Unbelief, Class and Bad Statistics

I like to read the Comment is free: Belief section of the Guardian website; it has comment pieces on a pretty large range of religious matters, which satisfies both my “reading about religious affairs” and “reading things that annoy me” urges (in particular, I find a bit of an odd pleasure in reading the regular posts by Andrew Brown, a man who has a wonderful habit of saying things I would probably agree with in such a smug, sneering style that I can’t help but disagree).

Today there is a post up called Religion And Learning: what do we know, by Nick Spencer of the religious thinktank Theos. It feeds on from a somewhat substance-light Andrew Brown post claiming that atheism (or ‘new atheism’, or some ill-defined form of non-belief) is becoming a way of the upper middle class setting themselves apart from the Daily Mail-reading working class.

Nick Spencer’s article attempts to shed some light on the relationship between class and religious belief by looking at the relationship between NRS social classes and belief in God, based on some Theos data from their recent Darwin report. The report, unfortunately, doesn’t tell us very much; it says that Atheists tend to come from higher social grades (AB), and theists tend to come from lower social grades (DE); this was already well know.

Spencer goes on to look at the social classes of converts; he finds that converts to theism tended to come from the roughly the same classes as atheists (ABC), and that converts to atheism tended to come from the same classes as theists (DE). This is unsurprising, it basically says that there is no real social indication of conversion; it is more or less a random process, with atheists going to theists and vice versa more or less independent of social class. It would be interesting to follow up these converts over larger periods of time, or to break it down into recent and older conversions, to see whether converting to a religion causes a change in class, but so far we have no evidence for this. So, in conclusion, the data doesn’t tell us anything interesting about how religion and class or education beyond what we already knew; if anything, it tells us that class or education aren’t really playing much of a factor in conversion.

Or, that is the conclusion that any non-reaching person would draw. What is odd is that Nick Spencer uses this essentially Null result to argue that some sort of revolutionary change on the nature of atheism:

On a less grand scale, the data suggest that the effect of vocal atheism over the last decade has been to reach successfully into previously uncharted demographic territory (witness The God Delusion’s sales figures) but at the cost of losing some of its intellectual credibility (the critical review of The God Delusion in the London Review of Books, for example).

If this is happening, we might expect to see atheism become increasingly “religious” in its composition if not in its size.

So, according to Nick Spencer, the expected class distribution of converts if there is no relationship between class and conversion is an indicator of a grand, sweeping change in the nature of atheism, and we should all be prepared for atheism to become a ‘religion-like’ mass movement of unthinking godlessness. This is completely the opposite conclusion that I have made from the same data; that non-belief is going on the same as it always has (as far as I can see, the current bunch of non-believers are no more outspoken or populist than Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell and Thomas Huxley), and there is no particular evidence that anything new is going on in unbelief.

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4 Responses to Unbelief, Class and Bad Statistics

  1. He also loses several points for quoting figures as percentages without saying percentages of what. Assuming he means “percentage of (a)theists who were not born that way”, then the low figures (below 10% in both cases) don’t lend much support to his idea that atheism is undergoing a massive demographic change. Of course what he wants to look at is how that figure has changed with time – if atheists have always been ~10% converts then there’s nothing to be excited by. It’s also not necessarily clear that 8.3% and 7.7% “almost perfectly balance out” if they percentages of two different populations (atheists and theists) which may be different sizes: 10% of an apple does not balance 10% of a banana.

    His final point about “if the working class support you then you’re basically a religion” is also a pretty weird argument to make. I suppose he’s trying to say that atheism will move from an intellectual movement to a “well yeah I’m an atheist, don’t really think about it that much though” sort of thing but calling that ‘religion-like’ is a bit odd.

  2. I think he’s using the phrase ‘religion-like’ to mean ‘the default and unthought-out status of most of the population’. So his point would be that people will be being atheists just because it’s the norm, and they generally feel it makes sense (as most people are vaguelly with CofE) rather than due to internal intellection turmoil regarding the nature or existance of god.

    It strikes me as a little snobbish…the tone is of one who wants to keep atheism for *intellectual* people who have *thought* about the whole issue, rather than just people with a vague idea that there probably isn’t a god, and they’re not terribly bothered either way.

  3. Well, I don’t think Nick Spencer wants to keep atheism for anyone, really; he is an outspoken theist, and does not like atheism.

  4. Pingback: Andrew Brown

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