things that science has beautifully explained, for which there could not have been a conventional explanation in the past, for instance Biochemistry has explained much of what we understand about 'Life' - their is no 'life force' need to explain these things '
Sacks 'could we be anything other than what we are?

  • Blakemore 'I am the sum total of all the causal influences on me at the moment; events have anticedal causes; humans are not set aside from the rest of other living beings or the universe. The curious sense of a 'self' or of choice or a helmsman deciding absolutely what to do something irrespective of what the world tells them - is wrong.
Sacks 'science JUST explains things away

  • Blakemore ' TBC

What does BHA Distinguished Supporter Colin Blakemore think about the Public Understanding of Science?

I'm interested to I find out what British Humanist Association (BHA) Distinguished Supporters think about:-
  • The Public Understanding of Science. 
  • Why they support the BHA
  • Inter-relationships between Humanism and Science
  • How should Humanists convey the importance of Science to other Humanists and wider society
The method I've used here is a brief online literature research. I've added links (all except those in red) and my emphasis is in bold.

Later I hope to make podcasts of interviews of Distinguished Supporters, possibly in association with The Pod Delusion.

Blakemore at the Oxford University
Scientific Society social event in 2009
Professor Colin Blakemore is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association:-

'Colin Blakemore was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in June 1944. After winning a place at the King Henry VIII grammar school in Coventry, he went on to win a scholarship to study natural science at Cambridge and then completed a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley. After 11 years in the Department of Physiology at Cambridge University, he became Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University in 1979. From 1996–2003 he was Director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford, and was Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC) from 2003-2010.

Professor Blakemore was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) in 1997-1998 and its Chairman in 2001-2004. He has been described by the Royal Society as “one of Britain 's most influential communicators of science”, and he has been awarded many prizes from medical and scientific academies and societies. He is committed to promoting dialogue between scientists and the public, and to defending medical research using animals despite regularly receiving threats of violence from animal rights extremists. Over the years he has been a frequent contributor to radio and television programmes, including the BBC Reith Lecture in 1976 ('Mechanics of the Mind') and the 13-part BBC2 series The Mind Machine. His books for the general public include Mechanics of the Mind (for which he won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science), Images and Understanding , Mindwaves, The Mind Machine (see 'Look Inside' page 86), Gender and Society and The Oxford Companion to the Body.

In July 2001 he was one of the signatories to a letter published in The Independent which urged the Government to reconsider its support for the expansion of maintained religious schools, and he was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who signed and sent a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, concerning the teaching of Creationism in schools in March 2002.  He was also one of the signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles’ Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

Colin Blakemore is also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association.

More about Colin Blakemore at Wikipedia (which I've updated today).

In 2004 Colin Blakemore as the new Head of the Medical Research Council, was interviewed and asked in the last question 'Do you feel there is sufficient public understanding in science? How would you encourage more?' Colin Blakemore said:-
  • It all depends on what one means by “understanding”. There is, contrary to received wisdom, remarkably strong enthusiasm for science amongst the general public, and considerable confidence in scientists. 
    • In opinion polls, 
      • three-quarters of the population said they were “amazed” by the achievements of science. 
      • Another poll found that people admired Einstein more than David Beckham! 
      • an annual Mori poll shows an unchanging two thirds of the public who say that they trust scientists to tell the truth. 
    • On the other hand, the near-hysteria about such topics as 
      • GM foods 
      • MMR vaccination and autism reveals that the public are not well informed about the processes of science. 
    • Understanding of risk and how to assess it is poor. 
      • The public expect infallible pronouncements from scientists and are confused when they hear researchers expressing differences of opinion in areas of genuine uncertainty. 
    • In my opinion, we, the researchers who benefit from public funds, have a responsibility to keep the people informed about how we spend their money. 
    • Even more important, we must trust the public to guide us in areas of ethical concern. 
    • But if we are to have confidence in the public’s rightful role in determining how far science can go, they must understand how science and scientists work. 
      • Of course, busy researchers will ask why they should bother to give their precious time to public communication, when there is no professional recognition for that effort. 
      • I think that the universities, the research councils and other funders... should acknowledge that public communication is a legitimate professional activity. 
Watch (9minutes) Colin Blakemore at the 'Science is Vital' rally in London on 9th October 2010 talking about Science Funding in the UK (he is introduced by BHA Vice President Evan Harris):-

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Brian Cox - Science: A challenge to TV objectivity

Thanks to Matthew Coussell, a member of my HASSNERS group, for recommending this programme to me.

reposted from: (view on iPlayer until 8th December 2010).

