Response to Global Atheism Conference - The accident of unbelief

Part one of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference in Melbourne

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th Century French political theorist, wrote in his book, Democracy in America: “Unbelief is an accident; faith is the only permanent state of humanity.”1 In Australia, we might put it differently. “We never were the most godless nation under heaven. It was kind of a proud boast”, said journalist David Marr in an interview we did at CPX recently about the results of religious polling. “While there’s a slow and perhaps steady rise in disbelief in God, nevertheless there is an intractably large proportion of the population confident in the existence of a deity.”2

We think we’re a larrikin nation, a nation of god-non-botherers, a big beach party of unbelief, but we’re not.

This was highlighted recently in an amusing column by atheist Dick Gross, where he bemoaned the fact that atheists make up only 2.3% of the global population, and 85% of human beings are people who believe in something divine.3 Gross says. “Atheism, tentatively founded in the 18th century Enlightenment, has been hitherto a bit of a fizzer”.4

So I take it that Melbourne, where the Global Atheist Convention was held recently, is not a town brimming with convicted unbelievers. I do note that the new Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, put out by Cambridge University Press last year, reveals that the Yarra (the region in which the Global Atheist Convention was held) has the highest levels of ‘No Belief’ of any Australian region, according to the 2006 national census. But even then, the figure is 30.8%.5 So in most public gatherings, we can expect at least 7 in 10 people who are already quite comfortable with some concept of divinity, some sense of God, some idea of a power, a reality, a law, perhaps a being, who is ultimate, eternal and in one way or another, behind it all.

To make a generalisation: it is indisputable that most people, in most countries, at most times in history, including today, here and now, believe in God.

It’s the default position.

It would be wrong simply to resolve the tension between atheism and belief by appealing to majority rules, but if you pay any attention at all to statistics, trends and generalities, it must be admitted that it would be likewise wrong to presume atheism among any bunch of people with which you were seeking to communicate.

Furthermore, a great deal of study is being done on the global nature of religion, the way religious groups are distributed around the world, and the degree to which religion affects world affairs. In the post-September 11 era, it is no longer an option to develop public policies and analyse current affairs without reference to religion. It has simply become clearer and clearer that beliefs about God shape the lives of people around the planet.

Phillip Jenkins is an historical demographer from Pennsylvania State University in the USA, whose books canvas the development of Christianity and Islam around the world across 20 centuries. He makes it clear that, far from being in decline, belief in God (at least in the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God) is on the rise, but it is also on the move. “Christianity should enjoy a worldwide boom in the new century,” he writes, “but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American.”6

Changing world politics and economic realities will coincide with changing centres or religious faith: “Understanding the new world order of the coming century may require a good knowledge of the three great non-Western religions: Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity”.7

Belief in God and religious behaviour are not going away with anything like the lightning speed some commentators suggest. However, it is true that in some regions, such as the one in which the Global Atheist Convention took place, the Yarra, rates of unbelief are unusually high against global norms.

Whether or not Yarra residents are de Tocqueville-style ‘accidental’ unbelievers is beyond my powers of enquiry to discern.

Dr Greg Clarke is Director of CPX

1. De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerard Bevan, Penguin, 2003, p.347.
5. James Jupp (ed), Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 605.
6. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2007, p, 2.
7. Jenkins, p. 184.