Belief In God: Is The New Atheism Influencing Australians?

The ‘New Atheists’ was a term coined in 2006 to describe three atheists who were writing popular books promoting atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (Blackford 2012). Certainly, Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion sold many copies in Australia as well as overseas. Atheists have started mass advertising campaigns to promote their views. But are they having much impact?

The idea of God has certainly become contentious in contemporary Australia. In 1949, there was little disagreement: a Gallup Poll reported that 95 per cent of Australians believed in God. Today, Australians hold a variety of views. The 2009 Survey of Australian Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University among 1718 adult Australians found that just under half the population (47%) believed in God. Among that 47 per cent, there was considerable variation in the levels of confidence. Just 25 per cent of the Australian population said they had no doubts that God exists. The remaining 22 per cent were somewhat tentative in their belief. Some said they had doubts, but generally believed. Others said they believed some of the time but not at others.

There is also a variety of attitudes among those who do not believe in God. Not all are atheists. Indeed, just 16 per cent of Australians said they believed there was no God or higher power. Another 15 per cent say they do not know whether there was a God. An additional 20 per cent said they did not believe there was a personal God, but they did believe there was a higher power.

While 60 per cent of Australians said they had not changed their belief in or rejection of God, another 20 per cent had changed what they believed and another 20 per cent were not sure if they had changed or not:

  • 21% said they don’t believe in God now and never have;
  • 16% say they don’t believe in God, but used to;
  • 4% say they believe in God now, but didn’t used to;
  • 39% say they believe in God and always have; and
  • 20% said they could not choose or did not answer the question.

In other words, for every person who had moved from not believing to believing in God, four Australians had moved in the opposite direction.

Have the ‘New Atheists’ been a significant part of the story of change in belief in God? There are several reasons to believe they have not had much impact. The first is that there has been a relatively even decline in belief since 1993, well before they began their campaigns.

Further evidence for the lack of impact of ‘New Atheism’ is the fact that many of those who have given up belief in God have not adopted atheism as their stance, but indicate they believe now in some sort of higher power or life force. Atheism has increased over recent years, but only slightly.

The 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes allows us to look at the impact of a range of factors influencing belief in God. Regression analysis, which compares the individual significance of a wide variety of factors, shows that the factors such as gender, age, level of education were not significant when one considered other factors.

Belief in God was strongest and most confident amongst those who prayed frequently and those who had high levels of confidence in the religious organisations. Another significant factor was the level of trust in science: those with less confidence in science were more likely to affirm belief in God. Having attended church as a child also made a significant difference. Finally, the link that people made between religious faith and conflict was significant. Together these factors accounted for about 60 per cent of the variance in confidence in belief in God.

In terms of the lack of confidence in the existence of God, the data suggests that this is related to:

  • the decline in frequency of personal prayer;
  • lack of confidence in the churches and religious organisations;
  • trust in science;
  • lack of attendance at church as a child; and
  • the belief that religions bring conflict.

The idea that belief in God is fading rather dropping suddenly as the result of a dogmatic atheistic stance is supported by the fact that approximately half of all those who believe in God vacillate, believing sometimes and not at other times. It is easy to sit on the fence in regard to God in contemporary Australian society. In daily life, Australians do not often need to make decisions about whether they believe or not. In a culture in which few people pray or attend a church, the existence of God simply does not appear as an issue for most people.

The rejection of God is associated with the decline in confidence in the churches which has been fueled by cases of abuse and concerns about how such cases have been handled by church officials. It is also associated with the fact that people feel their behaviour and lifestyles are ‘judged’ by people within the churches. The rejection is also made possible by the alternative pictures of the world science provides in which there is no reference to God. The final factor is the association in the minds of many people between religion and war.

There is little evidence to suggest that the ‘New Atheism’ has had a measurable impact on Australians. There has been a decline in belief in God over several decades, and there is little sign that this decline has increased in recent years with the popularising of atheism by people such as Richard Dawkins. There remain similar levels of belief that there is ‘something beyond’ despite the new atheists contentions that there is nothing. Many of those who have turned away from belief in God continue to believe there is some sort of higher power.

For many Australians, the idea of God has simply faded into irrelevancy (Frame 2009, p.298). Most Australians do not think much about the question of God’s existence. It is not an issue which arises in everyday life. There are few private or public practices which keep the sense of God alive. Thus, the picture is not predominantly one of the dogmatic rejection of God, but rather a fading of the importance of thinking about the question. The question has no more significance for most Australians than the question ‘Is the Buddha Enlightened?’ When asked to respond in a survey, many indicate that they are unsure what to believe.

There are factors which are encouraging a culture in which the idea of God becomes contentious. The picture of the world provided by science, the association between religion and conflict and the perception of moral failure in the churches contribute to doubts.

All of this has important implications for Christian apologetics in contemporary Australia. Arguments with the ‘new atheists’ about the existence of God is likely to have little more impact than their arguments against God’s existence. However, the counter-arguments some denominations are highlighting (see, for example, the website of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne) is probably an encouragement to some Christians in maintaining their belief.

A bigger issue for most Australians is whether one needs to believe in God: whether God can make a difference to one’s life. The experiential approach that the Pentecostals have embraced is most likely to have an impact among young people today. If God can transform lives that are dysfunctional, then God is worth believing in!In our post-modern, post-traditional world, the personal stories of other trusted people counts for much.

While the ‘new atheism’ is having little measurable impact across the population, it has probably contributed to a culture in which it is assumed that belief in God is not necessary and even a little ‘unusual’. It may also offer a hard and protective shell for the increasing numbers who feel that the issue is not worth thinking about.
Philip Hughes

References:

Blackford, Russell, ‘Best of 2011: Atheists Against The New Atheism’, ABC Religion and Ethics. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/01/16/3202269.htm (Accessed 19-01-2012).

Frame, T. (2009) Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Hughes, P. (2010) ‘Are Australians ‘Losing their Religion’?’ Pointers, Vol.20-2, June 2010.

Data source: Evans, A. (2009) The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (computer file), Australian Social Science Data Archives, Canberra.

For the full article, see Pointers Vol. 22, no.1, March 2012. Pointers may be purchased from the CRA website for $6 and annual subscriptions for $20.

Go to https://www.cra.org.au/products-page/pointers/

Comments are closed.