Prof Brian Cox presents the Huw Wheldon Lecture 2010 on the topic: 
Science: A challenge to TV objectivity

1'15": our reliance on science and crucially the scientific way of thinking has never been greater".

5' 15 - 5'50" science is very simple indeed: science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. As long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is the statement of the obvious. Everything we take for granted in the modern world; from atoms, to electricity, from our understanding of the stars, to medical imaging - is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it. The  great English biologist Thomas Huxley summarised it beautifully: science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic.
7'55": science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature.


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A challenge to Humanism

Humanists, says the BHA, "are atheists and agnostics who ... base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfillment". I'll drink to that.

But if humanists are really keen on human welfare, happiness and fulfillment why is so much humanist discussion about religion?

Religion is, of course, inimical to human welfare in many ways. But it's not the biggest obstacle. I think humanists should spend more time on the other obstacles. Science, both physical and social, can help us recognise and address them. Here are my top three threats to human welfare - chosen partly for the roles that science and engineering play in understanding and addressing them.

First, climate change. The world is already 0.6 degrees warmer than before the industrial revolution and a rise to two degrees above is as near certain as any forecast can be. The change has already thinned the polar ice, increased the melting of glaciers and brought drought to east Africa and floods to Bangladesh. Without science we would not understand the causes nor the urgency of the need.

As humanists we should, and mostly do I think, accept the science and the moral case for action. For humanists in developed countries - most of us - that means accepting that its our emissions that have caused the problem and who therefore have the greatest need to change.

But though science gives us understanding it is only politics that can deliver the changes - in behaviour and technology - that we need. Humanists should be actively engaged in both the debates and the political campaigns. Are we?

Second, drug prohibition. Illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin are certainly harmful to at least some of their users. For 90 years our response to this has been prohibition. We made possession and trade illegal and launched a war on drugs. It is a war that we are losing - possibly have lost.

In the developed world the range of street drugs has been increasing for decades whilst the drugs themselves are very affordable. In Mexico the war between drug cartels has taken 2,000 lives this year alone. In Afghanistan poppy cultivation funds the Taliban and makes the conflict even more intractable. In the UK drug addiction is a major cause of petty crime whilst in US cities it's a major cause of the horrendous murder rate.

And most of this is not due to drugs but to drug prohibition. The prohibition of street drugs makes no more sense than the prohibition of alcohol - which the USA tried with such ignominious results. Short of a police state, and perhaps even with one, we cannot stop drug use. We can, however, reduce the harm done by adulterated drugs, gang violence and drug-related crime and prostitution. These benefits are so great that this ought to be a moral imperative for humanists.

This is a case where humanist libertarian and humanitarian principles point in the same direction as the economics. (The UK Thinktank Transform has estimated the economic benefit for the UK at £4-14B where the uncertainty reflects the weakness of current evidence.)

Here, I repeat, is an issue on which principle, reason, economics and compassion together point to a radical conclusion that was first discussed in Humanist circles at least 40 years ago. (We can even expect that the religious will oppose us!) So why has the movement not made this issue its own?

Thirdly, economic inequality. Research over several decades has shown that economic inequality creates a wide variety of social ills including mental and physical illness, drug abuse, obesity, premature death, teenage births, violence, prison population and a lack of social mobility. It even, I've argued previously, drives people to religion.

The research, popularised last year by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, shows that it is inequality, not just poverty, that has this effect. The bad effects are felt at all levels of society - though they are worst for the poor.

