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.

For every person who had moved from not believing to believing in God, four Australians had moved in the opposite direction.

There are some significant patterns in belief across the population. As shown in Figure 1, many more older people than younger people believed in God. Among those aged over 80, nearly half believes in God and have no doubts. Among those people in their 60s and 70s, it was close to one-third of the population. Among those aged 31 to 60, it was approximately one-quarter of the population. Among those aged under 30, only 14 per cent said they believed in God without doubts.

There was also considerable difference in the levels of belief in God in different occupational groups (Figure 5). The lowest levels of belief were found among professionals. Low levels of belief were also apparent among technicians and those in trades and machine operators and labourers. Higher levels of belief were found among managers, those involved in community and personal service, sales and clerical and administrative work.

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. The only piece of evidence which might suggest that the decline has become more rapid in recent years has been the sharp decline in belief in God among young people.

For many people, trust in science has also contributed to the decline in belief in God. Religion and science do not necessarily conflict. Many scientists believe in God. On the other hand, science does paint a rather different picture of the world than does religion. The fact that some people reject the general picture of evolution, for example, in the name of religion contributes to the sense that there is a conflict between religion and science.

A bigger issue for most Australians is whether one needs to believe in God: whether God can make a difference to one’s life.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 1-7

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