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.