Since humanists have generally favoured equality over hierarchy this issue ought to appeal to them. Where, then, is the humanist campaign for greater equality? Where, even, are humanists discussing it?

Humanism, especially when informed by science, has the potential to generate genuinely radical initiatives for major social improvement. Perhaps we no longer believe in major social improvement.

Whatever the reason we are certainly not advancing such views. Indeed, mostly we aren't even discussing the issues.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Why Britain needs science - the Science is Vital rally

2000 people attended the 'Science is Vital' rally in London during October 2010. Visit the Science is Vital website & Facebook page.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

What we are really like - scientifically speaking

Two Canadian academics, James Cheyne of Waterloo University and Frederick Britton of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), have just published a preliminary analysis of a large web-based survey of non-theists. They got responses from 2,563 people, most of whom were from the US (66%) or Canada (14%). The respondents were disproportionately well-educated, male and young.

The findings are interesting though generally unsurprising.

How people become sceptics
Cheyne and Britton found that nontheists generally came from at least moderately religious families and reached their sceptical views in late adolescence. Some experienced family hostility to their non-belief and, unsurprisingly, hostility was greatest in the most religious countries. However, the degree of family hostility was not correlated with the respondents’ own hostility to religion, ie there was no evidence of either reflex hostility nor of compromise of beliefs for family harmony.

An unrelated 2010 survey of 3,412 Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious believers. This pattern remained even after correcting for factors like age and race. It’s reasonable to assume that they formed their views on the basis of their knowledge.

Most humanists, I suspect, think that they reached their views through study and logic and not, for instance, as a result of ignorance or adolescent rebellion. These data support this view.

Politics and morality
Back to Cheyne and Britton.

The nontheists were surprisingly similar in political and moral opinions – and surprisingly radical. Nontheists were politically liberal – except in economic matters. 91% described themselves as “left of centre”. (NB: That’s left of the American, not European, ‘centre’).

Their moral values were fairness, kindness, helpfulness and support for the rights of others. Self-described ‘humanists’ were particularly emphatic on these points.

They were not particularly patriotic, saw little virtue in loyalty per se or respect for traditions and established authority and they rejected the puritanical hostility to ‘carnal pleasure’ that is so common in religion.

Respondents generally followed the humanist ‘line’ on abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia. These answers, plus support for evolution and concern about overpopulation and global warming, shows that nontheists generally respect science.

Non theists were concerned about religious fundamentalism and terrorism but had quite negative view about military readiness, war, the death penalty and police authority. Clearly they do not see state violence as an appropriate response.

None of this is remarkable to a British humanist like myself but I am pleased to find that these are also the attitudes of north American skeptics.

Attitudes to religion
Most nontheists were hostile to religion. Over 85% held that religious indoctrination of children without offering them a choice of viewpoints was a violation of their rights. The authors describe this as a “rather strong statement” which seems odd as it’s a natural implication of our support for the rights and autonomy of all people.

How ‘Atheists’ differ
The survey invited respondents to describe themselves by one or more of the terms atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker and sceptic. No definitions were offered for these terms. Relative to other non-theists, and especially to self-described agnostics, atheists were more likely to:
* Show hostility to religion
* Be confident in their beliefs
* Reject ‘spiritual beliefs’
* Express a ‘sense of gain’ regarding their views.
* Express anger and disgust at moral violations
* Endorse humanist attitudes to abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia.

The authors speculate that the decision to label oneself an atheist or agnostic may be due to one’s personality type rather than indicating any significant difference of opinion. Atheists are more confident of their opinions and therefore more certain that religion is wrong and thus more hostile to it.

This research confirms generally humanists’ self-image as well-informed and rational people. The broad agreement on moral and political issues and the value of science suggests that should be a way to mobilize many more nontheists in support of the values they hold but may not know that they share with many others.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Karen Woo: Humanist martyr

Humanist aren't really keen on martyrdom. We prefer survival. Most of us would probably compromise our principles to stay alive. After all, it's the only life we get.

