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The Future of Irreligion

Panel Chair: Rasa Pranskevičiūtė | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m.

Nowadays, one regularly hears the assertion that the numbers of people professing irreligion has grown to become an important component of the population. This is, in part, a consequence of media attention given to spokespeople for the New Atheism such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. However, there are also demographic data backing up this assertion. In addition to the expanding memberships of groups like Atheist Alliance International and the various Humanist Associations, the irreligious can point to surveys like the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism – and, in U.S., surveys like the relevant Pew (2012) and Gallup (Newport 2009) polls – which indicate that large proportions of the world are not religious and, further, are becoming more irreligious. In fact, and perhaps paradoxically, irreligion is one of the claimants to the title ‘fastest growing religion.’ This panel proposes both to gage the growth of irreligion as well as discuss certain key demographic features of non-religious populations.

Inga Tøllefsen

A Gendered Approach to Non-Religion

In most ways in which religion can be measured, women predominate. However, this pattern of gender dominance is reversed in measures of irreligion and non-religion. Trzebiatowska and Bruce (Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? [OUP 2012]) hypothesize that a ‘lag’ in secularization may explain why women are still more religious than men, and that in the future measures of both male and female religiousness might both approach zero. Looking at census data gathered between 1996 and 2011, we find a significant rise in the number of self-reported atheists, agnostics and ‘nones.’ Perhaps surprisingly, it is mainly young adult women who account for these rising numbers; male percentages are surprisingly stable. In other words, it appears that the recent growth in the numbers of people who self-identify as irreligious/non-religious is being driven by women rather than men.

Evelyn Oliver

Education, Irreligion and Non-Religion: Evidence from Select Census and Survey Data

A number of different studies carried out in the twentieth century demonstrated a correlation between higher education and loss of religious belief. However, recent research seems to indicate that contemporary social changes have undermined this previously solid connection: it appears that the non-religious are no longer substantially more educated than the religious. The decline in higher education represents an important component of an emerging consensus that, in effect, ‘normalizes’ the non-religious. In the present study, this imputed characteristic is challenged via an examination of education data from the national censuses of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom as well as select data from the World Values Surveys.

James R. Lewis

Growth and Fertility: What Census and Survey Data Indicate about the future of the Irreligious and the ‘Nones’

In discussions of the irreligious and ‘Nones,’ no one has brought together census data from multiple nations. My presentation will examine the censuses of Australia, Canada and the UK as well as select data from the World Values Surveys, which together indicate that the irreligious and ‘Nones’ are growing rapidly. However, we also find that Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists are having significantly fewer children, meaning their current remarkable rate of growth will most likely fall off in the near future. In contrast, ‘Nones’ are slightly more fertile than the population at large. However, because many Nones hold religious beliefs, it is difficult to predict how the growth of this portion of the population will impact the future growth of irreligion.

Jesper Petersen

Educating the public: Making sense of popular science television in Norway

Both Norway in particular and the West in general have witnessed an intensification of the sustained struggle between scientists, humanists and skeptics, on the one hand, and various religious and spiritual groups on the other for the right to represent reality. An important site of contestation has been the television screen. In Norway, several television programs on the oldest state channel NRK, most notably Folkeopplysningen (“Public Education”, 2012-) and På Tro og Are (a wordplay on the phrase “on faith and honor” and the presenter’s first name Are, 2010), have dealt with religious or spiritual beliefs and practices from a more or less explicitly skeptical viewpoint. Further, imported shows such as Cosmos (2014) and Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking (2010-) have used spectacle and speculation to argue that science can provide the sense of wonder that fulfill a quasi-religious role in a supposedly disenchanted society. Conversely, programs like Den Andre Siden (“The Other Side”, 2009-11), Åndenes makt (“Power of the Spirits”, 2005-), the game show Jakten på den 6. Sans (“The Hunt for the Sixth Sense”, 2008-11) and the more documentary-style Underveis (“En Route”, NRK 2011-) have shown how a religious or “alternative” worldviews exist in and improve on modern life. This presentation will examine how these programs position themselves in relation to their chosen subject and its supposed other to discuss what they are saying and to whom. This will shed light on the current state of irreligion in Norway and the compartmentalized audiences to which television caters today. 


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