But sometimes, rarely, we need to face danger in order to help someone. Perhaps we see someone fall into a canal or attacked by a mugger. I hope we'd all take some risks to help a person in danger.

It's another thing to deliberately take a path into danger. To have a choice, yet to choose the path that puts you at personal risk for the sake of others. That's altruism of a high order.

Such a person was Dr Karen Woo, who was murdered last week in Afghanistan. An experienced doctor, she gave up her job with BUPA to take medical aid to the people of Afghanistan. Whether Dr Woo was murdered by bandits or religious fanatics will hardly matter to her friends and family. We can, however, feel only contempt for the Taliban spokesman who defend her murder on the grounds that she was 'spying and preaching Christianity'.

Dr Woo was a humanitarian and a humanist martyr. The world is the worse for her death.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Can science study everything?

Science can be seen as a body of facts, a set of theories or a set of methods. In our view it is primarily a set of methods. These methods are both technical, eg controlled experiments, and social, eg peer review, and there is no definitive list.

Science is not, therefore, an area of study or even several such areas. You can do science in any area to which scientific methods can be applied including human behaviour and social dynamics. It’s true that studies of people present various distinctive difficulties – but so do astronomy and particle physics.

When thinking about methods in the natural sciences it’s easy to suppose that science requires controlled experiments but this is incorrect. Controlled experiments are impractical in studies of stellar, geological and biological evolution. In medicine some controlled experiments are unethical – that’s why we have ethics committees.

In his wonderful book Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond showed how comparisons between societies and ecologies could be used to illuminate human history and prehistory. In this he applied scientific methods to history – he took a similar approach even more explicitly in Collapse.

Now Diamond has tackled the methodology question head-on. His new book, Natural experiments of history, was written with political scientist James Robinson, and looks at eight ‘natural experiments’, that is sets of historical episodes from which general conclusions can be drawn. In four, similar societies experienced different impacts, eg conquest, whilst in the others different societies experienced similar impacts. The book then compares the consequences in the various cases.

The specific results are interesting, of course, but the real importance of Diamond’s work is to show how scientific method can be applied to the unpromising material of human history.

Truly, science is method, not subject matter.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Down with naked numbers!

On the front page of today's Guardian Larry Elliott reported (Watchdog under new pressure for cutting job loss forecast) that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) had forecast job losses of 499,000. That number is ridiculous, not in itself but in its claim to precision.

“499,000” means that the number of jobs lost will be neither 498,000 nor 500,000 but 499,000. That’s a claim worthy of a racing tipster or a psychic. It has no place in a sensible economic discussion.

In its pre-budget report the OBR discusses the uncertainty in its forecasts with care. It saysthe probability of growth being within one percentage point of our central forecast [2.5%] in [2014] is around 30 per cent". In science we generally quote a range or the standard deviation. In the OBR’s case the growth forecast is 2.5% +/- 2.1%; the range 0.4% to 4.6%. That's a dismal level of precision but at least it's honest - and that is not something you always get in official statements.

It’s obvious that this uncertainty affects every other OBR forecast. I can't find the job loss forecast in the OBR's Pre-Budget Report but if it's proportional the +/- 1 SD range would be 100,000 to 900,000. (And let's remember that there's a one third chance that reality will fall outside this range!)

You can't understand forecasts without knowing the uncertainties. Let's push to have them spelt out.

Monday, 28 June 2010

What is philosophy for?

Once upon a time, or so I've heard, three Greek philosophers sat in a taverna arguing about the number of teeth a horse had. Their arguments were rigorous and elegant. One applied principles of symmetry. The second considered the nature of grass whilst the third drew on Plato's doctrine of ideal forms. Finally, unable to agree and somewhat drunk, they approached an Arab merchant at the next table to judge between them.
The merchant listened carefully and then asked to be briefly excused. On his return he gave judgment. The losers were upset and demanded that he explain what was wrong with their arguments.
"Arguments be dammed" said the Arab "I went to the stables and counted them!"

I was reminded of this several times on Saturday at the BHA's conference on Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts. Interspersed with singing, poetry and two non-philosophical speeches three humanist philosophers offered persuasive arguments about the role of the Arts and their relevance to humanism. The philosophers made many claims about facts. For instance, Richard Norman and Nigel Warburton argued that humanists could appreciate religious art just as much as the religious could whilst Richard Norman claimed that WW1 war poetry had changed our attitudes to war. Now these are factual claims that should be settled by empirical investigation. The first needs the methods of psychology and the second of history. Neither can be resolved by the methods of philosophy.

I was still wrestling with this after lunch when Julian Baggini spoke on Hollywood vs. Philosophy. One of his points connected with mine for he said that philosophy is not usually an argument; it's more often an attempt to draw the reader's attention to a fact or connection that he may have overlooked. That, it seems to me, is a very useful approach when approaching an issue but it's not very useful for settling it. Philosophers may help us to understand what teeth are and what is to qualify as a horse - even perhaps what counting means - but if you really want an answer you can believe in you just have to go to the stables with the Arab and start counting.

I think Francis Crick got it right in conversation with Sue Blackmore: “philosophers often ask good questions but they have no techniques for getting the answers. … A lot of problems that were once regarded as philosophical are … now … part of physics” Or, I might add, history, sociology or psychology.

In the last 200 years scientists and other empirical scholars have got much better at finding data and at connecting those data with longstanding intellectual problems (as well as with major practical problems and, regrettably, trifling pseudo-intellectual ones). The process is incomplete but it expends inexorably to address issues of religion, aesthetics and morality.

And it is not just religious and political ideologues who will be upset by what the facts tell us.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Why atheism will replace religion

Article from Psychology Today. Nigel Barber asks why do modern conditions produce atheism whilst underdeveloped countries have virtually no atheists?

Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe. In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists. Atheism is thus a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Why do modern conditions produce atheism?
More developed countries, especially Europe, have higher levels of Atheism:

First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (Zuckerman, 2007). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%.
Where people have more control over their lives Atheism is higher:

The question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief.

Where social uncertainty (eg more affluent or better health care) is less more people are atheist: Why?

Atheists are more likely to be college-educated people who live in cities and they are highly concentrated in the social democracies of Europe. Atheism thus blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure. But why? It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion.
Where people have smaller families atheism increases:

In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage, according to copious data reviewed by Sanderson (2008). Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed "atheist" countries, women have exceptionally small families and do not need religion helping them to raise large families.
Professional psychological health cares means that people are more likely to atheists:

Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion.

High sport spectatorship increases atheism and religion declines.

Sport psychologists find that sports spectatorship provides much the same kind of social, and spiritual, benefits as people obtain from church membership. In a previous post, I made the case that sports is replacing religion. Precisely the same argument can be made for other forms of entertainment with which spectators become deeply involved. Indeed, religion is striking back by trying to compete in popular media, such as televangelism and Christian rock and by hosting live secular entertainment in church.
In summary

The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.

Leave your comments below or contribute here.

Sanderson, S. K. (2008). Adaptation, evolution, and religion. Religion, 38, 141-156.
Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Humanists4Science Chairman responds to Madeleine Bunting in CiF, Guardian

In the Comment is Free Guardian on 15th April, David Flint, Humanists4Science Chairman has responded to Madeleine Buntings' article in the CiF Guardian section: 'God is attracting more debate than ever'. The New Atheists did not manage to dent the growth of religion across the world. Instead, they only fed our interest in it.

Bunting asks what progress have the 'New Atheists' achieved since the publication of Richard Dawkins 2006 book 'The God Delusion'. She says:
'the great mistake the atheists made is to claim that religion started out as a clumsy stab at science – trying to explain how the world worked – and is now clearly redundant. That misses the point entirely: religion is not about explaining how an earthquake or flood happens; rather it offers meanings for such events. When someone is killed in a car accident, western rationality is good at analysing how the brakes failed and the road curved, but has nothing to say about why, on that particular day, the brakes failed when it was you in the car: the sequence of random events that kill. This search for meaning is part of what drives the religious spirit.'.

Leave your comments below.